Who doesn’t have a favorite junk food treat? Let’s face it, we all have cravings for junk food at times and it’s a feeling that can be hard to resist, especially when you’ve been under stress for some reason. Understanding why we crave junk food can be a big help in coping with the cravings.
Having the occasional treat isn’t a problem. But if you start treating yourself too often or when the treat sparks an episode of binge eating, you need to understand what it is that causes the cravings.
What Makes Junk Food So Appealing
When you eat food that strikes you as being pleasurable, there are two factors that make up the experience.
Obviously, the sensation of eating the food is what appeals to you first. Taste and smell are the first things we notice. Sweet, salty and umami are the big players here. You are also attracted by how the food feels in your mouth (orosensation).
Orosensation is very important and food companies spend millions of dollars experimenting to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in their products. Scientists working for beverage companies test for the perfect amount of fizzle in their soda so it creates a sensation your brain will enjoy and remember.
The second factor that makes up the bulk of the experience is the macronutrient makeup of the food. Junk food and fast food manufacturers look for a perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat to excite your brain and turn you into a repeat customer.
What Creates The Cravings
See if any of this sounds familiar to you:
Dynamic contrast: Dynamic contrast is created by building different sensations into the food. How does food with an edible shell that goes crunch followed up with something soft or creamy with lots of flavor inside sound?
Different sensations are built into many of your favorite foods and deserts from a pizza to Oreo cookies. These combinations make your brain feel like it’s on a new and exciting food adventure.
Salivary response: The more a food causes you to salivate, the more it spreads in your mouth and the more it appeals to your taste buds. Emulsified foods like butter, ice cream, mayonnaise and salad dressings all promote a salivary response that helps bathe your taste buds in feelings of goodness.
It’s why we enjoy foods with sauces or glazes on them. Foods with sauces and glazes on them simply taste better than they would without the sauce or glaze.
Melt in your mouth: Foods that melt in your mouth trick your brain into thinking that you are eating less than you actually are. They provide a wonderful flavor experience and allow you to enjoy more food without feeling full. More is always better, right?
Controlled sensory response: We like variety. If you were to experience the same taste over and over, you would start to get less pleasure from it. Depending on the flavor, this can happen rather quickly.
Junk foods and fast foods are designed to circumvent this response. They are engineered to provide just enough taste to be interesting without stimulating your brain to the point where the sensory response is dulled.
This is why you can eat so much pizza or chips and still feel like you could have more. The crunch and sensation of eating the chips and pizza will be just as exciting today as it was yesterday.
Food memories: When you eat something tasty, the feelings you experience are registered in your brain. The sensory experience you had while eating the bag of chips yesterday stays with you. Your brain will provide you with an instant play back of that experience any time one of your senses picks up on another bag of chips.
This will happen whether you see a bag of chips or smell a few chips on someone else’s plate. Even a picture in a magazine can sometimes be enough to trigger the memory.
The cue can be strong enough to actually cause a physical response like salivating. Cravings like this can be hard to resist.
The Addictive Additive – Sugar
If you have a junk food habit, you’re not alone. At least 80 percent of food products today are made with added sugar. When we start confusing food products with actual food, we begin eating them more often and before we know it, they become part of our regular diet.
The Sugar Trend
Had you been born 200 years ago, you would have been consuming about 10 pounds of sugar per year. You also would have been eating considerably less flour. Today, the average person consumes about 150 pounds of sugar per year and nearly the same amount of flour.
Think about it. We are eating about ½ pound of sugar and ½ pound of processed flour each and every day of the year!
Sugar Affects The Brain Differently
Sugar hits the brain much as an addictive drug would. The amount of sugar and flour we consume on a daily basis is what is making us fat and sick. This addictive response is why people overeat and it’s what causes you to go on eating binges.
What Creates The Addiction To Junk Food
Dr. David Ludwig and colleagues at Harvard recently proved that foods with more sugar and foods with a high-glycemic index trigger the brain’s pleasure center. This region in the brain is called the nucleus accumbens and it is what makes you feel good and drives you to seek out more of what caused that feeling.
Eating sugary foods causes a spike in your blood sugar and this activates your brain’s pleasure center. The brain then triggers more cravings and this drives you to seek out more of the substance that gave you the high.
We Are Hard Wired To Respond This Way
You cannot exercise any control over this response. It’s no wonder people feel trapped!
This response is in fact part of our survival mechanism. We are programmed to crave sugar and refined carbs so we can store fat for the leaner times when food might not be so plentiful.
It’s Not Your Fault
This survival response is hard-wired in all of us. We have no say in the matter and we cannot control the response.
None of us wants to be overweight or suffer from diabetes or obesity. But every time you eat food produced by the industrial junk food makers you let them hijack your brain chemistry. Trust me, they know what they’re doing and these foods are manufactured in a way to get the maximum response from your brain.
Breaking The Junk Food Habit
Research shows that the more junk food and fast food you eat, the more you will crave them. With repetition, the habit becomes stronger and stronger. The opposite also holds true. If you start cutting back on how often you eat the stuff, the cravings will gradually diminish.
I have experienced this personally. Once you start eating healthier you find yourself craving pizza and ice cream less and less. You can do it quickly or you can do it slowly, whatever works for you is fine. Either way, the cravings go away and you will break the cycle (some people refer to this transition period as gene reprogramming).
A Few Strategies To Help
1. Have lots of healthy foods at home
Don’t buy processed or packaged foods. If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it. You also won’t think about eating it as much when you don’t see it on the shelf or in the fridge
We’ve talked about the power junk food has to pull you in and how the memories of foods you enjoyed in the past cause you to crave more of it in the future. You can’t prevent yourself from ever thinking about junk food, but you can reduce the cravings and at that point the thought will no longer trigger the same response.
2. Don’t Buy Food With Long Ingredients List
Anything that has more than 5 ingredients in it has probably been designed to fool you into eating more of it. Don’t buy it – choose the healthier version instead. Your taste buds will adjust over time and you will find the healthier foods just as tasty and satisfying as the junk food versions. In fact, you will get to the point where they actually taste better.
3. Eat a variety of foods
We know that the brain craves variety. Don’t find a way to make a homemade version of the crunchy/creamy contrast of an Oreo cookie. Make a healthy snack that has the same appeal to your brain. A crunchy carrot dipped in creamy hummus can provide the same sensation to your brain and you will enjoy it just as much.
4. Experiment with spices and flavors
Try different spices and food combinations to make your homemade dishes a more desirable experience. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be bland.
Mix up your foods to get different sensations. Try to replicate the crunch and creamy textures in your meals and boost the satisfaction in a more natural way.
5. Find a better way to deal with your stress
There’s a reason why people choose to eat as a way of coping with stress. Stress causes the brain to release opiates and neuropeptide Y. These chemicals trigger mechanisms that are similar to the cravings you get from fat and sugar and make you feel an urge to eat junk food.
Learning to deal with stress in a different way can help you overcome the addictive pull of junk food.