Why Do I Crave Junk Food?
Melt in your mouth, drool-worthy, highly-processed junk food feels good to eat. You can thank sugar, salt and fat. This dynamic trio lures you in, bathing your tongue blissful sensation that triggers the sensation of pleasure. Indulging in pleasurable things makes one happy. It’s no wonder unhealthy food is so irresistible.
Cramming extra salt, sugar and fat into a processed food transforms rather bland flavors into ones that make your body go over the moon with excitement. This is the pursuit of most food manufacturers – to create a taste sensation that makes you crave more. Supermarket shelves are stuffed with processed and packaged foods making it a highly competitive environment. A food needs to be powerfully attractive to get consumers’ attention. One way to be attractive is to taste irresistibly good. Adding salt gives a food a flavor burst. Fat offers a pleasurable mouth feel. Sugar, if you can find that bliss point of perfect sweetness, can trigger human brain cells to send out an explosion of pleasure signals. The food that gives your brain the most exceptional pleasure is one you’ll crave and want to seek out over and over again.
Sugar Addiction: How Sugar is Bad For You
Oh, sugar! Is sugar really bad for you? You are so sweet. But, eating sugary foods causes cells in the brain to produce dopamine – it’s what gives you that pleasure sensation. If you eat more sugar, you get to enjoy more pleasure. So, you eat more sugar foods. But, after about three weeks of indulging in sugary foods, your brain develops a tolerance to it. The result is you have to eat greater amounts of sugar to get the same pleasure sensation you first got hooked on – this is called tolerance. Tolerance is the first aspect of an addictive substance. The second is withdrawal. If you remove sugar from your diet, your brain does not get that pleasurable dose of dopamine, to which there can be symptoms of withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal are also seen with alcohol, nicotine and other addictive substances. According to scientists, there is sufficient evidence from animal studies to consider sugar an addictive substance. Being addicted to sugar promotes overconsumption of sugar and increasing prevalence of obesity. Sugar is not the only addictive food we eat. Recent research identified salt and fat are also addictive. Eating bad food is addictive.
How Do You Stop Overeating?
We’ve all done it – started into a delicious indulgence and then eaten more than we intended. It’s boggling that the human body will eat more than it should. It’s not supposed to. The gut is designed to send signals to the brain. Leptin, the starvation signal, is produced in your gut and helps your brain know if you need to eat or, have had enough. But, when you eat more than you need it’s clear this signal isn’t being heard.
Let’s take this problem into the lab. Why do we overeat unhealthy foods? When researchers took three groups of rats and offered them varying indulgent diets there was a difference in how much they ate. One group had bland lab fare, another unlimited access to indulgent foods high in fat and sugar (bacon, cheesecake, pound cake and frosting), and a third group had bland lab fare as well as access to indulgent food for only one hour a day. The rats who had no access to the unhealthy foods did not overeat. Foods that aren’t processed, called whole foods, do not lead to overeating. Whole foods do not affect the brain in the same negative way salt, sugar and fat do. Whole foods are part of a healthy diet. Want to stop overeating? Avoid unhealthy, highly processed junk foods, instead reach for delicious whole foods. Get started with ideas in Best Snacks For Weight Loss.
Overeating can happen with even limited access to unhealthy foods. The rats who could only access the unhealthy foods for one hour a day, scarfed down a whopping 66 percent of their daily calories in that one hour alone! They barely touched their bland lab fare – they craved unhealthy food. Their pattern of obsessive binge eating quickly caused them to gain weight.
As for the rats who were given all day access to the high fat and sugar foods, they showed similar behaviors to rats hooked on cocaine or heroin – they needed to eat them to feel good. Eating unhealthy foods gave their brains positive reinforcement, ultimately motivating them to eat it again. And, again. Now, it’s easier to understand why you crave unhealthy food.
How to Stop Craving Junk Food for Good
Going cold turkey, from unhealthy foods can be challenging. Compared to mice addicted to cocaine, who took two days for the behavior of their brains to normalize, the rats who had access to high-fat foods were still experiencing disruptions in their brains two weeks later. Breaking the highly-processed food addiction can be hard – according to University of Michigan researchers it’s hardest from days 2 to 5.
Cravings knock you over when you are at your weakest. In hard days, filled with responsibilities, you can feel overwhelmed and craving a high. Enter junk food! “Many will admit when they eat unhealthy [processed foods, and foods high in sugar, salt and fat] they feel fogged out and struggle with low energy,” says Kimberly Gomer, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa. It’s too bad the human body isn’t hard-wired to be addicted to salad in times of stress: leafy greens are packed with energizing nutrients that offer clarity.
You do not have to do it alone! The Pritikin Centre creates an environment that supports a revolution in your eating habits and helps get you back to enjoying a healthy life. Come discover how good healthy feels.
Studies on Food Cravings and Addiction:
- Addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats: Role for dopamine D2 receptors. Nat Neurosci. 2010 May; 13(5):635-641.
- Sugar Addiction: is it real? A narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine July 2018; 52(14).
- What is the evidence for “food addiction”? A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2018 Apr 12;10(4).
- Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale. Appetite 2018 Sept.
- Sugar Salt Fat: How the food giants hooked us. Review by Dr. JM Pogue. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent) 2014 Jul;27(3):283-284.