These days it’s hard to go anywhere without being faced with highly processed junk food. It’s found in almost any store, fast food restaurant, coffee shop, and gas station. Basically, anywhere you could ever conceivably go when hungry. This is no accident. You see, highly processed foods have a way of hijacking your brain to a point where you have difficulty controlling yourself. So, food manufacturers know that all they need to do is put their products within your reach and the sales are basically guaranteed. In this post, I’m going to be talking about how and why this happens and how to combat the alluring pull of processed junk food.
I felt this post was really important to share with you. In part, because I know how important and life-changing this information can be. Also, because I want people to understand that if you’re struggling with this, it’s not your fault. You’ve just fallen prey to the modern food system. A system that is failing us miserably as rates of disease continue to soar. But knowledge is power, my friend. With knowledge, we can turn the tide, kick the addiction and decide that our health is not a commodity we will so easily trade.
The Motivational Triad
There’s a little background info we need to cover in order to understand the mechanisms that come in to play with processed junk food addiction. One such concept is the motivational triad. Basically speaking, we are all motivated by some biologically designed guidelines that help to ensure the survival of the species. We are designed to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy as best as possible.
Seeking Pleasure – Via the reward system in the brain. It’s meant to incentivize activities that will ensure survival. So, when early humans would find a calorie dense food source in the wild, the brain would incentivize the eating of that food with neurotransmitters like dopamine, sending a little message meant to encourage that activity. Remember, at that time food meant survival.
Avoiding Pain – Useful for keeping us alive and unharmed. When we come into contact with something that causes us pain, it’s natural to immediately stop that activity and then attempt to mitigate damage by doing what we can to stop that pain. Pain is like our brain holding up a big stop sign. You can’t miss it and the message is very clear.
Conserving Energy – Improves rates of survival. By conserving energy as much as possible, it helps ensure that if we were to come across a predator, we would have the energy to fight or flee. It also helped in times of food scarcity. Our bodies naturally slow the metabolism when food is scarce to give us more time to find another source of energy.
Natural Food Properties
When you stop to think about it, nature is brilliant. It provides for us all the necessities of life. Plants full of beneficial compounds to help us stay healthy and heal when we become sick. Much of it comes in bright, eye-catching colours to be sure we find and consume it. These bountiful plants are also delicious and palatable to humans and animals alike. That is until food manufacturers got involved and began to rig the system.
There are a few components in food that elicit a pleasure response from the reward system in the brain. Sugar, fat, and salt. And for good reason, these components each help to ensure survival in their own way.
Sugar – Glucose, a form of sugar, is the brain’s preferred source of fuel.
Fat – Is very calorie dense, meaning it’s packed with energy. This is a source of food that helps us conserve energy, as there are more calories per bite.
Salt – Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a key role in nerve and muscle function. It’s vital to survival, like sugar and fat.
Nature is pretty smart though. These elements aren’t found together naturally. Foods found in nature can be sweet, high in fat, or salty. Fruit is sweet but contains very little fat. Fat sources like nuts and avocado aren’t inherently sweet or salty in their natural form. The same can be said for naturally salty foods like celery or seaweed. They aren’t high in fat or sweet. These foods elicit pleasure responses, but they aren’t so pleasurable that they override signals of satiation and fullness.
The Reward Center
Have you ever taken a bite of something amazing and felt a surge of pleasure? The reward system in your brain is responsible for this. When you taste something sweet, salty, or calorie dense (high in fat), your brain releases some dopamine, the feel-good hormone. This gives you feelings of pleasure and is meant to help motivate you toward activities that ensure survival. For early humans, coming across a sweet, salty or high-calorie food source meant continued survival. The pleasure response from eating these foods was meant as a reminder so they would seek it out again. Without this pleasure response, those early humans were just as likely to search out lower calorie greenery as they were sweet berries or high-calorie nuts. The dopamine acts as a quiet reminder from the brain, saying “yes, do that again.”
While this system is very effective, it can be easily hijacked. Nowadays, other things trigger those pleasure responses that are actually detrimental to our health. Drugs like heroin or cocaine signal strong pleasure responses in the reward center of the brain too, but these things do not ensure survival. The same goes for processed junk foods. They can trigger pleasure responses as strong as certain drugs. Ensuring the possibility of addiction, without offering anything for your long-term survival. While you know you have access to food all year round, the primitive mechanics of your brain continue to function as if you don’t.
Processed Junk Food
What happens when food manufacturers begin to understand what drives us to want certain foods? Those mechanisms get used against us to fuel sales. I spoke above about how the palatable aspects of food are not found combined in nature. Well, food manufacturers rigged the game by combining these aspects to create foods that are unnaturally hyper-palatable. This is no accident. Many research and development dollars are spent to find “bliss points”, the amount of salt, fat or sugar required to make a product irresistible to consumers. They also research ideal mouthfeel, to make those products as texturally pleasing as possible. A crunchy chip or a soft, buttery cake. Plainly put, these companies have learned how to hijack your brain’s pleasure response, and they use it against you day in and day out.
Not only are they formulated to be hyper-palatable, but they’re packaged in bright colourful packaging and positioned in your eyeline on the grocery store shelves and next to the check out counter, where you’re likely to have to wait a while. Making it nearly impossible to walk out of a grocery store without having some of these foods literally shoved in your face.
The fact that these foods are also formulated to be more calorically dense than natural plant-foods, increases the chance of addiction. If we think back to the motivational triad, not only are those foods satisfying the urge to seek pleasure, but their high-calorie package also satisfies the energy conservation motive. You’ve found a high-calorie food item in a small package. Your brain is pretty happy with your discovery and will want to remind you to continue seeking out these calorie-rich foods.
When you eat these hyper-palatable foods, high in fat, salt and sugar, they cause more dopamine to be released in your brain than natural foods. As a result, biting into a juicy peach or a crisp apple no longer feels as pleasurable as they once did. Instead, you’re driven to seek out that calorie-rich brownie, or that super sweet piece of candy to feel that hit of pleasure.
The problem is, that huge response you get from these foods is too overstimulating to your brain. It has to adjust to protect itself. To do this, the brain will begin to downregulate (reduce the number of) dopamine receptors. So, while those foods still trigger huge releases of dopamine, you start to feel less pleasure from them. This is typically where people start moving from a small bowl of potato chips to half a bag or more. As the consumption continues to increase, the downregulation continues. Eventually, natural foods start to taste like cardboard to you because you don’t even notice a pleasure response from them anymore. Now you’re needing to consume larger quantities of hyper-palatable junk foods to get that response. This is where the addiction really takes hold.
Reversing the Addiction
The good news is, the brain is highly adaptable. The downregulation of dopamine receptors can be reversed, as well as the changes to your taste buds. As you continue to eat natural foods and avoid the hyper-palatable junk foods, they will begin to taste as good as you remember. Slowly the pleasure responses will come back to normal and that juicy peach will illicit joy again. The time it takes can vary from person to person though and is different for each taste. Taste buds will adjust to a lower salt diet within a month, whereas it can take up to 3 months for our satiety mechanisms to adjust to a lower fat diet.
Your brain has a particularly difficult time letting go of the high-fat foods because, as mentioned above, they satisfy two motives, pleasure-seeking and energy conservation. It will try to remind you of these foods longer because, quite frankly, your brain isn’t interested in you releasing weight. As far as it’s concerned, when you’re burning fat stores, you’re losing precious resources that can keep you alive through a winter of food scarcity. This means you’ll need to push through this to really break the addiction. Additionally, each time you consume some of these overstimulating junk foods, you set back your progress.
This may lead you to wonder if you can ever have these foods again. Honestly, this is entirely up to you. Now that you know and understand the mechanisms behind this type of addiction, it’s up to you to make informed decisions. It’s important to know that some people are more highly susceptible to addiction than others. There is such a thing as an ‘addictable personality’. Each time you eat these foods (especially when you’re still trying to break the addiction), your cravings for them will significantly increase. You’ll also notice the pleasure response from natural foods starts to fade as well.
The problem is, usually when you make a mistake, like cutting your finger while chopping your food, there’s a pain response. The pain avoidance motive will make you want to avoid repeating that action as best as possible. However, if you’re to consume highly processed food again, you get a pleasure response, which will continue to encourage the behaviour. This can quickly become a slippery slope toward full-on addiction again.
It can be helpful to redefine what you consider a treat. Perhaps choosing ice cream made from frozen fruit over high fat and sugar versions. Or treats made from whole natural foods instead of those formulated to addict you. These types of foods can help you keep from feeling as if you’re missing out. Reframe unhealthy foods so they aren’t ‘treats’ you crave. Treats should be things that bring you pleasure but also benefit you in some way rather than setting you back into a cycle that doesn’t serve you.
While trying to get through the initial withdrawal from these foods there are some things you can do to help combat the cravings.
Keep your environment clean – It’s much easier to avoid these foods in the grocery store than in your own kitchen. Keeping your kitchen free of processed and junk foods can be a huge help. If you’re constantly digging through junk food to get to healthier options, you’re far more likely to eat that instead.
Consider WFPB – Eating a whole food plant-based diet is all about avoiding foods that make you sick, like highly addictive junk food and fast food. It also encourages you to avoid or eliminate animal products, which will call to that desire for calorie-dense food you’re trying to fight. Once you get past the fast food addiction, it really is an enjoyable, sustainable, and health-promoting way to eat.
Focus on nutrients – Eating nutrient-rich foods can help keep cravings at bay. Yes, you’re still likely to be craving foods with higher-calorie density at first, but if you’re consuming lots of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables this can help quell cravings as all of your bodies nutrient needs are being met.
Eat your starches – I mention above that getting off of the higher fat foods can take a little longer because they satisfy two motives and get tied in with the satiety mechanism. The most satisfying low-fat foods on the planet are starches. Things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes and whole grains. Be sure to include these with all of your nutrient-dense fruits and veggies.
For more tips on combating cravings, check out this post, which is full of tips to help you through.
The Bottom Line
While it seems entirely unethical, food manufacturers have learned how to use our basic motives against us. This has led them to produce food items that are hyper-palatable and overstimulating to the brain. This profit-centred motive has created a situation in which many find themselves helplessly addicted to these foods. The result is a poor quality of life as disease rates continue to soar. Lifestyle-related diseases are now shaving years and even decades off of people’s lives.
The good news is, knowledge is power. The damage can be undone and the addiction can be fought. It’s easier to fight the enemy you know. Now that you understand these motives, you can work to kick the addiction and gain a healthier relationship with food and your body.
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Feature image credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash