Five Reasons Your Brain LOVES Junk Food and How To Break The Habit
The desire to stop a junk food habit is one shared by many millions of people. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that billions of dollars are invested by food manufacturers to find out exactly what the brain loves us to eat! And they know that each time the brain tastes something it loves, it releases tiny amounts of dopamine, a ‘feel good’ brain messenger that is released when we drink coffee, have sex or use illegal drugs. So, there are very powerful reasons why junk food habits are challenging to break. However, when we know what the brain loves about junk food, you can fool it into loving healthier foods, and wean yourself off junk food! Here’s why it’s so hard to break the junk food habit:
1 - The brain loves food that has a ‘Powerful Contrast’
When a food has a crunchy and crispy texture that gives way to a creamy, smooth inside, the brain goes ‘yippeee!!’ This is a thrilling experience for the brain because it involves a variety of contrasting textures that are all felt at the same time by the brain and our taste buds. The brain enjoys the extremes of these textures and wants to experience them over and over again, which is why crisps and dip, crisp cookies with creamy insides and salted caramels are so popular.
2 - Stimulated salivary glands and taste buds
When foods stimulate the salivary glands to make a lot of saliva, food moves around your mouth more, covering more taste buds, and increases the chances of taste receptors enjoying the food. Food additives, like monosodium glutamate (MSG) or hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) which is just MSG in disguise, make your taste buds more sensitive to the flavour in the food, so it seems tastier. Creamy foods help to spread the food around your mouth too, helping to spread the experience over all your taste buds.
3 - Refined food that ‘disappears’ in your mouth
Food that is very refined breaks down in your mouth very quickly and doesn't give your brain a chance to even register that you’ve eaten it. So you keep on eating and consume many more calories than if the food took time to chew and your brain had a chance to catch up and say ‘enough!’ It takes about 20 minutes for the hypothalamus to register satiation and you can eat a lot of refined food in that time.
4 - Your brain loves variety
Junk food contains crispy, crunchy, and creamy textures, as well as a variety of flavours, including salty, sweet and ‘umami’ (a dynamic flavour described as savoury), so it provides a stimulating and pleasurable ‘mouth feel’ for the person consuming it. In addition, food manufacturers are constantly coming up with new flavour combinations and adding different textures, to tempt people to experiment with and find new favourites for their brain to enjoy, via their taste buds.
5 - The ‘emotional memory food bank’
Past experiences of eating enjoyable junk food unfortunately drives future eating choices. Your brain is expert at remembering past experiences that elicited the ‘dopamine’ effect because it remembers the enjoyment experienced and pushes you to recreate it. The anticipation of eating the food again also increases salivation, which sets the stage perfectly for saliva to move food around your mouth quickly. The feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment experienced when eating these stimulating foods produce extremely powerful memories that tempt you to create another dopamine ‘hit.’
So, what to do?
The contrast and stimulating ‘mouth feel’ can be replicated by eating crisp vegetables or fruits with creamy ‘dips’ such as hummus or nut butters, respectively. Adding spices and herbs to food will also increase the flavour and thus enjoyment. Experiment with making foods that you can enjoy without guilt such as baked sweet potato chips dipped into a creamy and spicy dip.
In addition, adding good fats and oils to food after cooking increases the ‘spread’ of the food around your mouth, allowing you to enjoy the full flavour and texture of the food being eaten. Keep in mind that flavour molecules are well dispersed in fats and oils, but do poorly in water, which is why low-fat diets are not very appetising, apart from being bad for you generally.
A simple trick to avoid habitual junk food purchasing is to always eat before you go shopping so that your brain is not tempted to splurge on junk food and buy foods that you’d otherwise avoid. Furthermore, avoid packaged foods with long ingredient lists that contain additives, which lead to food addiction.
Finally, the brain's tendency to become addicted to sugar is another reason for the popularity of junk food, but this topic deserves a dedicated article, so in the meantime learn to make healthier sweet treats too, so that you can treat yourself to enjoyment and health, without feeling deprived. Click this link to buy my latest book which is packed full of delicious and healthy foods to help you break the junk food habit for good.
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