Despite wanting to change unhealthy eating habits, many people find themselves in a rut and unable to make sustainable changes in their diets. This is because processed and junk foods are addictive, in fact, some research has found similarities between food addiction and drug addiction. The good news is that a recent (albeit small) study does suggest that you can train your brain to prefer healthy foods. In my professional opinion, after working with many individuals and families to change eating habits, I believe this is very, very possible (next week I’ll share how to tackle change). But first, I help you to understand why junk and processed food is SO addictive.
Why is junk food addictive?
As always I like to keep it simple, and real – so you can relate it to yourself or someone you might know. So here is my overly simplified, though I hope, useful explanation of what happens in your body to make junk and processed food so desirable, to so many.
Our brains contain a neural structure called the ‘reward system.’ It is a primal structure which exists to reward us with a bunch of feel-good chemicals when we do something to improve our chance of survival – like eating (because eating is essential to our survival). One of these chemicals is dopamine and when it is released, the brain registers pleasure.
Our brain is hardwired to seek out dopamine (that which gives us pleasure)! So where a nice balanced meal of say for example meat and veg induces a moderate release of dopamine, processed foods cause the release of a massive amount. So processed foods engage the reward system of the brain in a way nothing ‘natural’ can.
It just so happens that processed and junk foods are in fact engineered to target these evolutionary impulses. Because fat and sugar (or any simple carbohydrate) are so hard to find in nature, our brains have evolved to want as much as we can get. This is part of why our kids badger us for processed foods and so-called ‘treats.’
Why we want more and more
So when this reward system is triggered and dopamine is released, our brains recognise large amounts of this neurotransmitter and start to remove dopamine receptor sites in order to keep things balanced. However, the fewer receptors you have, the more dopamine you need to feel good, thus triggering the desire for more and more junk food (to reach the same level of satisfaction). If you aren’t initiating the reward system, you will begin to feel the signs of ‘withdrawal’ and this affects behaviour and the way you feel. It’s difficult to function and feel happy without your processed food ‘fix.’
Are cravings a marker of addiction?
A desire or driving a need for a certain food is an emotional state called a ‘craving’. Lots of things trigger a craving especially our senses (smelling or seeing a food) but also our emotions can trigger a craving (I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of ’emotional eating’). It just so happens advertising companies tap into both the physical and emotional triggers of craving, to encourage you to buy their product.
When I was studying, there was a lot of banter about cravings for certain unhealthy foods indicating specific nutritional deficiencies. For example, a chocolate craving was said to be indicative of a magnesium deficiency. Another argument was that a craving for sugar indicates a need for more energy. Sorry to shatter these flawed concepts, but know this – a craving is simply about satisfying the brain’s need for dopamine and has absolutely nothing to do with the body’s need for energy or nourishment. Whilst sugar may make you feel better in the very short term, it will never make you feel good in the long term.
We all get cravings – this is normal. What is not so normal is when we give into them repeatedly after we have made a conscientious decision not to. Consuming junk food or a treat ‘in moderation’ is simply not possible when attempting to satisfy and addiction-driven craving.
Knowing this, it is easy to see with the abundance of processed foods on our shelves and availability of junk food everywhere, why we have more and more people struggling with diet-related illness and why the prevalence of these illnesses are on the rise.
Training your brain to prefer healthy foods
My clinical experience has lead me to believe that re-establishing healthy eating habits is entirely possible. Just recently an albeit very small study published in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes concluded: “It may be possible to train the brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy higher-calorie foods.”
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said lead researcher and professor of psychiatry Susan B. Roberts from the Tufts Energy Metabolism Laboratory in this press release. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”
The participants were either following a controlled healthy ‘weight loss’ diet or eating as they do. The brains of the participants were studied via Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans at the beginning of the study, and six months later at the end of the study period. The scan in the weight-loss group showed changes in the areas of the brain’s reward centre that are associated with learning and addiction. It was found they now had increased sensitively and desire for healthy foods and decreased sensitivity and less desire for eating unhealthy foods.
Next week, I’m going to share my top tips for breaking bad dietary habits and creating a love of whole, unprocessed foods – so stay tuned. Post here.
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