+ Well Nourished | Why processed food is addictive

Why processed food is addictive and how to train your brain to prefer healthy foods

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.

Did this post help you in any way?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Post a comment or question just below.

All of the content here at Well Nourished is FREE to assist you to be the healthiest you can be.  But you can help me to build a healthier world, please  Share this post with a friend Share this post with a friend.

You can also support my work by purchasing my ebook “Rise and Shine” – more details HERE or “The Well Nourished Lunchbox” – more details HERE.


  • Amy

    I absolutely agree with this. Lately I’ve been trying to cut out processed, sugary junk. In particular chocolate. I’ve found that since cutting it out I don’t crave it anywhere near as much. It’s only been a little while so I assume it’s just going to get easier. I had a chocolate bar the other day and only ate half. I didn’t really enjoy it and it made me feel sick straight after. Our bodies will learn to recognise what is good for it if we can show some willpower to begin with.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Amy. Good on you for recognising the need to make a change, G x

  • Linda Robinson

    I totally agree with this too – once upon a time, long ago I was addicted to BBQ Shapes – I had to have them almost daily and had to have someone remove them from me before I ate a whole box in one sitting. I no longer even think of them and when I do have one they taste weird. I had many other bad habits that I didn’t even realise were bad because they are so embedded into our lives but as I progress along my path to eating healthier whole aisles in the supermarket have become non existent to me – and it’s wonderful! I am sure I will say this over and over again – Georgia I’m so glad I discovered you; I love, love, love your work!!! My 8 year old just made your Berry Macadamia Oatmeal bake all by himself and is pleased as punch with himself 🙂

    • Thanks Linda, I’m so glad you have found a healthier way to be. Good on your son for getting in the kitchen, he should be proud of himself, G x

    • kelly seach

      That is awesome Linda!!

  • Claire

    This really resonates with me Georgia. I rarely have processed food anymore and when I do I am always left dissatisfied and famished! I have noticed a shift in my 3 year old son as well. We visited friends the other day and he was offered a packet biscuit. Sure – he ate it, but what really surprised me is that he didn’t go back for more.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Claire – yes once that habit is broken and people are off processed food, it becomes very clear how it was not serving them well! Kids deep down know the same once they are off the rubbish. G x

  • Michelle Habib

    Awesome post – I have just discovered your blog & am loving it. Thank you, you are inspiring 🙂

    • Thank you and welcome Michelle. Thrilled you have found some inspiration so far. G x

  • Amy D

    Gosh Georgia I’m so happy to have found you – you’re speaking the language I need to hear! This really resonates with me, I’m currently stuck in a rut trying to get off the processed and junk food band wagon. I’m loving your healthy lunchbox series too (how I found you) I’ve recently bought a planetbox lunch box for my daughter in kindy and I’m enjoying packing fresh delicious whole foods for her every day….. yes lunch is no longer a chore…. and she’s enjoying eating them :O)

    • Fabulous Amy, so thrilled to inspire you. Keep in touch, I love hearing how your progressing. Next week, I hope I can give you some tips to help you along, G x

  • kelly seach

    Love the way you explain this. No need to eat poison or cultivate a substance addiction ‘in moderation’!

  • Zoe

    I love your site, Georgia. I’m a long time reader, first time commenter! I love how easy and simple your recipes are yet they are so delicious and nutritious too! Xx

    • Thanks Zoe, lovely to hear from you. Glad you find my recipes delicious, simple and nutritious (my three aims when creating them)! G x

  • Meg

    Really interesting. Enjoyed reading. Look forward to next week’s post 🙂

  • Almeda Peer

    Training your brain to enjoy healthy foods is one of the biggest obstacles I have with clients. Also, the more nutritious foods esp greens we eat the more we crave it and vice versa – our taste buds are corrupted by the non-foods out there!!!

    • Absolutely – I have experienced the same. One they do though, it’s learned for life. My 12 yr old really understands what it feels like to reset (generally after the Christmas period). She said recently ‘I really feel like eating some chocolate right now, but I know thats because my body is out of whack and I need to just get past the next few days and I won’t feel like it anymore’ So many non-foods, so so many. Thanks for your comment Almeda G x

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