So why are kids, even from a very young age, so drawn to junk and processed foods? Why is that Wiggles flavoured yoghurt is so much more appealing than the Biodynamic Greek yoghurt next to it? Well, the answer is two-fold.
But first, a simplified, though I hope, useful explanation of what happens in your child’s body (at a basic biological level) to make junk and processed food so desirable.
1) Our biology
The human brain contains 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 feel good chemicals is dopamine and when it is released, a child’s brain will register pleasure.
So our children’s brains are biologically hardwired to seek out foods that stimulate the reward system and thus release dopamine – in the short term it makes them feel good! Food manufacturers and junk food companies know this, so processed foods are very deliberately engineered to target these evolutionary impulses and engage the reward system of the brain in a way nothing ‘natural’ can. Because the fat and sugar found in processed foods are not so easy to come by in nature, our brains have evolved to drive us to seek out as much as we can get.
However the human body does it’s best to maintain an equilibrium. So when this reward system is triggered and dopamine is released often, our brains recognise large amounts of this neurotransmitter and start to remove dopamine receptor sites in order to keep things balanced. However, the less receptors your child has, the more dopamine they need to feel good, thus triggering their desire for more and more junk food (to reach the same level of satisfaction). This is part of why our kids are so tenacious and badger us for sweet tasting foods, sugar, refined carbohydrate, processed foods and so called ‘treats.’ This basic biological need is driving them.
2) The psychology
Not only are our kids biologically driven to desire processed foods, food manufacturers and junk food companies also target their psychology. A lot of expertise is invested in producing advertising that grabs kids attention and drives them to want to eat processed foods. They are specifically and expertly designed to target and appeal to young minds and they are everywhere ; TV, radio, billboards, cinemas, shopping centres, online (game/app sponsorship), sports sponsorship. Even if you manage to limit your child’s exposure to junk food marketing, their friends are still exposed and it’s amazing how influential their peers can be. Tell me the last time you saw a ‘whole food’ being marketed to children.
So 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.
Resetting the reward system
Whilst it is becoming increasingly difficult to control the psychological aspect of junk food marketing, you can most definitely control (or reset) your child’s biological desire for processed foods. Basically, the less their reward system is stimulated, the less they will desire processed foods. Based on my own clinical and personal experience raising my own two children, I believe that re-establishing healthy eating habits in kids 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.”
A little example
This is a very common scenario and one I have seen repeatedly (and get asked about online frequently). A friends two year old, ordinarily a great eater of a range of whole foods, recently started rejecting nourishing foods and only wanting sweet stuff. My friend asked for my advice and we ran through her little girls diet leading up to this point. Even though she hadn’t been feeding her lots of ‘junk’, I believe she had been feeding her too much sweet stuff and she was therefore being driven by her biological desires to seek out more. A smoothie at breakfast, fresh fruit, dried fruit, a sweet homemade muffin a hot chocolate every now and then and come lunch and dinner time, she didn’t want to eat her meal. Even though she pushed her dinner away, much to the frustration of her mum, she also badgered her for ice-cream instead.
We talked about her biological desire for sweet stuff and her mum, desperate for a return to her good eating habits, became mindful of her intake of sugary foods and simple carbohydrates. She replaced the sweet stuff with more protein, good fats and vegetables and eventually her ‘reward centre’ was reset and she is now back to happily eating her usual healthy diet.
I see this repeatedly with my own kids (and even myself) after high sugar periods (like Christmas and Easter) – we all of a sudden begin seeking more sugar than normal. I also see it if they are filling-up on lots of fruit. When this happens I know it’s time for us to really knuckle down, remove sweet and refined carbohydrates and soon the sweet/ simple carbohydrate cravings are a distant memory.
I hope this post helps you to understand the mechanisms behind the foods your kids are naturally drawn to. Just remember, the more whole, nourishing foods they eat, the more they will want to eat them.