The Real Dangers of Junk Food, Part One – This is Your Brain on Junk Food
We’ve all heard that junk food is bad. We heard it from our parents when we were kids and we hear it now from nutritionists, magazines and health books. Junk food has too many calories, it’s high in sugar and high in fat. We know all that – these are the obvious dangers of junk food. But there’s more to junk food than these unhealthy characteristics.
I recently read a very enlightening but frightening report from Dr. Steven Witherly. Steven Witherly, PhD worked as a food scientist for Nestle and Carnation and is now President of Technical Products, Inc., a consultancy to the food and nutraceutical industries. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to junk food and processed foods and how they’re made. I’ve studied quite a bit about it as well, but when I read his report, Why Humans Like Junk Food, it was the first time I had ever read about the millions of dollars companies spend designing junk food to be addictive. They spend an incredible amount of money researching how our brains respond to certain foods and creating products specifically to take advantage of those scientific facts.
I’m so convinced of the importance of sharing this information with you that I’ll be devoting two posts to it these next 2 weeks. Today, I’ll share what I’ve learned from Dr. Witherly and in the next post we’ll talk about how junk food has an immediate impact on your brain and your health, as soon as you eat it. We’re also going to talk a great deal about how to wean yourself from junk food once and for all.
How Our Brains Respond to Junk Food – The Food Companies Understand This and So Should You
It’s pretty common knowledge that food manufacturers spend millions of dollars researching and developing their products so that the foods they make will sell. But they’re not just researching what tastes best or what types of snacks people will pay for (and how much they’re willing to pay). They spend millions of dollars understanding how our brains respond to food and what makes certain foods addictive – specifically, what makes different types of junk food addictive. Their products are carefully created to create a constant demand and therefore a constant market.
As Dr. Witherly explains in his report,
“The reality is that scientists know very little about food choice or preference. Food pleasure appears to involve both the opioid and cannabinoids reward circuitry that interact in complex ways. Moreover, if we wish to understand the nature of over eating and obesity we must explore the science behind what makes food taste good.”
According to Dr. Witherly, our brains focus on two things when we eat junk food. First, there is the sensation of actually eating the food. This is called “orosensation” and it’s all about how the food feels in our mouths. It’s about the texture and consistency of the food – the creaminess of ice cream, the crunch of a tortilla chip, the sharp powdery texture of a cheese curl. This is the immediate focus of our brains when we put junk food (or any food) in our mouths.
The second thing our brains focus on is the combination of macronutrients and flavors in the food. This means the fats, proteins and carbohydrates in the food, but also the degree of saltiness or sweetness (or both). Food companies spend an enormous amount of time and money getting those combinations exactly right. How much salt is on your potato chip or how much sugar is in your soda are not the least bit random. Food companies tweak these levels down to the tiniest degree, based on solid, scientific research about the brain’s response.
What (Exactly) Makes Junk Food So Addictive?
That junk food is addictive is not in question. There have been numerous studies done on cola and sugar addiction, much of it prompted by the epidemic rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. But other junk foods, such as salty snacks and fast-food cheeseburgers, are equally addictive.
This is because they are created to appeal to at least one of six primary factors of food pleasure. Most of them are created to appeal to several at once. This is how Dr. Witherly explains those factors:
* Taste hedonics – salt, sugar and umami
* Dynamic contrast – two different textures in a food arouse interest and create surprise. Think about a cheese curl; there’s the initial crunch followed by an almost melting texture. Or a chocolate-covered ice cream cone, where that initial snap gives way to creaminess.
* Evoked qualities – this is where the taste, smell and texture of a food conjure happy, comforting or otherwise good memories, whether they’re childhood memories or just the memory of how that food tasted last time you ate it.
* Food-Pleasure Equation – Food Pleasure = Food sensation + macronutrients
* Caloric density – the faster a food melts in your mouth, the fewer calories your brain perceives it to contain and the more you can eat before your brain says you’ve had enough. Isn’t that something? Not only that, but food scientists have determined that humans like a caloric density of 5 the best.
* Emulsion Theory – our taste buds seem to really like emulsified foods or foods that contain them the best. That means foods incorporating fats, like chocolate, dressings and creamy sauces.
According to the report by Dr. Witherly, who has worked for the big food companies as a research scientist, these are the factors that food companies work so hard to include in each of their junk food products. If you look at that list and then consider some of your favorite junk food, you can see how many junk foods appeal to several and even all of those factors. This is why cravings are so specific and so compelling.
How Hunger and Cravings Work – They are Not the Same Thing
Many people have a skewed perception of how hunger and cravings actually work within the body and how food addictions work within those processes. We tend to think that our stomachs tell our brains they’re empty, so our brains tell us that we’re hungry. That’s actually backwards. In truth, our brains detect a shortage of energy (glycogen created from glucose, created from calories) so they send a signal to our stomachs. Our stomachs then rumble, which is when we pick up on it.
In the same vein, we tend to think that cravings come from our taste buds. Our taste buds want chocolate and then our minds become fixated on it. But alcoholics don’t crave liquor because of the taste, nor do drug addicts crave pills for the taste. By the same token, cravings, which come from addiction, are generated by our brains, not pour taste buds.
We’ve all heard the very good advice that if we find ourselves scrounging in the cupboards or standing in front of the fridge, we should ask ourselves if we’re actually hungry or if we’re just craving something. A good way to tell the difference is that hunger is pretty general, whereas cravings are definitely very specific.
Every woman on the planet can identify with this scenario: You have a gorgeous chocolate cake in front of you, but you pass it up because what you really, really want is potato chips. You might even eat a piece or two of that cake and still feel unsatisfied and agitated until you run to the store to get a bag of your favorite chips.
This is because our brains become addicted to very specific characteristics in very specific foods. There may be lots of foods we like and many that we love, but there are only a few that we consistently crave. For some of us it’s ice cream, for others it’s corn chips and for others it’s something else. This is because our brains are addicted to certain foods based on our past experience with them and the combination of the above factors that they involve.
This powerful addiction to certain foods is what makes us crave the same foods over and over again and it’s what makes us so unsatisfied and distracted until we get them. It’s what makes us willing to pay ridiculous prices for them, even if we’re otherwise smart and frugal about our food spending. And this is why the food companies spend so many millions of dollars in researching the brain’s response to foods and tweaking their recipes over and over again before putting the product on the shelf.
If that doesn’t make you a little afraid, it should. If that doesn’t make you angry, it should. You’re not only derailing your health and your fitness goals with these foods, you’re also paying for the privilege, both emotionally and financially.
Fortunately, not only is it possible to break these addictions, it’s possible to do it much more quickly and much less painfully than you might think.
That’s exactly what we’re going to cover in Part Two of this two series article. Stay tuned for next weeks article.
If you are wanting some delicious ‘Junk Food’ that is actually healthy and helps you burn fat, you should check out my friend, The Dessert Angel.
This is how you can have your desserts and stick to your goals!