Junk food: a chemical addiction

Junk food: a chemical addiction

There’s a reason all those greasy, sugary foods you love appeal to your cravings more than a bowl of vegetables. It’s more than just the satisfying flavor, your brain and body have a way of getting hooked on these munchies just like they do with actual drugs. Making the choice to eat these foods is up to you, but the biological reaction that happens after long periods of eating it is out of your hands. Only consistent diet changes going forward can break the cycle.

The most common foods associated with this kind of addiction contain things like sweets, carbohydrates, fats, processed ingredients, and lots of salt, according to the National Institutes of Health. That feeling of utter bliss and pleasure after eating things like this comes from the reward system of our brains. These structures are activated by some kind of rewarding stimuli, like addictive substances or a really tasty meal, that sparks a dose of dopamine in the brain, according to Neuroscientifically Challenged. The dopamine makes us feel happy and satiated, so our bodies learn to rely on that same stimulus for fulfillment over and over again.

Not only do we chase foods that stir up happy chemicals, but we avoid foods associated with stress chemicals, according to the Huffington Post. A negative connection to a certain healthy food can lead you to poor eating choices almost as much as craving junk food. As you lose the desire for that certain food, your bio chemistry starts to target the part of the brain that sends out stress hormones. Not only do you not like the taste of spinach, but your brain tells you that eating it will cause you unnecessary stress so it makes sense that you naturally don’t want to eat it.

Though we form new food preferences every day, the source of our most natural preferences might be a lot deeper than we realize. Some eating choices start from childhood, where we form emotional connections to certain foods, both through our own habits and those of our parents, according to the Huffington Post. The solution lies in breaking those associations.

The downside of actual drugs and junk food is similar as well. After a drug-induced high, you’re body builds up a tolerance and needs more of that substance overtime to stimulate the same level of dopamine as before. This is what leads to overdoses. The addict has to use more and more to get the same feeling, and ends up overdoing it. Processed foods have the same effect. If you eat it constantly, it stops feeling as satisfying as it did in the beginning and you end up eating more of it until you feel that ultimate reward.

It’s important to tell the difference between a craving and actual hunger. According to Healthline, a craving biologically means that your brain is trying to stimulate your dopamine receptors and create an emotional response, not a physical one. Just because your mind is stuck on ice cream, doesn’t mean your body needs it. A hormone called leptin acts as an appetite suppressant, telling your brain when you’re full. Because overweight individuals can develop a resistance to leptin, the addictive feeling caused by this junk food can have a greater influence than this satiety signal, according to the National Institute of Health. This mixup can cause an imbalance between the hunger and reward centers of the brain, making food intake regulation much more difficult.

Though junk food can rewire these centers of the brain to your detriment, healthy food can cause the same reaction for your benefit. A study published in Nutrition & Diabetes asked subjects to replace their favorite junk foods with high-protein, high-fiber replacements with a similar taste and see how weight loss was affected. The results showed that these subjects not only kept the weight off, but also that the reward centers of their brains were effectively rewired. The clinical trial helped them become conditioned to prefer healthier food options. This kind of behavioral therapy showed more success than just temporary willpower. Saying no to that one piece of cake at the birthday party may not be enough, but throwing in a birthday cake flavored protein bar into your daily routine could make all the difference.

It may seem like all your food preferences are etched in stone, but they may be a product of repetitive behavior and not biological need. Our bodies and minds get addicted to what we feed them all the time, so it’s clear that our eating patterns originate from our own choices. No matter how difficult it may seem, these habits are very malleable and with a little extra work on your part, they can align with your goals instead of working against them. You don’t have to sacrifice emotional satisfaction for a healthy diet. With consistent, positive changes, you can have both. So be present when you eat, notice how the food changes how you feel and think. Your body deserves and wants better than all the junk.

 

Take it from me

 

Anyone in my family will tell you that I always had the palette of a six-year-old. I didn’t like wheat bread, vegetables, milk, anything with peanuts in it, etc. I had a huge emotional association with everything that I ate and formed my eating choices based on those feelings. But when those feelings pushed me to gain 20 pounds and risk my health, I had to make a change.

I implemented new things and constantly forced myself to try the foods I thought I hated. I changed up the seasonings and cooking methods, anything that would make it more appealing. And eventually, my brain adapted. Nowadays, I crave bananas and blueberries, green beans and sweet potatoes. All these foods that used to be left on the back burner, flooded my reward centers and became my favorite meal elements. Just a few weeks and months of making better choices changed preferences that were born in my childhood.

This phenomenon not only helped me improve physically, but it taught me how truly capable human beings are of massive transformation. There’s no limit to our bodies’ and minds’ capacities for change. You’ll never be stuck in your current circumstances, so long as you choose not to be.

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