This Is Your Brain On Junk Food!

Do you find it sometimes a little too easy to reach for a muffin for breakfast, or add hot chips to your lunch even though you know these foods aren’t great for you?

Why is it that even when we know so much about nutrition and what type of foods we should be eating we still often default to ‘junk’ foods?  Healthy eating can seem hard and boring because of this, but understanding how our brain works when it comes to junk food and cravings can help us make better choices!

Why we crave ‘naughty’ foods

First off, calling certain foods or food groups ‘naughty’ or ‘treat’ foods creates the perception that they are really just this. It may have started as a youngster when we had lollies or McDonalds as ‘treats’, or were not allowed them, leading to a feeling of FOMO and the consequential desire to eat them!

Fast forward 30 years and we still get a thrill from indulging in something salty, fatty or sweet – which automatically leads us to view fresh, whole foods as the boring, but good for you, staples. It’s almost like the food is playing good cop, bad cop with your mind!

On a scientific level, there are specific chemicals called opioids which are released into the bloodstream when we eat foods high in sugars, salts and fats. These opioids then bind to the pleasure receptors in our brain which is why we experience that good feeling biting into a piece of chocolate cake, or salty hot chips. Compared to actual hunger, which is our body’s signal to eat for survival, craving for junk food are a mental and chemical process.

However, once we get that ‘high’ from satiating our cravings, our resistance builds and we need more and more of a certain type of food to reach that high the next time around. If this sounds similar to what happens to a person addicted to drugs, you’d be right.

Various independent studies have shown the areas of the brain that are engaged and light up when we satisfy our ‘junk’ food cravings react similarly to those addicted to alcohol and drugs, due to the fact they both release the feel-good hormone dopamine.  

Other factors such as stress, lack of sleep and positive memories of past food experiences also come into play with these chemical and hormonal reactions, which can make cravings seem like a complex and intense beast. 

How to recondition ourselves

However, all this does not mean we are at the mercy of our physiological reactions. It’s possible to change what we crave, as well as kick your cravings for high calorie, low nutrient foods.

  • Cut Down
    The first thing to do is cut down on foods high in sugar, salt and fat. If you have a coffee and a banana bread every day for breakfast, swap this with a fresh fruit salad or healthy smoothie. You’ll still be getting sugar in your diet, but from a nutritional source not refined sugars.
  • Be Prepared To Work
    When you cut down on these types of foods you will crave them less and less. However, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. The key is to fight through these. Remind yourself why you are doing this (to make eating fresh and healthy foods a habit) and the positive physiological changes you are creating within your body.
  • Plan Your Meals
    Plan your meals in advance and meal prep for the week. Having readily-made, nutritious foods available to defrost when you’re too tired to cook is a great way to avoid high calorie takeaway foods and keep you on track!
  • The Rainbow Five Rule
    Prepare healthy whole meals. As a rule of thumb make sure each food type or meal has five ingredients or less, and your plate has a rainbow of colours on it!
  • Keep Healthy Snacks on Hand
    An easy way to avoid some types of cravings is to avoid getting hungry, as this can lead you to seek out convenient high calorie foods to fill the gap. Keep healthy snacks on hand such as nuts, veggie sticks and fruit to keep your hunger at bay.
  • Relax your Nervous System
    Get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly and meditate. The reason comfort foods are called this is  because they often appeal to us in times of stress by giving us pleasurable ‘reward’ signals. Find another way to relieve your stress in a way that’s not from food. This could be through a walk in the fresh air, breathing techniques, meditation or even just a cup of tea and chat on the phone to a friend.

Getting food cravings is not the be all and end all, and remember not to beat yourself up about having or ‘giving in’ to them. Understanding why they happen and the process which takes place in your body will better enable you to make positive food choices when it comes to crunch time!