Author: Holly J Coley
Do you remember the old slogan for Lay’s Potato Chips, Bet you can’t eat just one? For some of us, that dare can’t be more spot on and there’s a reason: junk food is sort of addictive.
Many of us were hooked on the white stuff young. By white stuff I mean pasta, bread, cereal, chips…pretty much all the stuff advertised during Saturday morning cartoons. By the time we grew up and learned that this wasn’t the best for us, the damage was already done and the idea of living a life sans Hostess didn’t seem like much of a life at all. But why?
The simplest answer (there is also a psychological component when it comes to food) is that junk food is processed. Like white stuff I’m using junk food as a blanket term to identify simple carbs and other food-like substances. By now you probably know that simple carbs like a bowl of corn flakes are problematic because they’re converted to sugar quickly, causing a spike in energy and then an epic crash. However, if you wanted to offset this you could pair that cereal with a protein and maybe avoid that. There is actually something far more sinister at work when we eat a toaster strudel or even Kraft Mac and Cheese and it starts in the lab where the flavors of these foods are made.
We’re hardwired to like sugar, salt and fat. It all goes back to the days when we foraged for our food and got all cray for things that could help us keep our weight on in times of famine. Studies have shown that sugar (and wheat) which are often key ingredients in junk food stimulate the dopamine and opiate receptors in the brain just as narcotics do. Scientists know this and (when employed by a giant food corporation) work to recreate these flavors and heighten them. Basically, when you eat Doritos you think you’re eating dehydrated cheese powder on corn chips but it’s really a bunch of chemicals that create that intense cheddar flavor. Oh and that faux cheese flavor is sort of like crack. All of it its addictive by nature. Researchers take great time to ensure that eat bite has the right amount of crunch, produces enough saliva in your mouth, and releases each taste (salt, fat, sweet) at the right time so that your brain lights up and goes, Hey this stuff is bonkers. Give me more! And because these foods are processed and therefore stripped of nutrients your body never gets what it needs and keeps signaling the brain that it’s hungry. You eat and eat and eat, hungry caterpillar style.
In fact, The New York Times, published an excellent piece called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, which detailed a meeting between some of the biggest names in the food industry where, of all things, the obesity epidemic made its way on the agenda. The story not only covered a discussion by company CEOs of their potential culpability in contributing to the country’s chronic disease problem but also the ways they produced food with the intent of making it unnaturally attractive to taste buds. Here’s a quote from the article writer, Michael Moss.
” The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations.”
There are some ways to overcome the call of junk food and it’s not as nearly as unpleasant as you think. Here are some tips.
1.Shop the perimeter of the store, NOT the middle isles.
The perimeter of the grocery store is where you’ll find vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy-whole non-processed foods. It also is the place where you’ll find your tofu and soy based products that need refrigeration. If you’re concerned that eating healthier will raise your bill, avoid buying pre-chopped vegetables and fruits, and commit to doing the prep work yourself. Shop deals on meat and other items.
2.Check the shelf-life.
With the exception of canned goods, foods that can spend months on shelves without spoiling should be given the side-eye. It’s a dead giveaway that it’s processed and laden with preservatives.
3. Find food dupes for your JF of choice
It’s not only the taste of certain foods that make us want more but the texture. If you find yourself gravitating towards chips, it may be the crunch factor you like. Try substituting them with cut veggies and homemade dip or a handful of raw nuts. No, they don’t taste like Doritos but unlike Doritos there’s really only so many carrots you can eat before you say, okay, I don’t need this anymore. If you have a sweet tooth, pairing a fruit with a protein (like an apple with peanut butter) may do the trick. And there is always dark chocolate.
4. Experiment with different brands
More companies are listening to their health conscious consumers. Lots of chain grocery stores now have an organic and/health food section. Explore them and find wholesome versions of convenient favorites. You’ll be surprised what’s out there. Ice cream made with nut milks, gluten free mac n cheese, chips made from vegetables! Ethnic grocery stores are also great places to find items that are intense in flavor without compromising your health.
Sugar and fat are not the antichrists of food. Your body needs fat and in fact, converts everything it eats into sugar. You just want to make sure it’s coming from healthy sources. Try having avocado on sprouted toast for breakfast or baking with dates in place of white sugar.
Talk to us! How do you handle junk food cravings? Share in the comments or on our Facebook page.