Why do I crave junk food SO MUCH?! I know it’s not good for me, and I really have to try hard to avoid it. What can I do?!
Doughnut Queen, Hailsham
Chips, crisps, trashy burgers, fried chicken, doughnuts, cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, ice cream, fizzy drinks…
I don’t want to give anyone a hard time for eating junk food, but you know that feeling when you just really, really want a fast food takeout, or can’t stop refilling your ice cream or crisp bowl? When it’s a craving, almost like an addiction?
Now, that’s an interesting topic to explore. Just how do these foods get their insidious little hooks in us?
American food industry consultant Howard Moskowitz realised in the 1970s that specific ranges of sugar, fat and salt intake would trigger an endorphin rush in the brain. He called this ‘the bliss point’, and set out to design processed foods that hit that point every time.
This head rush of happiness that you can experience from food can be addictive, in that your brain will seek to replicate the thrill. In fact, the brain chemistry involved is chillingly similar to how we become addicted to heroin, cocaine, alcohol and other drugs, including how we crave them, how we build a tolerance to them, and what happens during withdrawal.
It’s not just fast-food takeaways that are designed to hit your bliss point. The snack foods, biscuits, cakes, ready-meals, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, salad dressings, cooking sauces and other processed foods that fill the supermarket shelves are largely formulated to provide a heady combination of sugar and salt, sugar and fat, salt and fat, or all three, in order to hit the bliss point. That’s why low-fat foods are often higher in sugar and/or salt, for example.
One of the most perfectly bliss-balanced foods is the humble potato crisp. As Michael Moss explains in his article, The extraordinary science of addictive junk food:
“The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive, but in the starch of the potato itself – all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food.”
Sensory specific satiety
This concept is basically how satisfied you feel after different kinds of flavours. Complex and intense tastes will overwhelm your brain and switch off your desire for more; the ‘moreish’ foods and snacks are often the ones that hit the bliss point, but are simple, or even bland, in flavour. So, a key aim of the junk food industry is to create crisps, crackers, dips and sauces that are tasty, but not too tasty.
We’re hardwired to associate food and feelings, and to varying degrees, we’re probably all emotional eaters. Binge-eating is often more about the chemical hit that the brain gets than any comfort derived from the flavours of foods; it’s less about nourishing, and more about stimulating a high.
As the pattern’s repeated, the enjoyable nature of the high becomes less, and it may become more about taking the edge off other feelings, or even just taking the edge off a craving.
This stimulation happens without too much digestion needing to take place as well. Refined foods are much less fibrous than whole foods, and so in the short term, they’re an easier option for the digestive system. If your digestive system is inflamed, then white sugar, other refined sugars, white flour, white pasta etc are attractive options that don’t need much doing to them.
Unfortunately, in the long term they’re more likely to contribute to the kinds of blood sugar dips, mood swings and inflammation that get you hooked into such patterns of eating in the first place.
Work on your blood sugar balance – which may include some additional support for your liver – and your gut health. Perhaps start by gradually reducing refined carbs and processed foods, and slowly increasing vegetables and whole foods. Make sure that your breakfast includes a good portion of protein, such as eggs, nuts or seeds. Keep hydrated, and when you get a cheeky little craving, wink cheekily back and prepare yourself something with more complex flavours instead.
Five healthy options to fix that junk craving
Add nuts and seeds to your porridge, or go to work on an egg
Having just toast or cereal for breakfast, or skipping it completely, may set you up for a day of blood sugar dips that get you hitting the sugar, carbs and fast food.
Always have some healthy snacks in your bag/fridge
Maybe some celery/cucumber/carrot sticks and guacamole, or some homemade energy balls (see tip #3).
Make your own energy balls and other snacks
Warning: Readymade snacks in the healthy option section or your health food shop may still be over-processed and laden with sugar! By making your own, you’re in charge of exactly what’s in them, and you can make them exactly how you like them. And they’re so easy! Just blend 100g of soaked nuts and seeds with 30g of dried fruit and 1tbsp of coconut oil, plus spices, cocoa powder, supergreen powders – or whatever you want – then shape into balls or bars and refrigerate or freeze.
Add zesty, zingy, flavour-dense dressings and sauces to your meals for sensory-specific satiety
Again, avoid jar sauces that may also be loaded with sugar, and instead make these yourself – it’s easier than you might think.
Try drinking water when you fancy a snack
Sometimes we misread our thirst signals for hunger, and actually all we need is a glass of pure hydration.
Kirsten has been talking nutrition for over a decade in workshops, on university and college courses, on retreats and to the hundreds of people who have come for one-to-one consultations