We have all been told at one point or another that junk food is unhealthy. We have heard of a variety of health conditions being directly related to poor nutrition. So if we know these potential health issues exist and that excessive intake of junk food causes them, why do we continue to eat junk food? Why is it so hard to stop eating after we start?
Don’t fret! You don’t have to give up your favorite junk food cravings altogether! While junk food is designed to be addictive, always remember that like everything else it can be eaten in moderation. The important thing to take away from all of this is that there is a reason that junk food tastes so good, and as long as you maintain a balanced diet and don’t substitute meals for junk food, you can still enjoy your favorite potato chips!
Addictive junk food has an unexpected science behind it that involves a variety of factors:
Sensation of the food: What food tastes like, how it smells, and how it feels in the mouth.
Dynamic contrast: Food manufacturers create a pleasurable mouth-feel by combining a variety of sensations in the same food.
Salivary response: The more a food causes you to salivate, the more your taste buds will love it! Foods such as chocolate, ice cream, and salad dressing cause salivation which then causes the brain to believe that they taste better than foods that don’t.
Quick meltdown of food: Foods that easily “meltdown” in the mouth have the tendency to convince the brain that you are not eating as much as you actually are and that you are not full. This is what makes it so easy to continue eating those potato chips!
Sensory-specific response: Usually when it comes to food, the brain gets bored easily and craves variety. Junk food is designed to prevent this sensory-specific response by providing a contrast of tastes to keep the food interesting and keep you coming back for more.
Macronutrient makeup: A blend of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Food manufacturers create junk food using the perfect combination of salt, fat, and sugar to keep you coming back for more.
Caloric density: Junk foods are intended to tell the brain that you are getting the nutrients you need to get through the day, but not fill you up. Junk food provides enough calories to give you quick energy, but not enough to actually feel full.
Result: The total number of calories you would get from a lunch of chicken, brown rice, and broccoli may be similar to that of a small bag of Dorito’s and a soda on the go. The difference is the nutrient content within these foods, and the junk food will not provide that full feeling and lasting energy through the day.
Source: Clear, J. (2013). What Happens To Your Brain When You Eat Junk Food. (And Why We Crave It). Retrieved from http://jamesclear.com/junk-food-science