You are frustrated. You cannot figure out why you keep eating foods you know are bad for you.
The short answer is because it’s challenging not to. When you eat these off-limit foods, your taste buds say, “yum,” and your brain says, “more, please!”
On top of that, modern-day convenience meals and snacks are manufactured to contain that magical combination of sugar, fat, and salt that keeps you coming back for more.
It can feel like the cards are stacked against you, but when you understand how certain foods trigger physiological changes that drive cravings, you can bypass the traps and clear the path to your goal.
Food Addiction – At-A-Glance
- Sweetness is the most universally liked of all taste qualities. There are sweet receptors in all of your taste buds and on the roof of your mouth.
- Sugar and other sweet foods cause a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine in your brain. This pleasure response is enhanced when sugar is mixed with fat and salt.
- Even after you are full, cravings can be restimulated by doing nothing more than changing the taste or texture of the food you consume. This is a phenomenon called sensory specific satiety.
- To get cravings under control: (1) make a choice to do so, (2) keep pace with hunger, and (3) set short-term goals.
Why You Eat Foods You Know are Bad for You [and How to Stop](Video)
In this video, you’ll learn…
- Why we love the combination of sugar, salt, and fat.
- What sensory specific satiety is and how it keeps us craving junk food.
- Three steps to get your junk food cravings under control.
How Did We Get Here?
The exact origin of mass-produced addictive foods is hard to pinpoint. But, one substantial inroad was the introduction of sugar-coated cereal in the first half of the 20th century.
In an article by Gary Taubes, he pointed out that Ranger Joe was the first sugar-coated, presweetened cereal sold in America.
I am sure you’re not shocked to hear me tell you that it was a hit. This small company’s success piqued the interest of larger companies, like Post Cereal. As Taubes reported, “Post executives would argue that presweetened cereal actually contained less sugar than what children would add on their own.”
According to Post, it was more or less a step in the right direction. Whether you go along with that logic or not, long story short, as Tony the Tiger would say, their sales were GR-R-R-EAT, and the rest is history.
Your Mouth (and Brain) Love Sugar
The reason we now have entire grocery store aisles dedicated to cereal is because your mouth and brain love sugar.
Do you remember that map of the tongue you learned about in elementary school? We used to think that only the tip of the tongue could detect sugar.
Today we know that your entire mouth does backflips for the sweet stuff. There are sweetness receptors in all of your taste buds. There are even special receptors for sweetness on the roof of your mouth.
Since sweetness is the most universally liked of all taste qualities, it’s easy to see why you want to keep eating it. (1).
“Just a Little Something Sweet”
But giving in and eating “just a little something sweet” doesn’t mean the craving will be satisfied.
For one thing, the human brain is conditioned to look at sugar as a reward encouraging you to “eat as much as you can – while you can.” (2)
This primitive desire formed back when food was scarce, and we had trouble getting enough calories. That problem is not prevalent today, yet we are still driven to overeat thanks to our brain chemistry.
When your brain receives the sweet taste message, it does backflips of its own thanks to a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine. This pleasure response is enhanced when sugar is mixed with fat and salt.
As it turns out, comfort foods like sweetened cereal, cookies, cakes, candies, and other ultra-processed and refined foods, provide the perfect snugly blanket of comfort your brain needs to feel good. That blanket is woven out of three ingredients, sugar, fat, and salt.
When that mixture of ingredients is combined in a food, your body and brain are wired to crave it. Like a thrill seeker after his first adrenaline rush, once you start eating comfort foods, you just gotta get some more.
Sensory Specific Satiety
Admittedly, it is hard to break out of this junk food craving cycle even after consuming a lot of calories. That is because you can restimulate cravings by doing nothing more than changing the texture or mouthfeel of the food you consume.
This phenomenon causes overeating to continue even when you are full, and it is so common that it has a name – sensory specific satiety.
Think about it for a moment. When you eat your fill of chocolate, does your craving stop there, or is it more likely to lead to a couple of scoops of creamy peanut butter, followed by a handful of salty potato chips, just to satisfy that little something that’s missing?
That is sensory specific satiety at work. It is defined as the declining satisfaction we get from eating a particular type of food and the subsequent increase in appetite that we get when we switch to a new taste or texture (3).
The trap is that this phenomenon keeps renewing your appetite even though your body has no need for more food.
Is It Hopeless?
It’s time for this post to turn the corner. Enough with the bad news. What is the good news?
The good news is that you can reset, so to speak, your brain chemistry and learn to live in this sugar-coated world of ours with ease.
How to Get Junk Food Under Control
I would not have believed that if it did not happen to me. I was a full-blown sugar addict. Junk food was always on my mind, 24/7. I’d dream about eating it.
Today, I can go to a party and decide if I want to eat a piece of cake or not. If I don’t, I don’t feel robbed of the experience. If I do, I don’t spiral into a binge like I used to. To get here, however, I had to go through the same journey that you must go through and deal with the same “It’s not fair” thoughts that naturally pop up.
Knowing that foods like Pop-Tarts, Snickers, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes are manipulated to make them irresistible can make you mad. And that’s ok. It’s not great that we have to face these temptations. But, control what you can.
Even if the processing of food changes, it will not change overnight. So, keep your focus on what you can control today. When you do that, and you do it consistently, you win your battle.
Step #1: Making a Choice
With that said, step 1 is to make the choice. If you follow my blog, you’ve heard me refer to this as finding your big why.
Why do you want to stop eating the foods you know will harm you? Is it for weight loss? If so, why do you want to lose weight? Write down a whole bunch of answers, and don’t judge your answers.
We all want to do things for altruistic reasons, like being a good example for our kids and grandkids, and those reasons are awesome. But, if you also want to lose weight because you want to see your abs and show them off at the beach. That is fine, too. As long as your actions are healthy, you will reap the benefits of living in a healthier body.
Step #2: Keep Pace with Hunger
When you uncover that big reason to change, it is tempting to just go for it, full speed ahead. What that often looks like in real life is exhausting yourself with intense workouts and drastically reducing your food intake.
When you push too hard, your body pushes back. Your body likes the status quo, so when you make these drastic changes, it pushes back with hunger and cravings.
There is nothing wrong with being motivated to change, but just know that drastic change makes you hungry, so keep pace with hunger. By doing this, you give your body what it needs to make the transition away from these addictive foods. That is your initial goal. When that is accomplished, your body gives you what you want.
Fill up with whole foods that provide your body with healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Those nutrients digest slowly, keeping hunger under control for a long time and warding off the fatigue and afternoon slumps that make you want to snack.
Step #3: Short-Term Goals
The next step is to set short-term goals. It can be very defeating to hear the words, “great job, now do that forever.”
When I got control of my eating, I did it in 40-day diet cycles. In other words, I committed to staying on track strictly, with no exceptions, for 40 days, and then every “Day 41” was a day without rules. That didn’t mean that I had to eat junk food. It was just a relief day when I gave myself the freedom to make a choice.
You might think that would drop me right back into my old habits. However, when you spend forty days without sugar and processed foods, your taste buds and brain chemistry reset, making those same foods you used to crave seem too sweet.
You can follow this 40-day schedule yourself. When your free day is past, recommit to another diet cycle, and as each cycle passes, junk food has less control over you and less appeal.
Humans are programmed to eat when food is available. Today, 60% of our diet comes from calorie-dense, nutrient-poor convenience foods that are manufactured and manipulated to be tasty. This can feel discouraging, but you are not powerless. Whole foods can be tasty too and are much more hunger satisfying.
Make a choice to give up the foods that are wrecking your health and weight and making you miserable.
Work with your body by feeding it. Hunger is not the goal. Give your body the whole, nutrient-dense foods it needs today, and it will give you the control you want tomorrow.
Set a short-term goal. Why not grab a calendar right now and mark tomorrow as Day 1? That will give you today to get good food in your house and junk food out.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!
(1) Reed, Danielle R., and Amanda H. McDaniel. “The human sweet tooth.” BMC Oral health. Vol. 6. No. 1. BioMed Central, 2006.
(2) Wiss, David A., Nicole Avena, and Pedro Rada. “Sugar addiction: from evolution to revolution.” Frontiers in psychiatry (2018): 545.
(3) Wilkinson, Laura L., and Jeffrey M. Brunstrom. “Sensory specific satiety: More than ‘just’habituation?.” Appetite 103 (2016): 221-228.