One of the foundations of the Osteoporosis Reversal Program is a healthy diet. For many Savers, the hardest unhealthy dietary habit to break is eating junk food.
From potato chips to candy bars, junk food is designed to make you crave it– even though it ultimately harms your body, brain, and bones. Today we're going to delve into why junk food is so addictive from a scientific perspective.
Once you know why you experience these cravings, you'll be one step closer to overcoming them.
What Makes You Crave Junk Food
Food scientists and manufacturers have spent decades studying the impact of various foods to learn how our brains respond to different stimuli when we eat. They've isolated different factors that make certain foods downright addictive.
There are two major components to this effect: the sensation of eating food, and the macronutrient content of the food.
Sensation includes every part of the physical experience of eating the food. That includes the taste of the food, it's smell, and it's texture in your mouth. The way a food feels in your mouth when you eat it is particularly important. It even has its own word: orosensation.
Part of what makes a potato chip appealing is the crunch. And soda isn't as alluring without just the right fizzy mouthfeel. Food companies do extensive research and testing to achieve a particularly satisfying and unique orosensation that you will associate with their product.
The other major component is the macronutrient content of the food– fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. While this sounds like it might be a consideration of health, the opposite is true. Manufacturers manipulate the contents of their highly processed foods to manipulate your body and brain's response when you eat them. The goal is to make you feel like you need (or want) to eat more.
Manufacturers use two major components in the foods they create to manipulate you into craving them: sensation and macronutrient content. They finely craft the taste, smell, and texture of the food to create maximum specificity and satisfaction. Simultaneously, they fill the food with a combination of macronutrients that makes you want to keep eating.
What Factors Make Junk Food So Addictive?
Junk food manufacturers alter the sensation and content of their products attempting to manipulate you into eating more and more often. Here are the ways that they do it:
- Dynamic Contrast – When a food contains more than one contrasting sensation, that's dynamic contrast. A candy with a crunch shell and a creamy filling, is a perfect example. The combination of textures excites our brains, making us want to eat more of that food.
- Vanishing Snacks – The reasons why “melts in your mouth” is a positive attribute has to do with the phenomenon of vanishing caloric density. When a food, whether it's a cheese puff or a chocolate truffle, seems to dissolve in your mouth, it gives a false impression that you haven't eaten anything at all.
That's true both consciously and unconsciously. Part of how our body monitors how much we've eaten is the feeling of food in our mouths, so foods that seem to dissolve in our mouths trick our brains into telling us we're not full and should continue eating.
- Salivary Response – Certain foods encourage your salivary glands to produce more saliva than other foods. Salivary response helps to spread and deepen the taste of food in your mouth– ensuring that your full capacity for tasting the food is utilized. Sauces and glazes have this effect, as do emulsified foods like butter, salad dressing, and mayonnaise. The richness of the experience makes these foods particularly appealing.
- Calorie Density – This is how food manufacturers use the macronutrient content of foods to make them addictive. They design foods to have just enough proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to convince your body it's worth eating them, but not enough to trigger the mechanisms to tell your brain that you're full. This manipulation of how your body assesses need and satiation is meant to convince you that you crave the food, and then muddles your ability to realize when you should stop eating.
- Sensory Balance – When you eat an unexciting food over and over, your brain gets used to it and it becomes less appetizing, so you're unlikely to eat too much of it. Conversely, the intensity of a very rich food discourages you from over-indulging.
Junk food is engineered to strike a nefarious balance between these two extremes. They're dynamic enough that you continually enjoy eating them, but they're not so intense that you only want to eat a small portion. Food manufacturers test recipes endlessly to zero-in on the balance to formulate a snack that your brain never gets tired of and also never gets too much of.
- Physical Memory All of the above factors create a very unique and memorable eating experience, both physically and emotionally. Your brain associates the sight, smell, and even the idea of that food item with the physical and emotional experience of eating it. As a result, when you encounter or remember those foods or even the suggestion of those foods, your body begins to anticipate eating them again. This creates the sensation of craving or the physical response of salivation. This cycle fuels your desire to eat junk food, not based on what you need or want now, but on a memory of eating those foods in the past.
Junk food is engineered to be addictive using several factors. These include manipulating the way your body perceives how much you're eating, creating foods with textures and combinations of sensations that trigger specific responses in the brain, and relying on the mental association to create the experience of craving.
Junk Food Is In Your Head
This intentional use of food to tinker with your brain chemistry has far-reaching consequences. Since junk food is designed to create a specific feeling, we often use it to create short term changes in how we feel, even though that sacrifices our long term wellbeing. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology examined the way our mood impacts our food choices:
“The results from four experiments show that a positive mood cues distal, abstract construal and increases the salience of long-term goals such as health, leading to greater preference for healthy foods over indulgent foods. The results also show that a negative mood cues proximal construal and increases the salience of immediate, concrete goals such as mood management, leading to greater preference for indulgent foods over healthy foods.”1
Distal abstract construal describes our ability to link what we choose to do now to the impact of those actions farther into the future, especially when the relationship between that cause and its future effect is complex. For example, Savers are building increased capacity for distal abstract construal when they link the impact of eating a pH-balanced meal now to reducing acidification to protect bone mineral density over the course of many weeks and months.
Conversely, proximal construal describes concern for immediate effects. Eating junk food might make you feel good right away, but it harms you in the long run. The study found that we're better able to consider and prioritize long-term effects when we're in a good mood.1
This provides us with a potent tool for breaking the cycle of junk food eating: mood intervention. So use strategies for improving your mood, and employ them before you make choices about what to eat. Meditation, exercise, soothing music, a funny video, or calling a beloved friend might all be ways to improve your mood before you open up the kitchen cupboard.
A study found that people are better at considering and prioritizing the long-term effects of dietary choices when they are in a good mood. When they're in a bad mood, people are more likely to prioritize the immediate effects of their food choices. This can lead to eating junk food for the immediate pleasure it offers, in spite of the ultimate harm it will do. Assess your mood, and act to improve it before making food choices.
Three Ways To Turn The Tables On Junk Food
You're armed with new knowledge about how junk food makers manipulate your brain and taste buds into unhealthy eating habits. Now let's use that knowledge to resist their efforts to control our choices.
Use these three strategies to avoid junk food and establish healthy snacking patterns that offer pleasure and satisfaction while supporting your bone health goals.
1. Apply Junk Food Tactics To Healthy Food
You can create healthy versions of the habit-forming attributes of junk food described above.
Pair up your healthy snacks in ways that create dynamic contrast. You could dip your celery sticks in almond butter to get that crunch and cream combination. Generate the sensation of vanishing caloric density by making melt-in-your-mouth bone-healthy ice cream that provides bone-building nutrients.
Combine interesting textures to keep your brain excited about your snacks. Since sauces create a salivary response, use that knowledge to make bone-healthy sauces that use lemon juice, plain yogurt, or fresh tomatoes as a base. You likely already know which foods you find most enticing. Seek out healthy alternative methods for preparing those foods that provide the enjoyment while supporting your bone health.
The Save Institute's cookbook and meal planner Bone Appétit contains recipes designed to help you accomplish this goal– including junk food replacements and dishes that you'll be excited to make time and time again.
2. Buy Whole Foods
A surefire way to avoid consumingt unhealthy snacks is to not buy them in the first place. When you're at the grocery store, avoid buying prepared or packaged foods. Instead, choose whole foods that you can use as ingredients for dishes you prepare yourself.
Think about the brain-tingling strategies that junk-food makers use as you select fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, so you can create exciting combinations and unique textures using nutrient-rich ingredients.
3. Build New Positive Food Memories
Don't just eat healthy foods, savor them. Set aside time to really enjoy the food you eat. If you turn healthy and delicious snacks into a ritual that you can thoroughly enjoy, then your brain will build positive associations with that food. Pick a relaxing location to enjoy your snack time and focus on the experience of eating.
Use the techniques of junk-food makers to craft irresistible snacks that are healthy. Set yourself up for success by purchasing whole foods at the grocery store, and skip the junk food sections completely. Intentionally build positive associations with the healthy foods you eat.
What This Means To You
When you replace junk food in your diet with satisfying bone-healthy snacks, you break a cycle of consumption that causes bone-damaging acidification, and at the same time, you establish a habit of nutritionally supporting new bone creation.
Now that you know how food manufactures attempt to manipulate your food choices, you’re better equipped to make well-informed decisions about your diet, your health, and your future.