Here is a picture which makes our mouths water and our eyes shine and our hands reach out eagerly!
I want you to look at, identify and name every item – I am sure you’ll find a few favourites!
Now, look at this picture. Just the opposite?
Actually, no, not the opposite, but the result of eating too much of the items shown above!
We know this, don’t we? Then, why are we all so addicted to junk food?
If you’ve ever tried to cut back on junk food, you may have realized that it is easier said than done. We tend to get cravings… the brain starts calling for these foods. Even though our rational, conscious mind “knows” that they are bad for us, some other part of our brain seems to disagree.
Some people don’t have this problem and can easily control the types of foods they eat. Other people don’t seem to have any control whatsoever. Despite their best intentions, they repeatedly eat unhealthy foods, even when they have decided not to eat them.
While some people think this is caused by a lack of willpower, the situation can be much more complicated than that.
The fact is… junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way as drugs like cocaine do. For most people, eating junk foods can lead to the same biological addiction like drug addiction or smoking.
How Does Food Addiction Work?
There is a system in our brain called the reward system. This system was designed to “reward” us when we do things that help us to survive, like eating. The brain is hardwired to encourage behaviours that release dopamine in the reward system. The brain knows that when we eat, we’re doing something “right,” and releases a bunch of feel-good chemicals in the reward system, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine – that signals “pleasure” in our brains.
The problem with junk foods is that they create a more powerful reward than it is natural for the brain. So, eating an apple releases a moderate amount of dopamine, whereas eating ice cream releases a massive amount of dopamine.
Tolerance and Withdrawal in Physical Addiction
When people repeatedly do something that releases dopamine in the reward system (such as smoking a cigarette or eating a chocolate bar) the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. That means, when the amount of dopamine is too high, the brain starts removing the dopamine receptors in order to retain “balance”.
When you have fewer receptors, you need more dopamine to feel the same reward effect. This makes you eat more junk food to reach the same level of reward as before. This is called tolerance.
If you have fewer dopamine receptors, then you will have very little dopamine activity and you will start to feel unhappy if you don’t get your junk food “fix.” This is called withdrawal.
Tolerance and withdrawal are the symptoms of physical addiction. This is basically how food and any other addiction works.
This can lead to various characteristic effects on behaviour and thought patterns. A craving is an emotional state, a desire to consume a certain food. It should not be confused with simple hunger, which is different. Cravings are felt suddenly, when watching our favorite TV show, reading, or just feeling bored and lonely. Walking past an ice cream parlour, the smell of pizza… these too, can turn on a craving.
Craving is about satisfying the brain’s need for dopamine. It has nothing to with the body’s need for energy or nourishment.
When a craving occurs, it can start to dominate your attention. It can be very hard to think of something else and it can be hard to remember that you had decided not to eat any junk food. It isn’t unusual to get cravings, most people do get them in some form. But if you find yourself repeatedly giving in to cravings and eating junk foods, breaking rules and constantly overeating, then it can cause serious physical harm.
The more often you repeat this cycle of craving and rewarding yourself, the stronger it becomes and the more junk food you need each time. for example, earlier, 4 scoops of ice cream were enough, but now, you need 8 scoops to feel the same level of reward. Over time, food addiction can cause severe physical and psychological problems.
What to do About it?
Unfortunately… there is no easy solution to addiction. There is no medicine, mental trick or magical solution. But slow and steady wins the race, so try these tips from diet and nutrition scientists:
- Learn how to control your cravings by avoiding boredom, keeping yourself busy with studies, games and sports or some other hobby.
- Avoid junk foods completely, if you cannot stop after a small quantity.
- Fix a day or time in the week when you eat only one item of junk food you like – stick to this rule.
- Ask friends to help you avoid junk food and eat healthy.
- Exercise every day and drink plenty of water.
- Sleep well for 7-9 hours every night.
- Eat regular healthy meals to avoid getting too hungry.
- Keep healthy snacks handy, like carrot sticks and cucumber slices in a mint-curd dip.
- Eat a healthy snack like fruits or flavoured yoghurt at home before attending parties, to avoid over-eating.
- Even if you break your no-junk-food rules – don’t give up, start again.
When you have the will, you’ll find a way!
There is no need to get all serious and frightened, however, as the danger from most fast-foods is over-rated. Avoid food-fixations and that also means, look for scientific explanations about diet. Watch this video to find out:
The moral is, follow the diet-exercise rules given above and you can still enjoy your favourite fast foods in moderation.
So, cheer up and take the pics above as your role models in life. Replace junk food with lots of friends and plenty of fresh air and exercise. Get your dopamine reward from sports and games, instead of food.
Become a fitness addict!