The $64,000 question -Why do sugar and junk foods have such a hold over us?
At the end of the day, we’re all animals. Okay, so we’re humans, but you only have to watch an episode of David Attenborough’s Dynasties to remember that we have primeval instincts. On an evolutionary basis, our primitive ancestors were scavengers. We have evolved to find sweet foods particularly pleasurable since they are one of the best sources of energy. So to maximize our survival, we have an innate brain system that makes us like sweet foods in order to fuel our bodies. But that’s when food was scarce. Now we have an abundance of food, and especially an abundance of sugary, processed foods unfortunately.
How Do We Become Addicted?
When we eat sugar or highly refined carbs (which basically act like sugar), the body releases feel-good chemicals as part of the reward system of our brains. Similarly, our brains will tell us to avoid touching something hot in order to avoid pain and, for problem drinkers, their brains will tell them to keep drinking in order to experience the pain-numbing tranquility that alcohol can (initially) bring. So we are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding creatures at heart. However, repeated activation of the reward pathway by drugs or by eating lots of sugary foods causes the brain to adapt to frequent stimulation, leading to a sort of tolerance. In the case of sweet foods, this means we need to eat more to get the same rewarding feeling — a classic feature of addiction.
It’s all in the Neurotransmitters
Feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, are rapidly released by the consumption of sugary, junk foods. So food addiction is not caused by greediness or some lack of willpower on our parts. Rather, it is our sensitivity and strong response to the feel-good effects of food that begins the addiction. The problem with modern junk food is that it can cause a reward that is way more powerful than any reward the brain can get from regular, healthier foods. While eating an apple or piece of steak might cause a moderate release of dopamine, eating a bag of tortilla chips or a tub of double-choc ice-cream is so rewarding that it releases a much larger amount. The manufacturers of junk foods know this and that’s why they pump our food with things like fructose corn syrup – in a way, they are hijacking our brains and our primal rewards responses to sugar and refined carbs.
Are You Prone to Sugar And Junk Foods Addiction?
Ask yourself these questions:
- When you start to eat sugary/junk foods, do you feel you cannot stop?
- Do you often crave these foods, even when you aren’t hungry or feel full?
- Do you sometimes make a decision NOT to eat these foods, but then find yourself obsessing about them and not being able to push them out of your mind?
- Do you regularly have to ‘restart’ your healthy eating programme every Monday, after a weekend filled with ‘treat foods’?
- When you give in, and start to eat the foods that you were craving, do you often find yourself eating a lot more than you initially intended?
- Do you often feel guilty after ‘caving in’ to unhealthy foods?
- Do you obsess about how to curtail your eating ahead of an event?
- Do you feel ashamed about eating junk food, so that you often try to do it in private?
- Do you often make justifications for the unhealthy food choices you make – such as ‘I’m tired’, ‘I have a lot on at the moment’, ‘The weather is making me eat this way’ or ‘I’m hormonal’.
6 Ways to Help Resolve Your Dependence On Sugar And Junk Foods
Unfortunately there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, but some of these things can help:
- Avoid trigger foods – such as those containing sugar or highly refined carbs, like baguettes, scones and pastries.
- Come up with alternatives – now you need a list of healthy alternatives to these foods – discuss these with your Weight Loss Consultant. This is where protein bars and crisps can become lifesavers.
- Keep a daily diary – identify the specific occasions when you overindulge or the emotions that you were experiencing just prior to the poor food choice.
- Consider saboteurs – are there people, or habits that make your cravings worse? For instance, do you tend to eat more junk food if you’ve drunk alcohol or if you’re low on sleep? Do you always overeat with that same friend, because they do the same? Then address those things first.
- Avoid becoming overly hungry – its crucial to manage those blood sugar levels and to eat small, regular amounts of protein, and to include a healthy fat each day to help keep you satisfied.
- Do a sugar detox – all of the Motivation eating plans require that you ditch sugar altogether. While it’s not easy to break habits like always having sugar in your coffee, there are sugar alternatives (such as agave or stevia) and remember that the first step is often the hardest (where you may experience strong withdrawal symptoms, but we will support you through this). These get easier along the way. Listen to our ‘Truth about Sugar’ podcast to find out more.
- Expect that a relapse may be inevitable – it is common to relapse, so instead of saying ‘I’ll never mess up’, expect that you will, and it’s how you deal with it that matters. The key is to not give up and to learn from your mistakes. This is the time to read, ‘5 reasons NOT to throw the towel in and to keep pushing through’.
50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, by Susan Albers, a collection of mindfulness skills and practices for relaxing the body in times of stress and ending your dependence on eating as a means of coping with difficult emotions. You’ll not only discover easy ways to soothe urges to overeat, you’ll also learn how to differentiate emotion-driven hunger from healthy hunger
Watch addiction/ expert Judson Brewer discuss a simple but effective way to break a bad habit in this useful Ted Talk.