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Live Healthy, Atlanta! Thought Leader

Why We Love Junk Food and How to Kick the Habit

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

A trip to the grocery store can be a weekly challenge. The produce is clustered together in one corner; the meat and dairy line the perimeter of the store. These are the areas we should shop in, but we’re pulled into aisles filled with frozen meals, brightly colored cereal boxes, snacks, chips, crackers and candy. So-called “junk food” advertises a siren song of “convenience,” “reduced fat,” “diet” or “on the go.” In reality, the majority of the neatly arranged, smartly packaged food in the aisles is processed nonsense full of sugar, salt and fat.

The most dedicated “clean eaters” sometimes leave the store with a few servings of junk. Even those of us who can recite facts about the poor nutrition and empty calories in a bag of Doritos still take a handful when we see a bowl filled with dusty orange triangles at a party.

Junk food truly is junk, but it’s hard to resist. It’s hard to resist for a reason: the amount of engineering, science and research that go into the sour cream and onion Pringles you see on the grocery store shelf is astounding. Below are a few principles that make your brain crave what you know (rationally) is bad for you.

  • Dynamic Contrast. Bite into an Oreo. The first sensation is the crunch of the cookie, followed by the smoothness of the cream filling. Pairing dissimilar sensations in one bite sets your brain alight! The sensation is novel and enjoyable – though you may regret it later.
  • Calorie Density. Think about the big bowl of Doritos I described earlier. It’s sitting on the coffee table at a friend’s home while you watch football with friends. You start with a handful, and then take another and another until you eat half the bowl. The Doritos in that bowl contain enough calories to make your brain decide they’ll give us some energy, but not enough to signal that you’re full, so you kept eating. You probably know that was too much, but you won’t feel sated until after halftime.
  • Rapid Food Meltdown and Vanishing Caloric Density. How quickly does a thin Lay’s potato chip disappear after you put it in your mouth? The salty yellow chip is gone in seconds. This rapid food meltdown signals to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you are, which is why a whole bag is so easy to consume quickly. When food melts down like this, your brain thinks there are no calories in it. This leads to overeating.

More of the tricky (but fascinating) science is described in this Lifehacker article. It’s a great article; please read on!

We all have our favorite kind of junk, be it soft drinks, M&Ms, potato chips or packaged “fruit” snacks. Are you ready to kick your habit?

  • Don’t keep junk food in your home. When a box of Capri Sun sits in your pantry, you’re tempted to drink it. That box will be gone within a week or two. Skip the aisles at the grocery store that are dedicated to junk. Let your weekly trip to the grocery be the only time you have to resist temptation.
  • Throw away the junk food in your pantry and fridge. Don’t finish it, just let it go! Start clean so you can end clean. Think of it this way: the industry that created that food knows you’re on their hook. They would hate for you to leave them and find a new supplier in the produce aisle. Tell them to shove it!
  • Plan a week of meals and snacks ahead of time. Go to the store with laser focus. Stick to the produce section and the perimeter of the store. Try to use whole ingredients – if there are a litany of unpronounceable words on the side of the box, skip it. A great resource for “whole” recipes is the excellent blog, 100 Days of Real Food. The blog includes information about what “real” food is and ways to incorporate it into your life.
  • Don’t deny yourself everything. Sugar, even the raw, organic variety, is addictive. We humans have been trying to get our hands on it since the Paleolithic era. It is okay to treat yourself; just do it with whole ingredients (and in limited quantities.) This recipe for brownies is one of the very best on the web. It’s simple to throw together and enjoy on a weekend or after a trying Monday.

Changing the junk food habit may be difficult at first, but soon you’ll find you are rarely tempted by those brightly colored packages. And when you go to parties, station yourself away from the chip bowl!


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