Why is unhealthy food so addictive?

It's hard - but not impossible - to resist healthy food.
Amika Shah
December 14, 2021

Ever bitten into a juicy burger or slice of extra-cheesy pizza and wondered why it's so difficult to resist? It happens to the best of us. Even if you love fresh fruit and vegetables, you might also love foods that you know aren't the healthiest. At times it can be hard to understand why you just can't resist the greasy takeaway over the fresh salmon, potatoes and vegetables, but there are a few reasons. And they all make junk food less appetising.

Why can't we stop eating unhealthy food?

In a way, it's very simple - unhealthy food is tasty because of three nutrients: sugar, salt and fat. These are the three main things that influence our 'hedonic hunger.' Hedonic hunger is the desire to eat when we're not really hungry - basically the idea that 'dessert goes into a separate stomach'.

How do food manufacturers make food addictive?

However, unsurprisingly - it's a lot more complex than that. Unhealthy food manufacturers make their money by ensuring that you buy as much of their product as possible, and they do this by spending millions, if not billions of pounds on making sure their food is as addictive as possible. It might sound like a lot of money, but there are billions of pounds in profit at stake for food manufacturers.

The point that they try to reach is called the 'bliss point' - this is the amount of sugar, salt or fat which people find the tastiest. Most foods we eat become less rewarding as time continues - we get bored of the flavour and our brain derives less pleasure from eating it. Foods that have been carefully engineered to reach the 'bliss point' have the ability to override the brain's natural signals which tell us to stop, and keep us coming back for more - even when we know we're not hungry.

The 'bliss point' works by releasing dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is a 'happy chemical' which our brain can releases with sex, social media, shopping, psychoactive drugs and you guessed it -nice food. This is exactly how food addiction can work - when you take a bite into a bar of chocolate, your brain releases dopamine - giving you a good feeling that can feel like a reward.

It's not just the bliss point. There are few things as satisfying as crunchy food - and so food manufacturers spend vast amounts of money trying to get that perfect crunch in each bite. Imagine biting into a lemon - I bet you're now drooling - food manufacturers also try and achieve this same effect when manufacturing new foods.

Ever walked past a restaurant with a distinctive smell, and wondered how they can make sandwiches, soups or grilled meats smell that strong? They pump the scent into the air to remind you how good their food tastes.

The sensation of melting in the mouth is found in many of the most delicious crisps, crackers, chocolate bars, biscuits, cakes... the list goes on. There's a very sneaky reason for this. Yes, the sensation is lovely, but food that disappears in the mouth tricks our brain into thinking we've eaten less than we have. Essentially, it's another way food manufacturers convince us to eat more than we need.

How can I resist junk food cravings?

1. Enjoy processed food mindfully

It's not useful to demonise food, or see some foods as off-limits - nor is it fun! You're definitely allowed to enjoy sweet treats and crunchy crisps, but try to eat them mindfully. This means sitting with your food, removing all distractions and enjoying every bite. Study after study has shown that when you're distracted whilst eating, you pay less attention to how much you're eating. Chances are, you'll end up eating a lot more than you would have otherwise.

2. Ask yourself, is it worth it?

We've all experienced it - taking a bite of something and thinking, 'This was really not as good as I thought it was going to be?' A good way to practise balance is thinking about when processed food is really worth it. Maybe you think your daily habit of claggy, poor quality chocolate isn't worth it, but the occasional sticky toffee pudding or your mum's apple crumble and custard is. While they might seem more indulgent, it'll be much more satisfying when you have it.

3. Be kind to yourself

Beating yourself up and sabotaging yourself are an easy way out. It's difficult to be kind to yourself, but it's much easier to succeed when you do. And being kind to yourself doesn't just mean avoiding negative self-talk. One of the biggest challenges anyone trying to change their lifestyle faces is a 'diet starts Monday' mindset.

The worst thing you can do after eating a bit less healthier than you'd planned is to completely go off the rails. A treat doesn't need to be an excuse to binge - consistency is what creates change, not perfection.

4. Eat foods with high volumes of water first

High water content foods are great if you love to feel full, but are also trying to eat nutritious food. Some foods high in water include raspberries, celery, cucumber, melon, broccoli and strawberry. You might notice these are all fruit and vegetables - so they have many more benefits than their high water content. They're packed with vitamins and minerals, and often full of fibre too - keeping your digestive system in good nick.

hand holding slice of watermelon

5. Out of sight, out of mind

It's much easier to eat healthily when you don't keep junk food in the house. For many people, the additional barrier of having to leave the house every time you might want a packet of crisps is just enough to stop you eating crisps so regularly.

Our quick guide

Why is unhealthy food so addictive?

Processed food is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it's scientifically engineered to be addictive. Scientists use a rigorous testing process to check that foods reach the 'bliss point.' This means the foods have the exact amount of fat, sugar and salt to override our body's natural cues to stop eating.

However, this doesn't mean you don't have any control over the situation. You can try a few things to resist junk food cravings.

  1. Be mindful when eating processed food
  2. Don't finish it if you're not enjoying it
  3. Don't beat yourself up
  4. Foods high in water help you feel full quickly
  5. Try keeping unhealthy foods out of sight
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