What is about junk food that makes you crave it? You pull into the drive-thru without consciously thinking about it. You grab an extra cookie for the road. You sneak a few extra candies from the jar. What gives? For starters, your brain loves junk food. Junk foods are energy dense (i.e. high in calories). Good news if you’re a hunter-gatherer and nutrients are scarce, but bad news in today’s society of endless food at your fingertips.
But what’s happening inside your brain that drives this intense craving?
Your brain gets a hit every time that donut touches your lips. Stephan Guyenet referenced several studies in an article on Examine.com, which show your mouth and small intestine detect the base materials in sugar, fat, and protein and send a signal to the brain that releases dopamine. And the more concentrated the nutrients (think junk food) the greater the surge in dopamine. Essentially, your brain is doing its job by encouraging you to pursue calorie dense foods that would help your distant ancestors stay alive or survive periods of famine. But your brain chemistry simply wasn’t built for the world you live in today. You need simply take a passing glance at that timely pizza promotion in your mailbox and crave it because the sensory cues are so innate. Then, with a few clicks on your smartphone, that cheesy delight arrives at your doorstep.
Further still, some junk foods combine calories with drug-like effects. Guyenet writes about chocolate’s mix of calories and a drug called theobromine. Much like its cousin caffeine, theobromine is a mild stimulant. This drug accentuates fat and sugar’s natural ability to spike dopamine signaling, which in many people results in powerful cravings and addictive-like behaviour. Do you remember the first time you drank coffee or beer? You likely didn’t love the taste. But coffee has caffeine and beer has alcohol, two drugs that your brain gets a reward from. So, in turn, your sensory cues tell you to pay $6 for that Frappuccino and elbow your way through a crowd to get to the bar.
Our society also associates eating with pleasure at every turn. At the movies, you’re expected to get a big popcorn and coke. You can’t watch that ball game without a big bratwurst. Poker with the guys? Round of drinks and wings for all. Those are powerful social cues to overcome. But it’ll take replacing old habits with new, healthy ones to buck those trends. Bring a protein bar in your pocket to the theatre. Eat a filling, healthy dinner before you head to the game. Set some ground rules for that poker night (like a drink limit). And, yes, you may have to overcome peer pressure and stick to your guns. So is it futile to avoid junk food cravings? Not necessarily.
What Can You Do?
3 Steps To Overwrite Your Brain’s Desires for Junk Food
Prepare wholesome meals to bring to work with you so you aren’t starving and accidentally on purpose reach for that donut in the lunchroom. Plus, by giving your body the nutrients it needs, you’re less likely to get intense cravings for macronutrients and micronutrients you may be shortchanging yourself on, i.e. protein, salt or otherwise. Download this handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” to set yourself up with a nutrition plan for success.
Red Velvet Cake…My guilty pleasure.
Specifically, the one a local iconic restaurant, Salisbury House, makes… The icing.. to die for. The melt in your mouth filling… orgasmic. But something I call The Law of Red Velvet Cake keeps me honest. The law goes like this: If I don’t go into Sal’s, the cake doesn’t get into my car, and it doesn’t get home. And if it doesn’t get home, it doesn’t get in my mouth. And if it doesn’t get in my mouth, it doesn’t contribute to belly fat. You feel me? If the temptation is in the house, you are going to indulge eventually. This rule can be applied to your guilty pleasure. What is it you can’t help yourself around? Make sure it isn’t staring at you from the pantry.
Salivary amylase is an enzyme in your saliva that starts the digestion of starches in carbohydrates. The gene that makes amylase, AMY1, varies in number from person to person. The more of it you have, the faster and more effectively you digest carbs. Researchers compared the genes of 149 Swedish families that included siblings with a body mass index (BMI) differing by more than 10 kg/m2. The single biggest factor determining variations in BMI from one individual to the next was the volume of AMY1 in their saliva. So, what’s the one stupid easy trick if you suspect you have fewer copies of the gene? Be present at meal time, eat as slowly as possible and really take your time. Simple in theory, sure, but eating slowly gives your amylase more time to break down the carbs you’re eating. This evens the playing field versus someone with more amylase who eat faster.
To recap how to re-program your brain:
- Plan ahead. Eat more whole, fresh, minimally processed foods with a balance of macronutrients, protein, carbs and fats so you aren’t “shortchanging” your brain from much-needed nutrients (i.e. limit cravings)
- Keep temptations out of sight. Easier said than done, but work to control your home environment. Don’t buy Costco-sized ice cream or sweets – only indulge in controlled amounts. I.E. Opt for a kid sized McFlurry on the way home instead of buying a two-gallon pail of ice cream at the store. If tempting, unhealthy foods aren’t within arm’s reach, not only will they be harder to eat, but you’ll be less likely to crave them.
- Optimize your hormones with the TRT MANual
- Eat slowly and mindfully. No matter what you eat, slowing down will help your digestive system do its job and also help your brain get the signal from your gut that it’s full
- Get this handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” to set yourself up with a done-for-you nutrition plan
P.S. Get Mitch’s handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” to simplify your diet and start reprogramming your brain