Processed foods appeal to people or they wouldn’t sell as well as they do. Dressed up in pretty packages, these foods entice you with the promise of taste and convenience – and people buy them. Ever notice how many shopping carts at the supermarket are piled high with packaged and convenience items?
What is processed food anyway? It’s a food that has been altered in some way so it’s no longer in its native state. Believe it or not, not all refined and processed foods are unhealthy. At one end of the spectrum are processed foods that have health benefits like frozen vegetables and pasteurized milk. Freezing, canning, pasteurization, and dehydration are all examples of processing, but these processes don’t necessarily destroy the health benefits of food. In the case of milk, it makes the food safer and frozen vegetables, more convenient.
At the other end of the spectrum are foods that have undergone extensive processing to the point that essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, including fiber, are removed. Then, to make the food more palatable, manufacturers add unhealthy fats, sodium, colorings, flavorings, sugar, and seasonings like MSG. As you can see, there’s a BIG difference between minimally processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, and those that are more extensively altered with a loss of nutrients.
The refined foods to watch out for are processed meats, foods made with white flour, foods with added sodium and MSG, sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, and other sugary snacks, chips etc. Most of these foods have little nutritional value. The question is why are people so drawn to foods that have had their nutrients stripped away and are so far removed from their natural state?
Are Processed Foods Addictive?
According to a study in PLOS One, highly processed foods are doctored in a way that increases their addictive potential. They’re altered by the addition of refined carbohydrates, like sugar and white flour, and fats that make them more rewarding to the brain. When you add rapidly absorbed carbohydrates to a food, you get a sharper rise in blood sugar. Research has linked a rapid rise in blood sugar with activation of brain areas associated with addiction. No wonder it’s hard to eat only one cookie or brownie!
The study identified foods most strongly linked with addiction and none of them will surprise you – pizza, cookies, chips, pastries, French fries, candy etc. These are foods that people have a challenging time staying away from and work the hardest to give up. In contrast, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, have little addiction to people. How many people do you know who are hooked on spinach?
Based on research, a factor that increases the addictive potential of food is how quickly it raises your blood sugar, its so-called glycemic index. So, you would expect whole foods and foods high in fiber to have little addictive potential while foods with added sugar and white flour to be high on food addiction scale.
Your Brain on Dopamine
One way in which sugary foods may hook you is their effect on a brain chemical called dopamine, involved in feelings of reward. Research shows obese people have fewer receptors for this brain biochemical than people who are slender. To compensate for having fewer receptors, overweight and obese people crave foods that maximize dopamine release, like those high in sugar and fat, to get that sensation of reward. Over time, as the receptors become desensitized from being stimulated so often, you need MORE sugary, fatty foods to get the same feelings of reward and satisfaction. It’s a vicious cycle of craving more carby foods and more carby foods further exacerbating the problem.
Healing Food Addiction
Just as it’s hard to overcome any addiction, breaking the processed food habit isn’t easy. As Food Addiction Research Organization Education points out, people who are addicted to processed foods may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop eating them. The goal is to replace processed foods with whole foods that don’t cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, knowing you’ll continue to have cravings for these foods for a variable period of time, ranging from a few days to a week or more. Gradually, your brain biochemistry re-balances to the point that you don’t experience the strong cravings for fatty and carby foods.
Removing easy access to processed foods can also help you avoid making less than healthy food choices. If you have junk food laying around in your cabinets and visible in your fridge, you’re making it too easy to revert to old habits. Clean out your cabinets and refrigerator. Donate unopened packages of foods you’re trying to eliminate to a local shelter and make a clean break. If you’re quitting smoking, you don’t leave packages of cigarettes lying around the house – why should it be different with junk food?
Invest in a whole foods cookbook and plan out your meals and snacks. Don’t leave what you eat to chance. Doing so makes it too easy to reach for whatever’s convenient. Know what you’re going to eat for the day and when. This is a case where planning pays off. Make sure you’re getting a balanced array of macronutrients – lean protein, healthy fats, fiber-rich carbohydrates. Combining fiber and protein helps reduce cravings.
Finally, be sure you’re getting enough sleep. Getting less than 7 hours of sleep nightly activates hormones like ghrelin that bring on food cravings.
Can You Change the Type of Foods You Crave?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could turn off the cravings for sweet stuff and replace them with the desire to nibble on fruits and veggies? According to researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Nutrition Center, you can. Using brain scans, they found brain activity of participants who previously ate junk food changed when they switched to healthier fare. After six months of making smarter food choices, they showed brain activity suggestive of a newfound appreciation for fruits and vegetables and less desire to eat processed foods. So, you can retrain your brain even if your “go-to” snack is ice cream and brownies.
To gradually change your food preferences, start progressively eliminating processed food and be consistent with it. Give it time and you’ll notice those cravings diminish but don’t be too hard on yourself. If you binge on a plate of cookies, don’t beat yourself up. Try to identify why you overate and get right back on track. Make sure you’re still giving your taste buds reason to rejoice. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring. Invest in a whole foods cookbook and find out how many tasty options are available to you when you eat an unprocessed diet. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
PLOS One. “Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load” February 18, 2015.
Am J Clin Nutr 98: 641-647. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.064113.
Science Daily. “Want pizza, chocolate, French fries? Highly processed foods linked to addictive eating” February 201, 2015.
Medical Daily. “Your Addiction To Processed Foods: How Pizza, Sugar, And Chocolate Can Act Just Like Hard Drugs” February 20, 2015.
Food Addiction Research Organization Education website.
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