Do you ever wander through a grocery store, and you start snaking through the center aisles through the bright beautiful colors of foods in boxes and bags? If you stop and pay attention to how you feel, it may be giddy, excited or just want to eat everything in sight?
Believe it or not, you are being seduced.
That sensation is called a dopamine release, a neurotransmitter reaction in the brain associated with pleasure and reward. It is a similar type of release that comes from a first kiss, holding a puppy, working out, caffeine, or even nicotine (all addictive brain-lighting reactions).
*Note: If you believe you have an overly obsessive relationship with food, or have experienced disordered eating, this content may be triggering. You can find helpful resources at NEDA. org.
When Foods Drug Us
Wait, what? Foods can have a drug-like reaction? They sure can. And that reaction is no accident – processed junk foods are designed to flood the brain with dopamine. Food manufacturers don’t just crank out a product and then say “hey that tastes good, we should make more.” The design process to make these foods highly palatable is far more advanced.
As explained by this Newsweek article:
Ultra-processed foods are often designed to directly target the vulnerabilities of the human brain—in particular, to exploit the way the brain processes pleasurable sensations. They often deliver a signal to the brain’s reward centers so quick and potent, some neuroscientists believe, that many people find it as addictive as opioids or nicotine.Newsweek, Americans Are Addicted to ‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods
How are foods made more addictive?
This “addictive” design is done through a variety of methods.
One common way that labs and engineers make processed foods more addictive is by manipulating their flavor, texture, and mouthfeel. They use a combination of sugar, salt, and fat to create a “bliss point,” which is the optimal amount of these ingredients that maximizes the food’s appeal. For example, they might add extra sugar to cereal or use salt and fat to make potato chips crispy and satisfying.
Another way that processed foods are made more addictive is by enhancing their “craveability.” This means that the foods are designed to trigger the reward centers in the brain, leading people to crave them and seek them out. Labs and engineers achieve this by using ingredients that stimulate the release of dopamine, For example, they might use flavor enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can trigger a pleasurable response in the brain.
Additionally, packaging and marketing play a big role in making processed foods more addictive. Bright colors, bold graphics, and catchy slogans can make the products more appealing and memorable, while promotions and discounts can make them seem like a better value.
How do you manage the cravings?
In the first randomized, controlled study to compare the effects of ultra-processed with unprocessed foods, NIH researchers found healthy adults gained about a pound per week when they were given a daily diet high in ultra-processed foods, In contrast, when those same people ate unprocessed whole foods, they lost weight
This finding, however, was primarily due to the participants consuming 500 calories more a day on average. The nature of processed foods is that there is a high volume of calories for low volume of product. So, while you could have a big bowl of berries for 100 calories, that equates to about an ounce (less than a palmful) of berry-flavored snacks. Similarly, an average sweet potato is 114 calories, whereas a normal serving of sweet potato fries is 400 calories, with 3 or 4 times the amount of fat often composed of hydrogenated (ultra-processed) oils.
As busy people who travel, it is almost impossible to avoid processed foods 100 percent of the time. But there are ways you can be smart and selective of what you pick off of the shelf, especially when you need to eat on the run.
The 80/20 method I recommend in the article below also leaves room for these foods, which are undeniably enjoyable. Lab food may be demonized by many “clean eating” sites, but that’s diet culture at its worst. There are ways to responsibly balance processed foods with whole foods, and I will explain my personal approach below.
If you want to avoid the party favors, avoid the party room.
You know when you went to parties in college, there was always that one room that if you walked into there would be group of people clearly up to no good?
It’s the same kind of thing with the layout of the store. When you go to the store, you intuitively know where the ‘techno carbs’ are – right in the middle aisles where you can’t miss them. Stick to the perimeter of the store, where you find the fresh produce. If you have certain items that you regularly need and that are in the same “neighborhood,” like condiments, consider ordering those online.
Be smart about your dope snacks
Note that there is no evidence that eating process foods in and of itself
Surprisingly, there are a lot of versions of these foods that yes, are processed, but are also relatively healthier. Examples of these include:
- Kale Chips
- Seaweed snacks
- Plantain chips
- Beef, chicken or turkey jerky (with no added sugar)
- Parmesan or cheese crisps
- Flavored almonds and cashews (i.e., salt and vinegar, dill, honey bbq)
- Popcorn (looked for air popped brands, and watch portion sizes)
- Dried fruit (with no added sugar)
- Prepackaged olives
But watch out for unhealthy snacks posing as healthy ones:
- Any kind of “veggie chips” (including sweet potato, carrot, bean, lentil, etc).
- Most trail mixes (these are really just candy)
- Yogurt covered pretzels or raisins
- Dried fruit with added sugar
- Fruit snacks (yes, even the ones with “real fruit juice”)
- Most types of granola bars
If you want some info on protein bars, read below. The gist is that these are good for when you are in a bind and don’t have time for a full meal, but not a great idea to snack on 2 or more a day, because they are usually the same calorie equivalent of a candy bar!
Make sure you differentiate between a snack and a meal
A snack is normally about 150-200 calories, but some of these treats can average as much as 400-500 calories if you don’t carefully track the serving sizes. If you do want to eat half the bag or more, consider counting this as a meal and balancing that within your daily calorie and macro goal (which I discuss how you arrive at HERE and HERE).
The bottom line is that you don’t have to live a life without eating anything that comes out of a bag. That “clean eating” mentality will drive you crazy and make you inhale a bag of Hippeas – or Cheetos – later (hot tip: they are not that different).
Rock – and snack- on!