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Why is junk food so irresistible?

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Our brains love junk food. So what can you do to avoid those irresistible cravings?

Nobody is immune to the lure of junk food. Perhaps you’re in a hurry; or too lazy to cook; or maybe you were seduced by the wafting aroma of a nearby grill house.

It’s no surprise. Junk food is designed to be tasty, comforting and convenient. It can give us an instant mood lift.

But junk in, means junk out. Cheap, high calorie, processed food has fuelled an obesity epidemic in the last 30 years. We don’t need any reminders of the ill health effects of a fast food diet but why is junk so hard to resist?

High calories

The high proportion of sugar, fat, and salt makes fast food an extremely efficient calorie delivery system. In fact, it’s way too efficient. Doctors recommend consuming around 2000 calories per day for good health, but you can easily achieve this with a single supersize portion at your favorite fast food chain.

Fast food calorie count
The high calorie cost of various fast food chains. Via Daily Mail

The primitive brain

But a cruel trick of nature means we’re helpless when confronted by these calorific monsters.  That’s because the primitive part of our brains is primed to seek out such foods, because they are, in evolutionary terms, rare in nature. The problem is, in the 21st century, the reverse is true. Cheap, calorie dense, processed food has never been more abundant and affordable.

Unfortunately, whilst these foods contain lots of calories, they often have far lower levels of fiber, water and minerals as compared to natural foods. Even so called ‘healthy’ options from fast food restaurants are usually laded with calories. This is known as the health halo effect.

[irp posts=”146″ name=”Health halo effect: Why you should never order the salad at a fast food outlet”]

If we could just eat a small amount of these foods, there would be no reason to worry. But eating such a small portion doesn’t make our stomach feel full; and thus, our brain keeps demanding more food.

Invariably, this leads to consuming more energy than we need; even when we don’t feel too full. Thus, the richer our meals get, the more likely we are to overeat.


We tend to crave high fat/sugar foods when we are pushing our mental limits. This is because at such times our brain needs more energy. To make things worse, lack of sleep wrecks havoc with the ability to regulate appetite. Hunger hormones and reward chemicals triggered by lack of sleep can result in over-eating and very poor food choices.


Another factor that makes us crave junk food is stress. Whilst short term stress can shut down appetite, if stress persists, the body releases a hormone called cortisol which can increase appetite. When your stress position gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, your cortisol levels remain elevated leading to unhealthy food cravings.

It’s evident that fast food feels good to eat and tempts us in many different situations.

‘Reward’ chemicals

The basic reason for this is simple: fast foods are rich in calories. Our brains like getting hold of lots of calories; and respond by releasing various feel good hormones including serotonin, nor-epinephrine, and certain opiads. This immediately reduces stress and improves our mood. Food that is high in sugar and fat actually affects the brain just like some drugs do; which also explains the “addictive” nature of fast foods.

Texture, flavor and sensation

Packaged food and snacks are also created specifically so that we get enough texture and taste from each bite to tantalize our taste buds; but not enough to make us feel full.

The Dorito Effect - Mark SchatzkerTake for example, an Oreo’s combination of a crunch with a creamy filling; the melt-in-your-mouth quality of chips; the just-right sparkle of a cola; or the rich, memorable flavor of fries.

These types of snacks provide us with a mixture of sensations and flavors that keep us going back for more without triggering our “I’m-feeling-full” receptors.

Journalist Mark Schatzker, who explored the billion dollar flavor industry in his book The Dorito Effect, argues that America’s health crisis is largely due to the disconnection between nutrition and flavor, and by the efforts the food science industry has dedicated to perfecting the addictive qualities of junk food.

7 tips to avoid the junk food trap

If the reasons why we reach for snacks are so biological; how do we make healthier choices? It turns out that the same research that tells us why we crave fast food also gives us clues on how to avoid it.

1) Get plenty of sleep

We choose fast food when we are tired. Sleeping enough lets us feel rested and energetic, which means that we can work efficiently without needing junk food to keep our energy levels up. Getting enough sleep also means that we are in a better mood; and are less inclined to make poor food choices to turn to comfort foods to feel good.

2) Eat regularly

Skipping meals depletes our energy levels; and thus makes us crave energy-rich fast food when we do eat. Eating breakfast allows us to start the day feeling full. Eating small varied meals regularly through the day can also reduce our dependence on comfort food by reassuring the body that it will be refuelled regularly with a variety of foods.

3) Drink water

Sometimes we reach for a snack when our body is actually asking for fluid. A good way to avoid unnecessary snacking is to have a drink of water before eating. Drinking water before a meal also helps us eat less fast food by making us feel satiated earlier.

4) De-stress

People tend to choose unhealthy snacks when they stress-eat, since these snacks help them feel good. One effective way to counter this need is to find alternate ways to feel less stressed. Possible options could be practicing yoga and / or meditation, listening to mood lifting music, and even talking to a friend. As soon as we start to feel less stressed, we are less likely to crave fast food to feel better.

5) Focus on your food

We reach for unhealthy foods more often when we are distracted. When we eat while working, while watching TV, or with company; we aren’t focused on the food, and we miss the visual and olfactory cues that make us feel satisfied. Instead, take a few minutes to pay attention to your meal can help to feel satisfied sooner, as well as to gain enjoyment from their food.

6) Reduce alcohol intake

Fatty foods seem to disappear when we are drinking. Most bar snacks tend to be fried, rich, and calorie dense; since these are tasty as well as comforting. Thus, people are more likely to choose sugar-rich or fat-rich foods while drinking alcohol. A good trick to avoid these cravings is to fill up with healthy food before drinking; and to drink water in between drinks. An added advantage to this is that you are less likely to be troubled by hangovers!

7) Plate out a serving

We live in a world where comfort foods are often found in large/multiple-serving packs. It’s easy to lose track of how much we have been eating and when to stop when we eat from the package (like ice-cream from the tub). Consciously plating a single serve allows us to enjoy our treat in moderation, since we are less likely to eat more than we should if we have to keep going and getting fresh servings.