Americans’ reliance on processed foods and snacks is undoubtedly one of the primary factors driving our skyrocketing obesity and disease rates. Even many people who “know better” have trouble keeping their hands out of the Doritos.
The truth is, processed foods contain carefully orchestrated flavors and other sensory factors designed to be as addictive as possible. This is in stark contrast to whole foods, the taste and consistency of which was created by nature and therefore work with your body to satiate hunger and nutritional cravings.
As discussed in a previous article, junk food manufacturers have taken flavor science to extraordinary levels, and the artificial ingredients used to produce that sought after “bliss point” can seriously confuse and befuddle your body’s metabolism.
For example, the sweetness from non-caloric artificial sweeteners tends to disrupt your metabolic response to real sugar, thereby exacerbating obesity and diabetes. Your body simply isn’t fooled by sweet taste without calories, so it keeps signaling your brain to keep eating, as the point of satisfaction has not yet been reached.
Fortunately, there are solutions to unhealthy junk food cravings. One of the most effective strategies I know of is intermittent fasting, along with particular diet modifications that effectively helps reset your body’s metabolism.
Another helpful technique, which addresses the emotional component of food cravings, is the Emotional Freedom Technique, demonstrated in a video below.
What Makes Processed Foods and Snacks Addictive?
Before we jump into the solutions, let’s take a quick look at what’s causing junk food cravings in the first place. You probably know that refined sugar is more addictive than cocaine, but sugar is not the sole culprit causing food addiction.
Another part stems from the way food manufacturers combine various flavors and textures to produce truly addictive products. This science is used not just for chips, cookies, and sodas, but for ALL processed foods, from condiments to pasta sauce.
Food scientist Steven Witherly has studied taste and addictive flavors for the last two decades. In his report: “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” he reveals what it is about a wide range of specific foods that stir our senses and taste buds. For example, the reason people love corn chips is because of the following combination of factors:
- Corn chips contain lots of “taste-active solutes,” including salt, sugar, MSG, and others
- Seasonings create a high salivation response
- The chips melt quickly in your mouth, enhancing “dynamic contrast and evoked quality”—two parameters that contribute to pleasurable sensations
- Corn chips are calorie dense
- Cheese proteins create pleasurable—and addictive—casomorphines5 when digested
Other Tricks of the Junk Food Trade
Two primary factors make the experience of eating food pleasurable. The first factor involves taste, and how the food feels in your mouth. The second factor is the actual macronutrient content of the food.
As previously described by investigative reporter Michael Moss, author of the book Salt Sugar Fat, food manufacturers go to great lengths to find the perfect blend of salt, sugar, fat, and additional flavorings to excite your brain’s reward center, thereby assuring you’ll be back for more. In addition to those basics, the food industry also employs other strategies to increase their products’ addictive nature. This includes:
- Dynamic contrast. This is when a combination of contrasting sensations produces pleasurable sensations, such as biting through a crunchy chocolate shell, followed by a soft, creamy center filling
- Salivation response, which boosts taste and feelings of pleasure. Examples of foods and/or ingredients that promote salivation include butter, chocolate, ice cream, and mayonnaise
- Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. As noted in the featured Lifehacker6 article, foods that quickly melt in your mouth trick your brain into thinking you’re not eating as much food as you really are, despite the fact you’re stuffing in plenty of calories. A prime example of a snack food that has perfected this is Cheetos
- Sensory specific response. Repetitive flavors, or flavor overload, tend to lead to decreased sensations of pleasure. In short, you “get tired” of eating the same flavor again and again. Your palate can even tire of a flavor within minutes.
Processed food manufacturers circumvent this by creating more complex flavor and sensory profiles. The greatest successes, whether beverages or foods, owe their “craveability” to formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain’s inclination to say “enough”
- Calorie density. As noted in the featured article:7 “Junk foods are designed to convince your brain that it is getting nutrition, but to not fill you up.” This is accomplished by combining the ideal ratio of calories to prevent satiety signals to go off
So how can you get yourself out of the trap set up by junk food manufacturers? First of all, as with any other addiction program, the less of it you eat, the less you’ll crave it as your body gets “weaned” from all these addictive hooks. Boosting your nutrition is a key factor here. If your body is getting all the nutrients it needs, it will send the appropriate signals to your brain to stop eating when your body’s nutritional requirements have been met.
Intermittent Fasting—One of the Best Ways to Eliminate Sugar Cravings
One of the most effective ways I know of to eliminate sugar cravings and shed unwanted weight is intermittent fasting, as this will help reset your body to burning fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel. When sugar is not needed for your primary fuel and when your sugar stores run low, your body will crave it less.
There are many different variations of intermittent fasting. If you are like 85 percent of the population and have insulin resistance, my personal recommendation is to fast every day by simply scheduling my eating into a narrower window of approximately six to eight hours every day. I find this method to be easier than fasting for a full 24 hours or more, twice a week.
Once you are at your ideal body weight, and do not have diabetes, high blood pressure, or abnormal cholesterol levels, you can be less rigid with your fasting. However, it is probably best to resume some type of scheduled eating regimen once in a while, to make sure you don’t slip back into old habits.
To understand how you can fast daily while still eating every day, you need to understand some basic facts about your metabolism. It takes most people eight to 12 hours for their body to burn the sugar stored in your body as glycogen found primarily in your liver and your muscles. Most people never deplete their glycogen stores because they eat three or more meals throughout the day and are in constant “feast” mode. This teaches your body to burn sugar as your primary fuel and effectively shuts off your ability to use fat as a fuel.
Therefore, in order to work, the length of your fast must be at least eight hours. For example, you could restrict your eating to the hours of 11am and 7pm. Essentially, you’re just skipping breakfast and making lunch your first meal of the day instead. This equates to a daily fasting of 16 hours—twice the minimum required to deplete your glycogen stores and start shifting into fat burning mode.
Keep in mind that while most people will successfully switch over to burning fat after several weeks of intermittent fasting, you may need several months to teach your body to turn on the fat-burning enzymes that allow your body to effectively use fat as its primary fuel. So don’t give up!
Again, once you’ve become fat adapted and are of a normal weight, without high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, you only need to do scheduled eating occasionally. As long as you maintain your ideal body weight, you can go back to eating three meals a day if you want to. I restricted my eating to a six- to seven-hour window each day until I got fat adapted and lost about 10 pounds. Now, I still rarely ever eat breakfast, but several days a week I will have two meals instead of just one.