Why we crave unhealthy food

Eating can be one of the most joyful experiences; there’s no doubt about that. As humans we are one of the few species who eat for pleasure. When we are completely full, when we don’t need to add on another calorie – we continue to eat purely for fun; because we enjoy it so.  Even though we have just eaten two hearty courses, we will often reach for the dessert menu to complete the eating experience.

Eating for happiness

When we eat something that we enjoy, we feel good inside. We are embraced by happy feelings and we relish the experience.

These happy feelings come from a hormone in the brain known as dopamine. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter and is responsible for continually rewarding us with messages of happiness when we do something that we enjoy. Even if that thing is not very good for us such as eating unhealthy food.

When we do something good the brain remembers what we did that was good and dopamine assists the brain with storing the memory so when we do it again we will be rewarded with the same happy sensation; thus creating a behavioural response reward cycle.happiness

When a child exhibits a behaviour that deserves praise and that child receives the praise, dopamine will be released and they will remember the experience as a happy sensation. Often children are given sweets as a reward or as a way to chivvy them on or cheer them up.

Problems with over eating and also eating products that are particularly high in sugar or fat can spiral out of control when certain foods are used as a reward for behaviour. This can begin in childhood and follow us though into adulthood where we automatically reach for the unhealthier options when we’re feeling down or tired for a quick hit of happiness.  Once the brain has been wired to connect these foods with a particular mood or feeling, it’s harder to reverse.

child eating a doughnutWhy does over eating occur?

Dopamine is essential for development when we are learning what makes us happy and how to retain that happiness, but all too often foods that are high in fat and sugar that are given as treats can be detrimental for health and creating behavioural patterns that can cause addiction later on in life.

When we over eat; specifically those food that our brains recognise as ‘happy foods’ we are actually reversing the effects of dopamine levels. Releasing too much dopamine means the receptors in the brain start to numb to the sensation as it recognises it.  Therefore over eating occurs as a result of trying to reach the ‘satisfaction’ point that a high dose of dopamine gives as the brain becomes desensitized to dopamine.

Sugar savvy

This year it was revealed that sugar can be several times more addictive than certain drugs such as cocaine and is partly responsible for the massive increase in child obesity and type 2 diabetes in the UKwhite sugar

Food enthusiast and chef, Jamie Oliver has been working tirelessly to support the sugar tax campaign. High quantities of sugar have been found in many high street drinks and beverages from cans of fizzy drinks to the syrups in popular franchise coffee shops. Finally it seems we as a nation are slowly beginning to wake up to the notion that eating too much sugar –although rewarding us with happy feelings in the short term, is detrimental to our health over long periods.

The introduction of the sugar tax

George Osbourne has released details of the sugar tax which will be introduced soon. The tax is aimed specifically at sugary drinks.

The sugar tax has come at a critical time when child obesity and type 2 diabetes is on the rise. The tax has been welcomed by many supporters at a time when we need to take action. The tax will specifically affect those who consume drinks that are high in sugar on a daily basis as a way to deter them away from such regular consumption and to opt for less sugary drinks.

smoothiesLong term plan

Whilst the sugar tax may target those who are clinically obese and suffering with serious health issues, it may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to combatting the problem entirely. Education is the way to understanding our bodies and how we should treat them. The products are still available and if you are addicted to a substance you will probably pay the extra

By maintaining a balanced diet of carbohydrates through small amounts of bread, rice and grains and getting our essential vitamins and minerals from meats, fish, fruit and vegetables it is possible to still have room for some treats every now and again.

The brain is a very clever computer and if to date you have enjoyed perhaps too much of a certain food that you know is not making you any healthier then it is possible to stop and retrain your brain. You can get the same dopamine reward by eating foods that are better for you.

  • Eating a well-balanced healthy diet – with a little of what you fancy thrown in, is the best way to get your body to crave the things that are good for you.
  • Avoiding giving foods high in fat and sugar as rewards or distractions to children is a sure way to create a healthy pattern of behaviour which they will retain as they get older.
  • Removing processed foods that are high in fats and sugars from your house so they are not constantly available for grazing on is a good start. By not having these foods to hand to grab when you are feeling low or tired, or you feel you have done something to deserve eating it, means you won’t get the dopamine hit your body is used to. Just buy one or two treats a week.

Try these three things and you’re therefore on the way to re-training your brain.

Have a look at our recipe section today where we are building a good selection of healthy options for you to enjoy including sugar, dairy and gluten free recipes.


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