Why is junk food more appealing than healthy food?

One of the hardest challenges faced by those trying to change their eating habits is the allure of junk food. Recent studies seem to agree with the idea that junk food is more appealing than healthier alternatives, but the question of why still remains.

Healthy Eating

Sonia Chartier

15 May 2019

Junk food found to be twice as distracting as healthy food

If you've ever attempted to reduce your intake of fatty or sugary foods, you've probably found it impossible to ignore cravings, with the mere sight of a slice of cake making you drool. But why does your body react to junk food this way? Is it simply due to past behaviour or a habit that needs to be broken?

The answer may be "yes," but this explanation certainly doesn't paint the full picture for you. Fortunately, research seems to back the idea that junk food is inherently more distracting than healthy food. A recent study conducted at Johns

Hopkins University found that, compared to healthy food, junk food was twice as distracting to participants.

One part of the study had participants using a computer to answer questions as quickly and accurately as possible. During the quiz, images would flash on the periphery of their computer screen, alternating between food products and other miscellaneous objects. Overall, the images of junk food slowed the subjects down twice as much as the images of healthier foods.

The study, though confirming the distracting powers of junk food, doesn't explain why junk food has this power over us. That answer may just lie with arguably the most important organ in your body, your brain.

How does junk food affect your brain?

Your brain is an incredibly complicated organ and even now, despite decades of extensive research and study, scientists are still only scratching the surface. However, the brain does play a role when it comes to fuelling junk food's appeal.

Your brain loves sugar
Sugar is more pervasive in your diet now than it ever was with your distant ancestors. In fact, only a couple of centuries ago sugar was a precious and rare commodity and if you wanted a sugar kick, you had to rely on nature's own source of sugar, fruit!

Back then, sugar was a vital source of energy that helped fuel your body. Sugar, or glucose, is absorbed into your bloodstream, helping to power your brain. According to research, the mere taste of sugar can give your brain a boost, the reason being that it prompts your body to release more serotonin, the happy hormone, into your bloodstream.

Arguably, sugar's mood-boosting quality creates another problem: it programs you to perceive sugar as a reward. The memory of not only how your food tastes, but also how you felt while eating it, becomes etched into your mind and the next time you see a piece of cake, you immediately associate it with an instant mood boost.
The other problem is that your body struggles to recognize when you've had enough sugar, making it far too easy to overindulge, especially if your body isn't responding as it should by stimulating feelings of fullness.

Your brain is also fond of fat

Your body needs fat to survive and your brain is no exception. In fact, it's perhaps the fattiest organ in your body! Fat is a key structural component of your brain—around 60% of your brain is estimated to be fat—so essential fatty acids like omega 3 and fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E, are pivotal for your survival, helping to maintain cell membranes and support the movement of neurotransmitters.

Fat can be stored and used as energy further down the line, so you may be drawn to fats as part of a more primordial reflex, just as you are with sugar. You can also build up a similar reward system with fat—just like sugar, it can trigger the release of "happiness hormones" like dopamine. Interestingly though, too much fat is thought to over-stimulate the brain, somewhat like alcohol!

However, if you try to eliminate fat from your diet completely, be prepared to experience some serious hunger pangs. Your body needs the right types of fats, such as omega fatty acids, and often when you experience a craving, it's your body crying out for these healthy sources. Unfortunately, instead of choosing good sources of omega fatty acids, such as oily fish, nuts or avocados, you may reach for a bag of chips instead!

And to compound things, researchers are now finding that the more fat you consume, the more your response to fat declines. In other words, you won't get the same mood boost you're used to and so you'll immediately want to eat more fat, creating a vicious cycle.

Junk food is more appealing by design

Your body craves fat and sugar naturally, recognizing them as vital energy sources. The problem is that many big junk food companies already know this and have invested millions in trying to make their products as appealing as possible, to both your eyes and your palate.

Serious time and effort goes into getting the right combination of flavours and textures to get trigger a positive response from your brain so that you'll want more. Foods that are "melt-in-your-mouth" good are actually the worst—soft chips, cotton candy, etc. Because they break down so quickly in your digestive tract, your brain gets tricked into believing that you haven't really eaten that much of them. The result is that you don't feel as full as you might normally, so you continue eating.
This type of trickery isn't unique to melt-in-your-mouth foods either. As I've mentioned, your body craves calories because it needs fuel. Most junk food is a combination of fats, sugars and proteins specifically engineered so your brain will immediately respond, wanting to utilize this food intake as a source of energy, which can delay feelings of satiety and promote overeating.

How do I stop eating junk food?

Now that you know that junk food is engineered to appeal to your body and that your body is naturally engineered to crave sugar and fat, you can be forgiven for believing it's a no-win situation. But there are ways you can combat your cravings and override your desire for junk food.
1 – Don't go to extremes
Here at A.Vogel, we're not big fans of radical fad diets that try to have you completely restrict your intake of certain food groups. If you're used to eating refined carbs and immediately decide to go on a Ketogenic diet, then you're going to run into problems and quite rightly, you'll find it hard to stick to your new eating routine.

Your body needs fats, carbohydrates and yes, even sugar, but problems often arise because we're not eating them in the right form. Therefore, making some simple changes rather than giant leaps can go a long way.
Instead of boycotting bread altogether, try switching to wholegrain bread—because it's not as processed, it still retains plenty of energy-boosting B vitamins and even some dietary fibre. If you do find yourself experiencing some sugar cravings in the afternoon, try reaching for some fruit first or even some organic cacao chocolate.
Cacao is arguably the purest form of chocolate, but unlike cocoa, it's raw and not as processed, so it still contains plenty of antioxidants and magnesium.

2 – Less is more
If you've ever checked a food product label at the supermarket only to find an incomprehensible string of ingredients, it might be worth putting it back on the shelf. The fewer ingredients your food contains, the better. This means it probably isn't as processed and won't contain the same unwanted chemical extras, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners and flavourings.
3 – Chew your food properly
It might sound like an obvious step but it's surprising how many of us aren't chewing our food properly, either due to eating on the go or having our evening meal in front of the TV. This can be a problem as chewing is a crucial step of the digestive process, helping to break your food down so it can be digested more easily. Chewing also promotes satiety, making it easier for you to recognize when you're full so you don't overeat.

4 – Taste the rainbow
As I've mentioned before, junk food is engineered to be appealing, usually coming in bright colours so as to appeal to our eyes as well as our stomachs. One 2012 study found that people generally prefer some colour on their plates, often combining three different food groups and three different colours in each of their meals.
That's why I'd recommend loading your plate with brightly coloured fruits and veggies. Not only are they nice to look at, but colourful fruits and vegetables are usually loaded with beta carotene and antioxidants!
5 – Get more involved with your food
The best thing you can do to change your eating habits is to get more involved with your food. It can be easy and convenient to fall back on TV dinners and quick fixes like supermarket sandwiches and chips, but ultimately it won't be doing any wonders for your health.
Cooking doesn't have to be complicated—nobody has the time to whip up a five-course meal or prepare an elaborate breakfast these days. Instead, take it at your own pace and experiment: not only will this give you a new skillset to explore, it will also instil a greater appreciation of food in general. Our website is full of great and simple recipes that are ideal for beginners, whether you're looking for a warm and comforting soup or an energy-boosting snack!