Now, I'm not talking here about things like the difference between good and bad fats, or whether fat or carbs are worse for you, or the mountains of conflicting and confusing information about nutrition that are thrown at us every day. Today I'm not talking about any of those seemingly complex issues (although you can find many enlightening posts on those topics on this blog - just click the "Food & Nutrition" category).
Today, I'm talking about the highly processed and nutritionally unhealthy foods that the majority of Americans already know as "junk food," and guiltily eat anyway - many of us almost daily. (And with all my passion for health, you may be surprised to learn that....I'm not immune to junk food cravings! More on that later....)
So why do we eat them? If we know they're unhealthy, we know they're bad for our bodies, we know they make us fat, what keeps us returning to the bag of chips over and over? Why do we continue to scarf down a half package of Oreos at a time, when we know it can only have negative consequences? Are junk foods really addictive? Do food processing companies add some secret substance that makes us unable to control our urges to eat more and more of them, despite knowing they are bad for us? And beyond that, is there anything we can do about it?
This week and next, I will unpack answers to all of these questions and more.
What tastes do we crave? That's easy to answer - and there are biological reasons to blame for all 3 of them. We all crave, to some degree or another, fat, sugar, and salt.
Here's Why You Love Fat:
Fat is an awesome - probably the best - source of clean-burning, quickly available, and long-lasting energy. But the fat that is stored in your body takes longer to access, and is more designed for long-term survival, so fat in your diet is going to be the best way to get that immediate energy that you need. We therefore, were designed with taste buds that recognize the taste of fat, and essentially tell your brain - which tells your body - this stuff is GOOD! Eat more of it!
Now fat itself is definitely not a bad thing. In fact, you would die without fat. Most of your cell walls, as well as much of your brain, some of your bone marrow, membranes, and more, are made of fat. Fat does, however, contain a lot of calories - which is why it's a great source of energy. And if you consume fat and don't somehow expend that energy (burn the calories), your body will end up storing some of it for future use - which obviously many of us in today's modern world full of cheap, readily available food never end up using.
But our biology still tells us to eat fat whenever we can find it, so we do - and we often find it in not-so-healthy processed convenience foods and fast foods.
Unfortunately, during the low-fat craze over the past 30 years or so, many food processing companies have switched their ingredients, replacing originally unharmful (if calorie-rich) natural fats with processed unnatural fats (e.g. hydrogenated vegetable oils, etc.), much to the detriment of your health. Ultimately, they do what they can to keep their junk foods tasting like the fat you so crave - even if it only contains a poor substitute.
And low-fat versions of processed food also usually contain more of another substance that you love - and one which is far more detrimental to your health - and your waistline - than ANY natural fat ever could be - sugar.
Just like with fat, there's a reason why you love the sweet taste of sugar! It's actually pretty straight-forward if you think about it.
What types of food are naturally sweet?
Ripe, fresh, nutritionally-rich fruits and vegetables.
Anyone knows that a fruit that isn't ripe isn't as sweet or appealing as one that is fully ripe - especially when freshly picked that way. This is also when the nutritional content of a fruit or vegetable is at its peak. That's the way God made it - we are designed to want to eat food that is good for us - actually at just the very point when it is best for us!
Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that keep our bodies young and healthy - but when they are ripe, they contain the most nutritional value of all - and that's also when they taste the best. A food that tastes sweet is a food that our bodies recognize as "ripe," and good for us - even though, in today's highly over-sugared post-industrial world, this really isn't the case at all anymore.
Sugar also contains calories, and provides a quick burst of energy. These types of calories are easily stored as fat too, so again, if you eat a lot of sugar (which the vast majority of Americans do), and don't use all of the calories, they go directly to your hips (or waist, belly, or wherever it is you tend to store fat). (Not to mention the drastically damaging effect all of this sugar has on your endocrine and immune systems - but we'll save that topic for a future post.) Your body also creates sugar from starches - so if you eat refined starches such as white flour, they have basically the same effect on your body as sugar does.
There are many forms of sugar included in most processed foods, and some of them are more detrimental to your health than others. HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) for example, is said to be one of the worst for disrupting your metabolism, and packing on the pounds. And just like with fat substitutes, artificial substitutes for sugar can actually end up being even MORE detrimental to your health than actual sugar - so they are not the solution.
Unlike the other two substances we love, sugar is one that actually, from what I have read and experienced, may truly be addictive. However, it is an addiction that is not too hard to break. I have done so many times before, and I will tell you how in Part 2, as well as discussing the final junk food ingredient that we just can't stay away from - and this one is my own personal weakness....
So be sure to check back next week for the conclusion and find why you love salt - as well as what you can do to cut out the junk, and eat and be healthier - all while still enjoying the delicious foods that you were meant to eat! Better yet - subscribe to our weekly newsletter and make sure you don't miss anything!
To your good health,