What Happens to Your Brain When You Eat Junk Food (And Why We Crave It)
Most of us know that junk food is unhealthy. We know that poor nutrition is related to heart problems, high blood pressure, and a host of other health ailments. You might even know that studies show that eating junk food has been linked to increases in depression.
But if it’s so bad for us, why do we keep doing it?
There is an answer. And the science behind it will surprise you.
Why We Crave Junk Food
Steven Witherly is a food scientist who has spent the last 20 years studying what makes certain foods more addictive (and tasty) than others. Much of the science that follows is from his excellent report, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.”
According to Witherly, when you eat tasty food, there are two factors that make the experience pleasurable.
First, there is the sensation of eating the food. This includes what it tastes like (salty, sweet, umami, etc.), what it smells like, and how it feels in your mouth. This last quality — known as “orosensation” — can be particularly important. Food companies will spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip. Their scientists will test for the perfect amount of fizzle in a soda. These factors all combine to create the sensation that your brain associates with a particular food or drink.
The second factor is the actual macronutrient makeup of the food — the blend of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains. In the case of junk food, food manufacturers are looking for a perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that excites your brain and gets you coming back for more.
Here’s how they do it…
How Science Creates Cravings
There are a range of factors that scientists and food manufacturers use to make food more addictive.
Dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast refers to a combination of different sensations in the same food. In the words of Witherly, foods with dynamic contrast have:
… an edible shell that goes crunch followed by something soft or creamy and full of taste-active compounds. This rule applies to a variety of our favorite food structures — the caramelized top of a creme brulee, a slice of pizza, or an Oreo cookie — the brain finds crunching through something like this very novel and thrilling.
Salivary response. Salivation is part of the experience of eating food, and the more that a food causes you to salivate, the more it will swim throughout your mouth and cover your taste buds. For example, emulsified foods like butter, chocolate, salad dressing, ice cream, and mayonnaise promote a salivary response that helps to lather your taste buds with goodness. This is one reason why many people enjoy foods that have sauces or glazes on them. The result is that foods that promote salivation do a happy little tap dance on your brain and taste better than ones that don’t.
Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories.
The result: You tend to overeat.
In his best-selling book Salt Sugar Fat, author Michael Moss describes a conversation with Witherly that explains vanishing caloric density perfectly…
I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever.”
Sensory specific response. Your brain likes variety. When it comes to food, if you experience the same taste over and over again, then you start to get less pleasure from it. In other words, the sensitivity of that specific sensor will decrease over time. This can happen in just minutes.
Junk foods, however, are designed to avoid this sensory specific response. They provide enough taste to be interesting (your brain doesn’t get tired of eating them), but it’s not so stimulating that your sensory response is dulled. This is why you can swallow an entire bag of potato chips and still be ready to eat another. To your brain, the crunch and sensation of eating Doritos is novel and interesting every time.