When given the choice between a healthy option and fast food, most of us are met with a dilemma.
We want to eat healthily, granted, but something tells us that the greasy steak and fries is somehow the more appealing, if naughtier, option.
Why should this be? What triggers this preference in the brain?
Even if we then choose the healthy option, we have still been programmed to believe that the more processed, fatty foods are the height of eating pleasure;
We’re more likely to tell ourselves “Oh I really shouldn’t eat that!” than actually feel that we have no desire to eat it.
Which brings us to the first reason that unhealthy food is so difficult to resist:
On a number of levels, society teaches us that junk food is bad and that we shouldn’t eat it, while simultaneously promoting the idea of having ‘just a cheeky taste’ or ‘being naughty’ (refer to chocolate adverts that have the pretext that you ‘just can’t resist’).
We are made to crave these processed foods, feeling that it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’ we can afford to indulge in. Even in movies, characters binge on ice cream and regret it, or they glorify a character who orders fried chicken wings over someone who orders a salad, as if the former has more integrity and honesty about them.
On top of that, we find dangerous things appealing, including unhealthy foods. A study by the Italian school ISAS found a correlation between negative attitudes towards food and attraction to that same food. Deep down, without taking taste into account, we feel that fast food is cool and irresistible.
So why do we call it ‘indulging’ anyway? Why is it that we can enjoy the taste so much, even knowing that it’s junk?
It’s no secret that fast foods contain excessive levels of sugar, salt and carbs. Unlike proteins and nutrients that continue to feed and nourish you throughout the day, these ingredients give you an instant high. Even things like burger bread contain heightened amounts of sugar which gives you a rush and, of course, appeases the simplest and most accessible desires of the ‘sweet tooth’.
The important thing to remember is that craving food is not hunger. The aforementioned ‘high’ creates something like addiction since it releases the happy hormones in the brain making you want more.
There is, in principle, a good reason that your body initially responds to high calorie foods; your natural survival instinct, in the past, depended on it. When given the option to eat more carbohydrates, nature dictates that you stock up in case you need the energy for ‘fight or flight’. This instinct is particularly strong if you are stressed, producing low levels of adrenaline in the body and convincing you to prepare for the worst.
This all amounts to a strong association between pleasure and unhealthy food.
On the whole, healthy stews and salads just don’t have the same visual appeal as a shiny, stacked burger or a steaming plate of cheese laden pizza. The reality is that both have merits when it comes to taste, but in this day and age where photography is a part of dinner time and the internet teaches us to drool over the photogenic, flavour or nutritional value is not the focus.
Additives, preservatives, glossy sheens, food colouring; the very ingredients that make your food unhealthy are the ones that attract you to it.
The internet’s obsession with bacon is a good example of how we can be so bombarded with flattering images of something that we are left with a sensation of craving, stacked on top of the previous points about fashion and addiction.
We are so hard-wired to enjoy unhealthy food that the best solution we’ve found is to trick ourselves by eating imitations of it: vegan burgers, cauliflower pizza bases, cacao brownies… the list goes on.
And the truth is that there’s no reason to feel guilty about eating junk food if you do it occasionally. Everything with food is about balance and moderation so it’s time for us to look for the attractiveness in wholesome, nutritious dishes and snacks. Recognising the joy of healthy eating is the first step!