If you’ve ever tried to cut back on junk food, you may have realized that it’s easier said than done.
People tend to get cravings when the brain starts calling for these foods.
Even though people’s rational, conscious mind “knows” that they are unhealthy, some other part of the brain seems to disagree.
Some people don’t have this problem and can easily control the types of foods they eat, while others don’t seem to have any control whatsoever.
If you are one of these people, despite your best intentions, you may repeatedly find yourself eating unhealthy foods, even when you have previously decided not to eat them.
Though you might think this is caused by a lack of willpower, the situation can be much more complicated than that.
The fact is junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way as abusive drugs like cocaine.
For susceptible people, eating junk foods can lead to full-blown addiction, which shares the same biological basis as addiction to abusive drugs (1).
There is a system in your brain called the reward system.
This system was designed to “reward” you when doing things that encourage your survival. This includes primal behaviors like eating (2).
The brain knows that when you eat, you’re doing something “right,” and it releases a bunch of feel-good chemicals in the reward system.
These chemicals include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which your brain interprets as pleasure. The brain is hardwired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in the reward system.
The problem with modern junk foods is that they can cause a reward that is way more powerful than anything you can get from whole foods (3).
Whereas eating an apple or piece of steak might cause a moderate release of dopamine, eating a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is so incredibly rewarding that it releases a massive amount.
SUMMARY: Eating junk food causes a release of dopamine in the brain. This reward encourages susceptible individuals to eat more unhealthy foods.