Cravings for junk food are a common reason that people fall off the wagon with their healthy eating plans.
And while many on restrictive diets will cut out obviously high calorie foods, it’s often foods that are marketed as healthy – such as cereal bars and soups – that lead to theses cravings, a nutritionist has claimed.
Speaking to FEMAIL, Tamara Willner, a nutritionist at British weight loss company Second Nature said that a ‘bliss point’ ratio of sugar, salt and fat in foods can override a brain’s natural trigger to make us stop eating.
Foods that are considered healthy – such as soup and cereal bars (pictured, stock images) – can trigger a ‘bliss point’ in the brain which overrides the natural trigger to stop us eating
She said: ‘We often beat ourselves up for giving in to our junk food cravings, but it’s no accident that these foods are so hard to resist.
‘The food industry engineers foods to taste the best they possibly can with the goal of overriding our internal ‘stop’ signals and encouraging us to buy and eat more.
‘Next time you pick up a jar of tomato sauce, a can of soup, or some white sliced bread at the supermarket, stop to take a look at the ingredients and check how much sugar and salt are hidden inside.
‘Surprisingly, many of these products can contain that longed-for trio of salt, sugar, and fat that keeps us coming back for more and promote cravings for junk food.’
Which foods can increase junk cravings?
The more obvious…
● Ice cream
… and the less obvious
● Cereal bars
Salad dressing, often seen as a healthy extra on a nutritious salad, often has a ‘bliss point’
Tamara explained that our taste buds are usually wired to realise when we’ve eaten too much of one thing, but the ‘bliss point’ ratio of sugar, salt and fat overrides this.
‘As we consume more of a particular flavour, our taste buds slowly get more and more tired of it, and we stop eating it,’ she said.
‘When presented with a new flavour, we get more reward from it, and so we continue eating.
‘We can see this concept in action at an all-you-eat buffet; we’re likely to eat more because there’s a variety of flavours to keep our taste buds interested.
‘However, our taste system can be tricked when salt, fat, and sugar are carefully combined in expertly measured amounts to be ‘just right’.
Top 5 tips to reduce junk food cravings (and here’s why you can’t stop eating junk food explained:
Tamara also revealed how to reduce junk food cravings.
1. Eat mindfully
When you really want some junk food, have it, enjoy it and eat it mindfully. Removing distractions (e.g. mobiles, tv), eating slowly, and engaging all of your senses is the best way to do so.
2. Be prepared
Write down a plan to prevent certain scenarios from happening. For example, ‘If I’m bored at home and crave chocolate, then I’ll listen to a podcast, so my mind has something else to focus on.’
3. Build balanced meals
Building balanced meals can help us feel satisfied and reduce the risk of junk food cravings in between meals.
Opt for fresh vegetables, (e.g. spinach and peppers), minimally-processed meat, fish, or vegetarian alternatives (e.g. chicken, salmon, tofu), and wholegrain carb options (e.g. brown rice or rye bread).
4. Be aware of bliss-point foods
Try to be aware of unexpected foods that we use every day (e.g. tomato sauce) which has also been engineered to have a bliss-point.
Try experimenting with making your food to replace shop-bought ones with added sugars and salts.
The more sleep-deprived we are, the more hungry we feel and the more we crave energy-dense, sugar, and fat-filled foods as opposed to healthy snacks.
Getting 8-9 hours of sleep, compared to 6-7 hours, can massively reduce the risk of junk food cravings.
Tamara added that our brain remembers what actions make us feel good, such as eating foods that hit the ‘bliss point’, like chocolate or cakes and bread.
‘At this point, we keep coming back for more, even when our bodies are trying to tell us to stop, because we keep experiencing pleasure.’
She continued: ‘This point is called the ‘bliss point’ – the exact measures of fat, sugar, and salt that overrides the brain’s natural ‘stop’ signals and makes us crave that pleasure.
What is the bliss point?
Our bodies respond to foods that hit the bliss point by triggering reward pathways in our brain and encouraging dopamine signalling.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the brain that is involved with feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and pleasure.
Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher is known for creating addictive flavour combinations that fly off the shelves.
Research shows when rats eat sugars and fats separately, their brains send them messages to stop when they’re full.
However, when they’re combined in a deliciously decadent duo, their pleasure receptors went into overdrive, overpowering that internal stop switch. On top of this, the more bliss-point foods the rats consumed, the more they had to eat to get that same pleasure hit next time.
Sugar encourages the same addictive behaviour as some drugs, overriding our ability to realise when we’re full. So it’s no wonder that only eating one biscuit is challenging when sugar is combined with salt and fat to reach the bliss point.
‘Even in the most strong-willed individuals, these cravings can seem impossible to resist.’
Tamara added that our brain remembers what actions make us feel good, such as eating foods that hit the ‘bliss point’, like chocolate or cakes.
‘When we feel bad for whatever reason, our brain says “eating chocolate might help” and we’re driven to eat chocolate again.
‘After we repeat this process enough, it becomes an automatic habit’ she added.
‘That means that the smallest emotional trigger can almost subconsciously drive us to crave particular junk foods.
Food can also bring pleasure in other ways; for example, by producing feelings of nostalgia or enjoying food socially with family and friends.
‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with linking emotion to food, but there’s a difference between enjoying food and building unhealthy habits by overeating foods that hit our bliss point’, Tamara said.
Tamara also explained how we all have different triggers that prompt us to turn to junk food.
‘Given the current environment with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are likely to be experiencing heightened emotions of stress or anxiety.
‘This can mean we’re more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort. This is why it’s so important to think about how and why we eat, rather than just what we eat’ Tamara said.
Tamara suggests getting enough sleep, and opting for fresh vegetables, (e.g. spinach and peppers), minimally-processed meat, fish, or vegetarian alternatives (e.g. chicken, salmon, tofu), and wholegrain carb options (e.g. brown rice or rye bread) to counteract this.
Dips sold in supermarkets are often sold as healthy but can contain the bliss point ratio, Tamara added
Sauces, such as jarred tomato sauce (stock image) can trigger the addictive bliss point too