The multi billion dollar food industry is extremely competitive, and through decades of taste testing, food manufacturers have ascertained that specific combinations of sugar, fat, and salt cause consumers to crave these designed foods. Various combinations of sugar, fat, and salt are used in the deliberate designing of other addictive types of food and beverage products. These three ingredients are known as trigger substances meaning when all three are combined into a food type, they keep you coming back for more until your body becomes addicted to that food type. This addiction spikes when other laboratory manufactured flavour enhancers are added into the mix.
When we consume flavoursome food, there are two factors responsible for making the experience enjoyable. First of all there is the sensation of ingesting the product. This incorporates what it smells like, what it tastes like, and the texture, in other words how it feels in your mouth. The texture of food is actually of great importance, large food manufacturers spend millions of dollars to determine the perfect amount of bubble in a soda, or the most rewarding level of crunch in a potato chip. These food companies employ scientists to insure that these product features create the sensation that the consumers brain will associate with that particular food or beverage.
If you have ever tried to cut back on consuming fast food, you may have realised that it is easier said than done. We all tend to get craving from time to time and the brain begins calling for these food types. Although our rational conscious mind understands that these food types are unhealthy for us, we seem to convince ourselves that just this time won't hurt and we can always work it off later. Some individuals do not have this problem at all and can easily control their healthy lifestyle habits, while other individuals do not seem to have any control whatsoever. In spite of their best intentions, they frequently find themselves eating unhealthy food types, even when they have previously decided to avoid them.
While many individuals believe this is caused by a lack of willpower, the circumstances can be much more complex than we could ever imagine. The fact is fast food types actually stimulate the reward system of the brain in the same way as drugs of abuse like cocaine. For predisposed individuals, eating fast food can lead to a full scale addiction, which shares the same biological basis as someone addicted to drugs.
The brain is a very complex organ and one of the emotional behaviour processes is commonly referred to as the reward system. This system is intended to reward us for doing things that encourage our survival, and this incorporates primal behaviours like eating. The brain comprehends that when we eat we are performing an action to sustain life, and in turn releases a mass of feel good chemicals such as the neurotransmitter dopamine which is interpreted by our brain as pleasure, as a reward. The brain is hard wired to search for good behaviour that justifies the release of dopamine.
Depending on where you purchase your fast food, the calorie count in a regular fast food meal is going to be way too high, and the sugar, fat, and salt levels more than likely exceed what your body requires. The problem with consuming these fast foods is that they cause a release of pleasure chemicals from the brain far more powerful than anything we have ever experienced from nature. Consuming an apple or a piece of steak may cause a modest release of dopamine, but consuming a fast food burger with fries and an ice cream is so unbelievably rewarding that it justifies a massive release. This behaviour then leads to tolerance and withdrawal which are the rudiments of physical addiction.
When individuals repeat a behaviour that causes massive releases of dopamine, the dopamine receptors usually begin to down regulate, meaning that the brain recognises that the release of dopamine is too high and starts to switch off some of the dopamine receptors in an attempt to keep the balance. Having fewer dopamine receptors causes the feeling of dissatisfaction hence the term tolerance. When you have fewer functioning receptors, you need to encourage more dopamine release to reach the same effect, which in turn causes individuals to consume more fast food to reach the same level of reward as before. With minimal dopamine activity the individual begins to feel concerned if they do not receive their usual fast food fix hence the term withdrawal. This of course is a generalisation of the processes involved but does effectively explain how fast food addiction occurs and how it leads to various habitual effects on behaviour and thought patterns.
The urge or craving is an emotional response relating to a desire to consume a certain food type, and individuals should not be fooled into thinking they are hungry, hunger is the natural response to the body requiring certain nutrients to function efficiently. Urges or cravings seem to appear from nowhere while participating in our normal daily activities, all of a sudden the appeal of chips, biscuits, cake, hotdogs, burgers, fries, or ice cream come to mind. Although urges or cravings appear to come from nowhere, they can also be triggered by visual displays such as commercials or the sense of smell such as walking past a takeaway or restaurant. Certain emotional states such as feeling neglected, lonely, or depressed can also trigger urges or cravings.
Remember, a true urge or craving is only about satisfying the perception of requiring dopamine, and has nothing to do with the body's requirement for the intake of nourishment. Once an urge or craving occurs it seems to dominate your attention to the extent where it is difficult to think of anything else, and even has you wondering why on earth you ever made the decision to avoid the fast foods. These urges or cravings can be so controlling that they cause the individual to break rules they had set for themselves and persistently overeat despite knowing that this unhealthy diet is causing them physical harm and drastically reducing longevity. If you find yourself repeatedly giving in to these urges or cravings despite having previously made the resolution not to, then you could safely deduce that you have a fast food addiction.
The more often you repeat this cycle of satisfying your urges or craving to receive the reward of dopamine, the stronger the hold it has over you. Not to mention the increased calorie intake, as each time you binge it takes more and more food to receive a satisfactory level dopamine. Two years ago one scoop of ice cream after a healthy meal was probably enough to satisfy, today you may find that you consume four scoops to equal the same satisfaction. For an individual suffering a fast food addiction it is almost impossible to eat in moderation. To tell yourself that you will only have a small piece of cake, or go back to just one scoop of ice cream after the evening meal would be the same as saying to a smoker to only smoke half a cigarette each time to cut back.
Over a period of time, fast food addiction will cause severe psychological and physical problems. Many individuals who have been struggling with fast food addiction for awhile often hide their consumption from others, this in turn may lead to anxiety and depression, and severely damaged self esteem. This is then exacerbated by the fact that most other individuals are not even aware that they are suffering an addiction to fast food and suggest that they are weak and lack willpower.
Unfortunately there are no easy methods for rectifying a fast food addiction. There are community health services such as Overeaters Anonymous available for individuals wanting to address their concerns with overeating or their Binge Eating Disorder. Other individuals should pay close attention to their diets and be aware that large food companies do not always consider your health to be in their best interests. In the interest of trying to spread awareness and provide assistance to individuals already struggling with healthy eating, the sidebar will contain healthy snack alternatives so as to not trigger unhealthy responses. It is worth noting that healthy snack foods such as vegetable sticks with hummus, and yoghurt with mixed berries have proven successful for some individuals to curb unhealthy food cravings.