Study after study shows how bad processed foods are for our health; they are linked to cancer, heart disease, even Alzheimer’s, and yet, they are still wildly popular.
In fact, consumption of ultra-processed foods increased over the past two decades across nearly all of the U.S. population, according to researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health.
“Plain and simple, we’re addicted to processed foods, which are intentionally manufactured to stimulate the brain just like drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes do,” says Joan Ifland, PhD, MBA, FACN, and a leading food addiction specialist and nutrition counselor,.
Here, Ifland discusses how our brains get addicted to processed foods, and why that plays a major role in our inability to control our food choices.
Since Big Tobacco moved into Big Food in the 1980s, the industry has strategically created an environment to provoke craving and promote processed food addiction. From the signage you see along the road to the advertisements popping up on social media, the commercials in magazines and on television, and the layout of your local grocery store—marketing tactics are engineered to provoke cravings.
Becoming Too Hungry
When we’re hungry and processed foods are available, the brain shuts down our braking system, removing any restraint. It moves our hand out to pick up food and puts it in our mouth without our agreement.
Body triggers include feelings of shame and anxiety about body image, as well as dealing with the consequences that processed food has on the body. Aches, pain, and illness lead to distress, which actually triggers cravings. Focusing on managing cravings rather than focusing on weight management is a key shift for a healthy mindset. Developing kind, compassionate, and patient self-talk is a powerful recovery skill.
The most common cause of processed food binge eating is stress. Research shows throughout many years of struggle with food, we start to merge thoughts about food with feelings of stress. Just the thought of trying to sort out and control our cravings are stressful, leading to further binging. Over time, stress and cravings become synonymous.
Research shows loneliness leads to cravings and overeating. Spending time in a supportive, kind community of like-minded people who understand the challenges of living with processed food addiction can help to reduce feelings of loneliness.
We can always read a book, go for a walk, or complete projects around the house, so there’s really never any reason to be bored. However,processed foods can make us tired and feel depressed. This combination creates the perfect storm to have cravings and be unable to do anything else but binge. We are literally unable to think of anything else to do.
“These addicted brain cells can be retrained if we become aware of, face, and then process our emotional triggers,” says Ifland. “Understanding what’s happening in the brain, developing skills to manage environmental triggers, and using a gentle, kind approach are key to regaining control and living our healthiest life.”