We’ve all heard that junk food- and especially sugar- are addictive. To some extent that is true, but it’s true because we made it true! We’ve gotten accustomed to eating sugary junk food so that’s what our palates and subconscious have come to expect. We are all familiar with Pavlov’s dog, only in our case we are the dog and sugar is the bell!
Anyone who has tried to make a New Year’s Resolution or build a new habit knows that it all comes down to repetition. You do it over and over and over again until it becomes lodged in our brains and we can do it without effort or even thinking about it. It happened to me yesterday: I was leaving the office and as I got in my car, I reminded myself I had to pick up my dry cleaning and it had to be picked up that day. I put the claim ticket on my console, pulled out of the parking lot and got in the wrong lane out of habit! The dry cleaning was on the north and home was on the south so of course, like I do 95% of the time, I got in the south bound lane, after telling myself not to do it! What can I say? Habit won!
This same kind of repetition is how we end up craving sugar and junk food: we eat it over and over again! We aren’t born addicted to Hostess cupcakes and Lays potato chips, but because they end up in our mouths so often, we start to expect and then crave them. We don’t even taste them anymore: it’s just the sugar and carbs we are expecting! Compared to sugar-rich snacks, foods like broccoli and spinach seem to come up short, but the same principles apply: if you eat them enough, eventually your palate and your subconscious will start to expect them!
It seems silly but it’s true. A couple of years ago, I was out with friends celebrating a birthday and the guest of honor had chosen a pizza place. There were lots of appetizers on the table like fried cheese and beer battered shrimp. I had chosen an antipasto salad for my entree and after politely declining all the appetizers, when my entree arrived, I actually said “yay, salad!” out loud and I meant it when I said it. It still surprises me, because while I don’t hate veggies or salad, I didn’t realize until I saw it how much I was looking forward to the salad! I’d taught myself that salad was delicious.
Something similar happened just last week at the grocery store: I wanted Brussels sprouts for dinner. I had salad greens in the fridge but on the way home, I started wanting (dare I say “craving”?) Brussels sprouts and I was so disappointed that the store was out of the fresh ones that I like! When I was a kid, you’d have to pay me to eat them, and now I was craving the dang things!
It’s all about repetition: we want the foods we are used to eating. Our brains and our palates expect them on a regular basis. Dinner for me is usually salad, veggies or both along with some kind of meat: chicken, beef, lamb or pork. When I get hungry, this is what my palate and my brain start looking for! Without thinking about it, I end up in the produce section of the stores looking at the lettuces: “baby spinach mix? butter lettuce?” Some times I mix it up with other produce like tomatoes, mushrooms, etc., but dinner for me usually begins with a big pile of green leaves!
Compared to what I used to eat regularly, salad can seem pretty blah. This is one of the biggest complaints when it comes to eating whole natural foods: “they don’t taste great.” Actually, it’s not that baby spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts don’t taste good: it’s that you aren’t used to eating them! Once you get used to eating whole foods, you develop a taste for them the way you developed a taste for those boxes of cupcakes and bags of potato chips.
Example: remember the first time you tasted beer? I am pretty sure you made a face! That first sip of beer is universally awful but as an adult, you certainly don’t think it tastes horrible. You probably have your favorite brands and brews, but that first time? Ugh! So how did you get used to the taste of beer? By drinking it over and over, of course! (In high school, one of my sister’s friends got busted by her dad when he let her taste his beer and the fact that she didn’t make that face told him this wasn’t her first beer!)
The same thing happens in reverse: when you stop eating the junk food and sugar, it stops tasting good. You lose your taste for them. I used to eat a lot of fast food on a regular basis. I was seriously on a first name basis with the Jack in the Box drive-thru guy (his name was Dennis.) Once I stopped eating it for a few months, I decided to ‘treat’ myself to the same dinner I’d had several times a week for months. Same meal; same drive-thru, but what a difference! It certainly didn’t taste delicious and in truth it just tasted really weird to me! It wasn’t the food that changed: it was me!
It wasn’t just my palate that changed either. Not only did the fast food not taste good to me: it made me feel bad. It’s cliche to say ‘you are what you eat,’ but we all know how true that is. Changing what I ate not only changed my taste buds: it changed how I felt and how I looked. Not only did I lose 40 lbs by just giving up junk food, my skin looked better and I felt a whole lot better, emotionally and physically. It was a combination of not eating junk and eating more nutritious whole foods instead. Why eat the weird fast food that makes me feel like a blob when I can eat the fresh vegetables that make me feel good?
It is a lot like Pavlov’s dog: a learned response to stimulus. The sound of the bell is the sound of a treat! If we rang the bell and gave the dog something that tastes bad each time, he’s not going care how often you ring that bell! What you’ve got, he doesn’t want! Does all that junk food really taste good? Or are we just used to eating it?