Like Gateway Drugs, Certain Foods Can Lead to Bad Eating Habits

Some people find that once they eat certain foods, they can’t stop. Dr. Gary Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food, explains this phenomenon by noting that some foods are similar to gateway drugs in that they have an addictive effect on a person’s mind and body, causing one to crave these foods.

The reason for this is because eating certain foods trigger the reward portion of the brain – the nucleus accumbens – the same area that responds to alcohol and drugs. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated, dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical, is released, causing a person to become more aware of the food. In addition, eating requires that a person use all of his/her senses. This in turn causes the nervous system to secrete insulin, which causes a drop in a person’s blood glucose and relaxes one’s stomach muscles, fooling the brain into thinking that one needs to eat more to be satiated.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford University, notes that only foods rich in fat or sugar have this effect on the body. This is because saturated fat impairs the brain’s ability to regulate and control appetite and cravings. In addition, a single act of eating fatty or sugary foods can lead to three days of cravings, the average length of time it takes the body to expel the fat from one’s system. As if that were not enough, sugar increases the body’s level of the hormone ghrelin, which is known to activate one’s appetite and increase cravings. Furthermore, eating sugar has been known to enhance one’s memory storage. Therefore, the brain releases endorphins when a person consumes fat or sugar and chemically, these feel-good compounds that are released are similar to morphine!

However, there are ways to avoid cravings for fat and sugar. For instance, research has shown that thinking about a craving uses up so much mental energy that it is hard to think about or do anything else. Therefore, it is suggested that a person who falls victim to unhealthy food cravings occupy their mind with mental exercises, such as sudoku or long division, to distract themselves from the thought of food. If a person has already given in to an unhealthy craving, switching to a healthier snack midway in helps satiate the craving for food. Furthermore, proximity to food influences what a person eats. Therefore, it is recommended that healthier foods be kept nearby whereas, unhealthy foods be stowed away.

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