The experience of eating fast food is one that most of us are familiar with. Even the most health-conscious of us have certain fast food guilty pleasures. We might be able to scarf down junk food like Scooby-Doo inhales Scooby Snacks, but how much do we really know about the fast-food we’re eating? Prepare to have your mind blown by these 10 Things That Happen To Your Brain When You Eat Fast-Food!
10. Stress Eating
Many people crave junk food when they’re stressed. If you’re one of them, you’ve probably found yourself wondering why you can’t crave something healthy, like carrots or a salad, during stressful times. How much easier would that be. College students out there are probably more than familiar with those midterm-induced hunger pangs. Why does it happen? And why are the cravings specific to high-calorie junk foods? As it turns out, this is actually our brain’s adaptive response to stress. In the past, most of the threats to humankind were physical. Psychological stressors, like work, school, or relationships, are far newer, and we haven’t had the time to completely adapt to them. High caloric intake is super beneficial when faced with physical stressors that require a physical response. You know, like, if you have to run away from a bear or something. To be able to exert yourself so intensely, you need that boost of energy you get from eating a lot of calories, and our body interprets psychological stress in the same way. We sense a threat, so we try to prepare by eating a lot of high-calorie foods. However, modern stressors tend to not need the same physical response that the stresses faced by our distant ancestors did. So, basically, we consume all that extra energy for no real reason. Great. Hopefully, we’ll evolve to catch up with these changes in the future. In the meantime, now you know why you find yourself, in the middle of tax season, craving hamburgers like Jughead.
9. Why Do We Crave It?
Why is junk food so much more appealing than other kinds of food? If you’re prone to cravings, don’t beat yourself up over it. Junk food is supposed to leave you wanting more. And it truly does. It’s literally engineered to be as satisfying and enjoyable as possible. A ridiculous amount of time and money is put into making sure the sensation of eating junk food is perfect. Everything from the smell to the way the food feels in your mouth is designed to make you fall in love with the experience of eating it. This is part of the reason why you find yourself craving junk food more than things like fruits and vegetables. However, what really drives the cravings home is the content of the junk food itself. The salt? The fat? The sugar? You name it, they’re all present in perfect, mouth-watering, can’t-get-enough amounts. Junk food just has specific characteristics that make our brains do a little happy dance. For example, many creamy foods, like chocolate and ice cream, promote salivation, which gets a big thumbs up from your taste buds. Plus, a lot of junk foods play with textures, such as combining creamy and crunchy, like in an Oreo cookie. Our brains go crazy for it because it’s seen as new and exciting. This excitement keeps us wanting more (and more, and more).
8. Hunger Pangs
While they might seem pretty basic, feelings of hunger and fullness result from complicated internal processes. Unfortunately, these processes can get sent all out of whack pretty easily. As we’ve already established, junk food is addicting. The more you eat it, the more you want to eat it. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s designed to be that way. Patterns of overeating can mess with your body’s hunger and fullness signals, which can cause you to eat even more, and so on. Fast food is the usual suspect when it comes to this kind of confusion. Wonky hunger and fullness cues aren’t the only reason fast food might cause you to have trouble controlling your appetite. High-calorie foods go straight to your brain’s pleasure centers, triggering the release of dopamine. You know, that sensation of pure bliss that comes from taking a giant bite out of a cheeseburger? That’s the dopamine talking. This feeling is rewarding, yes, but it’s also what motivates us to seek out more junk food. Over time, we begin to require more and more junk food to keep the cravings at bay, making it even harder to control our hunger and stop ourselves from overeating. And, so, the cycle is neverending.
7. Do You Remember?
Another interesting tie junk food has to the brain involves memories. Almost anything can trigger old memories and bring them to the front of our minds. For example, the smell of apple pie might remind you of summers spent at your grandparents’ cottage. Junk food has a similar effect. A lot of the junk food we consume is tied to fun memories, like birthday parties, family time, or nights out with friends. Eating specific junk food might bring these kinds of memories rushing back, which then leads your brain wanting to recreate these memories by eating the same food. Junk food is also closely associated with memories of feeling good in general. Remember that dopamine rush we talked about earlier? Your brain closely associates that dreamy feeling with eating junk food. The result is that all your favorite junk foods end up being categorized as things that bring you joy. You can probably guess what this does. Yep, that’s right: it makes you crave it even more. Just thinking about good times spent eating junk food can make you drool. Now, if you’ve ever had a bad experience with junk food, such as eating too much and feeling sick afterward, you might notice that that specific food no longer has this kind of controlling effect on you. In fact, you probably don’t associate it with happy times or feeling good at all. So, odds are, you don’t crave it anymore. Thank god!
6. Just Can’t Get Enough
Have you ever noticed that if you go through a phase of eating the same meal over and over again, you eventually get bored with it? And have you ever noticed that this rule seems to apply to everything except junk food? It’s like you could eat chips and ice cream every day for the rest of your life and never get sick of it. If you’ve ever experienced this, take comfort in the fact that it’s not just you. Our brains like to keep things interesting and we enjoy the different flavors and sensations from eating a wide variety of foods. With most foods, our sensory response dulls quickly, which is why eating a certain food may become less enjoyable over time. Like carrots. Been there, done that. But, junk food is like the Goldilocks of foods. It’s not so bland that it’s instantly boring, but it’s not too flavorful that it causes our sensory response to overload. Because it’s in that perfect middle ground, where junk food causes this sensory response to become less sensitive, our brains continue to find the food new and exciting. As a result, we never get sick of it. Which, ironically, can lead us to actually get sick from it. But that’s beside the point.
5. Good Advertising
This one is more relevant to teenagers, but that doesn’t mean adults are immune to the effects of marketing. Fast food advertisements are everywhere. They’re on TV, online, on billboards, and plastered on the sides of buses and subway cars. We tend to brush off this kind of advertising because we see it so often, but the thing is, it works. As we said, this applies more to teens than it does to adults because adolescents are more sensitive to rewards. Taking things back to dopamine, that feel-good hormone that reinforces certain behaviors, teenagers are keener to its effects than adults are. If you like fast food, you might find advertisements for it appealing. You might even feel tempted to grab a burger for dinner. You have to choose between a small immediate reward, the fast-food meal, and a greater reward in the future, which, in this case, is good health. Because of their sensitivity to reward, teenagers are less likely to put off the immediate reward in favor of a better, future reward. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be more able to say no to the fast-food now in order to benefit themselves later on. Obviously, this isn’t the case with all teens and all adults, but it is a pattern that researchers have observed.
4. Bye-Bye Self-Control
We’ve established that eating a lot of junk food can cause you to overeat and can chip away at your food-related self-control. It looks like snacking isn’t the only area of self-control affected by a high intake of junk food. Studies have shown that eating more junk food can actually make you splurge more. So, that purse you spent way too much on – or that snazzy new watch – those indulgent purchases might actually be linked to your fast-food intake. We associate fast-food with instant gratification. Like we’ve mentioned many times already, fast food is ridiculously rewarding. And our brains really, really like that. Eating fast-food, looking at advertisements for fast-food, or even just thinking about the last time you ate fast-food, can trigger impatience and this desire for instant gratification. This can make us lose all budgetary self-control and hit the stores. Basically, a Big Mac can turn you into Tom from Park and Recreation on “Treat Yo’ Self” day. Which is good for the soul, but not so great for the wallet.
3. Sugar, Sugar
This should really come as no surprise. It’s the latest “hot-take” – although, unlike some of the others, it actually has decent evidence to support it. Sugar is addictive. As we’ve talked about, junk food acts on our reward centers and causes a dopamine cascade that our brains come to crave. This is actually how drug addictions work, too. Don’t let this comparison freak you out too much because this is how a lot of things work. You get that same rush of dopamine when you win a race, get a promotion, or have your first kiss. However, some things are more addictive than others and, while sugar isn’t up there with the more dangerous, illicit substances, it still has some pretty addictive properties. The more you eat, the more you’ll want it. Something a lot of people don’t realize is that many foods you would think didn’t contain a lot of sugar actually have a massive sugar content. This is particularly true for fast-food. We all know that junk food is loaded with fat and salt, but sugar? It’s not nearly as obvious. On top of that, it’s usually the food items that seem healthy that end up containing more sugar than even a hyperactive toddler would want. So, if you’re trying to watch your sugar intake, be careful ordering things like yogurts or salads from fast-food restaurants. In some cases, you might actually be better off with the burger.
2. Cognitive and Neurodegenerative Consequences
As good as it tastes, junk food just isn’t that great for our health. Many of its possible negative effects, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, have been rehashed over and over by medical professionals, so they’re pretty common knowledge. But what we don’t talk about nearly as often are the effects fast-food can have on our brains. Some research has found that eating junk food might actually interfere with learning. Eating a lot of this food can mess with our brain’s ability to form associations and cement new memories in place, which makes gaining new knowledge more challenging. Moreover, a high fast-food intake has been shown to be linked with an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders, like dementia, in old age. This is because eating a lot of these kinds of foods causes your pancreas to produce more insulin than needed. This can not only lead to type two diabetes, but even scarier, your brain can develop insulin resistance, damaging its ability to form and store memories. This is definitely a frightening discovery, but keep in mind that a burger every now and again isn’t going to lead to insulin resistance. Moderation is the key to a happy, healthy lifestyle.
1. Anxiety And Depression
At first, eating junk food makes you feel real good. Unfortunately, that high is often short-lived. With all this talk of fast food going straight to your brain’s reward center, it seems contradictory to say that eating a lot of it could be associated with a bad mood and poor mental health, but that’s what the science says. Because we associate fast food with instant gratification, seeing it, eating it, or thinking about it can make us feel impatient, which can put us kind of on edge. On top of that, a lot of people gravitate towards junk food when they’re feeling down. I mean junk food is considered comfort food, right? Well, it turns out it has the opposite effect. If you’re already feeling a little blue, eating junk food can make matters worse. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to bring people who were in a good mood down – this effect is only seen in people who were sad to start with. Even more concerning are the links between mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, and junk food. The refined carbs found in many junk foods can cause your blood sugar levels to bounce all over the place. When they get low, you might experience anxiety symptoms, like insomnia or panic attacks. Fried food has also been tied to increased anxiety. The link between junk food and depression is less clear. People who eat more fast food are more likely to experience depression than others, but scientists aren’t sure which way that relationship goes. Is fast food contributing to depression? Or do people with depression seek it out as a source of comfort? Either way, fast-food may worsen depression symptoms since it’s been shown to make bad moods worse.