The explanation is similar to why people are addicted to cocaine and other drugs.
Why We Binge on Junk
We binge on junk foods instead of healthy foods because we are addicted to them. Put simply, we binge on junk food because junk food stimulates the reward center of the brain, and healthy food does not.
Brain imaging shows high-sugar, high-fat foods activate the same regions of the brain as heroin, opium, and morphine. Processed sugar and fat, wheat, and salt stimulate the rewards center of the brain, causing many people to eat cookies, chips, soda, and other foods when stressed, tired, or bored. In many senses it is an addiction.
Although typically when we think of addiction we think of things like drugs, alcohol, smoking, and other highly addictive substances, junk food addictions are very real and very prevalent. Addiction has been traditionally looked at in terms of substances, but the American Society of Addiction Medicine is now looking at addiction with a broader definition that includes behavioral or process addictions, such as binge eating junk food. Just about anything can become an addiction, as everything we ingest is a substance and everything we do is a behavior. However, it is the things that stimulate the reward center of the brain that are most worrisome.
Why You Don’t Binge on Healthy Foods
You don’t binge eat healthy foods because they do not cause the same reaction in the brain. And they do not have the same addictive qualities. Eating junk food can be as much of an addiction as alcoholism. The impact on others is less, and the consequences are not as immediate, but it can still be an addiction.
Many people suffer from a junk food addiction. How can you know if you are one of them? If you quit eating your favorite junk food, will you experience cravings or withdrawal? Can you stop eating sugar, or drinking caffeinated sodas without becoming irritable, experiencing headaches, or craving the junk food? Can you even stop?
Change can be hard, especially if there is prolonged behavior and a history of binge eating junk food. However, like any addiction there are things that can be done to help! You can try to break the addiction on your own or seek professional help.
If attempting to curb your junk food binge eating on your own, consider the following tips:
1. Consciously look for a more productive way to de-stress:
One of the most common causes for binge eating is stress. Familial stress, financial stress, work stress. It doesn’t really matter what kind, when people feel stressed they look for comfort, and binge eating can provide a temporary comfort. However, there are more productive ways, and less harmful, to achieve the same thing. Try doing one of the following: meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling,
2. Try to Eliminate Triggers.
Are you more likely to binge eat if it is late at night? Go to bed earlier. Do you junk food binge when you are hungry and short on time? Plan ahead and have healthy options readily available. Track your behavior, and pinpoint the triggers in your life that lead to binge eating, and look for ways to reduce and eliminate those triggers.
3. Fight the Addiction.
Go cold turkey if you want to, for one week, and cut out sugars, processed foods, soda, and other junk foods. And don’t put yourself in situations where you would give in. Just like an alcoholic shouldn’t spend time in a bar, don’t have junk food readily available in your home. See how long you can go, and identify your weaknesses so you can find ways to combat them.
It may not be as rewarding, but next time you feel the urge to binge eat, try Brussels sprouts, kale salad, or a spinach smoothie.