Thought not. Maybe you simply don’t like it, but what about other vegetables? Peppers? Aubergines? Asparagus? Watercress? You may like them, even love them, but would you ever say you’re ‘addicted’? Unlikely. But what about ice cream, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, crisps, or chips? Now we’re talking! So what is it that makes us crave one, but not the other?
We are hardwired to like or even love certain flavours, particularly sweet and salty. The brain has ways to encourage us to eat – or do – what will keep us going as a species. We need to eat to survive and while the sensation of hunger is always an incentive to eat, the pleasure we get from tasting sugar or even salt – two commodities which were hard to come by when we evolved – makes us go and seek them out. Sugar increases dopamine secretion. This is a neurotransmitter that will bind to receptors on our brain cells, which will create a pleasant feeling, the memory of which is likely to make us have it again when we can. However, early humans didn’t come across sugar all that often: They would only have access to the sugar in fruit, or maybe wild honey, if they were lucky. Fruit was only available in season, so it was hard to overeat sugar. Today it is everywhere, but our genes haven’t changed all that much and we still love it.
If our brain cells are frequently exposed to dopamine, they can go ‘deaf’ to its call, with the result that we need more dopamine to achieve the same effect as before. Recreational drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine, too, increase dopamine, and of course we become ‘tolerant’ of these drugs as well, needing more and more frequent fixes to get our ‘high’. It appears that certain foods – most notably cheese and sugary foods - affect dopamine just like drugs do.
As if our penchant for dopamine wasn’t enough, blood sugar drops also make us crave sugar. Whenever we eat a meal or snack that is high in sugar, our blood sugar rises sharply. As too much sugar in the blood stream has toxic effects, insulin is released to reduce it and it does this very efficiently, at least in healthy people who are not (yet?) insulin resistant. (Just like brain cells become deaf to dopamine, our body cells can become deaf to insulin if exposed to too much of it.) Insulin quickly removes sugar from the blood stream – depositing any excess as fat in the liver, around the organs and our middle – and blood sugar levels drop too low. Again, this is not a desirable state of affairs and the brain makes us crave sugar to bring it up again.
When we eat, a complex system of hormones and neurotransmitters regulates our hunger levels and feelings of fullness. Chewing plays a role in this: The chewing motion of our jaws signals to the brain that we are eating. Not chewing or not chewing much blurs the signal and we can overeat before our brain has noticed that we’re eating. Processed foods require much less chewing than, say, kale, beans, and wholegrains would, and easily slip down our throat. Before we know it, we have eaten more than we intended.
The food industry knows all this of course. A lot of money is put into research that explores brain chemistry and neurotransmitters, hormones and digestion, more still into marketing the resulting ‘foods’. Once we are hooked, we will come back for more time and time again. Magic!
So this is why we find ice cream and chocolate irresistible, but get only mildly exited about broccoli or roasted peppers. Nice? Yes. Addictive? No. But you can get on top of the ‘addiction’ by phasing out processed junk and eating real food again. Natural foods that haven’t been messed with do not have this effect, keep you fuller for longer, nourish your body and regulate your hunger. They will help you get on top of your body chemistry and thus your cravings. Try it, it’s amazing!