Food has an interesting effect on human behaviors, at first food was there to survive and stay alive and be able to pass genetics on throughout history, and in some parts of the world it is still very much the case. But now that food is in abundance and you can get it at almost any major intersection, food has a different meaning to humans. This new perception of food changes what food means to us, instead of being a necessity for living it becomes a delicacy and something that should be enjoyable, thus creating a seeking behavior to find foods that are tasty, enjoyable and that give us a good feeling.
The brain is the most fascinating organ of the human body, and we still are discovering and trying to understand some of its capabilities. It has played a huge role in how we survive and adapt to our environment. Way back when our brains got a taste for food that we needed for energy and a memory, an emotion was created saying this is a positive experience and this food was good. So the next time a certain food was prevalent, the brain knew it needed the nutrients for survival so a neurological response of neurotransmitters are released; one big player is dopamine that drives the reward outcome.
Our human bodies are the same organism that it was years ago, our brains function and work off anticipation and reward systems that will never change. However the environment has changed and the brain is trying to figure out the new environment while still thinking of past history of a survival environment. In this new environment the brain and body is now tested more than ever, we have food industries modifying foods so the consumer gets sucked in to continuing purchases of the products, it becomes a dangerous habit loop. Industrial agriculture does this by changing our appetite for certain foods. Yes they are doing this and most people have no idea it's happening to them. They change our appetites for saltier foods, fattier foods, sweeter foods (more sugar), it has been shown that the brain lights up with dopamine when these foods hit the palate, making the seeking behavior for these foods increase.
So before a person even realizes, they have a tendency to go for foods high in sugar, fat and sodium because the brain becomes conditioned to get a reward when eaten. As the behavior is repeated the brain becomes desensitized to the stimulus and we need more of the source to create a bigger reward, thus more food. This dysfunctional loop leads to a plethora of issues, metabolic disease, obesity, cognitive dysfunction, just to name a few. When people see pizza they have an emotional response to it, a past memory that tells them it was tasty and good, a memory of where they had it, and whom they had it with, if its a positive memory the body will take a liking to it and drive behavior to consume the food. This happens time and time again, so now when people see food that results in a sending of dopamine flow, they have a decision, to go get the food or to not, and it is more likely for automatic response and behavior to win this battle. Over time this leads to unhealthy eating patterns and behavior and the food that is nutritious and healthy for us becomes a negative experience. The taste alone does not give us a reward. Our goal is to create balance in the brain to know how to turn down the reward signals and not have food dictate how we feel, how we think, and how we behave. (specifically how we eat.)
The best part is you can change this loop, you can change this behavior, we have the capability to rewire our neural circuits. Rewiring our neural circuits is not easy and it takes deliberate thought and actions to solidify change. Being able to pause between stimuli and action is very powerful. Deliberately redirecting your behavior away from a stimulus that your brain knows will provide a sense of well being and feel good will be your saving grace. Delaying gratification turns down the brain signals and overtime when you see the food you so call “crave” it does not send a cascade of dopamine, this is your will power increasing.
Food has a powerful role in our lives, the ability to look at food as fuel, something we need to survive should be our first thought. Of course we can have good experiences with food, and at times there will be foods that are not always the healthiest option, we still have to live life. But it’s about balance and self regulation so be honest with yourself, indulge sparingly because the last thing you want is to fall into a dysfunctional loop or perpetuate destructive loops already in place.
Schulkin, J. (Ed.). (2004). Allostasis, homeostasis, and the costs of physiological adaptation. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316257081
Zhang, H. et al, 1994. Science Direct [Online] Behavioral and pharmacological modulation of ventral tegmental dendritic dopamine release <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0006899394913668> [Accessed February 2021]
Volkow, N. et al, 2012. NCBI.NLM.NIH [Online] Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124340/> [Accessed February 2021]