Taste Buds, Mad Scientists, and the Truth Behind Your Food Cravings
I want you to imagine something for a second.
Imagine that everything you know about food – or you think you know about food – is now gone. It’s no longer there. That part of your brain has been erased.
To you, there are no such things as calories or carbs. You’ve never heard of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, digestion, or anything related to food consumption.
To you, food is just, well, food.
Now, with that in mind, let me ask you a question…
If I give you a random food to eat, something you’ve never seen or eaten before, how would you know whether that food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
If you knew absolutely nothing about a food or its ingredients, how would you know whether to classify it as good (as in, sure I’ll eat it again) or bad (as in, I’ll never touch this again)?
Think about that for a second because it’s very important.
Hint: there’s a bit of biology involved.
The answer is actually fairly simple.
But, what you’ll soon discover might scare you.
Let me explain.
To answer that question, we have to go back in time a bit.
We have to go way back to our ancestral days.
The days before TV, fast-food, cars, or even agriculture. The days we were still required to hunt and gather our food.
Without the ability to search up the nutritional facts on Google, our ancestors needed a way of knowing whether the food they just consumed was good or bad. They needed some sort of feedback system.
Fortunately for them, the body had an intricate system for this.
It has a biological means of sending us signals to let us know whether the food we just shoved down our throat is A OK or no good.
Our innate senses.
By simply looking at, smelling, and feeling the food in our hands we can obtain a lot of important information about it.
But, more specifically, we use the taste of the food to determine whether it is good or bad.
Our brain has been hardwired to understand and appreciate taste.
This is precisely why we judge foods based on their flavor. We’ve been built to do so.
And there are various tastes we are hardwired to understand.
Bitter tastes signify toxic foods, ones that we are to avoid, while sweet tastes signify much safer choices. These ‘safer choices’ are broken down into three basic tastes: sweet, fatty, and salty.
Sweet tastes represent a safe source of energy. Fatty taste signify a dense source of calories. And a salty taste represents conservation of fluid.
This feedback was essential for the survival of our ancestors. Without it, they would have been clueless.
And here’s the thing…
We still use this taste-driven feedback system. It is still hardwired in our brains.
But, as you’ll soon see, this can be somewhat of a problem.
Let’s first see what happens when we consume food.
“Every time we consume something that is sweet, fatty, or salty, the neurotransmitters in our brain send signals of pleasure and reward to inform us (and remind us) that we made a good food choice.” [It Starts with Food]
When we consume foods that are sweet, fatty, or salty – foods that are satiating – our brain releases good ol’ dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center.
What dopamine does is it actually motivates behavior. It encourages you to continue seeking foods that trigger its release. It even gives you that intense rush of anticipation before you even eat the food.
When you finally do take that first bite, the brain immediately releases opioids – feel good endorphins – which have a pleasant rewarding effect. Its release brings pleasure and emotional relief. It alleviates stress and makes you feel damn good.
“Reward circuitry is integrated with parts of the brain that enrich a pleasurable experience with emotion, making it more powerful, and easier to remember. The combination of pleasure, reward, and emotion pushes you toward rewarding stimuli – including food.” [It Starts with Food]
So where is the problem?
Well, it all started with a few smart cookies who figured out how all this stuff works. They figured out the psychological connection between your brain and your food and, at the same time, had an urge to make some good money off your health.
We’ll call them
food mad scientists.
Once they caught on to the fact that our brains respond strongly to various flavors (sweet, salty, fatty), they thought to themselves: “Hey, if we know that people are biologically driven to eat foods of certain flavors, why don’t we just modify existing foods to be saturated with these flavors and package them into beautiful boxes and sell them for cheap??”
Well done, guys. Very clever.
Armed with the right knowledge and a capitalist mindset, these mad scientists started sucking out all the water, fiber, and delicious nutrients out of our whole foods and began replacing them with incredibly disgusting (and cheap) things like corn syrup, MSG, seed oils, and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors.
What a great way to make some money while destroying the health of millions of people all around the country!
So how are these modern (modified) foods different from the whole foods our ancestors ate?
The nutrients are gone!
Back then, whole, natural foods were loaded with health-enhancing vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytonutrients. Sweet tastes came from seasonal raw fruit which was rich in these elements. Fatty tastes came from nutrient-packed meats. Salty tastes came from sea life or the animals we ate.
Today things are a bit different.
Modern sweet flavores come from artificial sweeteners, refined sugars, and high fructose corn syrup. Fatty tastes come from the bubbling deep-fryer or yellow tub of spread. Salty tastes come from an elegantly designed salt shaker.
The nutrient content of today’s foods is incomparable to the foods our ancestors ate.
“Modern technology has stripped the nutrition from these foods, replacing it with empty calories and synthetic chemicals that fool our bodies into giving us the same powerful biological signals to keep eating.” [It Starts with Food]
The calories haven’t changed. But the nutrients have almost completely disappeared.
And although today’s food is calorically-dense and still triggers the same taste neurotransmitters, these foods are anything but good sources of nutrition.
“These “Franken-foods”, as they’ve been dubbed, still light up pleasure and reward centers in the brain, but for a very different reason than nature intended – not because they provide vital nutrition, but because they are scientifically designed to stimulate our taste buds.” [It Starts with Food]
Yup. This is as bad as it sounds.
Someone has successfully figured out how to rewire your connection between nutrient-dense foods and your endorphin-releasing pleasure center.
And it sucks.
These people are making fools out of all of us and making money doing it.
But, hey – it gets worse (doesn’t it always?).
These so-called Franken-foods are classified as supernormal foods because they initiate a supernormal stimulus. Supernormal foods arouse your taste receptors more intensely than anything found in nature.
This is precisely why you no longer find whole, nutrient-dense foods tasty anymore.
This is why you think “real food has no flavor”.
Supernormal foods with over-the-top flavors make real food taste bland. Boring. It’s why we add salt to our foods. Why we add dressing to our salad. Or why we completely skip over the stuff that our body actually needs to function properly.
“These scientifically designed foods artificially concentrate highly palatable flavors (sweet, fatty, and salty) that stimulate our pleasure centers with a far bigger “hit” than we could ever get from nature. This processing removes any nutrition once found in the food but still leaves all the calories. The final concoction offers a staggering variety of over-the-top flavor sensations in every single bite, but your body knows there is no nutrition there, so you continue to want more food, even past the point of fullness.” [It Starts with Food]
And this brings us to the biggest problem.
Yea. Those cravings for sweet, sugary foods you can’t seem to give up are there by design.
“Today’s foods are designed to mess with your brain. They’re designed and built to make you crave them.” [It Starts with Food]
You may have asked yourself earlier: “Why would these mad scientists remove the nutrients from our food when they can simply just make them supernormal by adding artificial sweetening and call it a day?”
You have to realize who you’re dealing with here.
These bad boys from the dark side of food manufacturing really know their stuff.
Again, there’s a bit of biology involved.
When you consume and digest food, your body has a means of (or, in most people’s cases, had a means) of letting us know when we’ve had enough to eat.
Once your body senses that it’s received enough caloreis and nutrients to satisfy your body’s needs, certain hormones send signals to your brain to inform it that you’ve had enough, which effectively decreases your desire for more food.
This, however, is dependent on the actual nutritional content of the food.
If the nutritional content hasn’t been met, the hormones don’t send the messages. And you’re still hungry.
You still want more.
Those commercials are for real. When they say “I bet you can’t have just one”, they’re not lying. They know their biology.
Remember, Franken-foods are completely depleted of nutrients.
That’s why you can eat an entire bag of Oreo cookies before you realize your stomach is hurting.
And you feel like you still want more.
“Cravings aren’t merely about your behavior related to the food in question – they’re about your emotional motivation and the conditioning (habit) that is created with repeated satisfaction.” [It Starts with Food]
Here’s where things get interesting (and terrifying).
When we consume supernormally stimulating, nutrient-depleted foods on a regular basis, we begin to rewire our entire circuitry. Our dopamine pathways begin to light up even at the slightest suggestion of certain (nutritionally depleted) foods.
This is why food commercials are so successful.
This is why you have that sudden rush to get in that fast food line when you see it.
The moment you see a McDonalds commercial your dopamine pathways light up like a christmas tree and you feel like a crack addict who hasn’t had a hit in days.
You don’t even have to be hungry to want it!
The preemptive dopamine response (and the memory of the reward you’ll experience when you indulge) makes it next to impossible to resist the urge to satisfy that craving.
Once you’re down this path, things get tough to reverse.
You’re an addict.
And the more you consume these Franken foods, the more you reinforce these new (and debilitating) patterns. Your memory circuits tell your reward circuits that this food will bring you joy. Dopamine promises satisfaction.
And it becomes next to impossible to resist.
When you do finally get your fix, endorphins flood your body and make you feel so good you think you just won a million bucks.
Eventually it becomes habitual.
A vicious cycle that we feel we can’t get out of.
And when you develop these extremely powerful emotional connections with the foods you are eating (or drinks you are drinking), it’s very difficult to make a change.
Not impossible. But very difficult.
Remember, this is how these foods were designed. They were built to be irrisistable. They were built to leverage your biological circuitry and were cleverly crafted to side step the system and rewire your system to bring life to an artificial demand for something your body doesn’t really need.
This should make you sick to your stomach (no pun intended).
I don’t want this post to leave you feeling hopeless because there are things you can do to reverse these effects and eliminate your cravings once and for all. There are things you can do to free yourselves from the shackles of food and your emotional connection to it.
And no, it won’t be easy. Especially at the beginning.
You’re going to have to fight those urges one at a time.
Next time you see a commercial or drive past a fast-food joint and you get an incredible urge to indulge, remind yourself that this is the dopamine talking.
Remind yourself that you’re only feeling this urge because some smart, greedy bastards decided to use your biology against you, destroy your health, and make a killing doing it.
The best way to fight these guys is to resist the urge.
Every time you resist these dirty little Franken-foods, you’re sending a message to your brain that this is no longer for you. Dopamine will light up but the endorphins won’t follow. And when your body realizes that those dopamine effects no longer result in a feel good after-effect, it will slowly leave dopamine alone.
And, with enough patience and persistence, those cravings will disappear.
And you’ll be free.
In the meantime, you’ll want to begin consuming whole, natural, nutrient-dense foods again. Foods that trigger a positive psychological response. Foods that nourish your body. Foods that our ancestors used to eat.
Sure, they won’t taste that great at first. But, that’s only because your taste buds are out of whack and are still expecting supernormal tastes from your food. You’ll have to ignore the blandness. Throw away the salt shakers and the salad dressings. You’ll have to suck it up a bit if you want to get your health back.
Over time, your taste buds will go back to their normal state. You’ll be able to taste whole foods again for what they are.
I hope this has opened your eyes a bit.
If you value your health, your body, and your future, it might be time to start fighting the fight.
Just take it one day at a time.
All thoughts, comments, and questions are welcome in the comment section below.
If you think this post might be of value to someone, please do me a favor and share it. I think it’s important for people to be aware of the truth behind their food cravings and poor eating habits.
This post was inspired by Dallas and Melissa’s book It Starts with Food (and particularly the chapter that talks about the food-brain connection). I highly recommend you read this book as it is full of useful information on how to regain your health with food.