Taste Buds, Mad Scientists, and the Truth Behind Your Food Cravings

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Food CravingsI 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.

Food cravings.

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).

Now…

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.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. Even I know all this, is hard to reject the the agressive promotion. Just taking one day at a time.

    • They know that it’s hard for people to reject aggressive promotion and that’s exactly why they continue to blast us with it. They know exactly how we’re going to react, Anna. It’s almost impossible to make an instant switch, but try to resist the urge a little bit every day until it’s no longer there. Cheers!

  2. great post srdjan…. Its really hard to avoid these food….

  3. For me it was easier to give up those bad foods forever. A year ago I gave up candy for good and replaced it all by real foods. Also soda is out of diet for good and I laugh. At the rediculous “taste so great” commercials. No cravings ever and a giant body transformation is my reward now.

  4. I am already decently conscious about what I put in my body, and I make choices to limit consumption of things I know I shouldn’t overdo. Eating has such a social component to it that I can’t imagine actually *wanting* to adopt the “perfect” diet at this point in time. Christmas without the traditional spread of family-recipe cookies? No thanks! Never again making/partaking in the artisan quality bread that is requested of me for every special occasion? Not going to happen, not now… It’s easier I guess to make small changes over time, to create *new* traditions, to change social expectations, and I think we have accomplished some of that in our family (for example after my father-in-law experienced and recovered from a heart-attack, we scrapped the weekend tradition we shared with him of a decadent spread of pates and cheeses for lunch), so for now I live by “everything in moderation” – trying to do so truly, not just as an excuse to indulge – and as a result of learning more daily about how food choices affect our health I will attempt increased consciousness and an increase in efforts to change my “normal”.

    • Whoops I just realized I went sort of off-topic, as the “bad” foods I am talking about in my comment are homemade, not commercially produced… I read your article, looked up the book that you referenced, saw they are advocating a version of the Paleo diet, and one thought led to another! :-D By the way I love your write-up above – very thought-provoking!

      • Mary, your comment wasn’t too far off-topic as you may think :) You bring up an excellent point: food has a pretty significant social component to it. And a lot of our food (and drink) choices are based on the social norms and past (family) traditions. This definitely makes things a little bit tricky.

        The way you’ve chose to go about it – make small changes over time, create ‘new’ traditions, and change social expectations – is probably the best way to go. As you continue to make changes, focus on introducing your family to healthier ingredients. Show them that real food has taste too. Teach them the importance of their food choices. I think every family can benefit from having a ‘health advocate’.

        I’m in no position to tell people to forego their family traditions or make radical changes to their diet. My objective is simply to bring awareness. To help people understand that there is a strong connection between the foods we choose to eat and our overall health.

  5. Awesome post mate, what a great way to expose the lies!

    “The person who decided to sneak the ‘s’ into ‘fast food’ was pretty smart!” – haha

  6. I was just starting to reajust my food habits close to the Paleo diet (less restrictive) and this post confirmed my thoughts ;) It’s all about the money, it always has been…

    Anyway, Thanks for this post!

  7. Naveen Rajanala says:

    Thanks Serge …, great post like always …. Will share this with my friends.

    Thanks for all your hard work put into these posts.

  8. Russ Denshuick says:

    Even though knowing those foods are horrible for you, it still never seemed enough to leave them alone. It was always said around my house hold growing up that the food company’s are marketing wizards, but seeing how much science actually gos into making and keeping peoe fat and unhealthy is appalling. As you wrote in your post, I truly do feel sick right now. As much as I wish I could just stop with all the “supernormal” foods, I know, as a earlier comment said, its got to be moderation for now, until this habit can be kicked.

    • Russ, the important thing is to start somewhere. It’s very difficult to make a sudden, radical change. But do your best to progressively move away from these highly marketed foods. It will take time for your body to adjust, but it’s all a process. That’s what building a better body is about.

  9. Srdjan,

    This is truly an eye-opener. It expains why we know certain foods are bad for us but constantly eat them anyways. I’m sure if everyone craved whole, natural foods most of the food industry would go bankrupt. But then again, health care costs would also be reduced dramatically.

    Cavemen had no choice but to eat the right foods because the fake foods weren’t available. Unfortunately, that’s not the case now. Being informed is a good start for all of us and it’s articles like this and books like “It Starts With Food” that can help us get there. I’ll definitely be putting that one on my to-read list!

    Alykhan

    • “I’m sure if everyone craved whole, natural foods most of the food industry would go bankrupt. But then again, health care costs would also be reduced dramatically.”

      That’s exactly the point. There is no money in good health. The money is (and always will be) in keeping people fat and sick. That should tell you everything.

  10. Great article! More people need to speak up and talk about this issue. I am glad I found your site via ThinkTraffic. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  11. Interestingly put! I will definitely be following your reasoning method next time I’m tempted.

  12. My road to giving up fast food and junk food started with a gluten free diet. I had realized I was gluten intolerant and decided to cut it out of my diet. In the beginning it was really difficult and I would go back and forth between gluten free and indulging in fast food, cakes, donuts, etc. However, after cutting back on it and regretting it every time I slipped, it has gotten easier to just say no. The reward just no longer is there.

    My problem now is sweets..chocolate..ice cream..I really am limited in dessert being gluten free. And looking at the ingredients in chocolate and sweets it’s no wonder I crave it so much. But I have decided to work on it, I’m cutting back on the amount that I would normally eat. I’m going to work on replacing sweets I crave with fruit.

    Sometimes its a slow start, especially with cravings, but if you don’t give up and keep working on replacing old unhealthy eating habits with new ones, it gets so much easier. Your brain does become rewired, mine has when it comes to certain foods!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Monique. It goes to show that this isn’t just a light switch you flick off and suddenly your cravings are gone. It’s a long and sometimes painful process. But the longer you stick to it, the easier it gets to say no. The easier it gets to resist indulgences. Like you said, the reward is no longer there. Use this same strategy to eliminate ALL the foods that can cause harm to your body.

      • Exactly. It really did take a while, it took months and months of going back and forth. It’s all about continuing even when you slip. It might take 6 months, a year, just depends but it’s about perseverance.

        Oh and A scary thought about McDonald’s too is a person we knew once left a burger in his jacket during winter time. The next year when he got his coat back out he discovered the burger. No mold. No smell. Looked exactly the same way it did the day he bought it.

        • That’s crazy. It really goes to show that absolutely no other living organism was willing to touch this burger over the summer. That should be quite the indication that we shouldn’t be touching it either.

  13. George Maniatakos says:

    excellent article Srdjan. It’s time for me personally to start this fight! Will definitely share this one! I must say you’re really well informed on biology and neurotransmitters stuff ! Good for you! Spread the virus for as long as you can!

  14. Neil Gribben says:

    As someone who has been active yet typically overweight most of my life, the posts on this thread strike a chord with me as we explore our relationship with food and how easily things become habit.
    As a young child of an Anglo-Italian family food was always central to a lot of our socialising and I was always encouraged to eat up, effectively to view each meal time as a challenge to finish what was on my plate and rarely was my snacking between meals controlled, not that I blame them. They grew up in post war Britain with its rationing and shortages and I suppose they just wanted to ensure we never went without, but I was the one shovelling the stuff down, right?
    In time I was eating more and more and despite playing football (that’s soccer for you Americans) and Rugby for my school and representing my school in athletic field events I was quite overweight until at least my mid to late teens and whilst I got some control it soon disappeared as I progressed into my late teens and found the pub. Ah the demon drink, with all its social allure and empty, no-good carbohydrates. But still I ate and drank pretty much what I wanted, my weight undulated along during my adult life, I still played sports, I restarted martial arts, started running again (5k, 10k and half marathons), but the bad diet always held me back. I was kidding myself. I felt that because I was active I could eat what I liked, but over the years the lower limit of my undulating weight crept up ever so slightly higher and higher and I finally realised as I enter my 45th year that it’s time to be a ‘do’-er not a ‘try’-er.
    It has taken me a long time and I had to address a lot of denial to finally put into practice all the things I’ve read over the years about diet and this year I decided to actually do more of the right things. Now I’m no monk living off berries in the woods but I have made a few changes- so here they are
    1) no snacking
    2) very few sweets/chocolates (and this now tends to be dark)
    3) cut back on the social drinking,
    4) avoid carb or fat heavy foods – so fewer pizzas or cakes or potato chips
    5) replace coffee with green tea
    6) actually stop eating if I’m beginning to feel full.

    So not too drastic and I’ve continued to train as normal.
    I had a goal when I started, to reach an interim target weight but I didn’t set a time frame for this as I didn’t want to put pressure on myself and then try to change things in order to shift the extra weight by doing something that was not part of the new routine.
    So, what happened? I lost the 10 lbs I wanted to in just under 9 weeks and it’s stayed off. I even had the opportunity to have a few treats during that time, and it’s had no negative impact. I seem to have a new set of habits and they are easy to stick to all the motivation I need is looking back at me in the mirror.

    So if I can change and break the cycle after a lifetime of bad habits then I’m confident anyone else can.

  15. Excellent post, in length as well as content. I agree with most except those scientists are not MAD, they are fulfilling roles as dutiful workers of a profit seeking corporation. We are stepping into moral grey area here, on one hand, corporations are providing things that people want, part of the pleasure in life is eating and tasting. On the hand, over indulgence in fatty ans sugary food is placing a financial huge burden on the health care system and psychological burden on the overweight. This is why Mayor Bloomberg is facing a huge battle trying to tax soda pops and limiting the size of New Yorker’s cups.

    Time will tell if additional regulation is answer to this epidemic, but I do not want to live in a world that tells me what I can or cannot eat, too Orwellian for me (btw those homemade cookies are great!).

    I hope your campaign to raise awareness of this issue will benefit those who want to lead a healthier life style.

  16. Your article is really helpful encouragement to eat mindfully. I think it’s very important to recognize those psychological triggers that condition our behavior in every aspect of life – not just eating – and learn that taking control is sometimes a matter of stepping back for a moment and reflecting, before deciding to just to follow instinct. It will help me in my daily struggle to put down the salt cellar!

    • You’re right Nigel, this stuff does apply to other aspects of life as well. The important thing is to be aware of what’s going on. From there the choice is ours. And our ability to choose (i.e. what to do with our dollar) is by far the greatest form of power.

  17. ladygnome says:

    This rings true to me…with one exception: bitter foods signify bad/toxins. Bitter foods are actually very beneficial for us and many herbs are cleansing to our bodies. Just wanted to point that out…smile.

  18. It’s scary, how I’ve been rewired to have to fight urges even at the SIGHT of an opened cookie wrapper, or cereal box. We’ll never have a perfect environment though, it’s everywhere, so you’re right, now is the time to fight the good fight & get freed from this bipolar addiction to food. Thanks for the article

    • You’re right, and fortunately it’s not a hopeless fight. There are many things we can do in the sense of changing the environment around us and making the effort to gain a better understanding (and awareness) of the foods we are eating.

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