Bitterballen, pizza, chips and chocolate.

Why is it so difficult for us to stay away from high-calorie food?

Two Maastricht researchers explain.

Many people have started the year again with healthy and responsible food.

Yet it turns out that it is not so easy to maintain.

"We generally find fatty and sweet foods with a lot of calories the best", says Remco Havermans, professor by special appointment of Youth Nutrition and Health at Maastricht University Campus Venlo.

"That is evolutionarily determined."

If you just see or smell a hamburger, you immediately feel like eating it.

"We hardly see that urge in fruit or vegetables," says Havermans.

"In addition to the many calories, fatty and sweet products generally have little nutritional value."

Appreciation for that taste is increasing rapidly

So we are born with a preference for calories.

"Our brains still have to learn which flavors are associated with a lot of energy. When you eat something, it is registered in our reward center. The next time you see it, you want more of it. Appreciation for that taste increases very quickly. . "

"If you eat healthy for a while, unhealthy products become more attractive, unfortunately."

Remco Havermans, Eatlab

It seems like a cruel joke of Mother Nature, but without energy we simply wouldn't survive.

"In today's society we take far too much energy. Our brain is simply not properly armed against those temptations."

Research on eating behavior

Yet you cannot really speak of an addiction, says Havermans.

Although there are similarities with drug or alcohol addiction, there are also differences.

For example, no tolerance occurs with unhealthy eating.

"You don't need more and more to experience the same pleasant feeling. There are also no withdrawal symptoms if you stop."

Professor Anne Roefs confirms this.

"A lot of research has been done into how our brain responds to seeing food, and whether that is the same as with a drug or alcohol addiction. The reward system would then have to respond harder when an 'food addict' sees high-calorie tasty food, compared with someone of healthy weight. There is no convincing evidence. "

"If you mainly think about how delicious a bar of chocolate is, the activity in the reward center in your brain increases."

Anne Roefs, Eatlab

In her research into eating behavior, Roefs discovered that the reward system reacts more strongly when you think about food in a certain way.

"If you mainly think about how delicious a bar of chocolate is, then the activity in the reward center in your brain is higher. If you mainly think of an enormous amount of calories, the neural activity is lower."

An interesting fact, says Roefs.

"Because putting people in a healthier mindset could make the high calorie tasty food less attractive."

Whether that would be a good intervention for, for example, overweight people, Roefs is currently researching.

New habits take time

Suppose you started eating healthier in January, will it become easier or more difficult to maintain after a while?

"If you eat healthy for a while, unhealthy products become more attractive," says Havermans.

"That makes it difficult to sustain it in the long term."

On the other hand, you develop new habits after a slightly longer period.

"That also applies to food", says Havermans.

According to him, it helps to plan your food, not to go shopping on an empty stomach, and not to believe that you always have to have something tasty at home when a visitor comes.

"Nine times out of ten you are the one who eats it."