One of the great everyday mysteries is why we are so attracted to 'junk food', even though we know with absolute certainty that it dynamites our health. Because, if only for that survival spirit thatkeeps us away from potential dangers to our physical integrity (or should), theirs would be that 'that red warning light' would also be turned on every time we were going to pounce on 'bad fats', sweets, ultra-processed, etc.
However, this not only does not happen, but, to make matters worse, there is something that springs up inside us and that pushes us to gorge ourselves on what does not suit us, seduced by that immense pleasure that starts in our taste buds to then spread throughout our body.
Why does this happen to us? Why are we going against 'our survival'? Or is it that, without realizing it, what we are doing is listening to the call of our most primitive self? Miguel López Moreno, dietitian-nutritionist, doctor in Food Sciences (CIAL) and professor at the universities Francisco de Vitoria (UFV) and Camilo José Cela (UCJC) in Madrid, gives us key information to understand this mess. "Our brain is designed to promote the intake of hyperpalatable foods, those rich in fats and sugars, which contain a high energy intake and, therefore, favor that we reach our energy requirements."
But the thing does not stop here. It is that, beyond the fact that visualizing an XXL burger with extra cheddar can attract us in an (almost) irresistible way, sinking our teeth into it causes a very pleasant sensation. "Eating gives us pleasure and this is because the brain identifies different areas, known as the reward system, which communicate through neurotransmitters such as dopamine and opioid peptides. This brain system is activated not only when we eat, but also in the presence of food-related stimuli. Therefore, we salivate when we perceive the pleasant smell of freshly baked bread or feel the need to eat something while watching our favorite cooking program even though we have recently dined, "says López Moreno.
All this mechanism would also explain why the way we eat depends on our emotional state. "In stressful situations, we often resort to foods that give us pleasure (for example, chocolate) as a mechanism to attenuate that state. However, this can be counterproductive, because these effects are very ephemeral and, in most cases, aggravate the initial state of discomfort (due to guilt due to the lack of self-control)."
And worst of all, we are not even aware of how addictive all these foods rich in fats, sugars, salt, flavor enhancers, etc. can be. "In recent years there has been talk that sugar is addictive because of the pleasure that its intake causes us. An interesting study found that foods that combine a high content of sugars and fats activate to a greater extent these brain areas related to the sensation of pleasure. It is an evolutionary mechanism to reinforce a behavior that determines human survival (remember that nutrition is a basic function of the human being)."
In his opinion, "the problem lies in the obesogenic environment in which we are immersed, with continuous exposure to foods designed to induce this oversized gratification."
This specialist relates how "Michael Moss, in the book 'Addicted to junk food', delves into the strategies of the food industry and develops the term 'bliss point', understood as the optimal combination of fat, sugar and salt capable of maximizing the palatability of the food and, therefore, that the product has a great acceptance in the consumer. "
To find an example of that pump for our health we do not need to rummage through the supermarket shelves. "A food as close as potato chips is a clear example of this, since it combines carbohydrates (from potatoes), fat (from frying oil) and salt (added later)."
Miguel López Moreno, warns us that "other products that we conceive as sugary (cookies, pastries, etc.), if we review their labeling we can corroborate how, in addition to a high contribution of sugar, they also present a significant amount of fat and salt (used for its technological function, since it enhances the flavor of the product)".
If, rationally, we are aware that it does us harm, why do we fall into its trap? "If we had an answer for this we would have the ultimate solution for obesity, eating disorders and multiple diet-related diseases. In general terms, the recommendation would be to prioritize in our diet those foods nothing or minimally processed and maintain an adequate relationship with food. However, individual actions are complicated when the context and individual reality make them very difficult."
By this, he continues, he means that "actions are required at all levels and, mainly institutional, to promote the improvement of nutrition and ultimately, public health." A clear example, he points out, is "the case of the 'North Karelia project', a region of Finland that, in the 60s, had extremely high mortality rates from cardiovascular disease. Faced with this situation, government authorities carried out initiatives in order to reduce plasma cholesterol levels, blood pressure and smoking through lifestyle changes."
These measures, he says, "caused the food industry to be forced to reformulate the products, that the messages transmitted by the media promoted achieving the established objectives and that the work and social environment was prone to all this." With all this powerful machinery in place, "the results were astounding, as it was possible to reduce mortality from coronary heart disease by 84% in adult males. This example is a valuable lesson in the importance of the environment in promoting a healthy lifestyle." Let's take note...
- Articles Gema García Marcos