Have you ever had a craving for something all day and when you finally gave in and ate it, you didn’t really enjoy it?
What the heck?
For a long time, researchers believed that the reward or pleasure center in the brain was a one-dimensional operation; craving and wanting were synonymous. In the last ten years, researchers have been able to prove that people can crave things they did not actually like!!
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009, researchers found that two of the primary chemicals produced in the pleasure center dopamine and endogenous opiates may not be released for the same reasons. From studies on dopamine, we know that addiction is associated with decreased sensitivity to dopamine in the reward center. Which is one of the reasons that in addiction, people need more of the drug/substance to get the same neurological impact.
The reward system has now been broken into three different subsections: liking, anticipating and craving.
Liking is pretty simple, we like something or we don’t. We are more likely to like fatty, sugary, salty foods.
Anticipating is a little more difficult because it is often implicitly learned. When your teacher makes memorize the preamble to the Constitution that is explicit learning. Implicit learning is by accident or unconsciously done. For example, when you start to crave popcorn when you purchase movie tickets online, before you can even smell them
Craving can work with you or against you. If you have ever craved salad it was likely because your body was sending your brain messages about the nutrients it was in need of at that time. When you’re having a bad day and you start to crave fatty, sugary, salty (hyper-palatable) foods it is likely that your brain is seeking a surge of dopamine. Of course, the more often your brain is given the hyper-palatable substance, the higher quantity your brain requires in order to get the same amount of dopamine.
The three-headed monster of your reward system is really powerful! Your reward/pleasure center has a direct connection to your primitive brain, which controls things like sleep, breathing, body temperature, heart rate, etc. So when your reward center doesn’t get its way, it can actually impact your basic bodily functions and make you feel as though you really want/need whatever it is seeking.
Additionally, food companies have made hyper-palatable foods so accessible and socially acceptable they are actually more difficult to avoid than real food.
Can you think of a single isle in the grocery store that does not have packaged food? In my neighborhood grocery store, there are even little add-ons in the produce isle! They do this because it works!! They know that we are all busy and have a lot of demands on our time and attention and they know that if they present something to us that seems healthy and like it will make life a little easier they will likely make that sale.
The food industry doesn’t want you to think about all of this because they don’t want you to start challenging what you like, what you’re anticipating and what you’re craving. Because if you did, you may begin to make different choices. Different and possibly healthier choices could result in reduced profits for them. But what could it mean for you?
What if, just for a few days, you start paying attention to what you’re brain tells you it wants. I wonder if you start making notes if you could find a pattern. I’ve noticed that when I’m working late, I’m more likely to snack mindlessly and when I’m having a crummy day I want salty carbs. What patterns can you find?!