Eating junk food regularly is linked to obesity and chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, but many people still choose junk food sources over their healthy, nutritious whole food counterparts. Junk food is typically cheap, processed and prepackaged, making it easily available, but there are several psychological motivators that predispose people to choosing it as a meal or snack.
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Busy schedules often diminish the amount of time people have to prepare healthy, nutritious meals, so they opt for faster, easier options. Whole foods such as vegetables and meat take time and kitchen equipment to cook properly, while fast food hamburgers are usually served within minutes of ordering. Over time, that convenience becomes a habit and eventually a perceived necessity to keep up with such a fast-paced society. Disrupting that routine requires an investment of time, and most people prefer to stick with the faster option.
A peripheral result of this fast-paced culture is increased levels of stress and anxiety. Increased stress levels cause the body to expend more energy, stimulating hunger for calorie-dense sustenance and driving people to eat fatty, sugary junk food. High levels of anxiety also cause people to seek out junk food as a means of comfort. When stressed, people look for ways to calm themselves, and junk food’s positive effects on the reward center of the brain make it a comforting go-to choice.
Suffering From Lack of Sleep
There is also evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation motivates people to choose junk foods over healthy foods. When sleep is restricted, the primal reward center of the brain becomes more active while executive functions of the frontal lobes become more suppressed. This effectively diminishes willpower, making people more likely to seek out foods high in fat and sugar, which are logically poor choices that trigger the reward center.
People may also choose junk food simply because they have developed a mild physical dependence on it. Studies show that binge eating foods high in sugar or fat results in neurochemical changes in the brain similar to those that develop in drug addiction. According to a study published in “Physiology and Behavior” in October 2011, rats that habitually eat foods high in sugar and fat mentally crave more of those substances and experience withdrawal-like symptoms if they do not get access to it. After developing the habit, people may be neurochemically driven to choose junk food.
- Health Psychology Center: What Is in My Food?
- LiveScience: Why We Mindlessly Eat Junk Food -- and How to Stop
- The Wall Street Journal: Why Do We Eat Junk Food When We’re Anxious?
- Psychology Today: Insomnia Increases Junk Food Cravings
- Physiology and Behavior: Rats That Binge Eat Fat-Rich Food do not Show Somatic Signs or Anxiety Associated With Opiate-Like Withdrawal: Implications for Nutrient-Specific Food Addiction Behaviors