How popular is fast food?
Fast food (and other sugary, fatty food) is popular in Australia and can be a leading cause of weight gain and ill-health.
Over 9% of Australia adults and 7% of children surveyed in 2017 / 2018 consumed sugary drinks daily (1). These were not specifically from fast food outlets, but the percentage is still very high.
In 2011–12, the adults surveyed were getting 33% to 36% of their daily energy intake from foods high in kilojoules, saturated fat, added sugars, added salt and alcohol (this was between 5 to 7 serves per day on average) (1). Again, this percentage does not only include fast foods – it would also include those bought in supermarkets (frozen burgers, ice-cream, etc.)
Why do we eat fast food?
Did you know that our cravings for junk food / fast food are actually encouraged by food manufacturers? They spend an enormous number of research dollars on this! Fast food and snacks contain fat, sugar, salt and other chemicals to trick our bodies into wanting more and more, and over-riding our “stop” signals.
This effort works well, because more than 50% of people report experiencing cravings on a regular basis (3). These can be cravings for sugar, salt, fat or caffeine and can often result in weight gain, food addiction and binge eating (4).
The good news is: if you are aware of your cravings and triggers, they are much easier to avoid. It’s also a lot easier to eat healthily and lose weight.
But why is fatty, sugary, salty food so appealing to us? It goes back to the way that some manufacturers design processed food. There is a specific combination of salty, sweet and fatty flavours called the “bliss point”. Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher, first coined this phrase and is one of the best known researchers who specialise in this area (2).
This salt, sugar and fat affects our brain in a similar way to drug addictions by triggering the reward pathways in our brain, and encouraging the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation and pleasure (5, 6, 9). This then encourages us to eat these foods again and again, due to context-dependent memory (7), as our brain remembers what made us feel good, and strives to repeat the experience by eating more of the food providing the “bliss point”, especially if we are feeling unhappy for some reason.
Studies on rats showed that when fat or sugar was eaten separately, the rats stopped eating when they were full. However when combined in the “bliss point” ratio, the rats ate the fat and sugar containing foods “compulsively”, and the more they consumed, the more they had to consume to get that same pleasure hit next time (8).
The specific amounts of fat, sugar and salt in foods such as crisps, chips, hot chips and fast food over-ride our natural “stop” signals. It can also include foods which we may not consider salty, fatty or sugary, but are found in fast food outlets – e.g. tomato sauce, dips, and mayonnaise.
The following diagram (6) shows how combining fat and sugar influences the pleasure that we get from eating these types of foods:-
As well as being highly engineered to trigger our dopamine response, fast food can also be highly processed and low in other nutrients.
Now that you are aware of this, it can be easier to resist fast food, and save money as well as improving your health.
So now you know that fast food eaters do not lack willpower! Fast food is using our inbuilt brain pathways to trigger over-eating, and cravings. You now have the knowledge to avoid the “bliss point” foods, and start improving your health and nutrition.
© Lisa Billingham, 2020
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- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019). Poor diet. Cat. no. PHE 249. Canberra: AIHW. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/food-nutrition/poor-diet
- Moss, M. (2013). The extraordinary science of junk food. New York Times, 24 February. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
- Gendall, K. A., Joyce, P. R., & Sullivan, P. F. (1997). Impact of definition on prevalence of food cravings in a random sample of young women. Appetite, 28(1), 63–72. https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.1996.0060
- Gendall, K. A., Joyce, P. R., Sullivan, P. F., & Bulik, C. M. (1998). Food cravers: characteristics of those who binge. The International journal of eating disorders, 23(4), 353–360. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1098-108x(199805)23:4<353::aid-eat2>3.0.co;2-h
- Johnson, P., & Kenny, P. (2010). Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neuroscience 13, 635–641. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2519
- Willner, T. & Moncrieff, F. (2020). Can’t stop eating junk food? Here’s why. Second Nature. https://www.secondnature.io/guides/nutrition/cant-stop-eating-junk-food
- Brewer, J. (n.d.). A simple way to break a bad habit. TED Talks. https://embed.ted.com/talks/judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit
- Johnson, P. M., & Kenny, P. J. (2010). Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature neuroscience, 13(5), 635–641. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2519
- Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 16(4), 434–439. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e328361c8b8
- Featured photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash