Leia Kedem: Pull of junk food might not be 'all in your head'

How does fried eggs and bacon between a split glazed doughnut sound?

Dunkin' Donuts' latest addition to the breakfast menu might seem a bit crazy, but this concoction is anything but random. The Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich joins the ranks of Krispy Kreme cheeseburgers and bacon sundaes as yet another novelty food item designed to appeal to the American palate.

Food companies figured out long ago that items containing fat, sugar and salt are darn near irresistible to anyone with the ability to see and smell. Studies have shown that eating foods designed to highlight the "holy trinity" of fat, sugar and salt activates reward centers in the brain. In other words, junk food really can be addictive.

In terms of evolution, this makes sense. Getting pleasure from eating these items reinforces the behavior; that is, we will seek out these foods again and again because it makes us feel good.

At the same time, this ensures that we get extra calories to store for less plentiful times, increasing the odds of survival.

While doughnut burgers and sandwiches are extreme examples, the trifecta can be found in a vast array of items many of us eat on a regular basis. I personally can't say no to anything with chocolate and peanut butter. Chocolate is sweet, peanut butter is a bit salty and both have fat.

Other examples may not be so obvious, but chocolate chip cookies, nachos and pizza all follow this model.

Food companies know we love these foods and we will buy them. To boot, they also are cheap to make, which increases profits. Now I'm not blaming the corporations for America's obesity problem, but several issues arise here that cut to the heart of the American values we hold near and dear.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a citizen of this country who doesn't believe in freedom of choice. Ultimately, is it up to us to make that decision of whether or not to purchase and consume junk food?

Knowing what we do about the addictive nature of these foods, it might not be easy to "just say no."

Some also might argue that in the spirit of competition, companies have every right to roll out increasingly outrageous creations to drive up sales. The advent of the 24-hour drive-through and being bombarded with advertisements for junk food at every turn has also made it socially acceptable to consume treats morning, noon and night. Corporations argue that they are giving us what we want, but who really knows what's best for us?

Restrictions on food marketing to kids and recent efforts to limit portions of soda sold in New York highlight that there might be room for some government regulation. If junk food is addictive in ways similar to tobacco and other drugs, then perhaps some action should be taken.

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, thinks so — but not necessarily with regulation. In a 2009 interview with the Huffington Post, he notes that public health successes like decreasing the prevalence of smoking have not so much come from government restrictions. Rather, they have come from changes in public perception.

Kessler argues that it's critical to change how you look at food. It can be helpful to make a habit of saying something to the effect of "I'd rather have something else" when staring down the chocolate-dipped doughnut, french fries or frosted animal crackers. It might not work immediately, but over time, this can help rewire the brain.

Going cold turkey from favorite treats can be a recipe for disaster. In my workshops, I often tell participants to not think of pink elephants for one minute. Would you be surprised to know pink elephants were then the only thing they could think of? Repeating the "I don't want that" exercise can help gradually break the connection between food and reward. Lasting change comes from learning, repeating and practicing more desirable behaviors.

As for me, despite knowing the addictive nature of junk food, I'm not afraid to enjoy an ice cream cone or a slice or two of pizza. I still stick to my motto of everything in moderation.

Changes in food regulation and policy may not come for years, if ever. In the meantime, I challenge you to change how you see junk food. All foods can indeed fit, but to fit into your jeans, relegate indulgent foods back to what they should be: indulgences.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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