What Makes Fast Food So Addictive?
Ask someone what their favorite cheat food is, and I’ll bet they won’t say a grilled chicken salad (unless, they’re making these salad mistakes). Highly processed junk food and fast food likely top the list. Me? I like a hot plate of crisp French fries, and I’m a dietitian. What can I say? Few people are above the influence of hyperpalatable foods, defined by researchers as foods rich in fats, sugars and/or salts and often comprised of synthetic combinations of many ingredients.
If the deck feels like it’s stacked against you, that’s because it is. Here’s why:
- Fast food is tasty by design. Experts recognize that we crave sugary, salty and fatty foods by evolutionary design. The double-whammy is that food scientists build upon this by optimizing the smell, taste, and feel of your favorite burger down to the crinkle in its packaging.
- Fast food is cheap and ready to eat. This is music to anyone’s ears, especially a working parent’s. Fast food clearly wins out over other dine-in restaurants as a convenient, low-cost option. Not to mention most fast food joints will reward you with better value for sizing up on a meal!
- Fast food uses slick marketing. Children are key targets for fast food marketing. About $4.6 billion is spent annually to convince kids to nag their parents for the latest happy meal toy. The positive emotions we have sipping cola and munching on chicken nuggets with our families build memories that can influence our future decisions to eat these types of foods again when we are stressed and want to feel comforted.
It’s still controversial to that say fast food is absolutely addictive. But, there are scientists out there arguing that highly processed foods can trigger artificially high levels of reward similar to other addictive drugs. Obviously, we all react differently to food. But, if you crave fast food beyond the occasional indulgence, it may benefit your health — not to mention waistline — if you cut back on your consumption.
8 Signs That Your Love of Fast Food May Be Unhealthy
Fast food is tasty — we get it. But, at what point do you roll from sporadic enjoyment into indulging at a rate that’s not healthy? Here are a few signs that fast food is more of a routine than a once-in-a-while cheat/treat:
- You crave specific fast food items often.
- You go out of your way to buy fast food.
- One bite of this type of food can launch you into a full-on binge.
- Being full doesn’t stop you from eating more.
- Your fixation on fast food is a source of guilt, depression, anxiety, or self-loathing.
- You want to eat less fast food, but have been unsuccessful.
- You eat fast food often even if you know it can harm your health.
- Withdrawal symptoms (such as headaches, anxiety, and sadness) may happen if you don’t get your fast food fix.
4 Strategies for Kicking Your Love of Fast Food to the Curb
If your consumption of fast food is standing in the way of a healthier, fitter, trimmer you, it may be time to make some changes. These strategies can help.
- Set boundaries between you and the trigger food. Write down the specific fast food item(s) that can trigger you to overeat or binge. Consider these foods blacklisted for a while. Don’t allow yourself to purchase them again until you’ve established a better relationship with them.
- Find non-food ways to deal with emotions. Food can be an emotional band aid for anger, depression, and stress. You can trade in your greasy pizza for journaling, meditation, or exercise to deal with negative feelings.
- Be prepared when you get late-night cravings. It’s 2 a.m. but you have a hankering for some popcorn chicken. A fast food craving can hit with poor timing, so make sure your fridge has a few healthy snacks like any of these 55 snacks under 150 calories. Better yet: Make it a rule not to eat in the middle of the night. If you have trouble sleeping, meditate, read a book, take a warm bath, or relax with low-key yoga instead of eating.
- Fill up on faux fast food. To kick your fast food habit, you may mentally slap a B-A-D label across all fast foods (not just the trigger foods mentioned above). This black-and-white way of thinking is restrictive, and can make it hard for you to rewire your relationship with fast food. Instead of going cold turkey entirely, try cooking healthier versions of your favorite fast food.
7 Healthier Fast Food Alternatives, Remade by Beachbody
Lucky for you, we have plenty of fast food and comfort food makeover recipes that can not only satisfy your craving, but can also move you toward your weight-loss goal. Beachbody recipes are designed to compliment the workout plans, such as 21 Day Fix, Body Beast, and P90X, that are available on Beachbody on Demand.
A small word of wisdom: If you’re someone who regularly eats fast food, the following remakes may not be to your liking right away. You’ll need to give your tastebuds time to adjust to lower levels of fat, sugar, and salt. Don’t worry, you will get there. Now get cookin’:
- Roasted Garlic & Rosemary Burger – Temper your burger craving with homemade beef patties. These are made with 95-percent lean ground sirloin that’s spiked with grated zucchini for extra moisture and fiber.
- Cookies & Cream Smoothie – Sip on this lighter version of a vanilla and chocolate cookie milkshake. You can settle your sweet tooth without overdoing the calories, fat, and sugar.
- Buffalo Chicken Tenders with Blue Cheese Dip – Enjoy spicy chicken tenders without the grease-soaked breading of traditional chicken wings. Cool your mouth down with a blue cheese dip made from yogurt.
- Almond-Crusted Chicken Fingers with Honey Mustard – And… if you’re really into crispy breading, we’ve got you covered, too. This chicken nugget alternative is a treat your kids will also love.
- Broccoli Tater Tots – Just like tater tots except they’re baked and filled with nutritious broccoli instead of starchy potatoes.
- BBQ Chicken Flatbread Pizza – Instead of stringy cheese, this pizza oozes with lean protein from chicken breast and black beans.
- Spicy Sweet Potato Fries – Baked sweet potato fries are a tasty take on traditional fries, plus they deliver a good dose of vitamin A.
But… Is Fast Food Cheaper Than Healthier Food?
In addition to cravings, another barrier some people need to overcome in order to eat healthier is the perception of value that fast food can have.
Contrary to popular belief, fast food isn’t cheaper than a simple homecooked meal. Obviously, energy-dense foods (think: chips, cookies, fast food) will appear cheaper than low-calorie and nutritious fruits, veggies, and whole grains. But, this method assumes it’s quantity of calories that makes us full, when, in reality, satiety also depends on the quality of calories consumed.
A great example of this concept: fiber versus sugar. Which fills your stomach more: One ounce of jellybeans (105 calories and 20 grams of sugar) or a medium-sized apple with the skin (95 calories, 19 grams of sugar, and 4.4 grams of fiber)? Even with roughly the same amount of sugar and similar calorie counts, the apple is more satiating because of its fiber and water content (not to mention it contains beneficial vitamins and minerals).
If you’re a savvy shopper, you can make cheaper fast food alternatives at home. It doesn’t take hard science to prove this — just a pinch of common sense. Mark Bittman argues that you can feed a family of four with $28 at McDonald’s (2 Big Macs, 1 cheeseburger, 6 chicken nuggets, 2 medium fries and 2 small fries, 2 medium sodas and 2 small sodas), or a family of six for $14 (1 roasted chicken plus cooked veggies, a side salad, and milk) at home. And 21 Day Fix creator Autumn Calabrese destroys the argument that fast food provides greater value than cooking at home in this video, where she makes dinner plus leftovers for the next day for herself and her son for just $15.
It’s a challenge worth trying!