We are all born with a propensity to seek food that knocks our socks off. In our historical world of hunters and gatherers, this was a biologically necessary tool for survival. In our modern world it’s a prescription for…. prescriptions. Whole natural foods that are high is salt, high in calories, and contain sugar (like bananas, grapes, nuts, seeds, beans, etc) give us a nice hit of dopamine, initiating a pleasureable experience. We perceive this as tasting good, and our brains use this primitive pathway to learn which food is likely to keep us alive. For example, we learned to seek the coconut and bypass the dandelions. Having had pleasurable experiences from coconut a few times, we start to crave the coconut.
The trouble is, of course, that processing food changes everything. By grinding up, cooking down, isolating, and consuming just parts of the whole food, our brain really gets an artificially high release of dopamine, tricking our brain into wanting more and more. Betcha can’t eat just one, right? I’ve talked about this before and there are some amazing resources that can explain it in fabulous detail if you’re interested. But I remind you here because it’s extremely important to keep in mind when you’re having trouble resisting junk food. And it’s super important if you’re trying to feed kids without losing your mind.
See, I don’t believe kids are inherently picky. I think they’re all just born with the same primitive brain as everyone else. The brain learns to like certain foods that it becomes exposed to. I don’t condone animal testing but for the purpose of discussion I’ll entertain the following scenario. If you had a tiny human in a lab and only served him spinach and bananas, rice and beans, and enough nuts and seeds for a well balanced diet, he would eat those things, wouldn’t he? His choice would be satiation or starvation. One thing I think we can all agree on is that he would not choose to starve himself and die. His brain wouldn’t let him. Given the one and only option to eat whole natural food, this tiny vegan would do just that. He would actually crave that diet.
Now, take another tiny human and offer her the same diet. Once she is also surviving and thriving on that diet, offer her some cheese, maybe pizza, and some ice cream. Offer candy and pop. These foods are all high in calories from fat or sugar and they’re all high in salt. This is a magical trio (created from lots of nutritional science and taste testing) that will ensure our test subject is going to get a super dopamine hit. Therefore she will learn to not only like those new foods but prefer them. Once she is used to the calorically dense foods, offer her the old diet – spinach, bananas, rice, and beans. Does anyone know a tiny human that would prefer the latter after exposure to the former? It’s not rocket science, it’s brain science. It’s very basic. And it’s very real.
Our natural human instincts are there to serve us well. We gravitate toward sweet, salty, or fatty stuff because it sets off fireworks in our sweet little brains. Through no fault of their own, kids are learning to crave food that will fill them with calories and make sure they’re covered for the next famine. Only, the famine won’t be coming. What’s coming is the next birthday party, sleepovers, family gatherings, pizza party Fridays, play dates at the amusement park, or just plain snacks – all day, every day.
The great news for pregnant women and parents of infants or toddlers is that you have the perfect opportunity at your fingertips to control your tiny human’s exposure starting today. If you’re an adult and now see that ice cream and cheese and brownies are detrimental to your health and causing some serious emotional distress and health problems affecting your daily life (check out this supermom’s story!)… Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you never even knew what those things tasted like? You wouldn’t miss BBQ potato chips if you had never tasted them. You wouldn’t drool over brownies or feel compelled to pull into DQ. You have the opportunity to mold your little ones to actually prefer healthy food, not just choke it down while they’re pinching their noses!
In order to survive and thrive in our modern world, we need to find ways to get back to our natural brain chemistry. It can be done! It just takes a bit of discipline, a lot of determination, and oodles of communication with the other people you or your kids come into contact with. The first step is finding ways to feed your brain more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. The more you can change that balance back toward whole natural foods, the easier it will be to resist the junk food and squash the cravings.