Why is our brain programmed to like sugar, salt and fat if it’s bad for our health?

Just when you thought you’re winning the battle on slimming down until the enemy starts dropping your kryptonite, chocolate-glazed donuts, a bag of potato chips, and a cheeseburger. Game over! You lose.

Food has superpowers. Who can resist the sweet, buttery smell of doughnuts that invites you to nibble? Or the thin, crisp, fried potatoes with French onion deep calling your name? Can you turn your back at the juicy beef patty covered with a slice of cheddar cheese, mustard, catsup, mayonnaise, onion, and pickles wrapped in a freshly baked bun? These heavenly goods don’t deserve all the blame for losing your diet. They have a partner in crime, no other than your brain.

It’s true. Your brain, not your stomach, makes you crave sweet, salty, and fatty foods. The culprit to our desire to indulge over milkshakes, Belgian waffles, and fast-food meals is a system of interconnected neurons in our brain, also known as the reward pathway. It turns out that very sweet of fatty foods bewitch our brain’s reward circuit in much the same way that the addictive cocaine and gambling do. (click here for more details)

Our cravings for sweet and fatty foods can be traced back to our evolutionary past when they were scarce. These calorie-dense and rare treats provided much-needed sustenance, and gorging was necessary for human survival whenever these foods are available. While we indulge in these treats, our brain learned to flood itself with feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Water and vegetables are readily available for our then-caveman self, which explains our less inclination to overeat these foods nowadays. (click here for more details)

For most of our pre-historic era, human beings’ primary challenge was getting enough food supply to avoid starvation. In our modern age, we face an entirely different problem: how to prevent overeating and weight gain.

Research shows that our brain’s reward circuit gets excited the moment we see a sugary or fatty food. The moment such a dish touches our salivating tongue, taste buds send signals to various parts of the brain and releases neurochemical dopamine that gives us an intense feeling of pleasure. When we frequently eat highly palatable foods, our brain gets saturated with dopamine that we eventually adapt by desensitizing itself. Consequently, the cellular receptors that respond to neurochemicals are reduced. When this happens, overeaters’ brains require a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure as they once experienced with lesser amounts of these foods.

Western-style diets high in sugar and fats are becoming a popular trend all over the world.  On top of obesity, three of the most well-known effects of a typical Western diet includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. (click here for more details)

The impact of adapting to this diet is now being felt in parts of the world that have not traditionally eaten these Western types of foods. For instance, obesity rates in China have increased from 1% to 20%. There are an estimated 120 million overweight and obese people in China, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, in the US, about 93.3 million or 39.8% of their adult population are obese.

Between 1990 and 2016, there was a 15% increase in Chinese with cardiovascular disease. In 2016, there were about 93.8 million cases of cardiovascular disease in China, more than double the number in 1990 and 3.97 million deaths, making it the leading cause of death in the country. Contrary to the 1985 statistics wherein 16% of Chinese children were malnourished, now there are as many as 15 million clinically obese children in China.

The healthiest diets are those with lots of fresh food, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a bit of saturated fat (red meat, whole-fat dairy products, and butter). The Japanese diet is one of the highly recommended diets. Rather than fried, their food tends to be steamed or simmered, and many are eaten raw. Another healthy option is the Mediterranean diet, which contains most legumes, seeds, whole grains, seafood, fish, and extra virgin olive oil.

Our lives may not allow us to avoid salt, sugar, and fat altogether, but ultimately we can decide what to buy, what to eat, and how much to eat.