Why Your Cravings for Chips and Cookies Might Come from Mom’s Snacks

Food companies know how to tickle our taste buds with junk food — chips, cookies, candy, and the like — so it’s no wonder some people find it hard to resist. It turns out that these companies may be tapping into something a bit more profound than merely tempting us with tantalizing treats; they could be playing on our brain’s biology. Even if you may not know it, your attraction to junk food might have started before you were born.

The junk food effect on future generations

If your mother indulged in junk food while pregnant with you, this might have altered your brain’s neural pathways, making it more challenging for you to resist doughnuts, chips, sweets, and other unhealthy snacks. This unwavering allure starts when the brain responds to junk food — often filled with sugar, fat, or both — by releasing opioids (natural chemicals that trigger the secretion of dopamine, a feel-good substance).

Dopamine plays a crucial role in our mood, and its release in our brains often accompanies pleasurable activities, such as eating. For pregnant women who regularly consume junk food, their unborn child may need more of this type of food to feel satisfied compared to children from mothers who abstained from junk food.

In multiple lab studies, researchers discovered that a gene responsible for the production of an opioid called enkephalin operates at a higher level in the offspring of mothers who consumed junk foods during pregnancy. In a sense, this can lead children of junk food-eating moms to become “addicted” to junk food.

Understanding cravings

If your brain has been hooked on junk food since before you were born, does it mean you’re forever doomed to a life of uncontrollable cravings? The situation may be quite complicated, but there is hope.

To resist junk food, you need to understand how it affects your brain. Food cravings are one way your body signals a need for essential nutrients, but the danger lies in how companies design junk food, focusing on the perfect balance of salt, sugar, and fat that piques our taste buds. This combination tricks our brains into thinking we need more, not unlike how addicts crave for harmful substances.

Food addiction is a real issue, with some foods being more addictive than others. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted a study that showed certain foods are more potent in triggering addictive-like eating behavior. The following are some highly addictive foods (source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition):

  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • French fries
  • Pizza
  • Cookies
  • Chips
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Soda
  • Cake
  • Cheese

Breaking the junk food cycle.

Knowing that food addiction exists and realizing that you may be more susceptible to it due to early influences, there are actionable steps you can take to resist the temptations junk food presents, such as:

1. Plan your meals: Unhealthy cravings often come about when hunger strikes after eating poorly balanced meals or skipping meals. By planning nutritious meals and snacks ahead of time, you’ll feel more satisfied and be less likely to reach out for junk food.

2. Understand your triggers and coping mechanisms: Identify when and why you tend to eat junk food, devise strategies to address these triggers, and find healthier coping mechanisms like exercising, talking with friends, or practicing mindful breathing.

3. Go for healthier alternatives: There are numerous healthy snack options to choose from, like air-popped popcorn, nuts, or vegetable sticks with hummus, which can help beat junk food cravings.

4. Stay hydrated: Dehydration can mimic hunger and lead to junk food cravings. To avoid this, ensure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

5. Master portion control: Rather than trying to quit cold turkey, consider reducing the portion size of your favorite junk food treats to help wean yourself off them gradually.

Remember that overcoming junk food cravings is not an overnight process, and it may require some trial and error. Be patient with yourself, celebrate small achievements, and if you slip up, use it as a learning opportunity to understand triggers and improve your strategy. It may have taken years or even a lifetime to establish these cravings; give yourself some time to break the cycle.