Most of us know that fast food is bad for us—contributing to obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But did you know that fast food can also affect your brain, quickly turning you into a fast-food addict—someone helplessly compelled to overeat this unhealthy fare? Plus, eating fast food can lead to mental issues such as depression, chronic anger, lack of focus and much more due to the toxicity and nutritional deficiencies it causes.
WHAT EXACTLY IS FAST FOOD?
“Fast food” doesn’t just mean the food you buy at a fast-food restaurant chain. It can be any commercially made, highly processed food that you can get fast, eat fast and digest fast.
Fast food is typically highly flavored and delivers lots of calories but offers few vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (the active compounds found in plants). It’s high in harmful ingredients such as sugar and white flour (which is quickly converted to sugar)…salt…unhealthy oils…artificial ingredients, including artificial color and flavor…preservatives…and thickeners. Plus, it’s low in fiber.
Examples of fast food other than a burger and fries: Most deli sandwiches, frozen pizza, many breakfast cereals, a bag of chips, cookies, candy and soda. You might be surprised to know that plenty of organic packaged foods also fall under the fast-food category.
Startling: The majority of Americans get more than half of their calories from fast food.
Fast foods can be as addictive as cocaine and other drugs. Food manufacturers design them that way so you’ll buy more of their products. How they hook you…
The low-fiber calories from fast food quickly flood the bloodstream—a typical fast-food meal is absorbed far faster than a serving of beans. That rush of calories produces a surge of dopamine, the neuro-transmitter (brain chemical) that gives us feelings of pleasure. In fact, the amount of pleasure we derive from eating a food directly correlates with the amount of dopamine released in the brain. To repeat and sustain these pleasurable feelings, you desire and eat more fast food.
Additionally, dopamine levels that skyrocket daily quickly lead to dopamine insensitivity—the same amount of dopamine no longer creates the same amount of pleasure.
Upshot: A person who eats a lot of fast food, will crave fast food…overeat fast food…and become literally addicted to fast food.
Trying to break the cycle of overeating fast food is like trying to stop taking drugs. When you stop eating fast foods, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms as your body starts to detoxify—you may feel shaky, weak, fatigued, headachy, anxious, irritable—and crave more fast food to end those symptoms.
THE MALNOURISHED BRAIN
Modern medical science regularly warns that eating fast food can cause heart disease, fatty liver and kidney failure but ignores the fact that fast food also affects the brain—our most vulnerable organ.
Multiple studies have found a link between an unhealthy diet and impaired brain function and emotional problems. Depression and other mood disorders don’t have one specific cause, but research shows that a bad diet can be a major risk factor.
Recent research: A meta-analysis including studies from 10 countries published in 2017 in Psychiatry Research found that a diet high in refined grains, sweets and red and/or processed meat is associated with an increased risk for depression.
Additionally, anger, irritability and aggression…mood swings…poor concentration…brain fog (mental confusion that can include lack of focus, poor memory and reduced mental acuity) and other mental problems can be caused by the toxins in fast food, and/or by the nutritional deficiencies that arise from consuming fast food regularly. Fast food is also linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
New research: A study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the brains of people who eat a sugary diet that floods the brain with glucose—in other words, a fast-food diet—have much higher levels of beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that accumulates in the brain and is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is an easy way out of fast-food addiction and the emotional and intellectual symptoms caused by eating fast food…
RESTORING BRAIN HEALTH
The first step in ending fast-food addiction is to start eating more high-nutrient foods—foods that contain all the vitamins and minerals we require, as well as the phytochemicals and antioxidants that allow brain cells and other cells damaged by fast food to repair themselves. Just cutting back on the fast food you’ve been eating is not sufficient—people who try to do this almost always fail.
My advice: Eat plenty of Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries and Seeds, or “G-BOMBS,” the superstars of the whole foods menu. To get more of these foods, include them in a big salad every day and add them to whatever you are cooking. Also: Make a big batch of vegetable-bean soup on Sunday, freeze several servings in pint-size containers, and eat it all week long.
By eating more high-nutrient, high-fiber foods, you’ll gradually develop less desire for fast foods.
Try to crowd out all the fast food you’ve been eating within one week. With this approach, withdrawal symptoms should last no more than three days. After four to six months, the taste buds—dulled by too much sugar and salt—will typically recuperate, allowing you to once again enjoy subtle natural flavors…and you will have lost your emotional attachment to fast foods.
Also: Whenever possible, don’t eat alone! Research shows that when people are isolated and lonely, they tend to make bad food choices. When you’re experiencing love and connection—and the positive reinforcement and encouragement that go with it—it’s much easier to choose healthy food.
Helpful: Join a group (in-person or online) of others interested in eating healthfully so that you can encourage one another. Check with your local health-food store or cooperative, or look online for a Meetup group.