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Why Does Unhealthy Food Taste So Good?

Neha Deshmukh Mar 9, 2020
Ever wondered why only the food that makes you go mmmmm... is called 'bad'? Read this story to understand why...

Did you know?

In general, the bitter taste receptors on our tongue are the most sensitive, whereas, the sweet and salty ones are the least.
Broccoli, spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts are all considered healthy. Loaded with minerals, vitamins, and fiber, they are a dietitian's dream - a dietitian that hates you and wants you to be miserable by taking away all the sweet pleasures of life.
On the other hand, stuff that you love, - fries, burgers, desserts, and even red meat - are right at the bottom of the food pyramid. Called junk food, these, the health experts say, should not be consumed more than once a week, that too in moderation. I guess, like me, you are wondering why only the food that is so flavorful is always considered bad!
The reason is that, most 'tasty' foods are high either in fats, sugar, or salt; or some combination of them. And the reason our taste buds prefer them, is that we have evolved to love them.
Our ancestors didn't live in the prosperous times that we live in, and back then, these three things weren't so abundant. So, prehistoric man and his body learned to value and preserve them.

Fatty Foods

There is a huge list of foods that are rich in fats, and we love to eat them all. But, a few popular ones are mentioned here.
Also, add anything to this list that is fried, and things that you would describe as 'greasy' or 'creamy'.

Fries, Fish and Chips, Donuts, Pizzas, Cheesecake, Pastries, Bacon, Salami, Burgers, Milkshake, Ice cream
The reason we love to eat fatty food -
They store energy. Fats are very high in calories - they contain twice the calorie content of carbohydrates. But since they take longer to digest, the body likes to store them for use when we don't have enough food.
Our ancestors' food supply was very irregular. The day they killed a mammoth, for example, there was enough food to feed the tribe for several days. But that happened pretty rarely, hence, our ancestors evolved to store as much as they could, and depended on the fat stores in times of food shortage.
The person whose body was most equipped to store fat, was, by an evolutionary point of view, the fittest. He/she could survive through the harshest of times, and hence, our brains and taste buds love fat.

Foods High in Sugar

These of course, include the usual suspects - desserts and assorted cakes, especially those with icing and Jell-O. But flavored milk and yogurt are also high in sugar.
Many products also contain high-fructose corn syrup, which ultimately is sugar in biological terms.

Cakes, Cookies, Ice cream, Donuts, Cream-filled Biscuits, Jam, Packaged Juices, Carbonated Drinks, Candies, Chocolates, Most Desserts, Flavored Milk
The reason we crave sugar -
For our body, sugar is energy. Always on the lookout for food, ancient man also was an expert at detecting the most energy-rich sources.
Usually, this meant ripe fruit, which are sweeter and easier to digest than unripe food. Many scientists speculate that sweetness is also a sign of abundance. Hence, when we eat something sweet, the pleasure receptors in our brain are activated, releasing dopamine. In fact, the effect of sugar is linked to drugs like heroin.

Salty Foods

Chips and crisps are high in salt, but many preserved meats and packaged foods also contain excess salt.
If you read the label, you will find that even things which have a sweet taste have some amount of salt in them.

Chips, Crisps, Packaged Nuts, Crackers, Fries, Pretzels, Salty Biscuits, Popcorn, Salami and Cured Meats, Cheese, Pickles
The reason we like salt -
It was not available like how easily it is now. Salt is the best source of sodium, a mineral essential for the muscles and nerve cells to work. Besides table salt, sodium is only found in small quantities in animal blood, meat, and eggs.
Hence, it was prized, and actively craved for. Some scientists also speculate that it releases dopamine in the brain, much like sugar.

The Psychology Behind Our Love of Unhealthy Foods

Kids often get treats - sugary or fatty foods, as a reward for being 'good'. This gets fed to our brains again and again, until we finally associate these foods as something coveted and prized. We often see this happen in adults too - when under stress or emotional distress, a lot many people find comfort in food, and more often than not, food that is tasty and unhealthy.

And, Why Do We Hate Greens?

Most green vegetables - broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc., are bitter. Again, the unpalatability of these foods is based on the food available to our ancestors. Most poisonous plants are bitter in taste, and hence, evolution made sure that our brains are simply hardwired to dislike them.
Besides these, there are also processed foods. These are rendered bland in the processing, and hence, manufacturers add all kinds of flavors and taste enhancers to make them palatable again.
But, processing also destroys vital nutrients - all you get from processed foods are empty calories. For this reason, many processed food items are also considered unhealthy.
Many of the 'bad' foods, might in fact be full of vital nutrients. Take the example of salt. But what makes food really unhealthy is the quantity we consume them in. Anything in excess is bad for us, but our modern amenities make it so easy to have a variety of different treats, that it becomes difficult for us to resist them.