We all know that eating fruits and veggies is the right thing to do. We know that eating whole grains and lean meat makes us live longer and stay fit. We know that it’s important to watch our calories and work out. But sometimes, when the chips are on the table (or the bacon, or the mac and cheese, or the french fries, or the Oreos, for that matter), we sometimes forget about all of that and indulge a little bit because we love unhealthy food.
Most of these “comfort foods” are pretty bad for you from a health perspective, but we also know that eating comfort food feels really, really good. My love of cheesecake, for example, is the Minotaur I keep locked deep in the labyrinth of my mind, and to which I offer sacrifices of one slice – and one slice only – only when it’s offered to me.
But why exactly do we love unhealthy food so much? Why do we reach for fatty, sugary snacks more readily than a salad? The answer is pretty complicated, but it can be boiled down to simple biology.
The Science of Snacking
The foods we are drawn to naturally are typically high in fat, carbohydrates and sugars, which are some of the most potent and efficient biological fuels that the body requires. We have evolved to crave foods that readily offer up great stores of energy, and our bodies adapted to respond favorably to those flavors. That’s because they all contain the simple sugar, glucose.
Glucose is the basic necessity for producing energy in almost every biological organism from bacteria to trees to people. For example, human stomachs break food down into glucose, which is then brought to our muscles and brains to be burned for calories. It’s actually a pretty nifty molecule, chemically speaking. You need to know a little basic chemistry to get the rest of this, so bear with me for a second while I break down how these molecules work.
In the figure above, do you see those little spokes marked “OH?” Those each consist of one oxygen atom linked to one hydrogen atom. You can think of oxygen atoms like people holding hands – each oxygen atom only has two “arms” that can grab onto another atom’s arm. Those O’s are holding onto the middle of the molecule with one of their arms, and holding onto a Hydrogen atom with the other one.
But hydrogen atoms are a little slippery – sometimes they fall out of the oxygen atoms’ hands. Now, atoms are clingy, and any particle with free hands always prefers to have something to grab onto. If two glucose molecules with missing hydrogen atoms bump into one another, those two free oxygen atoms might grab onto each other. This is where you get Maltose – a basic carbohydrate.
Aren’t they cute together? But wait, there are still a few open hands… if a few more glucose molecules get together…
…you’ll get the backbone of a starch molecule. You can see how quickly this can get out of hand. Fats are essentially really long chains of these simple sugars linked end to end, which makes them excellent sources of energy, but your body needs to spend longer to break them up into glucose before they can be burned for fuel.
We have evolved to crave foods that readily offer up great stores of energy, and our bodies adapted to respond favorably to those flavors.
Your body prefers to burn smaller, simpler molecules first because they offer up energy rapidly with minimal hassle. Fat molecules, on the other hand, get saved for when there’s no simpler molecules to break up. It’s like firewood – if you already have some logs cut and ready to go, you’re not going to go out and chop down another tree. This is one reason we love unhealthy food.
The downside to all of this is that our evolutionary cravings are actually detrimental in our modern society. When you think about it, Americans have only had easy access to energy-rich food for around 100 years. Things like red meat and sweets were still sometimes tough to come by, even as close as the early 1900s. We haven’t learned how to naturally limit the urge to eat as much as we can in case we need it later.
When you’ve got access to a lot of food, your body knows that its calorie budget is firmly in the black. That makes your body naturally convert as much of the energy you eat as possible into fat, which serves as a long-term emergency energy source. Fat used to be an incredibly valuable resource when our ancient ancestors were surviving meal to meal. However, our ancestors got a lot of exercise hunting and gathering their food, and they sometimes had to go without meals when the hunting was poor. This meant that they had to burn any fat they packed on during the plentiful season to stay physically fit and active in the hunt.
For us, however, providing food for our families often means sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. Without the need to chase down our prey, we don’t need to stockpile carbs and fats anymore, but we still crave them. This is one reason why obesity is becoming such a huge problem in America – we naturally want more food than we need, and we have access to as much as we could ever eat.
Fighting the Fat
If you’re looking to change up your eating habits to get healthier, there are a few easy swaps you can try. The easiest and most effective way to tackle unhealthy eating is to switch over to versions of your favorite snacks that use unprocessed ingredients. For example, eating a sandwich that uses whole-grain bread with lean meat instead of grabbing a burger would be a pretty simple swap.
More complex ingredients actually take energy for your body to break up before it can be burned for fuel, so you only end up gaining a percentage of the calories. For example, protein molecules are tough to break apart into glucose, so your body actually uses between 20-30% of the calories the food offers while you’re digesting it. Whole wheat ingredients also consist of complicated carbs that your body needs to break apart before it can become glucose. This is how celery and some other veggies can have “negative calories,” since they actually provide less energy than it takes to eat them.
Modern fast food is designed by scientists to be as appealing as possible to our eating instincts – they offer lots of processed ingredients (which are jam-packed with simple sugars and carbs) and fats. There’s a reason that McDonalds is the biggest business in the food world – it’s because their burgers are designed from the ground up to be enticing to our eating instincts. They’re as close as you can get to bait for humans.
Healthy alternatives might not be as immediately satisfying as less-healthy versions, but studies have shown that unprocessed ingredients actually leave people feeling fuller for longer than their quick-and-easy counterparts. The slow, steady burn of those complex molecules actually works wonders for your energy level long-term, and it saves you calories in the process.
Recognizing Your Habits
Next time you reach for a bag of chips or think about going for white bread over wheat, think about whether you have an unprocessed, whole-food alternative available. Even that small adjustment, when you put it into practice regularly, can have a great impact on your overall health. We get it, you love unhealthy food.
Since weight, BMI and blood sugar levels are key factors in a life insurance application, switching to a healthy alternative regularly can actually net you lower prices on insurance coverage . If you’d like to check out where you stand, price-wise, get a quote here at Quotacy – it’s easy, simple, and anonymous. If you like the prices you see, we can help you find a life insurance policy that works for you.
Photo Credit to slgckgc
About the writer
Eric started in Quotacy's sales department, but moved to marketing after helping hundreds of people through their life insurance buying journey. Aside from writing about buying life insurance, he also edits Quotacy's monthly newsletter, runs our YouTube channel and produces Real Life, our podcast. Eric lives in Minneapolis, where his coworkers are trying to convince him to take his humor into the spotlight. Connect with him on LinkedIn.