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Many of us eat junk food, especially things like ice cream, cake and pizza, despite knowing we shouldn’t. Psychologists say the reason for this is to do with associations, habits and evolution. Photo: Shutterstock

Pizza. Cake. Ice cream. Why do we eat foods we know are unhealthy? Evolution plays a part, psychologists say, but mindfulness can help us eat better

  • Many of us eat junk food despite knowing it’s bad for us. Psychologists say reasons for this include habit, deep-rooted associations and primal urges for fat
  • Pausing, thinking and replacing ‘shoulds’ with ‘coulds’ when deciding what to eat can eliminate guilt and encourage responsible and often healthier food choices

I’m lactose intolerant and I know I should keep an eye on my cholesterol, but neither of these factors stop me from picking at a cheese board or ordering ice cream for dessert.

I’m aware while I am eating that my choices aren’t benefiting future me. I never feel good after, yet I keep repeating the cycle.

I don’t know why I keep doing it. I often swear that I’ll stop. “No more cheese,” I say to myself, or, “I’ll stay away from sugar.” But somehow, even with the restraints I put on myself, I still want what I “shouldn’t” have – sometimes even more.

I’m not the only one who struggles with this. When I shared my problems with this decision-making process on Twitter, several users replied with their own stories about foods they consume despite being better off staying away from them.

Cheeses like Camembert, while not necessarily healthy, are a go-to snack for many of us. Photo: Shutterstock

Zach Honig wrote that even though he knows he’s susceptible to gout, he still indulges in red wine, rich foods and beer. “I just deal with the gout attacks from time to time.”

Like me, Victoria M. Walker refuses to give up dairy. And @ACHolliday replied that they have cysts and aren’t supposed to drink coffee, but sometimes they still do because it provides “comfort”.

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Sean Devlin added that food helps to get through the “slog” of the daily grind. Another user, @pablopaycheck, said they choose to eat foods that maybe they shouldn’t “Because yoloooooo”, meaning because you only live once.

Why do we keep choosing foods that we shouldn’t?

The answer isn’t clear cut. There are a variety of reasons we choose to eat what we eat that depend on the individual, their circumstances and other factors.

There’s a spectrum when it comes to healthfulness and food. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, says David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute in the US.

But there are less healthy foods that we choose to consume even when we can foresee negative consequences like stomachaches or higher cholesterol levels, down the line.

“Some people actually think about it – they might [perform a mental] cost-benefit analysis … ‘What am I going to get from this? What does it cost me?’ and they make a decision based on that,” Creel says.

David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. Photo: Cleveland Clinic

But that’s not how everyone’s brain works. For others, habit plays into the decisions they make. “A lot of people, they just kind of do what’s familiar to them, and they don’t do it with a lot of thought.”

What happens in the brain when we choose to eat something? Two areas are stimulated during the eating process.

“We know from people who do brain research that there tends to be two different drivers: liking food when we eat it – our brain responds and we can see that through imaging – and there’s also a ‘wanting’ piece,” Creel says.

Both are important. If someone is having a craving, that’s a “wanting” experience. It’s similar to when someone who smokes is asked if they like to smoke. They may not “like” to, but they do crave a cigarette. Certain emotional states may cause you to crave specific foods, too.

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The “liking” experience comes after eating or experiencing a food. Sometimes, liking and wanting feed into each other, but they happen in different areas of the brain, Creel explains.

The physiology of how we decide what we want to eat is complex. It also varies based on who is making the choices.

So, what are some of the factors that play into the way we choose food if we aren’t actively assessing what the outcome of our eating decisions will be?

Foods that taste good and seem “fun” are appealing to us.

“The reason we consume those things that we shouldn’t for whatever reason is typically driven by taste or flavour,” says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, in the UK.

“It’s hard to resist the temptation of the sugar, or the salt or the fat.”

Professor Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. Photo: University Of Oxford

And part of why foods taste good is based on the associations we make with those foods.

“I ask my patients a lot: ‘What would you describe as a fun food?’ And things like pizza, or ice cream or cake, they come up,” Creel says.

Another association might be how comfort foods are identified. Creel associates home-made buttermilk biscuits with his grandmother. Conditioning from our upbringing contributes to how we associate food and when we want it.

So, it might not even be the food’s flavour or taste that appeals to us as much as the association we make with the food, Creel says.

Some people are drawn to certain foods because of childhood conditioning, and positive feelings that they associate with them. Photo: Shutterstock

Spence says that, as humans, we tend to prioritise what happens in the present over anything likely to happen in the future. People “might be drawn more to the reward of those … typically great-tasting foods in the moment because we weigh that more heavily,” he explains.

How we choose what we consume also has to do with human history and evolution, according to Spence. The human brain, he says, will pay more attention to foods that are energy-dense, with extra attention to those high in fat.

We’re evolved, he supposes, to find those foods attractive because at one point they were essential to survival.

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Long ago, perhaps people were struggling to find sufficient food. But now, many of us live in a “food-rich environment”, Spence continues, explaining that some of the foods are more energy-dense than we need now.

“The brain evolved for feeding, foraging and fornicating,” he says, noting we all find it hard to override what he calls “ancient urges”.

How do we change our decision-making process if we aren’t happy with the choices we’ve been making?

Being mindful and substituting “shoulds” for “coulds” is one way of setting yourself up to make better food choices. Photo: Shutterstock

Creel says he often encourages patients he sees to pause before taking action and consider their choice – not to see anything as “forbidden” but as two options that could have different outcomes.

“If you tell yourself ‘I should have one thing’ and ‘I shouldn’t have another thing’, it kind of sets us up to not do well,” he explains.

For example, if we say to ourselves “I should have an apple” and “I should not have cake”, you either eat the apple and feel like you missed out on the cake, or eat the cake and feel guilty because you didn’t eat the apple.

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But if you look at these choices while weighing the outcomes, your actions will likely be different.

Changing “shoulds” to “coulds” gives you freedom to make the decision while removing any guilt, Creel says.

So, if you “could” have an apple or you “could” have cake, your decision might look more like this: you could choose to eat an apple that you think you will enjoy, or you could choose to enjoy the cake because it’s your favourite kind – and you don’t have guilt because you consciously came to the conclusion that eating the cake was worth it.

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Making mindful decisions doesn’t just eliminate guilt. Creel says that it may also lead you to avoid less healthy choices.

Being mindful can enhance the enjoyment of all kinds of foods, he says.

“I think it can really help on both sides of the equation – it can be helpful to not over-consume unhealthy foods, and can help promote the consumption of healthier foods.”