Ultra-processed Foods: Willpower VS Neurobiology.

Hello everyone and welcome back! Today I have a post for you that I have been working on for the past couple of weeks. I love this topic and find it fascinating – I hope you do too.

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Many substances such as drugs, alcohol, and more recently, ultra-processed foods and social media, are designed to ensure we get ‘hooked’ and can’t resist them. Food companies and manufactures specifically design foods to ensure we can’t say ‘no’. With overweight and obesity levels at an all-time high (52% of the global population), it’s working. We can’t say ‘no’ to ultra-processed foods, and our health is suffering. Those who struggle with cravings or feel that they can’t say ‘no’ to a slice of chocolate cake or a takeaway, are seen as ‘weak’ and/or ‘lack willpower’. Those who are overweight or obese are branded with that same stereotype, but is that really what’s going on?

Do more than half the population function a little differently than the other half? Does this half just lack willpower?

Our neural networks are very much still wired to hunter-gatherer mode as we rely on reward-based learning. This means that whenever we eat a delicious meal, scroll on TikTok when we feel anxious or go out for a drink at the weekend, we are re-wiring our brains to look for that same reward over and over to alleviate stressors. Each time we feel a negative or challenging emotion we reach out for that reward (whether that’s food or a cigarette) to sooth this uncomfortable feeling. As we do this, we reinforce the learning that unhealthy lifestyle behaviours can manage negative emotions or situations. How can we possibly suggest that some lack willpower, when we are fighting against neural networks built to be very difficult to resist? How can willpower possibly compete?

Most drug and alcohol therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is the current ‘gold standard’ for addiction treatment focuses on changing cognitive patterns and behaviours. This therapy focuses on the ability of the individual to resist the addictive substances. Is this a losing battle?

Our brains aim to help us seek out food to ensure our survival. Yet, it cannot comprehend that for most of us, food is widely available and not just that, but highly processed and harmful. Our current environment has outwitted and outpaced the brain through the manufacture of ultra-processed foods.

Stress is a highly complex state and hugely alters neural operations. When faced with stress, the prefrontal cortex (cognitive control) is the first to go ‘offline’, which makes healthy food choices very difficult, especially when unhealthy alternatives have the potential to make us feel better right away.

Whether it is a positive or negative reward i.e eating a slice of cake or getting in trouble at work, both reinforce a positive feeling. The positive feeling (eating a slice of cake), makes us feel good. As we constantly seek out this emotion, we reinforce this behaviour and now know that cake makes us feel good. Similarly with the negative situation (getting in trouble at work), we can use the reward to make us feel better and to forget our worries. The brain remembers this too and it can become a destructive habit, creating a reliance on a substance that may have very negative consequences. See below a visual aid for this explanation.

Instead of relying on highly addictive substances such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, food or social media we need to create habits that can still make us feel good yet aren’t harmful to rely on. But what could that be?

Mindfulness and meditation can be one solution, a possible solution? As well as walking, healthy amounts of exercise, journaling, talking to loved ones about how you feel and eating a healthy meal. There is no ‘simple fix’. This concept is highly complex and one that will impact each person very differently.

If you feel inspired, consider evaluating these relationships for you. Could you benefit from shifting to a healthier, less damaging coping mechanism like mindfulness or meditation?

Let me know what you think of this post in the comments.

Thank you for reading and remember to follow along.




One thought on “Ultra-processed Foods: Willpower VS Neurobiology.

  1. Its a toxic combination ultra processed foods and reward pathways. Difficult to resist and really makes me angry that for so many years I thought I was just weak!

    Liked by 1 person

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