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How To Kick Your Addiction To Processed Foods – Master The Taste Habit

Eating & MultitaskingIf your life is anything like mine, you’re always super busy. In my opinion there just isn’t enough hours in the day to read all the books I want to read, visit all the places I want to visit, eat at all the restaurants I’ve planned to try, and learn all the things I really want to learn. With so much opportunity and information in the world, I feel compelled to at least try to do as much as I can.

So like everyone else, despite some very convincing research suggesting I do otherwise, I spend a lot of my day multi-tasking. On the train each day I study French, stay up to date with current affairs, and tweet. While I cook dinner I often listen to audio-books or catch up with a friend on Skype (got to love smart phones!). In between clients, you’ll frequently find me doing research on the net, or pad and pen on hand sketching out my next blog post.

But there’s one thing I try never to multi-task, and that’s eating. Why? Because being busy while we eat is perhaps the worst form of multi-tasking we can possibly do.

Whether it’s sitting on the couch watching Friends reruns, reading or updating your Facebook status, all this entertainment means that we can’t possibly pay full attention to our food and therefore never fully taste what we’re eating. And this haze of partial awareness is the perfect environment for processed food addiction to flourish.

Why processed food is like crack cocaine.

When it comes to food, there are three flavours that in many ways are as addictive as cocaine.

  1. Sweet,
  2. Salty, and
  3. Umami.

In-case you’re not familiar with it, Umami is one of the 5 basic flavours along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It’s a Japanese word that’s translated to “pleasant savoury taste".  The umami flavour itself is naturally found in loads of different foods like cheese, cured meats and soya sauce, but there are sources that are much more intense, most of them artificial - like MSG and hydrolysed protein extracts.

You might find you like one of these tastes more than another, however just like with cocaine, when we eat something that’s high in one of these three flavours it triggers a surge of the chemical that controls pleasure in the brain- dopamine. We feel instantly gratified which feels great, but the minute the dopamine levels start to drop, which in the case of processed foods doesn’t take long at all, we start craving more.

Mixed messages of the modern world

The human body has evolved to be strongly attracted to these flavours and in the days of roaming the savannah it did us well to seek out foods with these flavours. Foods like sweet berries, meats, seafood and vegetables all gave us the flavours we craved along with the essential nutrients we needed to survive, plus a whole myriad of other not-so addictive flavours to enjoy simultaneously.

But in the modern day world of processed food-like products, this very strong evolutionary inclination towards these 3 addictive flavours is causing us a lot of problems.

Processed food-like products take advantage of your evolutionary preferences

In our modern largely capitalist societies where the number one priority in life is to make as much money as humanly possible it makes good business sense, at least if you are the CEO of a company that produces food-like products, to pump as much of these 3 addictive flavours into the food as possible.

But…. if you’re priorities lie in other areas, such as the health and vitality of your body, this might not be such a great idea.

A REAL look at Processed Food

While fried foods, chocolate muffins and pizza might come to mind, don’t forget that under the umbrella of junk food is any food that’s been significantly altered from the way it’s found in nature. That’s anything from bottled salad dressings and white bread, to chicken nuggets and low-fat crackers.

When you pasteurize, refine, dehydrate, can, vacuumed pack, concentrate or put a real food through any other industrial process, you strip it of all its naturally present flavour, fibre, phytonutrients, and most of the vitamins and minerals too.

It sounds crazy that manufacturers would go through all this effort, but it’s something they actually need to do. Think about it. Try leaving mashed potatoes, cake, or tomato salsa out in the open air for a few days. Not a pretty sight. The reality is fresh, nutrient packed whole foods don’t last long because the bacteria that make food rot love nutrients and breed like crazy if we try to keep them for too long. And that’s the primary reason food manufacturer’s process food. A processed food lasts for a whole lot longer than fresh which keeps waste to a minimum; it’s easy to distribute, keeps well sitting on humid supermarket shelves, and ultimately, leads to more profits.

But manufacturers need to go one step further because just processing for the sake of preservation leaves you with a food that’s neither nutritious or in any way palatable. In this state, you’d enjoy eating processed foods about as much as you’d enjoy eating cardboard. But of course food producers have found a few solutions to get around this little dilemma. Here’s what they do next:

  • Add isolated fibres and synthetic vitamins and minerals to make the product sound healthy and,
  • Add as much of the 3 addictive flavours; sugar, salt and umami in-order to trick consumers into thinking it tastes good, and of course, try to get their taste-buds hooked.

Pretty smart marketing right? *cough*

Why processed food makes us eat more

For whatever reason or personal justification, a large percentage of the population now rely on this processed food-like products to fuel their bodies on a regular basis. But this choice doesn’t come without a price.

When you eat “empty” processed foods that lack the naturally present fibre and nutrients of REAL foods, you’ll find yourself “starving” again within an hour or so because although you’re loading an extortionate number of calories, the body is simply not getting the essential nutrients it needs to fire up its metabolic processes. So your appetite switch never really turns off, and pretty soon you’re ravenous; and not for REAL food your body is crying out for, but the empty processed food you’re addicted to.

Another snack anyone?

The price you ultimately pay for your addiction and for the convenience is a high one. These addictive processed food-like products leave you forever battling with your weight, experiencing wild mood-swings feeling completely wiped of energy, and on top of all that, feeling guilty for each and every little morsel you eat.

Is that a price you’re really willing to pay?

How To Break The Processed Food Addiction

If you find processed food calling your name it really is time to kick the habit. So how do you do it? Here’s the secret:

Develop The Tasting Habit.

What you need to remember is, while the addictive salt, sugar and umami flavours are pretty intense to start out with, you’ll find that if you give each bite of food longer than 3 chews before swallowing and / or shovelling in the next forkful, you’ll find that these big flavours wear off and reveal the subtle flavours hidden behind them. And I think you’ll agree with me after you try the exercise I’m about to share with you that these background flavours are anything other than appetising.

I don’t know what it is, the artificial flavours, the colours, the rancid fats, or the shear absence of any natural flavour, but that ghost like flavour behind the sugar, salt and umami really puts me off. It’s like my “fake food” sensors are activated and I want to run as far as possible from the processed food-like products as I can. And it’s really difficult to stay addicted to something when it disgusts you.

6 Steps To Kick The Addiction & Develop The Tasting Habit

The next 6 steps apply to any food, high quality fresh real food, or processed food-like products. The Tasting Habit will not only help you crack the addiction with processed foods, but will bring out the full flavours in REAL food, some of which I bet you’ve never even noticed before!

  1. Do nothing else. When you eat, turn off the TV, sit at a table close the book or magazine, mute your phone and give your 100% attention to your food. You could also see this as a good opportunity to share some time with someone you love. If this seems like too much of a challenge, then sit in silence and do nothing other than taste what you’re eating for at least the first 5 bites before doing whatever you feel compelled to do afterwards.
  2. Look, smell and taste like a food critic. Ok, even if you’re not really a foodie you’ll do well to pretend you are for at least the first 5 bites. Pay attention to the colours, the aromas, the temperature, the texture and notice not only the obvious flavours but the subtle flavours that linger in the background.
  3. Slow down. Remember, the point here is to chew long enough to let the sweet, salty and umami do their dance and clear off the stage so you can taste what’s left behind. So take a bite, put your fork down (this is a lot harder than it sounds I know!) and chew that mouthful 20 times minimum.
  4. Ask yourself: what am I really eating here? Sure, so you’re eating chicken and veg, but zoom in closer. What’s really on your plate? Is it plain chicken breast and freshly steamed veg and a chunky homemade tomato sauce, or is it chicken that’s been covered in processed, additive laden crumbs and deep fried before being slipped into a beautifully designed box, all served with veg covered with a processed cheese sauce that was poured from a carton?
  5. Ask yourself: do I really like what I’m eating? If you ignore all the super enhanced flavours that hit you in the beginning, do you really, really like the food you’re eating? Do you feel proud about what you’re eating or do you feel disgusted? When you eat, you should feel great about it and you should feel great about yourself too. Part of that feeling is knowing that what you’re eating is safe and is the best you can possibly eat. Yet another question that’s great for when you’re getting towards the end of the meal is: do I like this food now as much as I did at the beginning?
  6. Stop when you feel full. Taking the time to really taste what you’re eating has another awesome benefit. It gives you a clear message about when you’ve had enough. While most of us will eat everything that’s put on our plate, when you eat in this way you’ll find that you want to eat less or sometimes more than what you served out. More often than not it’ll be a much better indicator of how much you really need than counting calories ever will.

Remember, if practicing The Tasting Habit from start-to-finish of a meal seems too much to start out with, then start by paying close attention and really tasting the first 5 bites. So each and every time you eat, make the first 5 bites count. Minimum.

Most people I work with find that that developing The Tasting Habit alone can drastically change the way they eat without having to make any other real effort.

They start finding the pumped-up, man-made, super-intense flavours that are slathered, sprayed or dusted over almost every processed food repulsive. The benefit here is if you no longer like something you’ll automatically eat a whole lot less of it. On top of this, like a detective, they find themselves “tasting” the processed crap that’s sometimes slipped into low-quality restaurant foods making it easier to dodge the crappy ones and spot good restaurants which serve food made with whole real foods, without having to grill the chef with 20 questions (although this is occasionally necessary!).

On a positive note, they report that developing The Tasting Habit allows them to have a greater appreciation of the flavours in meals made with fresh ingredients. And because they taste a whole lot better than processed food, they start eating more REAL food that fuels their body in the most efficient way possible. The benefit here is that when you eat mostly REAL fresh foods that you know are doing good to every cell in your body, you feel free to totally and guiltlessly enjoy each and every bite; and that makes eating truly a pleasure.

Do you have any processed food addictions you’re really not proud of? Fess up, and let me know if The Tasting Habit helps you kick the habit and find better alternatives to satisfy the craving.


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  • Heidi

    I love chocolate. I eat ANY sort chocolate! Thought id try this out as a test to see if I could pick the difference between some of the expensive chocolate, and the cheaper stuff (somehow I still had a few small chocolate eggs left over from Easter! Who knows how! lol).
    All I can say is that the difference was huge. Id never noticed how…not sure how to describe it but…’plasticy’ or ‘fake’ as you say the cheap chocolate was compared to the more expensive stuff. I then tried it with dark vs. milk chocolate. Although I havent gotten used to dark chocolate yet, i must say that there is a really big difference between the two. With milk chocolate all i can taste is the milk and sugar, not really any chocolate. But the dark chocolate really tastes like it claims on the label. Chocolate! ha!
    Will be trying to eat more dark chocolate from now on!

  • Yes, I love chocolate too!! And yes, my way of controlling this addiction has been to switch to dark chocolate. All I need now is a couple of squares of this yummy food to curb any cravings. It really works because we are eating the real thing and therefore our bodies are satisfied with less now!

  • Cheryl Sewell

    Yes, I did have a carving for sweet things, but the way the I managed to change that was to go without any foods containing sugar for three days, which was the hard period, but after that, I found it was so much easier as the days went on.
    Its been six weeks now since my last piece of chocolate or sweet item, and I can really taste foods that have sugar in them so much more easier. I was out visiting just recently and was offered a piece of cake, so I tried a nibble, but couldn’t eat it, it was just so sweet!
    So to think that I was eating sugary foods and not realizing what it was doing to me, but now I feel so much healthier and energetic, I feel great!

  • Pingback: Are Low-Fat Food Products Making You Fatter? | Feed Your Awesome Machine()

  • Elizabeth


    Just found this article and I’m so glad I did! Its amazing what a simple exercise can do!
    While reading this I was snaking on some boxed mac & cheese – I really tried not to think about “tasting” the undercurrent of flavor, but I couldn’t help but notice the lackluster mix of cardboard and plastic that seemed to be left after just a few chews. I couldn’t even finish my bowl.

    I’m delighted to find that I have such a simple way to train myself out of eating the junk I’ve begun to rely on as fuel. It may be the most simple task in the world, I’m just glad it works!! =)

    • Melanie Stephens

      Mac & cheese really is a great food for this experiment! I remember how much boxed mac & cheese I ate as a child, and I really never stopped to ask myself what it actually tasted like, if I had, I don’t think I would have eaten nearly as much! Keep trying it on everything else you eat too, you’ll be totally surprised about how great simple but healthy food tastes, like a fresh crunchy apple, or a juicy orange… 2 simple pleasures that are so under rated in our hectic modern lives.

  • Brian Walpole

    The ubiquitous presence of processed food in our diet is
    evidence that we no longer eat real, wholesome food. It is believed that junk
    food comprises between 60% – 80% of the average UK diet and despite being aware
    of its health hasards, 45% Britons don’t want to give up on it because they are
    hooked on the taste. These figures are certainly cause for alarm and should
    prod us to closely examine our lifestyles and the compulsions that have made us
    fall prey to the lure of processed food. Have shared my thoughts on how to
    determine which foods are bad for you in my blog post

  • Rachel

    I used to eat really well about 4-5 months ago, but I ended up losing my healthy diet of fish, whole grains, veggies, and lots of fruit when my mom got a new job and I ended up switching into a challenging class. I ended up switching back to the typical American diet and now it’s too the point where I’m exhausted at 8 at night every day when I used to be able to go a few hours longer. I have zits galore, greasy hair every other day, and a crap ton of guilt. I want to get back on track with eating healthy yet I seem to be more addicted than ever to processed foods and artificial sugar. I’m glad I found this, I’m going to start doing the Taste Test because it’s a brilliant idea and I know it will definitely help me with going back to a healthy diet. :)

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I’m Melanie Stephens a qualified nutritionist, chef and workout enthusiast who’s wildly passionate about helping people get healthy, lean and energised so they can lead truly exceptional lives of their own design.

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