Junk Food Has Destroyed Our Ability to Know What to Eat

By Mike Pomranz |

© RubberBall / Alamy

Here’s a novel idea: Your body may actually be able to tell you what foods it wants and doesn’t want. That simple concept is the basis of research by Fred Provenza, a professor of ecology at Utah State University, who for decades has been looking into the ability of animals and humans to utilize “nutritional wisdom”—essentially, our body’s own ability to encourage us to eat the things we need to stay healthy.

Provenza was recently interviewed by Vox, where he discussed soon-to-be-published research that animals have demonstrated such nutritional wisdom, repeatedly showing a preference for flavors associated with nutrients they lack. But he explains that for humans, being nutritionally wise has become more complicated.

“The junk food industry has created artificial flavors and linked them with energy-rich refined carbohydrates like high-fructose corn syrup. That combination conditions strong preferences,” he told Vox. “So while the flavors of produce, meat, and dairy have become blander over time, processed foods have become more desirable. People have learned to link synthetic flavors with feedback from energy-rich compounds that obscure nutritional sameness and diminish health.”

The good news is that Provenza believes we can harness and essentially even reboot this natural phenomenon. “I think some people are simply more mindful, and thus aware of how they feel, than others. Of course, we can cultivate mindfulness and awareness in all we do, including eating,” he said, before later stating, “For many people, especially people who are on a diet of junk food, committing to eating only wholesome foods for several weeks and then going back to the junk food can provide a dramatic contrast that illustrates how both kinds of foods taste and feel. For most people, they will no longer like the taste or feedback they experience from junk foods.”

As Vox points out, many people have taken the idea of “food hangovers” as just a natural part of enjoying a meal. According to Provenza, the science says otherwise. If you feel bad after a meal, that’s probably just your body saying, “Dude, we seriously didn’t need that entire large pizza.”

Related: 8 Ways to Fake Being Outdoorsy 
5 Unscientific Reasons Why Breakfast Is Not the Most Important Meal of the Day 
Which Fitness Fad Is Right For You