I ate at McDonalds last night, breaking a self imposed ban on fast food that has lasted almost 6 months. The ban is for many reasons, health primarily but also due to my concern about our food supply and the effects that factory farming are having on the world. All that aside, on our way from urgent care to the ER (nothing serious) I had to get myself and my son some dinner, quickly. While I knew that McDonalds would be his choice, it was also my choice, without even thinking about it. The situation dictated something fast and comforting, my brain, and my car went to McDonalds. Within the same two block stretch there is a Burger King, a Wendys, a Taco Bell and a Subway.
While I have been trying to avoid all of those places for the same reasons, none of them were even a real option compared to the almighty golden arches. Outside of a hangover, where McDonalds cheeseburgers and a Coke are the thing I crave most, I don’t even really think about McDonald’s as an option to get something satisfying and delicious. So what is it about a stressful situation that drives me right into the loving arms of Ronald and friends?
What is the connection between fast food and comfort? Studies have shown that the same chemical processes in our bodies that lead to drug addiction, can be triggered by food, notably high fat, high salt/sugar foods. Eating these foods can release dopamine and dopamine can induce reward seeking behavior. Once the association between high fat, high calorie foods and pleasure is made, it can be a hard habit to kick. Unfortunately just like continued drug use, when your body creates dopamine more often, the dopamine receptors in your body can get burned out from over use, which means it takes more dopamine (more food) to get the same reaction. Addiction similarities aside, it offers an explanation for the association between fast food and happiness, however brief that happiness may be.
Similar research shows that sleep deprivation and junk food can go hand in hand. The quick bursts of happiness produced by high fat foods can push you through a period of exhaustion, again reinforcing the connection between those foods and positive results. Considering how stressful exhaustion itself can be, it’s no wonder we crave foods that are bad for us when we are over tired.
As far as my own personal association between McDonalds and comfort goes, that is just my childhood. Burger King was around but never seemed to be in the right location for those times when fast food was the order of the day. I have such fond memories of McDonalds as a kid that even today, when I know a Shamrock shake would be enough to make me gag, I still have happy feelings when I think about them. McDonalds breakfasts in particular hold a special place in my brain. An egg McMuffin, a crispy football of hash browns and a raspberry danish were a little slice of heaven. Does anyone else remember when McDonalds danishes got impaled on a device that looked like an iron maiden? Heated metal spikes were jammed into the bottom of the danish, making the whole thing uniformly hot and delicious without melting all of the icing off. It was pretty magical to a young, plump lad.
Now it all makes sense, in a moment of stress, a lifetime of little bites of happiness brings me right back to the place where it all began. And with that, I can forgive myself for enjoying it.
How about you, what is your go to junk food of choice when times get tough?