The Journal

Resolution to Stop Eating Junk? What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Halting the Desire

by Tracy Giesz-Ramsay, Interview Host & Neuroscience Writer

The behavioural and neurosciences often point to a key factor in the motivations behind our decision making: something called salience. The more negatively or positively we think about something, the more its importance and appeal either diminish or grow.

Dr. David Kessler‘s popular 2009 book The End of Overeatingjam-packed with cognitive research, investigates the pleasure-reward feedback loop within the brain in relation to what he calls “highly palatable food” (aka: high fat, high sugar, and high salt). In it, he describes how big food industry giants have calculatingly applied the knowledge of addictive behaviour to create foods we just can't stop eating.

By hijacking the brain’s reward circuitry, processed food companies have learned to trigger--or cue --our drive with external stimuli, create routine by offering a sensational experience of eating, and deliver reward that comes from the high sugars, salts, & fats that together release our brains’ natural opioids (otherwise called endorphins). The repetition of food consumption at every cue, conditions those triggers to equate to the endorphin reward. It’s an efficacious loop that locks in habit as is also detailed in Times columnist Charles Duhigg equally jam-packed behavioural sciences book The Power of Habit.

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more entrenched those neuropathways become with a physiological response to our environment. Over time, a cue (i.e. sight, smell, or thought of the food) will release a powerful neuro-chemical called dopamine that narrows our focus and increases our drive toward obtaining the food. Dopamine is so powerful that it can override the consequence-weighing thought process that takes place in the more developed ‘prefrontal cortex’ of the brain. Simply put: once you start, you can't stop - even if you tell yourself to.

Cues that trigger this drive toward food can also be an advertisement, a logo, even a holiday or emotion that we associate with these saturated foods. Eventually, all of these stimuli will drive us to reach for a food we’ve learned will deliver a reward, no matter the consequences or obstacles that get in the way.

In one study by researchers Paul M. Johnson and Paul J. Kenny, a group of rodents were given acces to highly palatable foods like sausage, cheesecake, and frosting. A second group of rodents were only given standard grass-based rat food. Once cued by the palatable foods, the first group of rodents would do anything to get it: they were even able to endure the fear of an electric shock on the way to obtaining the palatable foods, whereas the second group of rodents were deterred from eating by their fear of the electric shock. Once cued, dopamine is that powerful.

The good news is that we’re not rats, and yes, this can be rewired. If highly palatable foods, and repetition can both increase our dopamine-fuelled drive towards eating, how can we use salience to rewire our drive for healthy foods? Repetition, also known as ‘operant conditioning’ (as illustrated in the widely written about ‘Pavlov’s dog experiment’) actually becomes more effective in training our automatic eating behaviour when we increase a certain food’s salience: if we think positively about a food, we set up an emotional cue that drives us to eat it. On the flip, if we consistently think negatively about a food, we can decrease its salience. Repeatedly associating a belief that sugars and additives destroy our health, with the foods that have been manufactured to hijack our reward systems, will help to slowly beat those cues.

This helps explain why it is so absurdly difficult to cut out cupcakes if deep down inside we continue to tell ourselves, “Even though it’s so yummy, I'll hold off today”. We’re increasing both anticipation (another feature of dopamine) and the cupcake's salience by way of denial and desire.

Rather, we can use the science to learn new associations: if the sight of a big bag of greesy Cheetos nauseates, and the sight of a freshly blended Tropical Green smoothie excites with the opportunity of both taste and nutrition for a sharp mind and healthy gut, we can eventually rewire our brains to seek the latter, and happily find the cues for the former will stop holding such power over our food choices.

To help decrease the salience of manufactured junk foods, and to help increase the salience of plant-based foods, the following are a perfect start:


Fed Up

Forks Over Knives


Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead

Food Matters

King Corn


The End of Overeating

Salt, Sugar, Fat

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Third Plate

In Defense of Food

Tracy Giesz-Ramsay is a writer currently focusing on the neuroscience of addiction and mental health, and host of the conversation and portrait series Capture Queue