Fast food. You either love it, or you love to hate it.
Most fast food menu items, along with their cousins “junk food” and “highly processed foods” are pretty much the worst things you can put in your mouth. (I’m sticking to items generally recognized as edible, here.) Yet people do put these things in their mouths, repeatedly and often. Why?

The answer is not the same for all people, but all answers spring from one root. Unless you were raised in a nutritious household where real foods ruled, and managed to retain what you learned once you were cooking for yourself, you were assimilated early on into a processed food culture. I sure grew up eating a lot of soda, chips, French fries and other junk, even though we did eat our veggies, too. I shudder when I think of the crap my friends and I bought from the convenience store near our high school. Unless we were actively dieting. [Related story: Mark Bittman’s latest opinion piece on marketing junk food to kids.]
Some people manage to overcome junk food-riddled backgrounds, others don’t. I think those who don’t fall into two categories:

  1. People who don’t know any better. Every time I think that some basic level of nutrition knowledge has penetrated into society, I find out otherwise. Last summer, I was talking to someone at a party, and he had no idea what trans-fats were. Even though they had been all over the news for quite some time, what with NYC banning them in restaurants, and all. I gave him a “Healthy Fats 101” talk, which also included a lesser known bonus tidbit: Never, eat oil that’s gone rancid. Ever!
  2. People who can’t resist immediate reward. Fast food, junk food and highly processed foods taste good. They were programmed that way. Layers of salt on sugar on fat. That’s what we want, that’s what we crave, because we’ve been conditioned to (unless you grew up in that nutritious household). I am always stunned when I have a taste of a fast food burger or some potato chips or something equally junky, and I am equal parts repulsed by it and attracted to it. I enjoy eating healthy food, so most processed foods taste really fake or overblown to me now…yet on another level they still taste really good. It’s like a reflex. Fortunately, I’m conscious of it.
Good health has value beyond measure. I wonder pretty much continuously what it will take for people to start valuing good health more than they value the quick flavor hit of salt-sugar-fat.  When will people be willing to invest in their health by spending a little more time and effort putting together a meal than what it takes to hand over their money at the the drive-thru window or punch some buttons on their microwave?
So many people talk about eating healthier, want to eat healthier, try to eat healthier, but just can’t (or don’t want to) give up their unhealthy “favorite foods.” But healthy, real, food is delicious. The flavors can be more subtle, but are no less pleasing, than the knock-you-upside-the head tastes of heavily processed foods.
Saying goodbye to fast food and junk food does not mean saying goodbye to pleasurable eating. It can take some adjustment, but the shift to healthier eating will bring about new favorite foods. Not that the old favorites always stop being tempting…especially during that dangerous time when new, healthier lifestyle habits haven’t firmly taken root. During that time, it can be quite hard to say “no” to the more tangible promise of immediate rewards (tasty salt-sugar-fat combo) and “yes” to the more nebulous promise of long-term rewards (more vibrant health). An opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor last month described this dilemma quite nicely:
“From time immemorial, the crux of the problem has always been the same: the conflict between short-term rewards, which we seem hard-wired to value disproportionately, and longer-term goals. A pan of just-baked chocolate brownies sitting right in front of us, in other words, is simply a lot more compelling than a long-term desire to be slim. And we understand, perhaps instinctively, that one brownie – or one cigarette, or one more drink, or just one hour of procrastination – will have no material effect in the long run. Except to the extent that one leads to another, and we find ourselves someplace we never intended to be.”
We seriously need to change our values. I suggest a few mantras:
  • I value lifelong good health more than I value eating this bag of chips.
  • I value not feeling bloated in the morning more than I value the taste of these greasy nachos.
  • I value the feeling of sustained energy from eating healthy foods more than I value the taste of this candy bar, which is going to end up giving me a sugar high followed by a sugar crash.
I talked about sodium yesterday, and how the problem may not be the sodium, per se, but the fact that so many people are eating a lot of heavily processed foods, which almost always contain a lot of sodium. I eat mostly whole, real foods (quality meat, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, healthy oils), but when I do eat processed foods, I pay close attention to the ingredients (the fewer the better, and identifiable as actual food). If a food is high in sodium, I reject it. It’s not because I need to watch my sodium (I don’t*), it’s because when I see a high sodium level in the Nutrition Facts box, I think one thing: “If you have to put that much sodium in this food to make it taste good, then something is wrong with it, and it’s not worth eating.”
I’ll wrap up with this great quote from Conan O’Brien by way of a tweet from Mark Bittman yesterday: “Osama bin Laden is dead, which means the No. 1 threat to America is now the KFC Double Down.”
* My blood pressure is naturally on the low side (usually around 90/60 mmHg), so I don’t worry about seasoning my food with moderate amounts of salt, especially since I eat little processed food. A few years ago, I got the idea in my head that it might be a good idea to cut down on salt anyway. Then I started getting dizzy in any yoga pose that had my head pointed toward the floor. I went back to my usual salt habits, and all was well. Had I persisted, I’m pretty sure I would have ended up falling over at an inopportune moment.