Why Is Fast Food So Addictive?

If your town is anything like mine you’ll see the myriad takeaway wrappers strewn along the subway and carpeting the skate park most mornings. It’s worse at the weekends and the McDonalds logo always figures highly. The population is hooked on this stuff but why is fast food so addictive? Well, turns out it’s chemistry …

Why Is Fast Food So Addictive?

 We’re hooked on fast food because it hits multiple chemical pleasure points in the brain and releases dopamine which is the same chemical that cocaine triggers to give you that euphoric high. Also packed with ‘empty calories’ you’re never quite satisfied, coming back again and again for your salty, sweet hit. 

Why is fast food so addictive? (McDonalds fries packet discarded on the floor).

Although why so many feel compelled to drop their takeaway packaging on the ground is beyond me I’m afraid.

Going way back in time for a moment …

It was drummed into me as a kid never to drop litter and growing up I always adhered to this. I never threw a crisp packet or empty can out of the car window. If there was no bin nearby I’d always take my rubbish home with me or find a bin somewhere.

Related: Is It Ethical To Raise an Obese Child?

So it saddens me deep inside when I see the McDonalds burger wrappers and little red cardboard fries packets just discarded on the ground where the ‘diner’ happened to finish up with their unhappy meal.

I know it’s not exclusively the fault of the scary clown but I wonder why McDonalds’ customers in particular seem so unfazed by dropping their disgusting mess on the ground. Worse still, there is usually a bin within a few feet of the scene of the crime!

Ok … vent over … sorry.

You can probably tell I’m not a massive fan of takeaway food 🙂

But fast food really is a scourge of the developed world and worse still, the developing world is catching up fast.

It’s Fully Loaded With Dopamine Bliss Bombs!

Why is fast food so addictive? (Juicy burger with flames in the background).

There’s no doubt people are addicted to fast food. Why? Because it has all the elements needed to set the human body’s pleasure centres racing!

Loaded with saturated fat, salt and sugar alongside very minimal nutritional value, this calorie laden delight speaks to the primal in us. It triggers an actual dopamine hit when you eat it.

… that is why it is so addictive and you keep coming back for more!

Dopamine is a chemical messenger synthesised by the body. It sends messages between nerve cells acting as a neurotransmitter. It is closely associated with how we experience pleasure.

Combined with the fact we humans have a hard coded, primal survival urge to fill up on fatty foods whenever possible, fast food has pushed all our buttons in glorious technicolour.

The results are all around us for everyone to see …

I’m pretty sure I heard the other day that if the UK continues on our current trajectory, we will be the most overweight country in the European area.

Fat, Salt, Sugar & Chicken … Lots Of Chicken

Why is fast food so addictive? (Discarded McNuggets box).

You know things have gone a bit too far when people felt they had to call the police after KFC ran out of chicken a few years back.

Yes … this is actually true!

Back in 2018 the UK police had to issue a press release to ask the public not to call them about the chicken crisis at KFC. I mean, it’s simultaneously hilarious and very troubling!

According to the Animal Kill Clock we will slaughter over 1 billion chickens this year in the UK alone. By far the greatest number by animal type, excluding sea creatures.

It’s hard to imagine how that is even possible. But we do it because the nation is addicted to takeaway chicken. Particularly chicken encased in the Colonel’s special recipe!

Recent political events have proven the general populace are easy to manipulate and when it comes to fast food, the attack is multi-pronged, with subconscious and more blatant efforts made to sell you as much of this junk as possible.

How To Break Fast Food Addiction

Why is fast food so addictive? (Multi-coloured depiction of neural cells).

This stuff is so very addictive that in some cases, when you try to quit, it can be like coming off a street drug.

In fact cocaine, for example, and fast food both act upon a common set of neural systems [1] and we know cocaine is highly addictive.

So it stands to reason that fast food addiction is completely possible and actually, highly likely in susceptible individuals.

The only effective way to come off cocaine is to go managed cold turkey and fast food addiction is similar. Ideally, you just need to stop eating it and deal with the fallout by ensuring you remain nourished and satiated.

It’s probably not quite as bad as cocaine in that the odd transgression is not going to throw you wildly off course but you will need to break that action / reward cycle.

This means limiting your fast food binges to no more than once a week, ideally less.

Why Not Learn To Cook Great Food?

Why is fast food so addictive? (Chef seasoning a dish).

Fast food has also become ubiquitous because we all lead such busy lives. Rushing around like blue-arsed flies all the time, on the hamster wheel of life.

People don’t have time to cook any more and takeaway food has filled the gap.

But the consequences of this are that we’ve lost the basic survival skill of cooking and preparing tasty, nutritious meals.

It’s a skill we should all have some knowledge of because there may come a time when you’ll need to cook yourself some food rather than rely on Uber Eats or whatever.

When you know how to put a really tasty meal on the table for your family which didn’t cost the earth to prepare, you have a valuable skill which will serve you well.

Furthermore, your kids will grow up knowing what real food is. They will develop a much more diverse palate and be less likely to fall into fast food addiction later in life.

The human body knows when it’s being nourished properly … it’s instinctive.

It’s Not Your Fault But If You Want To Change …

Why is fast food so addictive? (Scrabble words spelling out, 'Be The Change').

Slick marketing execs and geeky food technologists have combined in a perfect synergy to bombard you with fast food temptation.

For many people it’s irresistible!

But I feel people are now beginning to wake up and realise they’re feeding their kids utter junk. I know a McDonalds (un)happy meal is supposed to be a treat for the kids and it can be if it’s infrequent enough.

But some kids are living (and dying) on this stuff!

If you want to make a positive change for yourself and your family then you should and I can highly recommend a more plant based diet if that’s something you’re considering.

Rediscovering your culinary skills (or learning them for the first time) and moving to a more nutritious diet will work wonders on so many levels.

We owe it to our kids and our planet!

… and you can still have the odd fast food blowout once in a while!

I hope this article has helped you answer your question and if so, please share using the socials below. I’d also love to know what you think so please leave your thoughts in the comments at the end.

Have a compassionate day and thanks for reading!


[1] – Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019. Epub 2007 May 18. PMID: 17617461; PMCID: PMC2235907. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/



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