Childhood Fast Food Addiction and How to Help

I used to eat a lot of fast food.

When I was a busy first grade teacher, I rarely made time to cook nutritious meals for myself. Instead, I would take advantage of my commute from the school to swing through the Crown Burger drive-through and order my usual: a large pastrami burger with fries (always cooked extra crispy, of course). It was a pretty bad habit. While the meal was delicious, the high amounts of grease and fat really put my body through the ringer.

Once I moved out of the US, however, I stepped away from eating fast food. Now I cook most of my own meals. I’ve noticed a lot of positive changes since prioritizing a healthier diet. My body feels stronger, I’m able to maintain focus for longer, and I have so much more energy—all thanks to healthy eating. That’s not all though; cooking my own meals has also helped me avoid fast food addiction.

Fast Food Addiction?

Yep, you read that right. Fast food is cheap, easy, and delicious, but it’s also pretty addictive. According to researcher Ashley Gearhardt, eating too many “highly processed foods can lead to classic signs of addiction like loss of control, tolerance, and withdrawal.” This is because of the way fast food overstimulates your body’s reward system (more on that later).

Kids are especially susceptible to fast food addiction. Due to the way a child’s brain develops, most kids don’t develop impulse control until they’re about four years old. Even then, it can be difficult for kids to manage their impulses when it comes to addictive behaviors like eating fast food and playing video games. (If your child is struggling with a video game or tech addiction, be sure to check out Troomi’s safe, kid-friendly smartphones to help your kiddo start making healthier tech choices!)

Thankfully, it’s easy for parents to help kids overcome and avoid fast food addiction—and promote healthy eating in the process. But first, let’s get one introductory definition out of the way: what is fast food?

What is Fast Food?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fast food as “. . .food that can be prepared and served quickly.”

In a nutshell, fast food is any meal made with speed prioritized over nutrition. That’s why it’s called fast food. You know those McDonald’s combo meals that you can get after waiting in a five minute drive-through line? That’s fast food. That microwavable Tikka Masala from Trader Joes? Fast food. Gas station hot dogs from the Maverick down the street? You guessed it: fast food.

It’s no big deal if your family has a quick meal every once in a while. After all, these meals are cheap, speedy, and usually pretty tasty. I’m certainly not one to stop someone from enjoying the occasional Crunchwrap Supreme!

Eating too much fast food, however, is extremely unhealthy. Quick meals from drive-through restaurants like McDonalds and Taco Bell are typically full of sodium and unhealthy amounts of trans fat. They’re packed with empty carbohydrates and contain little to no fiber.

According to Healthline, habitually eating fast food can lead to some pretty serious health problems:

  • Increased blood sugar
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Asthma
  • Cavities and weakened teeth
  • Type 2 diabetes

How Does Fast-Food Addiction Work?

We know that fast food is unhealthy, but is it really that addictive?

Fast-food addiction is a very real thing. Did you know that eating too much fast food overstimulates your body’s reward system, much in the same way that drugs and alcohol do? I was surprised, too! As researchers report, the “same neurobiological pathways that are implicated in drug use also modulate food consumption.”

With that in mind, here’s how food addiction works:

Fast-food addiction targets a child’s reward system. This is a group of biological structures in the brain which are activated by pleasant experiences like completing a task or eating a delicious meal. When a child’s brain recognizes pleasure, it releases a surge of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for helping us feel content. Because fast food contains so much added sweetener, eating it causes the brain to release dopamine on a higher level than normal.

When the brain observes that higher amounts of dopamine are regularly being released, it removes dopamine receptors to maintain homeostasis and keep the body balanced. In other words, a child’s body develops a tolerance to the high levels of dopamine released by fast food. The only way to attain similar high dopamine levels is to eat more fast food—and thus the addiction cycle of craving, tolerance, and withdrawal begins.

When a child is addicted to fast food, they have uncontrollable cravings for the harmful amounts of sugar and fat in fast food. Nutritious dishes just don’t satisfy them the same way that quick, unhealthy meals do.

How Can I Help My Child Avoid Fast Food Addiction?

Overcoming any addiction is difficult to do alone. A dependency on food is no different. With your support and help, however, overcoming and avoiding fast-food addiction is totally possible! Here are some ways you can help:

  • Talk about healthy eating. Open up a conversation with your children about the importance of healthy eating. Let them know how beneficial healthy eating is—and how delicious healthy meals can be. Then, remind them about the harmful effects of eating too much fast food.
  • Eat more home-cooked meals. Instead of going to Denny’s for dinner, take some time to make something nutritious and delicious. Make a weekly menu with your kids, and have them lend a helping hand in the kitchen. After all, cooking as a family makes things easier and way more fun.
  • Feed your kids healthy snacks. When putting together your child’s lunch, leave out the Doritos and Fritos. Instead, include healthy snack options like carrot sticks, fresh fruit, or a pile of nuts. If your kiddo is a picky one, click here to check out Troomi’s list of healthy snacks that even picky eaters will enjoy!
  • Avoid trigger foods. In serious cases, it may be necessary to avoid junk food entirely. Make a list of the foods that trigger your child’s dependency and cut them out completely. Many kids learn best by example, so set a precedent and follow the same diet yourself.
  • Seek professional help. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to help kids, teens, and adults open up and overcome challenges. At the end of the day, working with a qualified professional may be the best way to help your child combat fast-food addiction.

Healthy Eating Never Hurts

All good things should be enjoyed in moderation—and fast food is no exception.

While fast food is cheap, easy, and delicious, eating too much of it can lead to serious health problems and addiction. This is especially true in the case of children who may not have a fully developed sense of impulse control.

Helping your children steer clear of fast-food addiction isn’t too difficult. Teach them to prioritize healthy food, make more of your own family meals, and keep the fast food to a minimum. After all, it’s never too early to start developing healthy habits.