Mmmm, candy! But why the obsession?

Forget witches, ghosts and masks of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. For millions, Halloween is about something far more important.

Glorious junk food! Orange-frosted cupcakes, candy corn and caramel apples. And buckets full of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate candy bars. If America has a junk food holiday, this is it.

But did you ever stop and wonder why we like junk food so much?

Steven Witherly did. Earlier this year the California food consultant wrote a book, appropriately titled

Why Humans Like Junk Food.

Witherly, who has a doctorate in nutrition and teaches food product development at California State University, has been researching the subject for a quarter century.

“I try to explain why humans like doughnuts, Doritos, ice cream, chocolate, hamburgers, french fries and stuff like that,” he said. “I try to explain the physiology behind it.”

Umm, don’t we just like it because it tastes good?

Sure, he said. But there’s more to it than that.

Take candy and other sugary sweets. It’s not just the tempting taste that floats your food-lovin’ boat.

“Not only do these things taste good, they make you feel good as well,” Witherly said. “Your body not only wants these compounds, it actually

rewards you

for consuming them.”

And there’s nothing subtle about the reward. It mimics the effects of mood-enhancing drugs.

“Sugar increases the opioids in your brain,” Witherly said. “Opioids are natural pleasure chemicals and painkillers.”

Same goes for fat.

“Fat increases the serotonin levels in the brain and makes you feel good,” he said. “It feels like Prozac. So M’s are like Prozac!”

But the love for junk food is even more elemental than that.

“The biggest reason we like junk food is that man evolved in an environment that is very low in salt, fat and sugar,” Witherly said. “So, naturally, the first three things we like to find are salt, fat and sugar.”

So it only makes sense that we love them even more when they’re all mixed together.

“That activates our pleasure centers,” Witherly said.

The best example: ice cream.

“Ice cream is the No. 1 most pleasurable food ever measured in the laboratory,” Witherly said. “It really lights up the brain.”

Another factor that attracts us to junk food: texture.

“Humans like the texture of something in the mouth that melts down quickly, like chocolate,” he said. “Chocolate is a unique fat that melts down at body temperature. It’s a solid on the outside, but when you put it in your mouth it melts down, and the brain simply loves things that melt down like that. That’s why we invented cotton candy. And ice cream.”

But what’s thrilling to our brains about junk food can be depressing to nutritionists trying to promote healthier options.

“Nutritionists are like ‘we can’t win,’ ” Witherly said. “ ‘If these things are like drugs in the body, how do we fight that?’ That’s one of the biggest reasons Americans are 65 percent overweight and obese.”

What about people in other countries who aren’t as portly?

Just wait.

“The Chinese were relatively thin until fast food began making its way into China,” Witherly said. “The old adage I heard once is, ‘Where fast food goes, fat people follow.’ China is getting fatter. In fact the little kids now are getting so fat they’re getting called little Buddhas.”


The two most dangerous seasons for junk-food fueled weight gain are autumn and winter. How can we keep our natural affinity for junk food from packing on too many pounds? Here’s what Steven Witherly, author of Why Humans Like Junk Food

, suggests.

Eat slowly.

It takes awhile to feel the full effects of the food you’ve eaten. By waiting, you might find you’re able to eat less and still feel full.

Eat soup.

Soup is low in calories and really fills you up.

Drink green tea.

Full of antioxidants, it also can help reduce your appetite and remove fat from your body.

Forget crash diets.

They rarely work long-term. And depriving the body of food just makes it want to hold onto it more.

Avoid huge, calorie-laden meals.

It’s far better to eat many small meals throughout the day.