Grains, vegetables and fruits are essential to getting the vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates (starch and dietary fiber) and other nutrients you need to sustain good health. Some of these nutrients may even reduce your risk of certain kinds of cancer. But experts say we rarely eat enough of these foods. To make matters worse, we also eat too much of unhealthy types of food, including fat (and cholesterol), sugar and salt.
Memories of past eating experiences. This is where the psychobiology of junk food really works against you. When you eat something tasty (say, a bag of potato chips), your brain registers that feeling. The next time you see that food, smell that food, or even read about that food, your brain starts to trigger the memories and responses that came when you ate it. These memories can actually cause physical responses like salivation and create the “mouth-watering” craving that you get when thinking about your favorite foods.
Calorie density. Junk foods are designed to convince your brain that it is getting nutrition, but to not fill you up. Receptors in your mouth and stomach tell your brain about the mixture of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in a particular food, and how filling that food is for your body. Junk food provides just enough calories that your brain says, “Yes, this will give you some energy” but not so many calories that you think “That’s enough, I’m full.” The result is that you crave the food to begin with, but it takes quite some time to feel full from it.
Dietary fiber is found in plant foods like whole-grain breads and cereals, beans and peas, and other vegetables and fruits. At least one study suggests that women who eat high amounts of fiber (especially in cereal) may have a lower risk for heart disease. High-fiber intake is also associated with lower cholesterol, reduced cancer risk and improved bowel function. And one long-term study found that middle-aged women with a high dietary fiber intake gained less weight over time than women who ate more refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta.
Carbohydrates should provide 45%–65% of your daily calories. Most of those calories should come from the complex carbohydrates in high-fiber and unrefined foods, such as bran cereal and other whole-grain products, brown rice, beans and other legumes, and many fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly, so they raise the blood sugar gradually and don't trigger a large release of insulin. People who eat lots of these foods have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels and a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A good amount of soluble fiber in the diet lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and high-fiber diets reduce the risk of intestinal disorders ranging from constipation and diverticulosis to hemorrhoids. Some studies have shown that fiber may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Men need more fiber than women: 38 vs. 25 grams a day before the age of 50 and 30 vs. 21 grams a day thereafter.