We are hard-wired to seek flavour. But there's a catch...
You have probably heard this or perhaps even noticed it yourself: fruit and vegetables just don't taste as good as they did a few decades ago. This is not just subjective perception: alongside the overall impression of decreasing flavour comes a decline in nutrient content that is actually measurable. And we are now learning that this drop in nutrient content is matched by the deteriorating nutrient content in our soil. Nature works in cycles: what is (or isn't) in the soil gets into the plants and into whoever eats the plants (animal or human); everything eventually decomposes and the cycle starts again.
This shouldn't really come as a surprise: flavour as well as colour is created by volatile compounds made up of nutrient blocks such as amino acids, fatty acids, flavones and carotenoids. In other words: good looks and good taste in a plant are tell-tale signs of nutrient density. More nutrients = more taste and more colour. (It is no coincidence that herbs and spices are packed with both flavour and nutrients!)
We instinctively seek a taste sensation, because our body intuitively knows: tasty equals healthy. We are hard wired to seek flavour.
But there's a catch: the food industry shamelessly exploits this instinct for its own purposes, because our senses are easily deceived: Cheap, nutrient-poor or nutrient-empty foods (better described as food-like substances) are made 'tasty' with artificial flavourings and colourings. We are misled to believe that these artificial 'foods' are nutritious.
This does not only mean that we are easily attracted to the artificially 'tasty'. It also means that the pretend 'tasty' signal misleads our physiology. The sensation of taste prepares the body for the intake of nutrients. But when these nutrients do not materialise, the body keeps searching for nourishment in vain: we keep eating in the hope of satisfying the unsatisfied hunger. This completely misleads our natural instincts, and we end up neither able to recognise what is good for us, nor when we have had enough. This explains why it's so easy to binge on cookies and crisps, and completely impossible to binge on, say, apples.
Next time you find yourself unable to stop eating something (I know for me this most definitely happens with crisps), don't blame yourself. Instead of asking - what's wrong with me? - the question really should be: What's wrong with this food?
If you want to eat well and do so with pleasure, you would be wise to leave those hyper-processed, attractively packaged products off your shopping list. Once you keep clear of manipulated flavours, you can go back to listening to your body again, trust its signals and enjoy your food without guilt. Otherwise you'll have to rely on conscious judgement rather than your instincts to decide whether that irresistible snack bar really is what your body needs at that moment.
Either way, it seems to me that the most sensible guideline for eating, as for shopping, would be this: Spend your money on good food and enjoy it to the fullest. Pass by the cheap stuff that's manipulated to trick your instincts.