What Makes Junk Food So Tempting & How To Kick It!June 3, 2020
You’ve worked hard over a period of time eating healthier and exercising more, and you’ve lost some of your excess pounds (hurray!). Then, like a serpent waiting in the background, your resolve is challenged with one temptation after another including junk food.
First, your grandmother’s cookies taunt you from the kitchen counter. Then, the smell of freshly fried donuts lures you to the bakery aisle of the grocery store. After a busy day at work, the line at the drive-through beckons you to follow.
It seems all of your good intentions to be healthy are quickly derailed by the endless slew of tempting junk foods. Why are unhealthy foods so tempting, and what can we do to step over the snake without falling prey?
What is Junk Food?
Foods that we typically call “junk foods” are usually high in sugar, salt, and/or fat. They tend to be highly palatable foods, they're convenient and have a certain allure of being “bad” for our health. We tend to feel out of control when eating these foods and may even crave these foods on a daily or monthly basis. What makes these foods so tempting is that they work!
The brain has 2 primary directives:
- To seek pleasure, and
- To survive.
Foods that are high in fat and sugar temporarily satisfy both of these urges. After we eat these foods, cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) decreases. At the same time, dopamine (also known as the reward hormone) increases. Both of these changes result in feelings of pleasure and relaxation.
In fact, research has shown that individuals with obesity often have a blunted response to these hormones because of chronic exposure to high-fat, high-sugar foods.1,2 This means with prolonged eating of junk foods, we need more and more of the food to obtain the same feelings of pleasure and relaxation. This is comparable to an alcoholic needing to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the same high.
In addition to biological reasons, there are psychological reasons we crave junk food. We tend to associate junk food with celebrations, times when we were younger and happier, or rewards for getting through a difficult situation. These associations are so strong that we turn to those foods for comfort or happiness time and time again.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Junk food is not insane, thinking or believing food can fix our emotional bruises is insane.
Instead of beating ourselves up for giving in to junk food, we can have self-compassion that these foods do help us feel better in the moment. The problem is they don’t last long and leave us feeling worse. Try saying the following out loud to yourself when you feel tempted:
“Thank you junk food for helping me get through that difficult time in my life. I don’t need you anymore though. I need other more long-term strategies.”
How to Kick Junk Food
Willpower is NOT the answer. You may have been able to say no the first time, but after repeated temptations, your willpower will likely diminish. Instead, try these tips:
- Eliminate the temptation. If you know there are foods you tend to binge on, keep those foods out of the house! Take a different route home from work that does not pass by so many fast-food restaurants. Only buy foods on your grocery list and avoid going down the snack aisles. Click the mute button when commercials for food are on the TV.
- Eat on a schedule. This will help prevent large swings in appetite, so you don’t get overly hungry. When we get too hungry, our bodies go into survival mode and we are likely to crave high-fat or high-sugar foods. By eating at least 3 balanced meals per day, we are telling our bodies we are safe and nourished.
- Discover healthier versions. Saying no to junk foods does not mean you have to say no to good tasting food! Try making healthier versions of your favorite recipes, learn new cooking techniques, or try a new piece of cooking equipment like an air-fryer. When your kitchen is full of delicious healthy food, you are less likely to miss the junk.
- Practice self-care. We are less likely to reach for junk food when we take care of our emotional selves. First, notice how you are feeling and try to identify the feeling with words (ex: “I am experiencing anger right now”). Then look for activities of self-care: walk outdoors, do yoga, listen to music, call a friend, take a nap, write in a journal, clean your closet.
- Be patient. If you have been eating junk foods for a while, it will take time for your body to adjust. Within 3-4 weeks, most people notice their taste buds are more sensitive to sweet and salty foods. What once took a whole candy bar to satisfy a craving now is satisfied with a bowl of fruit or a small handful of nuts.
Don’t let junk food derail your best intentions for weight loss. Make it a priority to stay on your healthy eating plan no matter where you are. Start by minimizing your exposure to junk foods as even the strongest wills eventually buckle under constant strain. At the same time, fill your kitchen and plate with delicious and nourishing foods so you don’t feel deprived. Acknowledge your feelings, good and bad, and find other ways to nourish yourself beyond food.
- Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese "breakfast skipping," late-adolescent girls. Nutr J. 2014;13:80.
- Blum K, Thanos PK, Gold MS. Dopamine and glucose, obesity, and reward deficiency syndrome. Front Psychol. 2014;5:919.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJulie Wintersteiner, MS, RDN, CDN is a Touchpoint bariatric dietitian for Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, NY. Julie earned her BS in biology from the University of Michigan, her MS in human nutrition from Cornell University, and her dietetics degree from Russell Sage College. Read more articles by Julie!