We all know that eating real, whole foods is good for your body, and eating too much processed food isn’t healthy. This sounds very simple in theory, but it’s not always as easy to implement. This is because junk food is literally engineered to be addictive. Food in general stimulates the reward system in our brain. However, junk food takes this process to a whole other level. When we indulge in treats, dopamine, aka, the feel-good chemical is released in our brain. While this seems harmless, modern junk food is able to give the brain a reward that is much more powerful than whole, nutritious foods. Essentially, in terms of dopamine reward, eating an apple does not give you the same pleasure as eating a pint of ice cream. This unbalanced reward system encourages your body to crave more unhealthy foods.

Before you learn how to prevent junk food cravings in your everyday life, it is important to better understand the science behind it and what makes our body crave these foods, to begin with. The first step to understanding cravings is listening to your body. When you have a food craving, you should practice asking yourself if your body is telling you it needs something, or if your mind just wants something. Sometimes when we crave certain junk food, our body is actually lacking certain nutrients and it gets expressed as hunger. A good way to differentiate the two is by cutting out distractions during mealtime, and practicing conscious eating.


What makes junk food so addictive?

There’s a lot of math and science that gets put into finding the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat into food products to make it impossible to have just one bite. This is known as food engineering. Chemistry and technology are used to make food more addicting, and more profitable. When food companies create products with the perfect amount of salt, sugar, and fat, it is known as the bliss point. It’s what makes junk food so irresistible. These processed foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way that addictive drugs do.

What you can do

Less stress

Constant stress is harmful to many processes of the body, but in particular, it can increase unhealthy food cravings. According to Harvard Health, “The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.” When you’re body is in a high-stress state, it is much easier to overeat on high-fat, sugary foods. To reduce junk food cravings, try reducing the amount of stress in your life.

More sleep

Lack of sleep can play a big role in junk food cravings. “Studies show that even a single night of sleep deprivation changes the levels of our hunger and appetite hormones, leading to increased hunger.” Lack of sleep can also It also affect the way that the brain’s motivation centers respond. Getting a couple of extra hours of sleep can help lessen cravings for high-fat, sweet, and salty foods.

Healthy fats

Heart-healthy fats like nuts and avocado will help you feel full and reduce your cravings for junk food. David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard has said, “Many high-fat foods are luscious and do not cause an insulin release, so they keep your blood sugar much more stable”. Adding nuts, nut butter, avocado, and dark chocolate into your diet in moderation can greatly reduce cravings for unhealthy carbohydrates like white bread and sugary cereal.


More protein

Adding more plant-based sources of protein into your diet can help you from overeating. Protein helps you feel satiated for longer, and can reduce cravings. “Increasing protein intake may reduce cravings by up to 60% and cut the desire to snack at night by 50%. Try adding a protein source into every meal to keep you feeling full and satisfied all day long.

More nutrients

Making sure you are eating a balance of all three macronutrients is essential to keep cravings in check, feel fuller for longer, and stabilize your blood sugar levels. If you have a busy lifestyle, planning your meals ahead is a great idea to ensure that your food is rich in fiber, protein, healthy carbohydrates, and fats. Always having healthy on-the-go snacks with you will prevent extreme hunger, and reduce the urge to eat processed or fast food.


The Takeaway

Junk food is chemically designed to be addictive, so don’t be too hard on yourself! If you feel like you are addicted to sweets and junk food, you should first try to identify what drives you to eat these foods, to begin with. Whether it’s stress, work, or just mindless eating when you’re bored, figure out what your triggers are and make a plan for change. Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with having a treat from time to time, as long as it’s in moderation. You never want to deprive yourself completely of the foods you enjoy eating!

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