Cravings. Sometimes they come and go, hardly causing any disruption. Often, they can derail a well-intended diet or lifestyle change.
People crave many types of foods, but the ones causing the most damage are the unhealthy, processed foods. These are the ones that sabotage your weight loss and healthy-living goals. Sometimes what may start as an innocent craving for junk food can turn into a full-blown binge that will not only keep you on an unhealthy path but can also mess with your emotions.
No doubt many people experience junk food cravings, but if this has become a problem for you, there are some things you can do. In this guide, we will explore ten simple tips to stop craving junk food and live a healthier life.
But first… what are cravings, and why do we have them?
What are Cravings?
Different from normal hunger, cravings are an intense desire to eat a specific food. You may have heard that when you crave something, it is your body's way of telling you that it is deprived of that thing – sugar, for example. However, there's a lot more to it.
Why Do We Have Cravings?
Food cravings have more to do with the brain’s (1) pleasure and reward system than they do lack of nutrients. When food cravings arise, three areas of the brain - the caudate, insula, and hippocampus – are in use, according to research (2) done by the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Their tests suggest that more of a role is played by the brain’s memory areas which associate a particular food with a reward in food cravings than the reward center of the brain.
During food cravings, endorphins are released into the body after eating, making us feel good. This chemical reaction can drive us to keep pursuing this “feel good” feeling, which is similar to addiction (3). Food manufacturers know this and use it to their advantage – apparently, strategically, and carefully producing food items that contain the “perfect” amounts of added fat, salt, sugar, and other chemicals designed to make us want more (4).
Why Is Junk Food Bad?
It is not called “junk” food for nothing. While many people’s definition of junk food may vary, one thing is for certain – it is not the healthiest food for you. These foods (5) are generally highly processed and contain a high amount of calories – particularly in the form of sugar, fat, and salt. They rarely contain (if at all) fiber, minerals, or vitamins which are essential to the health of your body.
Some junk food is easily identifiable, such as soda, candy, and chips while others pose as healthy food but are just as unhealthy, such as some fruit drinks that contain vitamins and minerals but have as much sugar as soda.
Because these foods rarely provide sufficient essential nutrients, an excess of fat, sugar, and salt, and are not very filling, they can contribute to obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease (5). According to a review (5) of several studies, for every sugar-sweetened beverage serving consumed, people gained 0.25 – 0.5 pounds (0.12 - 0.22kgs) in one year.
While consuming a bit of junk food here and there rarely poses any harm, it is the excessive consumption of junk food that becomes a threat to your health. Cravings certainly fuel the need for junk food and sometimes need to be kept under control.
A Vicious Cycle
The thing about junk food is, the more you eat, the more you crave, and the harder it becomes to stop (6). The good news is that there are some easy changes you can make to break the cycle and be on your way to a healthier life. Cravings can make or break your diet and interfere with your health. Read on to uncover easy tips to stop craving junk food for good and live a healthier life. Here are the ten tips to stop craving junk food.
- Eat Less Junk Food
When it comes to tips to stop craving junk food, this one may be obvious. However, the key to completing it successfully relies more on how it is done. Cutting out junk food “cold turkey” may feel like an impossible task – one you’re likely to fail and become a victim of the vicious junk food cycle. Instead, slowly cut out junk food. In other words, do not eat as much of it. This may take a bit of willpower at first, but it is easier to gradually reduce the amount of junk food you consume than to cut it out all at once. Additionally, this slow weaning from junk food will help you crave it less and less (7) probably because you are less exposed to the manufacturers’ addictive artificial ingredients) until you eventually do not crave it anymore.
- Drink More Water
Thirst can often be confused about food cravings or hunger. Before reaching for junk food, try drinking a large glass of water and then wait a few minutes. You may discover that your craving is not as strong or has disappeared entirely because your thirst has been quenched.
Additionally, drinking water has health benefits of its own, especially for those with weight loss goals. According to a study (8) which examined overweight women and the effects of consuming over 34 ounces ( over 1 liter) per day, an 4.4 pounds (2kgs) was lost over a 12-month period.
Furthermore, drinking water before meals may help reduce appetite and curb cravings which, in turn, helps with weight loss (9).
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Distancing yourself from junk food can be a difficult task because it is so easily accessible. From fast-food joints to grocery stores and even some of your favorite family recipes, junk food is everywhere. Do your best to stay away from these areas (including the junk food aisles in the grocery store). If you still feel a craving, do what you can to focus your mind on something else. For example, you could go for a walk or jog, do some work, or take a shower. Occupying your mind and/or changing your environment can help stop cravings. In time you will find that being close to junk food does not trigger a craving.
- Stock Up on Healthy Food
Keep healthy food at home and easy to get to. Have ready-cut vegetables such as carrots stocked front and center in your refrigerator so that they are easy to snack on. In the same line, clear your home of junk foods or at least place them out of reach. Junk food is so easy to dig into because a lot of it is ready-to-eat. The harder it is to get to junk food, the less likely you are to make an effort to get it deliberately. The easier it is to reach for healthy food, the more likely you are to eat it.
Research (10) shows that people are more likely to snack on junk food that is an arm’s length away compared to junk food placed 20 feet away.
- Eat More Protein
Proteins are the body's main building blocks. They play a vital role in making skin, organs, tendons, and muscles, as well as hormones, enzymes, and many tiny molecules that play important roles in the body. Protein is reported to not only help reduce your appetite but reduce cravings, keep you fuller for longer and keep you from overeating. Consuming a protein-filled breakfast significantly reduces cravings, according to a study done on overweight teenage girls. A similar study on overweight men showed that a 25% increase in protein intake reduced cravings by 60%. Furthermore, the longing to snack at night decreased by 50%.
- Nutrient Density
Ensure that your diet is well-balanced and nutrient-dense. In addition to protein, your body needs carbs and healthy fats, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Your craving to eat chocolate can be a result of your body telling you it needs more iron or magnesium. Instead of reaching for chocolate, reach for a healthier option. Foods such as Nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits meet your body’s nutritional needs much better than junk food does. A well-nourished body is better able to take care of and heal itself, leaving you better able to stave-off cravings for unhealthy food items.
- Reduce Stress Levels
Emotional eating and stress, in general, can lead to a variety of health issues. High levels of stress can induce emotional eating and increase your craving for junk food. Being stressed can result in the release of specific chemicals in the brain, such as neuropeptide Y and opiates, which can induce cravings for fat and sugar (11). According to NCBI (12), a study concluded that stressed women are more likely to crave sweets than women who do not suffer from stress.
Increased cravings and emotional eating can also contribute to weight gain. Stress on its own (cravings aside) can cause weight gain. This is because stress leads to higher levels of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which encourages belly fat. By keeping your stress in check, you will be better able to make healthy food choices and keep cravings at bay.
- Eat More Often
Cravings happen most often when one is feeling hungry. The key is to avoid hunger and feel satisfied all day. How does one do this? Instead of eating less than three meals a day, eat up to 5 smaller, wholesome, natural, well-balanced meals throughout the day. You can also keep healthy snacks on hand just in case hunger creeps up on you. Regularly consuming lean protein and complex carbohydrates play a vital role in helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels as well as keep your appetite satisfied. This, in turn, will greatly help you to stop craving junk food. If you have a problem with over-consumption of junk food, eating more often (albeit healthy food) should not be a problem.
- Sleep More
This is another tip to stop craving junk food that should come easy, depending on your lifestyle. Cravings and your appetite in general, are greatly affected by your hormones that fluctuate throughout the day. Lack of sleep interferes with these fluctuations and can lead to strong cravings and poor appetite regulation, as well as a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even depression. According to several studies, individuals who are sleep-deprived are 55% more likely to become obese compared to individuals who get enough sleep. By simply ensuring that you are well-rested, you can stop craving junk food, keep obesity at bay, and be in generally better health. It is recommended that adults get 7-8 hours of sleep every day.
- Meal Planning
Since cravings tend to be spontaneous, planning what you are going to eat a few days or a week in advance avoids putting you in the dangerous position of deciding what to eat at the moment. If you are in a rush or hungry, you are likely to give in to your craving. However, having a meal plan or meals already prepped eliminates the uncertainty and spontaneity – both of which can cause cravings. This also gives you the added advantage of planning or preparing healthy meals.
Tips to Stop Craving Junk Food: Be Mindful
More than 50% of people experience cravings regularly, making them a very common, everyday challenge to deal with. The above ten simple tips to stop craving junk food are just a few steps one can take to deal with the problem easily. One major thing you can do is practice mindful eating. Are you really hungry or simply craving something? Why are you craving that particular item – is it stress or depression? Choose to commit to healthy eating and saying "no" knowing that you will feel better about yourself in the end. Implement these tips, and you can stop craving junk food for good.