The Science Behind Craving Junk Food and How to Fight It

craving junk food with ketchup and fries in one hand

It’s been days now, but you can’t escape its call. That package of cookies taunts you from its place high on the shelf, daring you to grab it and consume its contents in a feeding frenzy. As much as you try to resist, it doesn’t take long before you’ve eaten one cookie, and then another, and then another…

Well, don’t blame yourself. It turns out people craving junk food is a genuine scientific phenomenon. But how exactly does it work, and can you treat it?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to break down the science behind craving junk food and how to fight it! So without further ado, let’s get started!

Craving Junk Food? Here’s Why

As cruel as it is, one of the main reasons we crave junk food is that our brain rewards us for doing so. You see, your brain rewards you with dopamine (a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure) when you eat and increases this reward when we eat sweeter things.

This is because evolution has taught the human brain that sweeter foods contain more sugar and fat, which was essential for survival from cold winters back in the pre-civilization era. Our brains also learned that sour and bitter tastes tended to go hand-in-hand with poisonous or inedible things, and the push to sweet was to prevent us from chowing down on poisonous berries. Cut to modern-day, however, and the human brain still equates tons of sugar and fat with survival even though that is no longer a necessity.

As a result, you end up unconsciously linking junk food with happiness and relaxation thanks to the release of dopamine, and will seek it out later on to get that feeling again. This is also why “stress eating” happens, as your brain is telling you to eat to achieve the dopamine rush so you don’t feel so stressed. This is further exacerbated by the fact that one of the primary hormones released in your body when you get stressed (cortisol) increases your appetite.

All Part of the Company’s Plan

The other main reason you can’t shake that compulsion to scarf a bag of chips down is that junk food companies work very hard to cultivate the food for maximum “addictiveness”. For starters, most junk food gets designed to sit in the exact middle of the sensation of flavor. It’s not so bland as to turn you off of the flavor, but not so chock-full of flavor that it dulls the sensation over time.

By achieving this perfect middle-ground, junk food ensures that you never get tired of the flavor. Companies also take lots of time testing the specific level of crunch their chip has or the salt to sweet ratio of their chocolate pretzel so they hit the “bliss point” that elicits the maximum dopamine rush from you when you eat it, hooking you in further.

Another hook that junk food wields is the empty calories you get from eating it. These empty calories lack nutrients and register in your body as fewer calories than you’re getting. So in turn, you’ll end up eating more because you don’t feel full, which pumps your body up with more unhealthy fats.

Finally, think about how we view junk food in our culture. Extravagant cakes for birthdays and weddings, sugary treats when we’re young to reward us for good behavior…our culture glamorizes and promotes junk food at every turn, and it’s easy to internalize that glamorization and let it affect your worldview.

Time to Fight Back

So if junk food is such an unstoppable force, how do you fight back? Well, the first step is to reduce the presence it has in your home. If you can’t access it easily (or at all), you’re less likely to chow down on it when you get hungry.

To make this easier, try to find healthier substitutes for your favorite kinds of junk food. For example, if you adore french fries, look online for special potato recipes that let you make healthier versions of french fries at home!

Lowering your stress levels is also a great step to reduce how much food you consume. After all, if your cortisol levels stay down, your appetite won’t balloon and you won’t eat food your body doesn’t need. To help you get into the groove, keep a variety of healthy snacks on hand too like fruits and nuts.

When you go out grocery shopping, try to follow the 5-ingredient rule (don’t buy any food that has more than 5 ingredients). This is a quick system to make sure you are erring on the side of healthy food when you shop. Making sure you don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach helps too, since you won’t feel the impulse to make food purchases without thinking about them first.

As tempting as it can be to go slow at the beginning with phasing junk food out, keep in mind that part of the advantage of going cold turkey is that your tastebuds will go back to normal faster. When this happens, they will become more receptive to normal food and help you shift out of junk food mode.

Getting More Help

If you feel like you need that extra push to steer clear of junk food, you can hire a nutritional coach to help guide you in what foods you should and shouldn’t eat. Plus, they will help guide you into eating a different diet (which is difficult if you’re not used to it).  Some places can even offer you special anti-craving medication to help cut down on your impulses to eat.

Cravings? They’re Finished Here

And there you have it! Now that you know the science behind craving junk food and how to beat it, you’re ready to implement these practices into your everyday life! And if you’re curious about how to get help to beat these cravings once and for all, reach out to us and see how we can help!


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