How to Stop Craving Junk Food and Other Unhealthy Eats

junk food consisting of fries, onion ring,s chips, soda, and a burger

You might be craving this heaping pile of junk food. | iStock.com

Most Americans’ cravings don’t end with a sweet tooth. Many also have a denture devoted to salt, fat, and carbs. Basically, most of us sport a full set of pearly whites dedicated to unhealthy eats. While many joke about being addicted to junk food, it’s a lot less funny when science indicates the dependency is real.

Since most people in the western world now eat a lot of processed foods, we’re exposed to offending ingredients like sugar and salt more than previous generations were. This means, on any given day, you’re body could be screaming at you to eat nothing but foods that wreak havoc on your health. But before we get to how to stop craving unhealthy foods, let’s take a closer look at these addictions.

Doughnuts definitely satisfy a sugar craving, but they're not so healthy

Doughnuts definitely satisfy a sugar craving, but they’re not so healthy. | iStock.com

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing of all ingredients right now, sugar is also shockingly abundant in packaged products. Even seemingly healthy foods, such as whole-grain cereal, can be filled with the sweet stuff. And keep in mind, this goes for other sweeteners as well. The problem with so much sugar exposure is it means we’re unwittingly eating it all the time, fueling an addiction that researchers are likening to drugs.

One review published in 2013 took a look at studies involving animals and sugar as well as the implications for humans. According to the authors, sugar encourages the reward cycle in a way that may be even more addictive than cocaine. While the authors were clear human evidence is limited, they believe the current research may be enough to explain why we have so much difficulty saying no to sweet foods.

salt cellar and spilled salt

Salt is also addictive. | iStock.com/Sebalos

Similarly, salt has proven quite craveable. In fact, scientists from Duke University think addiction to more recent drugs like cigarettes have swooped in as a replacement for our more natural craving for salt. It’s important to note the study involved mice, but the neurological processes the team examined are the same ones we experience.

Even the entire category of junk food can become the focus of our cravings under certain circumstances, particularly with sleep deprivation. One recent study published in SLEEP found individuals who only snoozed for 4 hours and 30 minutes per night were less able to resist what the researchers called palatable snacks, meaning items like cookies and chips.

Sugar withdrawal is real. | iStock.com

As with fighting drug addiction, battling food addiction can lead to withdrawal symptoms. One 2008 review highlighted the effects, finding rodents going through sugar withdrawal experienced anxiety, teeth chattering, and tremors. More recently, a study published in Physiology & Behavior found sugar-addicted rats acted more impulsively when denied access to the sweet stuff.

After all that bad news, we’re happy to say there’s still hope. As irresistible as processed foods are, it is possible to retrain yourself to desire healthier options. One study published in Nutrition & Diabetes had intervention participants replace junk foods with lower-calorie, more nutritious alternatives part of an eating plan called iDiet over the course of six months. At the end of the study, participants who ate the healthier options lost weight and also experienced a change in brain activity that indicated a preference for these foods over high-calorie junk.

Grilled Chicken Breast and salad on a white plate

Grilled chicken salad is a better option. | iStock.com

The study does come with a few caveats, though. The sampling was very small and one of the authors does have a conflict of interest as she is a co-founder for the diet prescribed. Still, everything else was performed by the books and none of the other researchers involved are linked to the eating plan. Additionally, there’s evidence you can gradually wean yourself off particular foods. For example, Health explained it’s possible to find yourself satisfied with a smaller amount of salt after a few months of adjusting.

Some of it comes down to habit as well. Once you’ve established a new routine, reaching for eggs scrambled with veggies in the morning will be just as easy as grabbing a chocolate muffin once was. This also requires some strategic thinking on your part. If you know you can’t be trusted around cheese-dusted potato chips, get them out of your house. Making healthy foods the easiest option will set you up for success.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec