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Why we crave junk food and how to stop cravings (and actually like healthy food)

Written by Caroline DiNicola Fawley
Why we crave junk food and how to stop cravings (and actually like healthy food)

Quick take on junk food cravings

Struggling to give up junk food? It turns out, junk food really IS addictive. Here's the science behind our obsession with unhealthy foods and expert tips for giving up junk forever (and feeling great!).

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Why do we crave junk food?

How to stop craving junk food

Key takeaways

Why do we crave junk food?

why do we crave junk food?

Why do we crave food that’s bad for us? It seems counter intuitive. And maybe you’ve even fallen into the old “if my body is craving it, I must need it” rationale. But here’s the deal: just because we want to eat junk food, doesn’t mean we should eat it or that our bodies need it.

That said, don’t feel bad that you crave junk food with high salt, fat, and sugar contents. It’s in your biological makeup! When you take a bite into a big juicy cheeseburger and wash it down with a sugary soft drink, your brain rewards you with a burst of dopamine.

So… what kind of cruel game is your mind playing here?!

Your brain is actually rewarding your body for being efficient — “efficient” for eating the most calorie-dense, fattening food you can find. 

The theory is: when humans were scavengers this came in handy as we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from — it was feast or famine! We had to work physically hard to obtain food and went long periods between eating. Storing up fat and energy was crucial in the event we lost consistent access to food.

junk food

When given the choice between an avocado or a handful of kale, our brains guide us in the direction of the more calorie-dense option: the avocado. We are rewarded with this choice by receiving a small burst of dopamine, making us feel happy. Next time we’re asked to make the decision between the two, we remember the dopamine burst and choose the avocado to achieve that feeling again.

Keep in mind, junk food did not exist back then! In modern times, most humans have better access to food and our lifestyle is relatively sedentary. But our brains haven’t caught on. 

We continue to store fat in preparation of a fast or the need for an exuberant amount of physical energy (events may never come). We keep on storing and storing and storing, eating and eating and eating.

junk food burger

This is problematic because instead of choosing an avocado, we are now choosing a Big Mac or Ice Cream. These high fat foods are not found in nature and are out of the realm of what our bodies were meant to process.

Not to mention, food companies spend millions perfecting junk food, or more specifically, the combination of fat, sugar, and salt — what they call the “bliss point” — to keep us coming back for more junk. All these processed foods trigger the same reward system in our brain that cocaine and gambling does — making it really hard to break the cycle...which is why you can literally feel like a junk food junkie!

On top of all this, we’re living in a culture that glorifies unhealthy foods as “treats.” From a young age we are rewarded with junk food when behaving well or when celebrating exiting events like birthdays, graduations, and holidays. Not engaging in these traditions goes against cultural norms — and can feel isolating. You also may feel like you’re depriving yourself when you are “supposed” to be treating yourself with the junk food we grew up with.

So you’ve got your brain chemistry working against you, processed food manipulating the “bliss point” and keeping you a bonafide junk food junkie, AND culture telling you to indulge all the time. Guess it’s safe to stop blaming your willpower for your junk food problem.

The good news? You can unhook from this cycle!

How to stop craving junk food

1. Replace junk food with healthy swaps

wfpb chocolate peanut butter shake

You don’t have to ignore your junk food craving altogether. Depriving yourself can just glorify what you “can’t have” even more, making it all the more irresistible.

Instead, find a replacement “junk food” that is whole food plant-based. And no we're not talking about becoming a junk food vegan ("plant-based" doesn't always mean healthy!). Instead, find recipes to check all the boxes: sweet, salty, crunchy, and creamy...but are made with whole food ingredients.

Have these snacks on hand and try filling up on the whole food plant-based version before assessing whether or not you still need the junk food version.

For example, if chocolate is your junk food weakness find a whole food plant-based cacao recipe that fills you up and satisfies that craving, like this dairy-free chocolate peanut butter shake.

If French fries are your junk food weakness, cut up some potatoes, blanch them, and bake on 400 degrees until crispy. Toss in sea salt, black pepper, and garlic powder, then enjoy those French fries free of oil – and guilt!  

2. Stay satisfied

satisfied after eating

Eat when you’re hungry and don’t let yourself get to the point of feeling insatiable; this is when you body craves calorie-dense foods the most. Keep healthy snacks on hand like fresh fruit, trail mix, hummus and veggie wraps, and thick dairy-free shakes.

Before you leave the house for a long excursion, blend a frozen banana with your favorite fruits, nut butters, and non-dairy milk and sip your shake as you drive to your destination. You will show up satisfied, which will help restrain you from diving head first into the candy bowl at work or succumbing to any other junk food snacks.

3. Don’t grocery shop hungry

grocery shopping

What’s more tempting than reaching into the cookie jar? Not a lot. Easy solution: don’t have a cookie jar to reach into.

Before you grocery shop, watch a video on NutritionFacts.org or read a chapter from your favorite plant-based nutrition book or magazine to get amped about eating right.

Then, most importantly, fill the tank! There is nothing worse than grocery shopping on an empty stomach and it's an easy way to slip back into junk food habits.

Bring a whole food plant-based shopping list with you so you don’t just grab whatever you see (which often leads to less healthy choices).

4. Reset your taste buds

junk food reset

Since Americans eat so much processed food — laden with excess fat, sugar, and salt — we experience inflammation that dulls our taste buds.

Luckily, you can re-set your taste buds in a matter of weeks by cutting out processed and high-salt/high-fat foods and switching to whole food plant-based dishes. Research shows you’ll quickly regain taste bud sensitivity and start to enjoy (and prefer) healthier foods when you ditch those junk food snacks and eat whole foods.

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Key Takeaways

  • Junk food IS addicting thanks to food companies spending millions to make it that way.
  • Plant-based doesn't always mean healthy, either! Being a junk food vegan is just as unhealthy often as eating junk food snacks made with animal products. 
  • You can give up junk food by switching to whole food plant-based foods instead, staying satisfied, grocery shopping on a full stomach, resetting your tastebuds...and giving yourself a little grace. 

Updated 9/16/21

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By Caroline DiNicola Fawley

Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.

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