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  • Writer's pictureAntonella Volpicelli

How can I eat healthy if I crave junk food?

Junk food cravings can be a headache. You want to eat healthier, but your cravings seem to keep getting in the way.

You’re looking for solutions. “Your body is a beautiful machine. If you simply listen to it, you’ll know what to eat.” You’ve heard this a hundred times, which is why you doubt and wonder, “Then why do I still crave junk food?”

While you may not believe it yet, these are the keys to curbing your cravings:

  1. listen to your body

  2. nourish it with the healthiest and most delicious foods you can find

Cravings are often the result of your personal view of certain foods, hormonal changes, or emotional triggers. Junk food cravings can even be explained away by human evolution. Even if junk food cravings are a natural human experience, you still want a solution that will stop them once and for all. Unfortunately, getting rid of constant cravings will take a lot of work. The good news? You’re in the right place to get started.

Read on to learn why you may crave junk food and which foods you need to eat to satisfy your cravings.

The image is divided in two by a tape measure, the left half filled with junk food and the right half filled with fruits and vegetables.

Why do we crave junk food?

When you hear the word “junk food,” what foods come to mind? Pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, candy, chips, and more high-calorie foods. While junk food may signify different foods for different people, this phrase can actually be defined. Junk food refers to foods that are high in calories but have little nutritional value. So why do you crave junk food?

Hint: It has nothing to do with willpower, and actually may be just the opposite.

Evolution of Junk Food

If junk food is low in nutritional value, then what makes it such a high-calorie food? Junk food contains large amounts of fat and sugar, both of which our ancestors evolved to prefer when food was scarce. Consuming adequate amounts of fat and sugar was a means of survival. Neither fat nor sugar is “bad” for you. The issue today is that junk food is readily available just about anywhere you go, for a cheap price. What used to be a means of survival has become a craving that can be appeased with a quick walk to the pantry.

Restriction & Junk Food Binges

This is where a healthy relationship with food comes into place. Research shows that food deprivation (aka. restricting specific foods or food groups) can actually increase food cravings. Think about the last time you went on a diet. The whole time, all you could think about were all the foods you told yourself were “off limits.” Eventually, you quit that diet and possibly even binged all the “forbidden foods.” This phenomenon is referred to as the Restrict-Binge Cycle and is a common human experience.

Emotional Triggers & Junk Food Cravings

Think about a time you were stressed - did you reach for that piece of candy?

Turns out that another cause of junk food cravings could be mental health, which helps explain why you may reach for that piece of chocolate when feeling a bit sad or stressed. In fact, research shows that anxiety, stress, and depression may increase cortisol levels in your body, also known as the “stress hormone”, which leads to an increased appetite and may promote those cravings. And let’s admit it, a piece of chocolate on a difficult day? There is no better mood booster than that.

Hormonal Changes & Junk Food

We’ve all reached for the midnight snack. Or possibly you’ve heard of the odd cravings some women have during pregnancy. Hormonal imbalances often due to regular human behaviors, such as lack of sleep, can also shift our hunger/fullness signals, leading to an increased appetite, too.

Food-Rewarding Mentality

Think about your childhood visit to the doctor. Remember the promise of a lollipop at the end of the visit? Research shows that habit also plays a role in cravings, and unfortunately, the “food-rewarding mentality” was instilled in many people as children. It is delicious to celebrate great things with great food - a perfect double win, right?… Sadly, this habit is associated with restriction and a mentality that junk food must be earned. This leads to food cravings into adulthood.

What kinds of foods satisfy junk food cravings?

Junk food cravings are not easy to ignore. The journey to satisfying food cravings in the long term may sound simple but often involves putting in the hard work to re-wire your neuropathways. Ultimately, you have to trust your own body and dissociate junk food as “forbidden” or “off-limits.”

If you want a quick fix to junk food cravings, you may look for the next fad diet. However, if you want to bust junk food cravings for good, eat these types of foods:

  1. Eat the junk food. That’s right – eat the food your body is craving. As mentioned previously, restricting specific foods because they are “bad” or “off-limits” ultimately leads to a fixation with that same food. To stop craving a specific food, consume it. You may be thinking, “How will I know when to stop eating the cookies?” or “I can’t trust myself around chocolates.” If this sounds like you, consider finding an intuitive eating professional who can help you bust your cravings while regaining trust in yourself around all foods.

  2. Opt for nutrient-dense foods. Sometimes cravings really are your body’s way of telling you to eat. Opt for foods that provide nourishment and satiety. Foods such as nuts and seeds, which are high in healthy fats and fiber, can help with satiety and will contribute many great nutrients needed for everyday life activities. In fact, our bodies digest fats, fiber, and protein slower than other nutrients, so the healthy fats in nuts and seeds can have an increased satiety level and transit time in our bodies, which are beneficial when controlling cravings and eating activity. Fresh fruits on top of some yogurt, if you want something on the sweeter side or some veggies with hummus will for sure make a great combo, too.

When satisfying a food craving, first eat that exact food you’re craving. Otherwise, you may find yourself still craving that food two handfuls of cashews, one apple, and three spoonfuls of yogurt later. Second, opt for foods that are high in healthy fats, protein, and fiber to promote satiety. Sometimes cravings are our bodies' way of indicating we are hungry. Do yourself the favor of nourishing your body every day.

5 healthy junk food alternatives

If you’re looking for junk food alternatives, start by doing some swaps in your regular “junk foods” of choice. Here are some alternatives that may come in handy, and that I genuinely enjoy as part of my own food routine:

  1. Try some air-popped popcorn instead of extra butter microwave popcorn. The great thing is that you can have many flavors on top but with much less saturated fat and sodium. Try adding a bit of truffle oil—you just made the yummiest popcorn ever!

  2. Potato chips? Let’s make some at home, and even better, there are many different vegetables that can become chips. Think of kale, eggplant, carrot, sweet potatoes, and even spicy cucumber chips! Tip: herbs and spices are a go-to when making any vegetable chips.

  3. Craving something sweet? Dates can be your go-to -- this pitted fruit is rich in antioxidants and full of that needed sweetness. Dates 2.0? Fill the pitted dates with some nut butter such as peanut or almond butter and thank us later.

  4. Swap your delicious milk chocolate filled with added sugar and high in fat for a still delicious, but much healthier and beneficial (yes, chocolate can be beneficial for your body), dark chocolate.

  5. Want something cold during the summer? Try freezing any fruit of your choice, such as mango, bananas, or watermelon and you will have created the creamiest, healthiest, and easiest ice cream ever. And well, it doesn’t need to be during the summer. Enjoy this sweet treat all year round.

In addition to these five junk food swaps, there are many new products on the market with better ingredients but still delicious that can definitely make missing this junk food not even an option.

While you may be looking for snacks with less salt or desserts with less added sugar, remember that eating your junk food go-to's is also OK. What’s most important is that you feel good, have good health, and are at peace with the food decisions you make each day.

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