How to Stop Eating Junk Food Once and For All
Do you have a soft spot for fingerlickin’ fried chicken or double (bacon) cheeseburgers?
You know habitually eating junk food can put you on the fast track to poor health and potential weight gain. Over a decade ago, two teenage girls sued McDonald’s for making them fat. Morgan Spurlock suffered “Mc-twitches” on a month-long fast-food diet to prove a point in Super Size Me. Michelle Obama made it her fight to stop the obesity epidemic by trying to steer America away from junk food and frozen dinners.
Fast forward to the present day: We’re still fixated on junk food. It’s normal to get that itch now and then, but if you scratch it too often, you may be kissing your weight-loss plans goodbye (not to mention overall good health). But, never fear; if you don’t want to stop eating junk food cold turkey, you should first understand what makes these foods so addictive so you can make an informed choice if you decide to indulge.
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4 Strategies to Stop Eating Junk Food
If your consumption of junk food is standing in the way of a healthier, fitter, trimmer you, it may be time to make some changes. These strategies can help.
1. Set boundaries between you and the trigger food
Write down the specific junk food item(s) that can trigger you to overeat or binge. Consider these foods blacklisted for a while. Don’t allow yourself to purchase them again until you’ve established a better relationship with them.
2. Find non-food ways to deal with emotions
Food can be an emotional band-aid for anger, depression, and stress. You can trade in your greasy pizza for journaling, meditation, or exercise to deal with negative feelings.
3. Be prepared when you get late-night cravings
It’s 2 a.m., but you have a hankering for some popcorn chicken. A junk food craving can hit with poor timing, so make sure your fridge has a few healthy snacks like these healthy high-protein snacks. Better yet: Make it a rule not to eat in the middle of the night. If you have trouble sleeping, meditate, read a book, take a warm bath, or relax with low-key yoga instead of eating. You could also have a cup of warm herbal tea — it fills the tummy and is healthy and soothing.
4. Fill up on faux fast food
To stop eating junk food, you may be inclined to just completely write-off all of your calorie-filled vices. However, this restrictive thinking may make establishing healthy habits more difficult. Instead of going cold turkey entirely, substitute your favorite junk foods by cooking healthier, yet similar, versions.
What Makes Junk Food So Addictive?
Ask someone what their favorite cheat food is, and I’ll bet they won’t say a grilled chicken salad (unless they’re making these salad mistakes). I like a hot plate of crisp French fries, and I’m a dietitian. What can I say? Few people are above the influence of hyper-palatable foods, defined by researchers as foods rich in fats, sugars and/or salts and often comprised of synthetic combinations of many ingredients.
If the deck feels like it’s stacked against you, that’s because it is. Here’s why:
- Junk food is tasty by design. Experts recognize that we crave sugary, salty and fatty foods most likely by evolutionary design. The double-whammy is that food scientists build upon this by optimizing the smell, taste, and feel of your favorite burger down to the crinkle in its packaging. Throw in some savvy marketing strategies, and it’s easy to believe some foods are healthier than they really are.
- Junk food is cheap and ready to eat. This is music to anyone’s ears, especially a working parent’s. Fast food clearly wins out over other dine-in restaurants as a convenient, low-cost option. Not to mention, most fast food joints will reward you with better value for sizing up on a meal!
- Junk food uses slick marketing. Children are key targets for junk food marketing. In 2012, the fast food industry spent about $4.6 billion to convince kids to nag their parents for the latest happy meal toy. The positive emotions we have sipping cola and munching on chicken nuggets with our families build memories that may have the ability to influence our future decisions to eat these types of foods again when we are stressed and want to feel comforted.
It’s still controversial to that say junk food is addictive. But, there are scientists out there arguing that highly processed foods can trigger artificially high levels of reward similar to other addictive drugs. Obviously, we all react differently to food. But, if your cravings go beyond the occasional indulgence, it may benefit your health — not to mention waistline — to stop eating junk food.
8 Signs That Your Love of Junk Food May Be Unhealthy
Junk food is tasty — we get it. But, at what point do you roll from sporadic enjoyment into indulging at a rate that’s not healthy? Here are a few signs that it may be time to stop eating junk food:
- You crave specific junk food items often.
- You go out of your way to buy junk food.
- One bite of this type of food can launch you into a full-on binge.
- Being full doesn’t stop you from eating more.
- Your fixation on junk food is a source of guilt, depression, anxiety, or self-loathing.
- You want to eat less junk food but have been unsuccessful.
- You eat junk food often, even if you know it can harm your health.
- Withdrawal symptoms (such as headaches, anxiety, and sadness) may happen if you don’t get your junk food fix.
But… Is Junk Food Cheaper Than Healthier Food?
In addition to cravings, another barrier some people need to overcome in order to eat healthier is the perception of value that junk food can have.
Contrary to popular belief, junk food isn’t cheaper than a simple home-cooked meal. Obviously, energy-dense foods (think: chips, cookies, fast food) will appear cheaper than low-calorie and nutrient-dense fruits, veggies, and whole grains. But, this method assumes it’s quantity of calories that makes us full, when, in reality, satiety also depends on the quality of calories consumed.
A great example of this concept: fiber versus sugar. Which fills your stomach more: One ounce of jellybeans(105 calories and 20 grams of sugar) or a medium-sized apple with the skin (95 calories, 19 grams of sugar, and 4.4 grams of fiber)? Even with roughly the same amount of sugar and similar calorie counts, the apple is more satiating because of its fiber and water content (not to mention it contains beneficial vitamins and minerals).
If you’re a savvy shopper, you can make cheaper junk food alternatives at home. It doesn’t take hard science to prove this — just a pinch of common sense. Mark Bittman argues that you can feed a family of four with $28 at McDonald’s (two Big Macs, one cheeseburger, six chicken nuggets, two medium fries and two small fries, two medium sodas and two small sodas). Or, he continues, a family of six can eat at home for $14 (a roasted chicken plus cooked veggies, a side salad, and milk).
It’s a challenge worth trying!