Want to stop eating junk food? Want to get out of the 3pm slump feeling groggy and tired, or for-go the mindless crunchy snacking late at night?
This is the break-up we all want, repave your health and wellness with these 10 tips to break cravings and reclaim control over our intense desire for junk food.
Junk Food Has Highjacked Our Hunger Cues
We have a lot of weird feelings around food now and days, and the junk food industry has capitalized on our complex desires to satisfy our cravings of salty, sweet, crunchy, fatty, and sour.
Our environment, culture, relationships, socio-economic status, and more, all impact our relationship with food.
Food manufacturers have become incredibly savvy when it comes to engineering junk foods that capitalize on our innate desire to feel good with the goal of creating life-long customers who are addicted to the perceived pleasure of eating their products.
What is Junk Food?
Junk foods are broadly defined as any processed food, calorically dense with minimal nutritional value, often containing an abundance of added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats - like trans fat (1).
Junk food is cheap to produce, easy to preserve and addicting to eat, so much so that America through the 20th century has become what’s called an obesogenic environment and a variable of the chronic disease epidemic (2).
Long-term weight loss and weight management can be challenging due to the interactions between our biology, behavior, and the obesogenic environment riddled with inexpensive, highly-processed foods we've been conditioned to crave (2).
Through the industrialization of our food systems and the distribution of food through a market system that prioritizes profit margins over health and wellness, Americans have come to consume ultra-processed foods for the majority of their calories(3).
This processed American diet has come to be called the S.A.D. diet, or standard American diet, full of excess sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat and trans fat.
It's no surprise that consuming a S.A.D. diet is associated with weight gain and obesity, and contributes to the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (4).
It's ok to be frustrated if you've had a hard time kicking the junk food craving; the industry purposely creates foods that are easily addictive.
Occasionally eating junk food is a normal part of life; remember that your health and wellness is a cumulation of all the choices you make and food you eat; so practice self-compassion when you're trying to kick a craving.
How to know if You Are Craving Junk Food and Mindless Eating?
Look at the statements below and check off any that apply to you:
- I often zone out when I am eating and graze on food, especially eating late at night.
- I ignore my hunger until I am 'hangry' or famished and try to skip meals.
- I often do other things when I eat and multitask.
- I eat in front of the TV and usually ignore the taste of the food.
- I go for a lot of convenient foods, and fast-foods; nothing else seems to satisfy.
- When I'm emotional I tend to eat or skip meals.
If any of the statements above resonated with you then you probably understand what its like to crave junk food or eat mindlessly; if none of them resonated but you still feel like you struggle what you eat thats 100% valid as well, we all have unwanted habits we want to change.
There is no universal right way to eat; we all metabolize food differently and have individualized lifestyles. We can explore what works well for our bodies and build a meal plan to suite our personal health and wellness goals.
Cravings can often be the result of food restriction or from not eating enough in general; poor nutrition intake, emotions, and stress can also impact your cravings (5).
If we are not consciously connected to how we feel, our motivation, and our strengths then our actions and choices become mindless; cravings can be a manifestation of mindless eating.
There are a ton of diets out there, paleo, keto, vegan, whole-foods, flexitarian; whatever you choose remember it's not about what you call your diet; focus on nourishing your body and building better habits that help you thrive.
10 Tips to Break Cravings and Take Back Control
If you've been struggling with mindless eating and craving highly-processed junk foods and it's been seriously impacting your health, then clean up your mindset, food plan and body with these ten tips to take back control.
1. Practice Mindful and Intuitive Eating
Becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings we have is half the battle of shifting to a more beneficial mindset.
Consciousness or awareness is a powerful tool, simply put it's the act of being conscious of something or an action.
With less and less time to take a moment to check-in with ourselves and how we are feeling, developing mindful practices will help us understand when we are feeling satisfied and connect with our internal hunger cues to prevent over eating.
Eating consciously means adopting more mindful or intuitive practices in your life and getting curious about how you feel when you are craving a particular food.
Research suggests that mindful and intuitive eating may help you learn to trust your body by slowing down and checking in with yourself, your environment, and your food (6,7).
Building conscious awareness around your relationship with food also means checking in with other areas that affect your wellness.
This is one of the reasons mindful eating and intuitive eating practices are being used as tools in eating disorder recovery, as they help increase self-awareness (8).
2. Start with Simple Swaps
It’s never too late to develop healthy eating habits, but don't feel like you have to go all out to start.
The unhealthy habits we create to survive or subconsciously create didn't appear over night so cut yourself some slack and remember this isn't a race.
Trying to do it all at once can be overwhelming, and most of us have gotten used the flavor and addictive qualities of junk food. These foods can be addictive as drugs and alcohol, and they are purposely made that way (9).
Take things one swap at a time and set yourself up with SMART goals if you're ready to drop to junk and empower yourself to build habits that are sustainable and last.
Smart Goals should be:
Write a contract out for yourself, example: " Starting this Sunday, I am going stop eating chips in front of the TV at least 5 nights a week, and only buying one bag from the grocery store every two weeks, to help reach my goal of losing 8 pounds in a month"
Simple goals could be:
- Replacing soda drinks with no-calorie carbonated flavored waters
- Reading or engaging in another activity before choosing to snack
- Portioning your snacks
- Trying a meditation or mindful eating guided exercise
Setting goals gives you ways to track your progress and moments to celebrate your accomplishments.
Smart Goals can also help us stop eating out of boredom.
3. Track Your Intake
If you’re taking on a system, it’s important to assess what you can control. Track everything you eat and hold yourself accountable.
When we track and analyze our diet, we can identify where we went wrong - and more importantly, why - and make corrections to prevent it from happening again the same way.
Especially if you’re allowing yourself some junk food items, tracking keeps you honest and lets you know if you’re overdoing it.
There are multiple ways to track your intake, you can try using a fitness app like the Trifecta App, or a food journal.
The easiest way to start is to keep a food journal for at least 3 days.
Look at what kinds of foods you're eating, what time you typically eat meals, and also take notes of how you feel! When we eat inconstantly, and consume high-sugar, high-fat, and processed foods our blood sugar can do some crazy things, which may cause some of us to feel like we are on an emotional rollercoaster.
Fluctuations in our blood sugar can also cause food cravings and impair our ability to make good choices; ever feel like you're crashing in the middle of the day and reach for some sugar or caffeine?
Figuring out exactly how many calories you need to consume each day is another way to track your intake and make sure you aren't getting more than you really need.
Try this free calorie calculator to get your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) in a few minutes:
4. Create A Meal Plan You Enjoy
Making a change to your diet is also making a change to your mindset and is ultimately self-care; take it a step further and plan to start a meal prep routine or pre-planning some meals ahead of time.
Free yourself from junk food by creating habits that are sustainable and fuel your lifestyle . Most people make poor food choices when they find themselves out in the world, hungry without a plan and being so hungry that you're 'hangry' is a real thing.
By creating a healthy plan and executing on it, you’ll spend your day satiated and less vulnerable to the influence of junk food cravings and advertisements.
There are a ton of diets out there, paleo, keto, vegan, whole-foods, flexitarian; whatever you choose remember it's not about what you call your diet. Plan your nourishment around your health and wellness goals.
Partner with a registered dietician, health-coach and/or nutritionist to increase your knowledge and awareness, and tailor your nutrition to meet your individual needs.
Try meal prep for easy weekly planning.
5. Eat More Protein
The best way to stay fuller longer is by incorporating more protein in your diet and cut out the simple-carbohydrates. Protein is thought to have some well documented satiating effects, and lead to reduced intake of excess food (10).
In one study, consuming 30% of calories from protein caused participants to eat almost 450 calories less per day - leading to twelve pounds of weight loss in 3 months (11). Some research has even suggested 25% of your calories coming from protein can help curb cravings (12).
Protein is essential for our bodies. Being thoughtful about which proteins you choose to include in your diet can help you optimize your health and fitness goals.
Are you looking for animal or plant based protein sources?
Keep in mind with an endless array of food companies advertising the impressive protein content and health benefits of their products to appeal to consumers, learning who can be trusted and which products are actually worth your dollars can feel like a challenge.
Just because something contains protein does not mean it's good for you. And just because a food label is advertising “a good source of protein” doesn’t necessarily mean it is. So try to include more whole-foods in your meal plan versus processed.
Eating a nutrient dense and protein-packed meal first thing in the morning may also changes how your body functions for the rest of the day.
When you eat breakfast, you are sending a message to your body that you will have plenty of calories coming in throughout the day, whereas if you skip breakfast you are sending a message to your body to conserve calories.
Your overall diet is not designed to be pure protein, and finding macro balanced foods and meals that match your nutrition needs is an efficient way to get better balance overall.
This is especially true for vegans and plant based eaters who rely on plant based proteins that tend to also be a source of fat or carbohydrates.
It is a balancing act, figure out how much protein you need and what macro ratios work best for you.
6. Keep Junk Food out of the House
You can’t control the world around you but you do have some authority over what you keep in your home. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a cupboard full of junk food ready to be cracked open when cravings strike.
So set yourself up for success and have fun stocking your pantry and fridge with foods you enjoy that will keep you full and on-track with any health and wellness goals you set.
There are a few tricks to resisting the urge to purchase junk foods:
- Never shop hungry: you're more likely to purchase high-calorie foods like candy, salty snacks, and red meat if you're in a state of starvation or food deprivation (13).
- Make a plan: follow a meal prep plan, or determine what you want to cook before heading to the store, make a grocery list and stick to what you know you need to prepare meals that will nourish you long-term.
- Determine healthy swaps: just because you want to eat less junk food, doesn't mean you have to starve yourself or give up snacking all together. If you know how much you should be consuming everyday and stick to your goals, there are amazing nutritious and delicious ways to include healthier snack options in your meal plan.
This may be easier said than done, especially if you don't live by yourself. If you're living in a busy household, why not bring the family or roommates into your new vision of health and wellness?
7. Time to Sharpen up Those Cooking Skills
Americans are cooking at home less than ever, another feature of the obesogenic environment (7).
With fewer meals being prepared in the home, fewer Americans are being raised with the skill of cooking. We then tend to eat more packaged or processed foods and the feedback loop continues.
It doesn’t require professional training to make nutritious ingredients taste delicious. Start with some basic recipes to keep things fun and low stress. You’d be amazed how many recipes are built from a few core ingredients and methods.
8. Address Your Stress
We often turn to food in times of stress as the basic act of eating causes our brains to produce more of the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine (14).
Managing one’s stress comes with all sorts of health benefits and its impact on one’s diet is a big one. Prolonged psychological and environmental stress is associated with an increased risk of mental and physical disease by altering our bodies ability to properly metabolize and absorb nutrients essential for our health (15).
There are many ways to manage stress, implementing some self-care habits, practicing mindfulness and looking at all areas of wellness in your life such as your environment, job, sleep, nutrition, and social factors will help you prioritize what's the most important.
Exercising, limiting screen time, joining a group or club and meditation are all excellent, solutions to manage one’s stress.
9. Manage Your Sleep
Addressing your sleep will help you out in a few different ways; not only is the amount of sleep you get important but the quality of sleep matters as well.
Signs of poor sleep poor sleep may include (16):
- not feeling rested in the mornings
- repeatedly waking up during the night
- experience symptoms of sleep disorders
- increased irritability and anxiety
Not getting enough sleep can increase the amount of perceived stress your body is under and may influence the development of gastrointestinal diseases and inflammation in the body (17).
Current research finding are strengthening the known and suspected relationship between inadequate sleep and to a variety of disorders including hypertension, obesity, type-2 diabetes, impaired immune functioning, mood disorders, and neurological disorders (18).
Sleep deprivation increases hunger and food intake, especially our desire for simple carbohydrates like junk food and salty snacks; this may be due to alterations in our reward and pleasure response to food (19).
Some habits that may improve your sleep health (20):
- Reduce exposure to 'blue light' from electronics such as TVs, computers, and smart phones in the bedroom or at least 2 hours before bed
- Avoid consuming large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
- Make your bedroom your a sleep haven: get the temperature right, make it dark and comfortable. Any investment in your bed, mattress, or room is an investment in your health and wellness.
- Create a night time ritual: try to go to bed around the same time each night and get up at the same time in the mornings. Make yourself a cup of tea, do yoga, meditatie, whatever helps you relax and get ready for bed.
10. Ask For Help, You're Not Alone
Seeking professional help from a doctor, therapist, RD or nutrition coach can help you reduce your dependence on junk food and present you with a plan to eat better with healthy lifestyle goals, whether that’s losing weight, controlling blood sugar or enjoying life with more mobility.
Avoiding junk food when it’s got the junk food industry behind it is no simple task. Take small steps to reduce your intake and be kind to yourself when you indulge. The things we do most of the time matter more to our health than what we do some of the time.
Food addiction is a very real condition (21). Anyone suffering from it will likely struggle with controlling their consumption without addressing their addiction to what they crave.
Exploring the what and why you eat may also help you cut cravings and drop unhealthy habits impacting your health and wellness. We all eat for more than physical hunger, Dr. Jay Bays identifies 9 different hunger cues in her book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering Health and Joyful Relationship with Food.
Whatever your struggles may be, just remember you're not alone. You are on a wellness journey, and it takes time to replace unwanted habits with ones that suit your vision of health and wellness.
Start building better habits today by tracking your macros and calories with the Trifecta app. Whether your goal is weight loss or weight gain, tracking will make sure you’re staying on track.