December 13, 2020

Here’s the Deal With Your Junk Food Cravings

Practical tips for curbing cravings and smart swaps

man eating hamburgers and fries at night

Ever feel like you have an endless craving for all the junk food — salty, sweet or both — that you can get your hands on?

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You just can’t seem to give it up and keep eating, especially during times of heavy stress. And there’s certainly been plenty of stress to keep us hitting the bags of chocolate the last several months.

“Especially when we’re stressed, junk food often soothes us with the least amount of fuss and effort. We look for sugary and fatty foods to make us feel good,” says registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD. “But there are ways to get control of your food cravings, instead of them controlling you.”

Is “junk food” bad for you?

Junk food is food that is unhealthy for you, just as the word “junk” implies. It runs the gamut from sickly sweet (think: cookies, candy and cake) to heavy on saturated fats (think: fried and processed foods). Eating too much junk food can have short- and long-term consequences for your body thanks to these ingredients.

Saturated fats

Eating foods rich in saturated fats can increase your cholesterol levels and the amount of plaque in your blood vessels. “If you have blood vessels that are stiffening and not moving blood effectively, you have a higher risk for heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes,” says Czerwony.

Sugars

Too much sugar in your diet can lead to weight gain, a risk factor for diabetes. Some animal studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners make our bodies resist insulin. This may also increase the likelihood of developing prediabetes, diabetes and heart disease.

“Most Americans are walking around with prediabetes, putting them at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes,” Czerwony adds. “Once you have diabetes, doctors treat you as if you’ve already had a heart attack because the rate of heart disease is so much higher. All of these health issues affect all the organs, so it’s important to get a handle on them.”

What causes junk food and sugar cravings?

Czerwony lists four reasons you may be craving sweets and other junk food.

1. Food euphoria

Unfortunately, our bodies are hard-wired to crave junk food. When you eat foods you enjoy, you stimulate the feel-good centers in your brain, triggering you to eat even more.

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Especially in patients with excess weight and obesity, the brain’s reward processing system for food is like its mechanisms related to substance abuse. “Sugar makes us want to eat more sugar. Fat makes us want to eat more fat,” notes Czerwony. “Our brains are chasing that pleasurable state of food euphoria.”

2. Lack of sleep

Studies suggest that sleep deprivation is associated with increased hunger (especially snack and sweet cravings). And you can blame it on your hormones. Lack of sleep causes hormone shifts:

  • Ghrelin, the hunger-control hormone, increases, causing you to eat more.
  • Leptin, the appetite-suppressing hormone, decreases.
  • Cortisol, the stress hormone, may increase, stimulating your appetite.
  • Research shows that sleep deprivation causes an increase in overall hunger, which can lead to cravings of sugar, fat or both.

3. Habit

“If it’s normal for you to eat junk food, it can be hard to break that cycle,” explains Czerwony. “You’re used to not cooking, preparing or planning. You eat whatever’s on hand because that’s what you’ve always done.”

4. Stress

Stress, or emotional, eating really is a thing — and it’s the result of both nature and nurture. Some people find food helps distract them from negative thoughts and feelings. Others learned as children to use food to cope.

Hormones are also responsible. Like lack of sleep, ongoing stress causes the body to increase levels of cortisol and other hormones connected to hunger. Studies show this hormone tsunami increases appetite — along with your desire for sugary and fatty foods.

Seven ways to curb junk food cravings

Czerwony says these strategies can help you master your food cravings:

  • Practice mindfulness: Try to eat and drink without distractions, Czerwony advises: “Avoid eating in the car or while watching TV or answering emails. Really focus on enjoying and tasting your food. You’ll find that a few bites can satisfy your craving — and save a lot of calories.”
  • Try an air fryer: “One of the best recent inventions is the convection air fryer. It allows you to eat things that have a fried consistency, minus the oil,” explains Czerwony. “It’s a healthier way to indulge.”
  • Embrace meal planning: Czerwony says when you plan ahead, you empower yourself to make good decisions. “Even if you choose a food that’s not healthy, it shouldn’t be a problem if you plan for it by eating healthier for a couple of days before or after.” Other ways to plan include stashing healthy snacks in your bag or desk and plan dinners ahead of time so your mind (and not your stomach) decides the menu.
  • Give yourself non-food-related rewards: If treating yourself always involves unhealthy foods, you could be sabotaging your health goals. Instead, treat yourself to a new outfit, some pampering or another activity that makes you smile.
  • Drink lots of water: It’s easy to confuse thirst cues with hunger cravings. To stay hydrated all day, keep a water bottle within reach.
  • Get a good night’s sleep: Keep those hunger hormones in check with adequate rest.
  • Manage stress: “If you cultivate a healthy lifestyle, those cravings often go away because the body isn’t responding to stress. Try meditation, exercise or reading to settle yourself down in stressful moments.”

Czerwony also emphasizes that it’s OK to ask for help when you’re feeling stuck. “Talk with your primary care physician or a registered dietitian. That’s what we’re here for: to educate and empower you to make better decisions. We can help you choose healthier options and modifications rather than focusing on things you have to cut.”

Healthy alternatives to junk food

When you make an effort to understand what flavors you do and don’t like, it’s easier to find healthier alternatives. Czerwony offers a few ideas to get you started:

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Same food, different version

Try changing up the style of food instead of the food itself.

  • Try oven-baked or air-fried versions of your favorite fried foods.
  • Eat lower-sugar versions of your favorite cookies and sweets — or stick to smaller portions.
  • Try pizza with 100% whole grain crust, either made from scratch or at restaurants that offer it. You can also make specialty crusts — made from ingredients such as cauliflower. And don’t skimp on the veggies!
  • Eat potatoes with the skin. The extra fiber in the potato skin helps slow digestion and keep your blood sugar in balance.

Try this instead of that

Figure out a great switch to keep you going.

  • Have a chocolate-dipped pretzel or piece of fruit instead of an entire chocolate bar.
  • In recipes, try swapping applesauce for oil or decreasing sugar by at least one-fourth.
  • Next time you want a carbonated drink, opt for sparkling water without sugar or artificial sweeteners.
  • Swap out white potatoes for sweet potatoes, which are lower on the glycemic index and higher in micronutrients.
  • Instead of pretzels and chips, enjoy air-popped popcorn, popcorn made with extra virgin olive oil or unsalted mixed nuts.
  • Try replacing sugary treats with berries and dark chocolate (over 70%). Add a bit of nut butter for protein and healthy fat. Other options include berry herbal teas, frozen berries and homemade nut balls sweetened with two to three medjool dates.

Resisting food cravings is important if you’re trying to lose weight or reduce blood pressure or cholesterol. But there is such a thing as being too restrictive. “If you’re relatively healthy, at a healthy weight, and your blood pressure and blood sugar are on point, feel free to indulge if you plan for it,” Czerwony says.

“Many of my patients eat around their craving. When they want something chocolatey, they eat a piece of fruit that doesn’t hit the spot. Then they go for an ice pop with the same result … and it goes on,” Czerwony says.

Just eat what you’re craving, really enjoy it and be done with it,” she suggests. “That way, you’ll be satisfied and won’t need to go back for more.”

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