We all have some guilty-pleasure junk food items. Are you into fries, pizza, or sweets? Regardless, it’s never easy for us to cut these unhealthy treats from our diets even though studies have proven time and again that there is no decency in these products.
Manufacturers often create foods aiming to ignite a cycle of addiction in consumers. The ultimate pleasure, with not too much and not too little sweet, salty, and fatty flavors make your brain reacts in the same way as with cocaine and other drug addictions (1). And since they are accessible just about everywhere – at schools, workplaces, convenience stores, supermarkets, and even in vending machines, it makes it harder to limit or avoid them.
This article will discuss everything you need to know about junk food, possible addiction to it, and whether you must steer clear of it at all costs or enjoy an occasional treat. The good news is, while succumbing to cravings may seem inevitable, there are also easy things you can do to control them. Read on to find out more.
What Is Junk Food?
Junk food refers to highly processed products that contain high amounts of calories, unhealthy fats, and refined carbs. They are also low in filling nutrients such as fiber and protein. The most common favorites include pizzas, French fries, potato chips, and sugary drinks.
As mentioned earlier, they are widely available, affordable, and convenient. They are well marketed, especially to kids, and promoted with deceptive health claims (2, 3, 4). While they are tasty, they are usually not very filling and are easy to overeat.
Junk Food and Weight Gain
Obesity is a complex and multifactorial disease with no single cause (5, 6). It occurs when there is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and the amount expended. The ease of access, high-palatability, and affordability of junk food is believed to be the major contributors. How can it cause you to gain weight?
1. It Is Rich In Calories with No Nutritional Value
As mentioned earlier, junk food items are rich in calories but low in nutritional value. Liquid calories such as sports drinks, soda, and flavored coffees are your worst offenders as they deliver hundreds of calories without affecting your appetite. A review of studies also showed that for every serving of sugar-sweetened drink, you may gain 0.12-0.22 kg over a year (7). While the number is not alarming, this can correlate to several pounds for a few years.
2. It Makes You Burn Fewer Calories
We all know that it requires energy to digest, metabolize, and absorb the food you eat. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF), and it generally accounts for approximately 10% of your daily energy expenditure (10).
Metabolizing protein will require you to use more energy than metabolizing fat or carbs. In fact, you can burn up to 100 more calories daily by eating a high-protein meal (11, 12, 13). Also, the way foods are processed may affect the TEF. It is higher when you take whole foods than refined, processed products.
This was proven true by a study that compared meals that varied in their level of processing, but not their content. Results showed that consuming whole grain sandwiches with cheddar cheese burned more calories as compared to those made with processed dairy and refined grains (14).
While this isn’t a significant study, the results still suggest that processed food does not require too much energy to be digested and metabolized as compared to whole foods. This makes you burn fewer calories burned daily, making weight loss and maintenance much more difficult.
3. It Slows Down Your Metabolism
Sugary drinks contain high levels of fructose, a simple sugar that is mainly metabolized by the liver. Consuming excessive will affect fullness signals, weaken the action of ghrelin after meals, and encourage fat storage in the belly (15).
Also, it slows down your metabolism. Evidence showed that overweight and obese people who consumed sweetened drinks with fructose experienced a significant drop in resting energy expenditure within a 10-week period (16).
Junk Food and Other Chronic Diseases
1. Heart Diseases
Heart disease is the leading cause of mortality worldwide. Sugar intake is one of the many risk factors for this disease. Added sugars, specifically, have been shown to increase blood pressure and a specific type of fat in the blood known as triglycerides, which are both major risk factors for heart diseases (17). Consuming fast food regularly has also been found to reduce good cholesterol levels and increase triglycerides (18).
2. Type 2 DM
Type 2 DM occurs when your body becomes insensitive to the effects of insulin, a blood sugar-lowering hormone. The consumption of processed foods has been significantly associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance. Evidence suggests that changes in the skeletal muscles’ ability to process glucose can be observed in as fast as 5 days of taking fatty processed foods (19).
Another study also suggests that your risk of developing insulin resistance may double when you eat in a fast-food restaurant more than twice weekly (20).
Junk Food Addiction and Withdrawal Symptoms
Junk food may affect your brain in a very powerful way when consumed regularly and in excessive amounts (21). They can increase dopamine production, a neurotransmitter that helps control your brain’s reward center. This massive influx of dopamine can cause food addiction in some individuals (22).
One study has looked into the withdrawal symptoms people experience when they stop digging into these foods as part of their usual diet (23). It’s the first of its kind! It included more than 230 participants who were asked to mention any withdrawal symptoms they have experienced after avoiding or limiting junk food intake over the past year. Those who had several attempts were asked to report their most recent experiences.
Many have reported episodes of cravings, sadness, tiredness, and increased irritability in the first 2-5 days. These symptoms will eventually cool off after this time frame. This corresponds to how drug withdrawals work. The first week after cutting out consumption will produce the most noticeable symptoms.
Aside from being surprised by how closely these junk food withdrawal symptoms aligned with drug withdrawal, the researchers also found that the more intense the symptom is, the less likely the diet attempt will be successful. This clearly demonstrates the relevance of withdrawal symptoms for why people are having such a tough time cutting down on these unhealthy treats.
Can You Do A Detox?
So, what if you want to start eating healthy, but you find it very difficult to ditch these foods? Some people choose to do it gradually rather than quit cold turkey. This works most of the time, but it will take a little longer.
You can try to gradually remove these foods by spacing out your efforts. Instead of having two cans of soda daily, limit it to one, and then gradually space out your consumption over the course of the week. Expect the first couple of weeks to be hard, but it will soon get better. You will also have to work on several other lifestyle factors, both food and not food-related. See the tips below.
10 Easy and Effective Ways to Stop Your Cravings
1. Drink A Lot of Water
Thirst is often perceived as hunger. If you feel a sudden urge for a specific food, try drinking water and wait for a few minutes. Your craving may fade away because you are actually just thirsty.
Furthermore, drinking a lot of water may have several other health benefits. It is believed that drinking water before eating can help suppress your appetite and aid in weight loss (24).
2. Fight Stress
Stress will almost always induce food cravings and influence eating patterns, especially in women (25). Women under stress tend to eat more calories and experience more cravings as compared to non-stressed women (26).
Practice redirecting yourself when you feel the urge to reach for food instead of doing the things that need to be done. Healthy stress management tools may include:
- Leisurely walking at the park
- Yoga and meditation
- Talking to a friend or a family member
- Doing something you like painting, planting, etc.
Experiment and find what will work for you. If your stress feels overwhelming, ask for professional help. Health professionals can offer emotional support and suggest other effective, healthy, not food-related coping techniques.
3. Sleep Well
Your appetite is greatly affected by the hormones that fluctuate throughout the day. Lack of sleep disrupts the fluctuations, causing poor appetite regulation and strong cravings (27). Evidence proved this, showing that sleep-deprived individuals are 55% more likely to become obese than those who get enough sleep (28).
For this reason, getting a good night’s sleep may be one of the best ways to prevent your cravings from showing up.
4. Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating helps you develop an awareness of your eating patterns, emotions, cravings, hunger, and physical sensations (29). It teaches you to differentiate cravings from actual physical hunger and to choose your response well instead of acting impulsively (30).
Eating mindfully involves concentrating while eating, slowing down, and chewing thoroughly. Avoid distractions such as your smartphone or the TV. Evidence showed that mindful eating could help reduce binge-eating episodes from 4 to 1.5 weekly. The severity of each binge has been greatly decreased, too (31).
5. Eat More Protein
Eating more protein will help keep you full and satisfied longer. This will reduce your cravings, curb your appetite, and keep you from overeating (32).
Increasing protein intake to 25% of calories can decrease your cravings by as much as 60%. Your desire to snack at night will also be reduced by 50% (33). A high-protein breakfast can greatly help!
6. Plan Ahead
There is no better way to handle your cravings than planning your meals and snacks early. If you have a healthy meal or snacks packed and ready for you during lunch and in the afternoon, you are far less likely to order fries or pizza. You will reduce your susceptibility to being influenced by how food smells, their ads, and the conversations surrounding you daily (34).
Try planning out your weekly meals every Sunday or the day before your workweek starts. Shop for what you need. Prepare large batches of easy foods such as brown rice, beans, roasted veggies, or cold salads. Use suitable food containers, jars, or foil to pack up a good serving size, which you can easily grab early in the morning on your way out for school or work. Fruits such as apples, bananas, and oranges travel well, making them perfect for afternoon snacks.
7. Shop the Perimeter
The perimeter of most grocery stores would normally include the produce, dairy, meat, and fish sections. This is where you will see real foods instead of highly processed products. When you go shopping, try going straight to these sections and purchase from them only. If a product has more than a few ingredients on its label or the ones you are not familiar with, skip and don’t buy. This is a key step in transitioning your diet to whole foods.
Soon enough, your body and palate will get used to eating fresh veggies, fruits, grains, and proteins. You will get all the nutrients you need, so your cravings for unhealthy treats will start to disappear. It may take a few weeks, but eventually, it won’t taste the same for you!
8. Don’t Let Yourself Get Too Hungry
Hunger is among the greatest reasons why we crave. It is better to eat regularly in small portions and have a healthy snack close at hand than to fast and get yourself extremely hungry.
9. Eat Healthy Fats
I am sure you have been told that fat will cause you to gain weight. While trans-fat and saturated fats are really bad for your health, there are heart-healthy fats such as avocados and nuts that can help you feel full and reduce your cravings.
Get a handful of mixed nuts as your afternoon snack. You can also make a home-made salad dressing with vinegar and olive oil. Adding fresh guacamole or fatty fish such as salmon to your daily diet is also a good way of incorporating healthy, filling fats.
10. Try Spinach Extract
There is no harm in trying a supplement, especially if it is made from natural plant parts. This new extract is made from spinach leaves. It delays fat digestion to increase the levels of hormones that control appetite and hunger.
Evidence showed that taking 3.75 grams of spinach extract with a meal may curb your appetite and cravings for several hours (35). Women were able to reduce their cravings for chocolates and other sugary foods to as much as 87-95% after taking 5 grams of spinach extract daily (36).
Cravings are quite common. More than 50% of people experience it on a regular basis. They play a role in weight gain, food addiction, and other chronic diseases.
Being aware of your cravings and avoiding triggers makes them much easier to avoid. Choose to eat healthy to keep a good weight!