- Eating too much junk food can be harmful to your overall health and well-being
- Know the common warning signs of junk food overconsumption
- You’ll feel better if take a little more time to eat better
We’ve all had those junk food cravings that seem to be, at times, uncontrollable. The barbecue potato chips, the cookie dough ice cream … or maybe it’s the chili cheese fries, with extra cheese? Sometimes it doesn’t take much to launch into a full-on binge with these or whatever your favorite snack foods might be.
Well, don’t feel like you’re alone in your cravings for foods that are at the bottom of the “what’s healthy” list, because you’re actually quite normal. The fast food industry isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry for no reason. And here’s something else you may not have known: Junk food can be addictive, and it can also change the chemistry in your brain. In the journal Nature Neuroscience, a 2010 study in rats suggests that foods that are high in calories and fat may affect the brain in some of the same ways as cocaine and heroin. The study also found that when rats consume these foods in high quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction.
In addition to being habit-forming, junk food is generally unhealthy for several reasons. Junky snacks are usually packed full of salt, sugar, bad fats and carbohydrates. Processing that removes vitamins, minerals and fiber makes junk foods into undesirable sources of empty calories — calories that are derived solely from the salt and sugar, while all of the nutrient-derived calories are gone. Nutritional deficiencies that continue over time lead to you always feeling out of sorts — chronic low energy, mood swings, sleep disturbance, as well as putting you at risk of long-term health issues such as obesity and heart disease. Junk food can also lead to spikes in blood sugar levels, serious cravings and binge eating.
Fortunately, the junk food habit often comes with warning signs that can tell us we need to back off. Here are five “red flags” to watch for:
- Getting cravings when you’re already full. If you’re experiencing cravings after you’ve just eaten a big meal, it may not have been good for you even though you want more. If you have just eaten a well-balanced meal, you’re less likely to feel like you want to keep eating. This is especially true if you’re eating enough fiber and protein.
- Impulsive overeating – If you act on these cravings, even when your body doesn’t need the extra calories, you’re likely going to put on extra weight. Everyone overeats sometimes, but getting extra calories from any source when you don’t need them or don’t work them off is starting to go down the wrong path. And when that source is junk food, you need to change course.
- Quick trips to the store for snacks – When certain junk foods aren't available at home and you go out of your way to obtain them, this points to a habit-forming food craving.
- Making excuses to cheat – If you’re going out of your way to justify why it’s okay to break your diet and finish a bag of cookies, then you already know that you’ve got a problem. Portion control is important, especially when it comes to junk food. If every day is a cheat day, you’re doing it wrong.
- Eating to deal with feelings – When you reach for food in order to cope with emotions, you’re likely going to choose comfort over nutrition.
How to combat and fight off junk food addiction
If you think you may be a junk food junkie, then it’s time to take action and make some changes in your eating habits. Changes that are designed to put you back on the proper path to better, overall health. Here are some quick and easy tips to defeat junk food addiction:
Shop smart. Allow yourself that fun-favorite snack, but be choosey and buy in small quantities. Better yet, try not to bring junk food into your home in the first place.
Plan ahead. If you plan your lunches and dinners for the week, you will have fewer cravings for junk food. And when you snack, choose whole fruit or healthy protein bars. Protein keeps you feeling full between meals and helps you burn more calories. You can also supplement with a tasty protein shake.
Make a list. List any “trigger” foods that might lead to overeating and/or binging. You may be prone to sweets, such as chocolate, or dairy-rich foods like ice cream. Or perhaps for you it’s the starches, such as chips. It’s a good idea to sit down and write them out. Be aware of these “trouble” foods and keep them out of your house, and stay away from them at restaurants and social gatherings. When you can get to the point of limiting yourself to a reasonable amount or serving without over-indulging, then you can take them off your list.
Be mindful of temptation. Don’t fall for the “just one little bite” trick. Food manufacturers spend lots of money scientifically designing their products to have the perfect combination of salt, sweet and texture to overcome your resistance and keep you reaching for more. If you’re going to indulge at lunch, enjoy yourself so that you’re satisfied, but make a mental note to make a healthier choice for dinner.
Ready to feed your body more of the good stuff? Check out tips and recipes from our nutrition specialists.