The CDC reports that an estimated 84.8 million Americans consume fast food every day. That’s over one in three adults.
Why are we so addicted? And how to avoid eating junk food?
It’s not your fault
It’s not your fault if you eat junk food. Well, not entirely, at least.
We are driven to such foods for evolutionary reasons. In pre-agricultural society, where calories were scarce, it served us well to crave calorie-rich foods with lots of fat and/or sugar.
In fact, at that time, if you were lucky enough to stumble across such a bounty, it made sense to eat as much as possible.
There was no modern refrigeration and no certainty of where the next meal would come from. It was a matter of survival.
Sadly, our senses and brain haven’t evolved much since then. We still crave and are prone to eat calorie/fat/sugar-rich foods as much as possible, as if we were blissfully unaware of the huge abundance of such foods all around us.
The food industry spends millions of dollars every year coming up with processed foods that overstimulate our olfactory and gustatory receptors.
These hyper-appealing foods — foods high in salt, glutamate, sugar, and fat — exploit our evolutionary tendencies.
In nature, such combinations do not even exist. In the worst-case scenario, foods tend to offer a large amount of one particular macronutrient. Unlike a donut, they may have lots of fat or lots of sugar, but not both at the same time.
Even texture and contrast in food matters. Modern, processed foods are engineered to keep our brain and appetite interested.
Most foods in nature are either soft or hard, smooth or crunchy, and sweet or salty. Junk food has the ability to combine such contrasting characteristics to keep us eating for as long as possible.
So your crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, sweet and salty treat, loaded with fat and sugar, becomes extremely hard to resist.
After consuming enough natural whole foods, our brain receives signals from our digestive system (via receptors and hormones) that we have had enough food. Junk food is engineered to delay this communication between the stomach and our brain for as long as physiologically possible.
In other words, you have been fighting a very unfair battle against your very own biological needs.
It is not a moral failing if you are addicted to junk food and indulge in it more often than you should. Your will power alone is no match against a culture that produces hyper-appealing foods to exploit your very nature and then bombards you with advertisements for it.
How to avoid eating junk food
Thankfully, you don’t have to give up altogether. There are some proven strategies to eat less junk food.
You can’t rely solely on your will power. Not in the long term, at least. Here is what you can do.
1. Set yourself up for success by modifying your environment
You’re not going to avoid junk food if it’s in plain sight and easily accessible in your own home. Every time you see it, by opening your cupboard, you’ll be tempted.
If it’s in the house, it gets eaten.
Get rid of junk food that you already have (donate it if you have to) and do not buy it anymore. To help you with this, consider going to the grocery store with a full stomach. This will reduce the amount of junk food you buy and help your wallet as well.
You’ll have fewer cravings and even when you do, you’ll be less likely to act on them. For example, you might crave chocolate chips cookies on a random Tuesday night, but you probably don’t crave them enough to get out of your pajamas, get dressed, and drive to your nearest grocery store.
This is especially true if you have healthier alternatives to act as methadone of sorts for your craving (e.g., a banana or some very dark chocolate).
2. Avoid triggers
Not having junk food in the house is a great way to avoid the visual trigger of having delicious, unhealthy food in plain sight.
If this isn’t enough for you, however, you should also consider avoiding other triggers.
When you get a craving, take note of what caused it. Was it a commercial while watching TV? Perhaps, consider consuming commercial-free media content (like Netflix or Prime Video).
Was it because you drove by your favorite fast food joint on your way back from work? Consider taking an alternate route to skip that particular fast food place or the billboard promoting it, if at all possible.
Was the craving caused by a friend inviting you to grab some fast food? Perhaps it’s time to have a frank discussion with them about your goals, and it wouldn’t hurt to develop more friendships with health-oriented people as well, to counterbalance the enabling influences in your life.
Do you overeat junk food every time you start feeling sad and overwhelmed? Work on your well-being and mental health to develop coping mechanisms with the help of a professional.
Or at the very least, try to avoid stressful situations or whatever causes you to become overwhelmed. This isn’t always possible, of course, but try your best to remove the root cause that leads you to eat junk food.
Eliminate the triggers, whatever they are, and junk food won’t be a common occurrence in your diet.
3. Try dietary displacement
You are way less likely to develop cravings for fast and junk food if your stomach is full of healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
This is called dietary displacement, and yes, it really works. It’s part of the reason why the Whole-Foods, Plant-Based (WFPB) diet is so effective at helping people lose weight. You can only eat so many low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods before you are full.
Oh, and don’t forget to drink plenty of water too. If you don’t, you might mistake thirst for hunger.
Ultimately, it’s a bit of an uphill battle, but it’s possible to resist junk food and make healthier choices. Follow these tips and you’ll be likely to succeed.
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