10 Ways to Train Your Brain to Hate Junk Food
If unhealthy, processed food, is sabotaging your weight loss efforts, outsmart junk food cravings with these clever tricks.
Why do we crave unhealthy food?
As explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” there’s no denying that junk food cravings are powerful, physiological reactions—and, apparently, carefully and strategically developed by food manufacturers. Many of our favorite supermarket snacks are made with the “perfect” amounts of added sugar, salt, fat, and other chemicals designed to make us want more. Steer clear of processed food by eating as many healthy, whole foods as possible. Why? The less junk food you eat, the less you want. Try the following tips and see if they work for you. (Take a bite out of one of these delicious snacks that dietitians swear curb their sugar cravings!)
Spot sneaky sugars
Look at labels for added sugars and sugars under other names. “There are so many names sugar falls under. Look for things like fructose, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, honey, and agave nectar,” says nutritionist Margaret Eich, RDN, a dietitian in Madison, WI. (Is vegetarian fast food healthy? Find out.)
Skip colored plates
A 2018 study found that people ate more pasta and soda if they consumed it off of a red or black plate versus a white one. To eat less overall, choose a white plate and get your color from a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Make sure you know these 14 science-backed tricks to stop your food cravings for good!)
Break your routine
If you always associate 3 p.m. with a trip to the vending machine, start a tradition to walk around the block instead. This may kick your craving altogether. A 2015 study of 48 people in PLoSOne found that taking a 15-minute walk temporarily reduced cravings for high-calorie, sugary snacks. Bonus: You’ll get these other perks of a brief walk, too.
Keep sweets out of sight
Move your food farther away so that if you want more, you have to deliberately – as opposed to mindlessly – go for it. Research published in PLoS ONE in 2017 found that people were more likely to snack on grapes, crackers and chocolates that were placed at arm’s length compared to when they were placed 20 feet away.
Keep the healthy stuff handy
Store healthy foods you want to eat more front and center. Snack foods are so easy to dig into—you just rip open a bag. If you had, say, red peppers all sliced and ready to go, they’re all the more tempting to dip into hummus. Science also suggests there’s a link. A study in the journal Health Education & Behavior found that people who had only fruit on their kitchen counter had a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who were populated visible spaces with candy, cereals and soft drinks.
Know your trigger foods
Whether you’ve got a sweet tooth for chocolate and red velvet anything or love salty treats like pretzels, know the foods that send you down the spiral of junk food binging. Once you’ve identified them, keep them out of the house. (Try one of these 49 healthy snacks to curb your every craving whether it’s sweet, salty, or savory!)
Gross yourself out
One surefire way to consume less processed food is to learn more about what you’re really eating. Here are a few that make us cringe: Those frozen “grilled chicken” breasts get their marks from a machine infused with vegetable oil. The preservative BHA is added to processed food like chip and preserved meats, even though Health and Human Services consider it “reasonably anticipated” to be a carcinogen.
Chew more than you need
Adam Melonas, renowned chef and founder of UnReal candy (along with Nicky Bronner, a 15-year-old determined to “unjunk candy”) shared this smart tip: “If you can make people chew more, they’ll eat less.” For participants in a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, chewing more before swallowing did indeed translate into smaller meal size. Next time you sneak in a treat, chew slowly and consciously. Wait until you finish one bite to take the next. (This is the secret you to need to stop nighttime stress-eating!)
Cut back on the junk food gradually
Don’t go cold turkey; cut down on your bad eating habits in baby steps. For instance, if you take three sugars in your yea, reduce it to two sugars for a few weeks, then work your way down to one. Soon, you’ll notice that you only need small amounts to satisfy your craving, says Eich.
Eat one raisin mindfully
Leslie Korn, PhD, an expert in mental-health nutrition and author of the cookbook The Good Mood Kitchen swears by this 5-minute or less trick: eating one raisin! First, pick up the raisin, examine its texture and shape, and sniff it. Then place the raisin on your tongue, move it around in your mouth and start to chew it slowly. As you swallow it, remain still as you imaging the raisin moving throughout your body. When you’ve finished eating the raisin ask yourself “What does my body really need?”
Mindful eating helps boost your parasympathetic dominance, a chemical reaction that slows down your heart rate and breathing, notes Korn. Practicing mindfulness in general helps increase your levels of the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA, according to an article in Ancient Science. And GABA stabilizes your appetite and improves digestion. (Here’s how you can kiss your junk food cravings goodbye with this one healthy snack!)
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: "Nutrients, Satiety, and Control of Energy Intake."
- Margaret Eich, RDN, dietitian, Madison, WI.
- Leslie Korn, PhD, author of The Good Mood Kitchen.
- Ancient Science: "Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern Scientific Perspective."
- PLoS ONE: "Acute Effects of Brisk Walking on Sugary Snack Cravings in Overweight People, Affect and Responses to a Manipulated Stress Situation and to a Sugary Snack Cue: A Crossover Study."
- Health Education & Behavior: "Slim by Design: Kitchen Counter Correlates of Obesity."
- Nutrition Journal: "Impact of Three Different Plate Colours on Short-Term Satiety and Energy Intake: A Randomized Controlled Trial."
- PloS One: "Objective Quantification of the Food Proximity Effect on Grapes, Chocolate and Cracker Consumption in a Swedish High School."
- National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services: "Butylated Hydroxyanisole."
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Increasing the Number of Chews before Swallowing Reduces Meal Size in Normal-Weight, Overweight, and Obese Adults."