Can’t stop eating junk food? Here’s why (and what to do)

Nearly everyone loves eat junk food once in a while, but for some, it can become an issue.

Written by
Stephanie Anderson
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 5, 2024
min read
Can’t stop eating junk food? Here’s why (and what to do)
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Nearly everyone loves to indulge and eat junk food once in a while, but for some, their junk food intake can become an issue.

It's no secret that eating ultra-processed foods regularly will have a negative impact on physical and mental health, and we've all heard about the benefits that eating healthy foods will have on our bodies and brains.

But what happens when you feel like you can't stop eating junk food? What is it about the junk food habit that makes it so hard to kick?

If you're someone who wants to eat healthy, nutritious foods but constantly finds those healthy choices hard to make, you're in the right place.

Ahead, we'll break down everything you need to know about the science behind why you eat junk food when you want to be the kind of person who maintains a healthy diet.

And more importantly, we'll give you science-backed advice on how to stop eating junk food and start eating nutritious, balanced meals.

What causes junk food cravings?

Aside from the fact that junk food tastes great, what is it about unhealthy foods that get us hooked?

Why is it always the ultra-processed food that really hits the spot, instead of nutritious foods like brown rice and fresh fruit?

Well, there are a few things to consider. For most people, junk food cravings are caused by a combination of psychological, physiological, and environmental factors.

Junk foods often contain high levels of sugar, salt and fat, and this combination can trigger the brain's pleasure centres [1].

In fact, high-fat foods can trigger a release of dopamine, which can reinforce the desire to continue eating junk food regularly, even if you feel like your fast food consumption is getting out of control.

The readily available nature of junk food also makes it easier to indulge more regularly, and this can become a habit that the brain and body adjust to. Once a person's junk food intake is a habit, they will find that they crave junk food when they don't have it [2].

Many people will notice an increase in their junk food intake during times of heightened stress levels or negative emotions. In this case, the act of indulging in junk food offers a temporary sense of comfort or a distraction from emotional discomfort.

Another reason a person may experience junk food cravings is a lack of nutrients in their everyday diet.  

Despite junk food typically being high-fat foods that are low in nutrition, a person might find that their body craves junk food as it attempts to fill its nutritional needs.

Finally, sleep restriction or deprivation can cause people to crave junk food, as a lack of sleep can disrupt the hormones related to appetite regulation [1][3].

How does junk food impact your health?

Positive or negative, our food choices affect our physical and mental health, and when it comes to our junk food intake, the impacts aren't great [2].

Eating junk food regularly will affect your overall calorie intake, which can lead to weight gain and obesity over time.

Junk food can cause reduced energy levels, digestive issues like constipation, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and dental issues like tooth decay and cavities.

Because junk foods are often low in essential nutrients, excess consumption over time can also lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can also cause health problems.

However, junk food is also linked to an increased risk of more serious chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, as well as cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

And it's not just the body that suffers the negative effects of a regular junk food habit — research has linked junk food with an increased risk of depression and anxiety, as well as an increased risk of addiction, impaired cognitive function, and other mental health disorders [4].

9 healthy alternatives to junk food

One easy way to start kicking the junk food habit is to swap snacks that spike your blood sugar out for healthy snacks that deliver on taste and nutrients.

The snacks ahead offer some great, healthy alternatives to common junk foods:

  1. Fresh fruit: If you've got a sweet tooth, swap your 3 pm sweet treat for fruits like apples, bananas, berries, or grapes, which provide natural sweetness along with vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
  2. Vegetable sticks with hummus: Swap out chips and dip for crunchy vegetable sticks (carrots, celery, capsicum) paired with hummus, which will give you a satisfying crunch — along with protein and fibre.
  3. Greek yoghurt with berries: Instead of sugary yoghurt cups, choose plain Greek yoghurt and add fresh berries or a drizzle of honey for sweetness. Greek yoghurt is high in protein and probiotics.
  4. Homemade trail mix: Combine nuts, seeds, and dried fruits to create your own trail mix. This provides a satisfying mix of protein, healthy fats, and natural sweetness without added sugars.
  5. Air-popped popcorn: Air-popped popcorn is a nutritious alternative to traditional buttered popcorn. It's low in calories and high in fibre, making it a satisfying snack option.
  6. Whole grain crackers with avocado: Instead of crackers with trans fats, choose whole grain crackers topped and pair them with mashed avocado. Avocado provides healthy fats and creaminess while whole grain crackers offer fibre and nutrients.
  7. Roasted chickpeas: Roast chickpeas with olive oil and spices make for a super crunchy, savoury snack. They're high in protein and fibre, which makes them a satisfying alternative to chips or pretzels.
  8. Dark chocolate: Choose dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or higher) as a healthier alternative to milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and less sugar.
  9. Frozen yoghurt bark: Spread plain Greek yoghurt onto a baking sheet, top with your favourite fruits, nuts, and a drizzle of honey, then freeze until firm. Break into pieces for a nutritious and refreshing snack.

Will you lose weight if you stop eating fast food?

Not eating junk food is a great start if you're hoping to lose weight, but it's just one of many healthy habits you can implement for weight loss.

The occasional junk food treat isn't such a big deal if you generally eat healthy foods and keep active, but if you're someone who regularly indulges and lives a more sedentary lifestyle, it will contribute to weight gain and a decline in your overall health.

Eating healthy food is a great start toward weight loss and improved health.

Junk food is often high in calories, fats and sugar, so it stands to reason that if you prioritise healthy food when you go grocery shopping, and make your own food at home rather than indulging in takeaway, you're likely to lower your calorie intake over time.

This can help create a calorie deficit, which is necessary for weight loss [5].

There's also the issue of nutritional quality [6].

When you replace junk food with whole foods and healthier alternatives, like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, you're likely to see a decline in your hunger levels overall, as you'll feel satisfied for longer after each meal.

When you make the decision to cut junk food out of your life, it's likely you'll also become more mindful of your eating habits in general.

Mindful eating can lead to more healthy living choices, like regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and making sure you drink plenty of water — all of which can improve your overall health.

However, it's important to note that simply cutting out fast food may not guarantee weight loss if other aspects of your diet and lifestyle remain unchanged.

Sustainable weight loss typically requires a comprehensive approach that includes a balanced diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and stress management.

How to stop eating junk food

It can be challenging to know where to start when it comes to kicking the junk food habit, but there are plenty of benefits to reap.

To start with, it's important to identify your triggers — the situations, emotions, and habits that kick off your cravings. Becoming aware of these triggers can help you break the cycle.

It's also a great idea to keep your house stocked with healthy food options.

Going grocery shopping each week and planning your meals ahead can help curb impulsive, last-minute purchases, and make it easier to avoid temptations [1].

When you plan your meals, you can also work toward finding healthy alternatives to your favourite foods and swap them out.

You can also practice mindful eating [1].

This involves slowing down, and paying attention to your eating habits, savouring each bite without distraction, and paying attention to your body's sensations and hunger levels. This will allow you to stop overeating, as you'll recognise when you have a full stomach more quickly.

It's also important to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated, as thirst cues can often be mistaken for hunger [7]. This can also help reduce junk food cravings.

If you find that you indulge your junk food cravings as a way to cope with stress levels, boredom or other negative emotions, it's a good idea to address those underlying issues and find healthier coping strategies.

If you feel like you need additional support when it comes to how to stop eating junk food, though, Pilot is here to help.

Pilot's Metabolic Reset Program is a medical weight loss program that is all about helping you lose weight and feel healthier, but it's more than a quick fix.

Designed by Australian experts, this program helps you lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way. With personalised health coaching and community support for additional motivation, we're here to help you not only lose weight but keep it off.

If that sounds like the path for you, check your eligibility today.

Image credit: Getty Images

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