It is no secret that junk food tastes really good. It is also well known why people crave it: sugar, salt, and fat are all tasty!
But why can’t we stop craving for it?
The answer to this question lies in the complicated biology of our body. In this article we will discuss the top 6 reasons why you crave unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar and how to stop craving.
We’ll also talk about deficiencies and solutions afterwards below!
Why People Cannot Stop Craving for Junk Food
1 – Evolution
I know McDonald’s and Starbucks are right around your street corner today but let’s rewind several thousand years …
Back in these days sugar and fat are not just tasty, they are also rare. Extremely rare! So rare that a leading cause of death in ancient times was starvation!
That’s right – for most of human history a leading cause of death was starvation, hunger and famine.
Our ancestors had the opposite problem many of us face today. Instead of having too much food, they had far too little.
Despite having an abundance of fat and sugar today our body craves for the sugar and fat we didn’t have before our modern times when there was famine in most parts of the world.
Evolution made it so that we crave these unhealthy foods because it ensured survival back then.
So even though today you can find them everywhere, your brain does not get satisfied with a small amount as evolution thought you would never be able to eat again!
Just think about crocodiles and most other animals like cheetahs that hunt prey for their survival.
Animals eat everything all at once because they don’t know when they’ll eat again!
Plus, animals don’t have refrigerators to save their food.
While you may have a refrigerator, your body is still running on the genetic programming of your ancestors who didn’t have refrigerators and didn’t know when the next meal was coming!
All this simply means one thing: when food was on the table, your ancestors would quickly eat it!
Basically they would happily engage in binge eating a particular food if it helped them survive! High fat might seem ‘bad’ now but back then it would’ve been a delicacy!
Oh and weight loss? Back then your ancestors would actually didn’t care to lose weight and would prefer weight gain over weight loss!
2 – Temporary Benefits
Stress releases cortisol and negative emotions, which will make you crave for junk foods.
This is why people often eat ice cream when they are stressed – it gives them quick relief and comfort. But most people don’t realize that processed foods gives you much more than just a sense of comfort.
Here are just a few of the temporary benefits eating junk food provides:
- Excitement (when you think ahead to a future where you’re tasting a chocolatey ice cream cone and not stuck at work!)
- Sense of power and control (junk food gives you a reliable way to change your brain chemistry)
- Reward (most people work hard and aren’t recognized for their efforts so they feel like they need a reward)
- Turn off your thinking mind (today’s modern internet day and age is stressful and junk food offers a temporary way to turn off your noggin’!)
So if you love to munch on some fries while surfing social media feeds then you are not alone!
3 – Not Enough Sleep
We sleep for a third of our lives so why is it that we often feel like the days are just passing us by?
The truth is, when you do not get enough sleep your brain functions less optimally and this affects how well you make decisions.
And I am pretty sure you know that most people are not sleeping enough! There’s just so many electronic and online distractions that suck up our attention and time!
Plus, work is busier than ever and your boss can email you right before bed! This leaves many of us feeling chronically tired and fatigued.
You have probably experienced this at some point in your life – what was the last time you were tired while making a difficult decision?
And while you were thinking about whether to get your report done or study for a test, maybe your brain thought of another more appealing option …
Instead of worrying about studying or finishing the project before the deadline, your brain (especially when tired) will take the easy way out.
And what could be easier than unwrapping something sugary or popping a can and consuming all that sugar and temporary bliss?
Sleep deprivation makes junk food look much more desirable to eat because it lowers our higher-level thinking skills, also known as executive function.
This means paying attention becomes harder and remembering events or tasks can be challenging. We crave temporary relief from these feelings and junk food is a great way to do that.
Now obviously we ‘know’ on some level junk food won’t study for the test or finish the project on time.
But when you’re tired and sleep deprived, do you really know?
4 – Convenience
We like things close to us.
From an evolutionary perspective we like to conserve energy because food used to be rare. See, it all comes back to evolution!
Today we still like to conserve energy. And the easiest way to conserve energy is finding things to eat that are nearby instead of hunting and searching for new food!
Junk food is everywhere, as stated before – at work, in your supermarket, etc …
It’s always within a grasp.
We also have the convenience of most junk food being easy to prepare and eat, meaning you can enjoy it in front of your TV or computer screen!
Plus, why cook when we know what tastes good? That takes so much more time than grabbing something on the way home from work …
So if you need some quick relief then look no further because there is a variety of convenient options for that too – frozen dinners, microwavable meals, fast-food…the list goes on.
You are never alone with these two thoughts: “I don’t want to cook” and “I am hungry.” And thanks to modern day life those two thoughts often go hand in hand!
So why not go with the most convenient option and eat some junk food?
5 – Habits
Eating habits are very powerful.
For example: We have a habit of getting coffee every day at work.
You may not think about why you do it – but why? In fact you may get coffee without even thinking and that’s why habits are so powerful!
But what goes into a habit? Well … there are three things …
Cue: It’s the first thing in your mind when you wake up and before leaving for work. The alarm clock, the dark skies, your car … all these could be cues to trigger your coffee craving.
Routine: The routine is drinking coffee!
Reward: We love that feeling of productivity and energy!
So once again, habits make us more efficient by doing things automatically without needing to think too much or making decisions consciously. But how does junk food relate to habits?
Our junk food cravings can be triggered by our environment or emotions like feeling stressed or when the clock says it’s dinner time. These can be cues to trigger your craving for something sugary.
Then you get all those temporary benefits we mentioned earlier!
This means every time you eat junk food in response to stress you are training your brain to do this again.
See, your brain is very complex. It has the part of you that is logical and knows junk food isn’t your best decision.
But there’s also emotional parts to your brain which remember what you did in the past and if it worked or not. If junk food helped you reduce stress then the emotional part of your brain will remember this!
Next time you are stressed the emotional brain will try to make you repeat the same habit and get the same reward!
If you repeat the same routines (eating junk food) many times (especially during childhood) then your brain gets stuck! This is why it’s so difficult to stop craving junk food!
6 – Hunger
This one is pretty simple.
We crave junk food when we are hungry because it provides relief from that hunger!
Now why do you get hungry? Well, for many reasons – not eating enough protein or fat can make you feel really hungry even though you just ate.
Hunger can also cause cravings which lead to junk food cravings and this happens often in people who don’t eat well balanced meals regularly.
We might have a healthy breakfast but then by lunch time we’ll be feeling very empty and need something sweet to satisfy our craving … so (our emotional brain tells us) what’s wrong with grabbing some chocolate cake?
And the reason why hunger leads to more junk food craves is simply because your brain wants balance and needs energy! So if we’re feeling really hungry we’ll make our brain happy by eating junk food!
Ok, those are the top 6 reasons people crave junk food … now let’s explore more in depth!
What Deficiency Causes Junk Food Cravings?
The main reason why people have a craving for unhealthy foods is due to deficiencies in sleep, hunger and time.
Sleep deficiency can disrupt your energy levels which may lead you to want more sugar!
Hunger can arise from not eating enough protein and/or fat – both needed for your body to function properly. Hunger can also arise because you are not eating regular meals with enough protein.
You may be dehydrated too!
And finally, it may be hard for us nowadays with our busy schedules and hectic lives to find enough time. But … we absolutely need to find time to:
- get sleep
- eat regularly
What Should I Eat If I Crave Junk Food?
If you want to eat healthier but still crave junk food, why not try eating these healthy snacks:
- fruit instead of cake
- an apple with peanut butter for a cookie sandwich
- Greek yogurt and fruit as dessert after dinner
- granola or oatmeal cereal in the morning instead of toast and jelly
- chocolate protein bar instead of candy bar
- Energy drink instead of soda
How Do I Stop Craving Junk Food?
If you crave junk food then consider these tips:
- get enough sleep, eat protein and fat regularly
- try to switch up your routine so it’s not the same thing every day (you don’t need to write about this)
- find a reward that doesn’t involve eating something unhealthy. This could mean giving yourself an hour of time for art or reading!
Keeping these six reasons in mind, when you’re faced with a craving for junk food try to think about why it might be happening.
Is your brain telling you that this is what you need to be eating? Or are there other factors driving the decision-making process?
If so, how can we help address those issues and make sure that our cravings don’t get out of hand?
Let us know if we can provide more insight into these questions or any others related to health – let’s work together!
For more info on sugar cravings see our post about mindsets behind sugar cravings here!