Unpacking the Reasons Behind Cravings: Why Do I Have Uncontrollable Desires for Junk Food?

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why do I crave junk food

Why am I craving junk food?

It is no secret that junk food tastes really good.

But many other foods taste good too, like flame broiled meat or your mother’s mashed potatoes.

But why do you crave sugary foods and junk food, specifically?

What’s so special about junk food?

And, if you know what’s so special about junk food, is it possible to stop craving junk food?

  • In the first half of this article, we will discuss the top 6 reasons why you crave junk food.
  • In the second we’ll be listing 7 steps to stop eating junk food!

Ready to get to the bottom of your junk food cravings and stop them if you want? Let’s dive in.

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! Butter cravings would have been good back then!

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 – Stress

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:

  • Distraction
  • 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 – for example, cravings for a chocolate bar!)
  • 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

sleep deprivation

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 …

Junk foods!

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?

This idea of convenience is also partly what’s behind strange cravings for ice.

5 – Habits

picture of a habit loop of cue, routine and reward as context on how to resist the urge to eat

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 …

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

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 sweet food at night) many times (especially during childhood) then your brain gets stuck! This is why it’s so difficult to stop craving junk food!

6 – Hunger

too hungry

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
  • relax

Ok, this concludes the first half of this blog about the reasons why you crave junk food.

How To Stop Eating Junk Food

In a study published in the prestigious journal ‘Nutrients’, scientists found adding healthy foods was a better way to eat less of the unhealthy stuff (in comparison to dieting).

Let’s be clear:

This study looked at eating MORE of the healthy stuff. People could still eat the junk food, but they ate the healthy stuff first!

When you eat the ‘healthy’ stuff first several things happen.

First you end up getting more vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fiber. Even more water too!

What happens when your body’s gas tank is filled up with vitamins and other good ingredients?

Well, you end up ‘crowding’ out the craving for unhealthy food without even trying!

Following this general strategy, you do NOT focus on what you SHOULDN’T eat.

Instead, you focus all your mental energy on the 7 following supplemental strategies!

1 – Eat Protein and Fat At Least 3x Each Day

government program choose my plate with a plate divided into 4 sections of fruits, grains, proteins and vegetables
  1. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.
  2. When you eat these meals, have protein and fat for each meal.

I know there’s much buzz with intermittent fasting these days.

But if you are having crazy food cravings then you need to backtrack and start at square 1.

Well, breakfast, lunch, and dinner with protein and fat at each of these eating times is square 1!

See, your body is like a car. 

You need to fill your tank with gas (or, for your body, protein and fat) before you can go on a road trip (or, for your body, feel energetic and ready to do a lot).

If you don’t have any fuel, then how do you expect to get anywhere?

It’s not going to happen.

Now, it is true that you can diet or fast and see temporary weight loss, but the key word here is ‘temporary’.

Because in due time the car crashes when it runs out of fuel! And in human terms, you WILL binge if your stomach doesn’t get enough nutrition.

So here’s a great health and wellness tip to take to heart:  eat some food that has plenty of protein and fats in them!

And eat these proteins and fats AT LEAST every day during breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the least!

Benefits of regularly eating protein and fat each day:

  • You will not be hungry as often
  • This means you don’t have to eat junk food because you’re starving!
  • Your mood and energy levels will improve
  • You’ll feel less tired, stressed, or anxious. And more calm and happy too!
  • You’ll lose fat faster if that is your goal for weight loss (which is what it should always be)
  • Protein provides the building blocks of muscle tissue. A diet higher in protein also reduces hunger throughout the day.
  • Protein slows down how our stomach empties after a meal. This makes us crave less sugary food between breakfast, lunch, and dinner times!

2 – Plan Your Day Ahead

time of clock showing regular eating with 'eating' in red words taking the place of 9am, noon, 3pm and 6pm

Eating a hearty amount of food 3x a day to reduce your junk food cravings takes planning ahead!

If you don’t know what you’re going to have for the next meal, then it’ll be more difficult to say no to food cravings.

So plan your day ahead and you will experience less temptation!

This is easier for me personally when I’m journaling my meals. But if that isn’t something you want to do, then at least take a minute of two to think about what you’ll eat the next day.

You can write it in your planner, notebook, or on a post-it note so it’s easy to access all throughout the day.

It’s really important to plan your day ahead. Otherwise it’s too easy to forget!

When we forget about our hunger then there is nothing left other than thinking “I really want some ice cream,” which may mean giving into temptation.

So keep your thoughts organized by planning out what you’ll have tomorrow.

3 – Try New Flavors

try new flavors to stop eating junk food

One of the main reasons people get junk food cravings is because they get bored with eating healthy or don’t think healthy food can taste good!

Then they find themselves craving the excitement of junk food.  

Well, trying new flavors will help you reduce food cravings in more ways than one!

A lot of times, people get junk food cravings because they don’t know how to fill up on healthy foods. 

These eating habits are not good for blood sugar! Trying new flavors will FORCE you to figure out new healthy foods that you enjoy and will help out those blood sugar levels too.

The trick is trying new flavors so that your body gets used to the taste. Then you have more enticing options to fill up! Then sugary food becomes less appealing when you’re feeling out of control.

If some fruits or veggies are too boring for you, try adding in peppers or ginger!  

These will turn an otherwise bland meal into something savory and exciting. Plus, these flavors have been shown to reduce appetite by triggering hunger-suppressing hormones.

I know it might sound silly to try new flavors. Try a dark chocolate flavor as there are many benefits to dark chocolate.

But really stop and think for a second … What if you had an appetite for healthy foods?

And why aren’t you eating more of these healthy foods right now?

If you try new flavors, then you can come back to the healthy foods you got bored with and try to see them in a new light.

This is an important piece in learning how to stop eating junk food!

4 – Get Started With Fruit

fruits instead of junk food

Look, we all have a sweet tooth.

Fruit can be a great and healthy way for you to satisfy your sweet tooth!

Now a lot of people don’t like eating fruit because they think it’s too messy. Ever wonder why candy comes in neat little plastic wrappers?

But, really all you need to do is cut up your favorite fruits into bite-sized pieces and put them on a plate!

No longer will that fruit be so unappetizing once it’s in the palm of your hand – ready for consumption.

Fruit also helps with digestion. This is because fruits contain fiber which helps you break down food better.

While it’s true fruit does have sugar, the fiber from the fruit makes the sugar dissolve slower than when you eat junk food.

Plus, the sugar found in fruit is natural, whereas the sugar found in candy and other junk is artificial.

Artificial sugar is often in the form of high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. These are way more addictive than the sugar found in fruits!

Fruits are great at giving our body an energy boost due to their carbohydrate content. Even though these carbohydrates come from natural sugars!

Fruits will give your body an instant pick-me-up especially if you’re feeling tired from working too hard!

(If you have diabetes you may need to worry about blood sugar levels and fruit. But diabetes aside, eating fruit is a great substitute!


So have some bananas, oranges or apples (or other fruit) and dig in!

What Fruits Should I Eat To Reduce Sugar Cravings?

And … I can see you already wondering what fruits are the best so here’s a quick breakdown!

  • Fruits with higher sugar content (e.g., berries) are great for a quick energy boost. But they also have the highest calorie count so it’s best to eat them in small portions or as part of a meal rather than on their own!
  • Bananas can be quite tempting because they’re always available at most grocery stores.  But I would say they should only be eaten sparingly due to the amount of natural sugar present in one banana.

Because fruits are overall great to eat just take a look at this image and go for your favorite ones!

5 – Feel Content After Eating

All these health and wellness tips we’ve covered so far will FAIL if you don’t feel content after you finish eating.

Have you started to crave junk food when you weren’t even hungry?

Have you ever binged BECAUSE you tried to eat healthy but weren’t satisfied afterwards?

Well, this is why you must feel content after you finish eating if you really want to stop eating crappy foods.

Here’s how you can feel more content WHILE eating:

  • Focus on eating slowly and deliberately so you can feel every bite in your mouth
  • Think about how the food smells, tastes, and feels as it goes into your stomach.
  • Imagine the nutrients going through your bloodstream to provide energy for all your body’s processes.

But the really key thing is to FEEL content AFTER you eat:

A feeling of being content after eating can be described as:

  • satisfied
  • full, but not too full (so you can still move without feeling weighed down)
  • snug, secure
  • Neutral (not nauseous or hungry but not stuffed either)

Here’s one final thing about feeling content.

If you TRULY do FEEL content after eating, then you will NOT think about food. You will NOT crave junk food, at least until you’re getting hungry again!

In evolutionary terms, feeling content signals your body it’s time to ‘Rest and Digest’.

Instead of thinking endlessly about the calories of junk foods, the feeling of content makes you NOT worry about food.

If you find yourself thinking about food right after meals, that’s a sign you are NOT feeling content.

And if you aren’t feeling content? Then try adding in more protein and fat and getting even more variety!

Finally, if you just eat junk processed foods, then you won’t feel content anyways and will just want more processed foods!

Plus, be sure you …

6 – Stay Hydrated

clear glass of water with water droplets splattered on the ground

What about just drinking more water?

I know you’ve heard this tip before. But I hope this post helps you see this whole discussion on eating junk food in a different light.

You don’t and should NOT focus on cutting out junk food.

Again, trying to exercise willpower in this way will fail and just lead to binge eating.

A better approach is to focus instead on GETTING MORE healthy foods to eat.

Basically, you should worry about getting MORE of the good stuff!

And in line with this thinking … is getting more water!

Don’t think that you are ‘missing’ out on sodas. Again, you can still have sodas if you’d like! Just have a glass of water first!

Here are tips on staying hydrated:

  • Drink a glass of water first thing in the morning
  • Keep a water bottle handy and drink at least 6-8 cups a day.  
  • Drink a glass of water before you have coffee, fruit juice or soda

7 – Get 7+ Hours Of Sleep

dark quiet silent room for sleeping

Sleep is the glue that holds all these tips together!

Here’s how sleep can help you eat less junk food:

  • Sleep helps you feel less hungry
  • Your brain can’t process information when you’re tired, so if you don’t sleep well it’ll be harder to resist temptations when you’re awake
  • And finally, your body produces more ghrelin (the hunger hormone) when you’re sleep-deprived

So get at least seven hours of sleep a night!

If you have trouble falling asleep:

  • Try reading something boring (like a dictionary or phone book) before bedtime. This encourages drowsiness without overstimulating and upsetting your brain with an emotional storyline
  • Use lavender essential oils (which are mildly sedating)
  • Drink chamomile tea about 30 minutes ahead of bedtime
  • Use an eyepatch to block out light
  • Use white noise to block out random noises from outside
  • Take a hot bath before bedtime
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark
  • And make sure you’re getting enough exercise as this will boost serotonin levels, which can help regulate sleep patterns.

Why Craving Junk Food – Final Thoughts

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?

So how do you get started on a new relationship with junk foods, one where you ultimately learn how to stop eating junk foods with wild abandon? 

There are a few simple steps to follow.

Remember the key mindset is to focus on eating more healthy foods!

Make sure that you’re including protein-rich foods and healthy fats in each meal or snack.  Plan your day ahead to make sure you do this.

Keep an eye on what flavors you’re craving most often. Try out some different varieties–maybe even pick up something completely different like fruit!  

Make sure you feel content after eating too!

Finally, stay hydrated throughout the day. Drink enough water before bed so that your body can flush away any toxins.

Oh, and get some sleep too! I hope this blog post has helped you learn how to stop eating junk food!

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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