When I was a college freshman, I was hooked on junk food.
I knew it was bad for my body, but I just loved (or thought I loved) KFC fried chicken combos with fries and soda, McDonald’s fries and tons of cake. The most comforting part was that, because of my high metabolism, I didn’t get fat.
Back then, I let my junk food cravings decide what I ate, even when too many fries made me lethargic and too many sweets upset my stomach.
Sometimes my craving for a particular food would last days until I caved…and felt empty and guilty afterward.
I didn’t feel guilty as much as I felt empty.
How could something that my body seemed to desperately want give me so little joy once I got it?
One day, eating mindlessly led me to food poisoning. Even though I had just eaten a balanced meal, I wanted some of the French fries my dad had just bought. I was delighted by the oily, salty flavor—until I wasn’t. The next morning I woke up really sick, and so did my dad.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d had food poisoning, but I cursed myself for taking those fries. Then I realized it wasn’t just a one-time thing. I would act on almost every craving I had without even thinking about it. In that moment, I decided to change how I ate because I wanted to be in control of what I put in my body.
Slowly, I began to realize why I had such strong junk food cravings:
1. I was hooked on the unnatural sweetness and saltiness of junk food.
Junk food tasted delicious, but it was because my palate was desensitized to the unnatural taste of these foods. While a lollipop tasted perfectly sweet, a strawberry tasted bland. My body had become addicted to the excessive saltiness and sweetness of processed foods and unable to fully enjoy the flavors of real food.
Studies show that brain pathways that activate in response to excess pleasurable flavors like sweet and salty also activate when addictive drugs are consumed. In other words, I was drawn to those flavors because they triggered a pleasure response in my brain.
2. I perceived junk food as reward.
Not only was junk food making me happy (momentarily), but my happiness also made me seek junk food. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I would indulge in sweet or fatty foods when I felt happy. If I got a high score on a test or worked hard on a project, I got a snack. If I was at a party, I ate cake and candy until I couldn’t take another bite. If I was with my friends, we’d eat fast food. These patterns upset my adult brain causing it to crave these foods whenever I was in a really good mood.
3. I had unhealthy snacking habits.
Because I associated treats with happiness, I developed unhealthy routines and made snacks readily available in the house. Every day when I came home from high school, I had a sweet snack. And when I sat down to watch TV, I fixed myself a treat—mostly ice cream or popcorn.
4. I limited my food choices.
Because I limited my diet to mostly processed meals, there was little space for variety and experimentation in the kitchen. I had salads and fruits, but I didn’t know how to cook healthy dishes—like hearty soups, healthy wraps, smoothie bowls or no-bake treats—from scratch. Because of my desensitized palate and lack of knowledge, I believed vegetables and fruits resulted mostly in boring meals.
5. I thought my cravings were stronger than me.
Cravings felt so compelling that I didn’t think twice about satisfying them. Because I didn’t realize the psychological and physiological causes, I immediately went after them to feel good at that moment. Resisting them made me uncomfortable.
6. I ignored what my body was telling me.
Because I followed my cravings blindly, I ignored my body’s signs. Even if I ruined my appetite, had energy swings, or had digestive problems after certain meals, I didn’t connect it to the way I was eating.
When I realized what caused my lack of control, I began searching for ways to be in charge of what I ate, overcome my cravings and reconnect with my body. There were seven things that worked for me:
1. I became aware of the relationship between my emotions and my cravings.
The first step was to understand the connection between my emotions and what I craved.
If I wanted takeout from Taco Bell, I observed my feelings at that moment to find out whether I was hungry or if I craved it because I was bored, sad, stressed or happy. I discovered a lot of my cravings were just triggered by my emotions and habits, not hunger.
2. I made my environment work for me.
The first food change I made was at home. Even when I was living with my family and sharing the pantry, I made healthy foods more available than cookies and chips.
To achieve this, I brought home more produce and healthy snacks like whole-wheat crackers and dried fruit to crowd out junk food. Then I put the healthy snacks on the middle and top shelves of the pantry, the produce over the counter or in the front part of the fridge, and tucked the cookies and marshmallows out of sight.
I also switched to healthier versions of products like green tea instead of iced tea, brown rice instead of white rice, honey instead of sugar, and cacao instead of a cocoa mix.
This made it so much simpler to unhook my brain from the excessive sweetness and saltiness it was used to. Whenever I reached for a healthier snack, I was detoxifying my body from an unnatural way of eating.
3. I decided to be mindful about my meals.
Once I realized my emotions were responsible for my cravings, I tried to make mindful choices and go against my urges.
When I craved something, I determined whether I was actually hungry or not.
If I was not hungry, I had a glass of water and focused my mind on a task or entertainment.
If I was hungry, instead of picking a meal based on what I craved, I chose a healthier alternative. For example, if I wanted chicken nuggets and fries, I picked a healthier choice on a menu or cooked something simple at home.
4. I replaced my snacking routine with a mini workout routine.
To break my snacking habits when I got home, I started a mini workout routine that included stretches, squats and yoga poses, and took no longer than 10 minutes. By replacing my snacks with an exercise habit, I trained my brain to make me want to be active once I got home instead of thinking about food.
5. I opened myself to new foods and learned to cook.
I couldn’t take back control of my eating habits if junk food was a recurrent part of my diet, so I learned to replace it with produce, legumes and whole grains.
To achieve this, I taught myself how to cook by following videos and recipes, stopped going to fast food joints and tried new restaurants with healthier menus.
Opening myself to new alternatives made me discover delicious meals that make junk food taste like garbage (which it is). I had so many tasty options, like green smoothie bowls and lentil soup, that my cravings for junk food disappeared almost completely.
6. I satisfied my cravings deliberately and with smaller portions.
I couldn’t be surrounded by healthy food all the time. Many social events, meetings and parties involve snacks and desserts. In these environments, I took control over my cravings by making a conscious choice to indulge in small portions.
When I really craved a piece (or two!) of the chocolate cake at my sister’s birthday, I had a thin slice of it, took small bites and chewed slowly. This satisfied the craving and the hunger at the same time and minimized the sugar intake, not to mention I felt accomplished for staying in control. Because cravings are so fleeting, a small portion is enough to satisfy them.
7. I made health a priority.
Getting completely over my junk food cravings was possible when I made health a priority. Education provoked this mindset shift. When I learned about the benefits of a wholesome diet, the side effects of feeding your body trash, and the direct consequences both have over your quality of life and your lifespan, I completely lost interest in junk food.
This knowledge helped me build better habits, understand my cravings and develop the strength to let them go.
The more involved I got with healthy cooking and nutrition science, the faster my cravings disappeared.
Being in control of what you put in your body frees you from guilt, emptiness and obsessive thoughts about food. The more you open your diet to real food, take care of your body, and eat with mindfulness, the easier it gets to stay healthy and in control.
Author: Liv Faye
Apprentice Editor: Lois Person / Editor: Cat Beekmans