Why do we crave junk food when we know it's unhealthy?


What is junk food?

The name speaks for itself in a way. Junk is a word you wouldn’t necessarily associate with food. Junk is a synonym for many things such as trash, garbage, and leftovers. Food, on the other hand, is equated to nutrients, and it is something that we need to eat in order to maintain life and growth. Why is junk food bad for us, and if it is compared to things like garbage or trash, why do we crave it so much? Junk foods contain a few ingredients that can have “short- and long-term consequences for your body,” such as saturated fats, sugar, and carbohydrates.[1] These foods can include (but are not limited to) fried foods, processed foods, and sweets.


So, what do the ingredients listed above do to your body? In moderation, none of these ingredients pose a threat to the body, but excess consumption can have long-term effects. For example, saturated fats will “increase your cholesterol levels and the amount of plaque in your blood vessels.”[1] Long-term, this plaque will create barriers and prevent blood from moving freely within the blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. With sugar, excess can lead to weight gain (which can later lead to diabetes or obesity), and the resistance of insulin (which lets glucose enter cells to provide energy). Diabetes and heart diseases affect all the organs in the body negatively, so it is important to avoid reaching this stage. Carbohydrates are found in average convenience stores. These foods are not usually fresh and contain a lot of “carbohydrates with high sugar or sodium content.”[2] Carbohydrates, if eaten too much, can raise the amount of sugar in the blood. It is another early cause of diabetes.


If it’s so bad, why do we have cravings?

When you taste something good, there is something called “food euphoria” that the brain goes through. We eat something tasty, something with a great texture, something completely up our alley, and our brain automatically wants more of it. Once you get an initial taste, the thought of how good it felt will linger, and our brains are stuck chasing that “pleasurable state” on by the release of good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin.[1] This is why we crave junk food when we are stressed. Stress makes the body produce a hormone that is called cortisol, and in turn, cortisol will increase hunger. This causes us to eat more, a term often referred to as “stress eating.”


Some more common reasons we find ourselves gravitating towards junk food is because it is usually convenient, affordable, and tasty. Put yourself in a situation where you’re in a hurry to get somewhere important. You know that the commute is going to take a while, so there’s no time to cook (let alone eat) a hearty breakfast in preparation. It is so much easier to pick up a breakfast sandwich from Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s on the way, which is handheld and can be eaten on the drive. This goes for most fast-food restaurants, where the order is prepared in mere minutes, and it is easy to eat on the go. On top of that, there is also the fact that most gas stations are also convenience stores. This makes it easy to fill your tank and pick up a snack for long trips. Making frequent trips to fast-food places can often start a habit, where “you eat whatever’s on hand because that’s what you’ve always done.”[1] This isn’t necessarily a craving, but it is hard to break habits once they are made.

Affordability is another reason we’ve come to crave junk food. It is well known that eating out can become costly, but compared to eating healthier, it is much cheaper. It actually “costs three times as much to have a healthful diet as it does to eat junk food.”[2] It always seems more reasonable in the moment to get a full meal for under eight dollars, especially when we are on the move and can’t waste time cooking. It fills you up, and it is satisfyingly tasty every single time. There is a consistency to fast-food flavor, where recipes don’t stray very far from the normal.


Sometimes it is also hard to resist junk food because of the way our minds work, and how junk food is advertised. Many people who have access to the internet know that ads can be overpowering. You see them on social media, on websites, basically, anywhere they can fit onto a screen (not to mention billboards and other physical advertisements). Junk food is made to look attractive. Food coloring and other additives are used to make junk food look “vibrant and saturated.”[3] This is especially effective for children, who are attracted to bright colors. This is something that we are programmed to think, much like how we are programmed to eat a lot. Eating a lot is a habit that we have carried from the caveman days when we did not know when or where the next meal was going to come from. This mindset allows us to eat a lot, and a lot of the time you’ll find people overeating.


What are some ways I can cut down on my cravings?

There are a few easy ways to cut down on our junk food intake. One way that is becoming very popular is to use an air fryer instead of deep-frying foods in oil. This will give you the same fried consistency without the heavy usage of oil. Another great way to reduce junk food cravings is to plan. With meal planning, the meal itself doesn’t necessarily have to be healthy, but it is a way to plan ahead so “your mind (and not your stomach) decides the meal.”[1] With meal planning comes snack planning too, where you can store healthier snacks into your purse, car, desk, etc. This will help you to have a snack at the ready and resist the urge to go out and find snacks elsewhere.


There are also a lot of healthier ways to make the same types of food. For example, you could try oven-baked or air-fried treats instead of fried ones, as mentioned above. Eating snacks with lower sugar levels, or veggies added in, are also small changes that can lead to a much larger difference long-term. Some other food switches that could be made are:

· Eating fruit instead of sweets

· Substituting certain ingredients in recipes with healthier alternatives

· Swapping out regular potatoes for sweet potatoes (which contain more fiber)

· Eating popcorn, berries, or nuts instead of chips and sugary treats


Although it may not be good for us, junk food is one of those things that we crave despite our knowledge about it. It’s tasty, convenient, and usually affordable. We don’t have to avoid junk food entirely, but it is also dangerous to indulge in them very often. With this being said, it’s important to moderate the amount of junk food we consume to lower the risk of health problems.


References:

1. Gilmerm. (2020, December 14). Here's the deal with Your Junk Food Cravings. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-the-deal-with-your-junk-food-cravings/.


2. Leaf Group. (n.d.). Reasons people eat junk food instead of healthy food. LIVESTRONG.COM. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/392358-reasons-why-people-eat-junk-food-over-healthy-food/.


3. Ashish. (2022, January 22). Why do we love unhealthy foods so much? Science ABC. (2022, January 22). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.scienceabc.com/humans/why-do-we-love-unhealthy-foods-so-much.html.


 

Contributors:

Author: Kayjah Taylor

Editor: Lauryn Agron

Health scientist: Rayven Hall


@werise4wellness

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