Achieving a good level of fitness and living a healthy lifestyle is a combination of various important areas including exercising regularly, fueling our bodies, and getting quality rest. Of all these, our food choices have the biggest impact and are often also the hardest to be disciplined about.
The main culprit: junk food.
As a health and fitness coach and certified sports and exercise nutritionist I want to share my experience and top tips on how to stop eating junk food (or at least form eating habits to reduce it). I will also describe why it is so bad and at the same time so hard for us to avoid.
What Is Junk Food?
The term “junk food” has been around since the 1950s when it was first mentioned in the article "Dr. Brady’s Health Column: More Junk Than Food." There is no generally accepted definition of junk food. It typically refers to foods that are very high in calories and high in fat, salt, and sugar but very low in beneficial nutritional values.
Another less commonly used term for it is HFSS foods (high in fat, salt, and sugar). Most processed food and most (not all) fast food is considered junk food.
Why Is Junk Food Bad?
Junk food is energy-dense food — as opposed to nutrient-dense — which means that it has a lot of calories but very little healthy nutrients like dietary fiber, protein, good fats and carbs, vitamins, or minerals. It's also referred to as "empty calorie" food.
Junk food has a very strong correlation with health issues, especially with weight gain leading to obesity or heart disease.
Some examples of junk food are soda or sugary drinks, donuts, cakes, cookies, most breakfast cereals, foods with added sugar, white bread, potato chips, french fries, and ice cream (I know, it's tough to read this list).
Examples for nutrient-dense foods include whole foods such as fresh fruits and whole grains.
But Why Is Junk Food So "Good"?
We all have them: junk food cravings. The good news is: It’s not your fault. It’s mainly chemistry. That's also the bad news because our success in curbing our cravings is not really determined by our own willpower and self-discipline.
The reason why we are craving junk food is a carefully engineered combination of fats, sugars, and salts that trick our brain to neglect satiety signals. This combination is referred to as the "bliss point" invented by Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz is American market researcher, psychophysicist, and food product optimizer who is famous for discovering a huge demand for extra-chunky spaghetti sauce.
The New York Times article “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” describes the fascinating and shocking story of how Moskowitz was contracted to research and describe the formula of the bliss point. In short, the bliss point works because it triggers the flow of dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical in your body that promotes pleasure, good mood, and motivation. This overrides the satiation feelings. That is exactly what happens when you are actually full but still order a dessert.
But the fact that junk food triggers dopamine is something that we also can exploit to stop eating it. I will explain this next in my top tips for how to stop eating junk food.
How To Stop Eating Junk Food: 17 Top Tips
Below I share my list of top tips that have proven effective with my clients and myself. Not all will work for everybody to eat less junk food. But for sure there will be some that will help you choose better options to achieve the desired health benefits.
1. Don't Buy Unhealthy Foods in the First Place
If it is around, you will eventually eat it. Try to simply not buy junk food in the first place. If you do have it at home, remove the temptation and store it somewhere where it is not visible. If you see it, you will grab it.
2. Have Healthier Foods Handy
On the flip side of the first point, do have healthy snack foods visible and close by. My go-to foods for snacking are veggies like carrots and nuts (unprocessed, unsalted of course).
3. Don't Go To the Grocery Store Hungry
I think that is another phenomenon we all know. If we go to the supermarket hungry or with sugar cravings, everything looks good. And we buy everything. Not good. Instead, plan your trip for when you are not hungry or have a little healthy snack before.
4. Do Something Enjoyable
Earlier I wrote about the bliss point which triggers our happy mood chemical dopamine. Our brain thinks that junk food makes us happy. Trick this bliss point by doing something nice that makes you happy instead. Go out into the sun, meet a friend, ride your motorbike, or do whatever else makes you happy.
5. Set Realistic Goals
I guess we all understand the risk of junk food and the health benefits of healthy food options. Change is necessary for most of us. But at the same time, set realistic goals. Don't try and replace too many things at once. The change would be too substantial and not sustainable.
6. Take Your Time
In line with the previous point, it takes time to achieve this transition into a healthier diet. It is about building habits that stick and these are not introduced into your life overnight. If you try to change too fast, you will most likely fall back into old habits, which is demotivating. Instead make baby steps and celebrate small successes over time.
7. Have a List of Go-To Foods
Figuring out and getting healthy foods can be time-consuming. In order to make avoiding unhealthy foods easier, I recommend having a system in place that makes this easier. Have a list of go-to foods you like that you know are healthy. This makes it a lot easier to shop for them and have them available.
Here is for example my list of go-to foods that I always have at home: bananas, broccoli, oats, unsweetened almond milk, avocados, blueberries, peanuts, mixed nuts, carrots, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, olives, tuna, fat-free cream cheese, and lean meat (mostly chicken or beef).
8. Prepare Your Meals
Having a meal plan and preparing your meals in advance has many benefits. Apart from the fact that it saves you time and money, it also reduces the temptation to grab junk food. Because you have a plan for the next day or even week, you know what you are going to eat and you already have it ready. No need to fall prey to unhealthy bliss point foods.
9. Drink Water
Often thirst cues are misinterpreted as hunger. So, if you feel like snacking, have a glass of water first and see if you really wanted to eat something. Also, it has been shown that drinking a glass of water before a meal reduces appetite and hence helps with weight loss.
10. Substitute With Healthier Options
Experiment with different foods and gradually substitute junk snacks. Aim for nutrient-dense, whole foods, such as fresh fruits and whole grains. This will take a little time because unprocessed foods do not have the purposefully engineered bliss point that tricks our brains. But there are plenty of delicious natural options available and you will find what's right for you.
11. Be Aware of the Bliss Point
Awareness is already the first step to better food choices and more discipline. Next time you reach for a dessert or a second cookie, be aware that your brain is tricked and it is the bliss point that makes you do this. You actually don't need it. So, stay away from it and do something else instead.
12. Eat More Protein
Protein is the macronutrient with the highest satiation effect. By re-balancing your macro split towards slightly more protein you will reduce the desire to snack on junk foods. Consuming healthy snacks (like almonds, hummus, or protein shakes) or breakfasts higher in protein (like protein pancakes) has shown a 50% reduction of the desire to snack.
13. Eat More Healthy Fats
By now the myth that fat makes you fat was debunked numerous times. In fact, we need fat. It is our energy storage. Fat (like protein) makes you feel full faster than carbs. Just make sure you avoid unhealthy fats like trans fats and limit saturated fats. Instead consume healthy fats like from avocado, nuts, olive oil, or salmon.
14. Practice Mindful Eating
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the here and now. This also applies to eating and means that when we eat we should purely focus on eating. That means no other distractions like TV, mobile phone or social media. Instead slow down and focus on chewing and the smell, texture, color, and taste of your food. Practicing mindful eating will help you avoid overeating and also make it easier to choose healthy food options over junk food.
15. Improve Your Sleep Quality
Sleep is not just the king of recovery. According to many studies, lack of sleep is also responsible for making us feel more hungry. On top of that, being too sleep deprived has a negative impact on our self-discipline and we tend to snack on junk more easily.
16. Don't Get Too Hungry
A very simple but effective eating habit is to try to never get too hungry. If we are very hungry we tend to eat very fast and consume way more than what our bodies actually need. Having little nutrient-dense, healthy snacks from time to time will help us avoid such situations.
17. Think Long-Term
Changing a diet from a lot of junk to healthy eating (and tricking the bliss point) is not easy and it is a long-term process. Have this in mind and be consistent. Here is a little mind trick from Arnold Schwarzenegger — he used to ask himself what he wanted more: the cheesecake in front of him or becoming Mr. Olympia the next year.
Stop Eating Junk Food and You Will Feel Much Better
Junk food is so bad for us because it’s so high in empty calories and one of the main contributors to a lot of health problems including heart disease and obesity. Avoiding junk and focusing on healthy eating instead is one of the most effective means to achieve your health and fitness goals.
It’s hard because junk food is specifically engineered for us to crave for it beyond the point of satiety. Willpower is not enough. We need healthy habits that help us stop or at least reduce junk food in the long run. In this article I shared my top tips to achieve exactly that.
One key component of my Build Bullet-Proof Health program is to build such healthy habits to avoid junk food (and much more). I use a specific coaching method called Weekly Improvement Moments (WIMs) that help follow the habits in a sustainable way.
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