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This fantastic article was written by Galen Chay, founder of Fit and Healthy Beyond 50! We encourage you to check out his website here! 

In the health forums of which I’m a member, people always ask me why it is so difficult to give up junk food. My answer to them is always, “because it’s an addiction.”

Make no mistake about it folks, junk food gets people addicted. 1 You see, there’s a reward system in our brains. According to medical studies, when we eat food, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released, and our brains recognize this as pleasure.

A piece of steak or an omelet releases moderate amounts of dopamine; on the other hand, a piece of strawberry cheesecake or a small tub of Hagen Daz releases a tremendous amount of dopamine – and our brains recognize this as intense pleasure.

When we eat junk food all the time, tremendous amounts of dopamine are released every time we eat. If our eating patterns continue this way long enough, our brains begin to interpret this as normal and regulate the dopamine release downwards. As a result, we need to eat more junk food to get the same amount of pleasure. This is known as tolerance.

When we try to change our eating habits to a healthier one, our brains recognize this, and the dopamine release is much less, so our brains experience far less pleasure than when we were eating junk food.

So when we get this signal from our brains, we get the urge to eat the junk food for the dopamine release to go up again to the extent that we feel satisfied. This urge to eat junk food is called withdrawal and has all the hallmarks of physical addiction.

Junk Food Cravings

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Cravings are an emotional state or wanting to eat a certain junk food. It is very different from true hunger, and we need to realize that. When you’re addicted to sugar and junk food, you can get cravings out of thin air or from environmental cues.

For example.

You can be reading the news on your smartphone or tablet and all of a sudden you get an adamant desire to eat that tub of ice cream or finish that lemon meringue pie.

Or you can be in a shopping mall, just browsing around in a book shop when you smell freshly baked bread from the bakery next door… this can suddenly turn on a craving.

And people aren’t lying when they say they eat when they’re depressed because cravings can also be turned on by emotional states.

So a craving has nothing to do with hunger at all!

As you can see, your craving is your brain’s signal for the need of dopamine to satisfy the want for that particular junk food. And that need for the dopamine release won’t go away until you satisfy it. If you don’t satisfy that craving, it will only get stronger and dominate your thoughts!

It is very different from the physical state where your body needs food for nourishment aka hunger.

That having said everyone would have experienced having food cravings at one point or another. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got a junk food addiction if you have a craving once in a while.

It is only when you give in to these junk food cravings all the time that it becomes a real problem because that’s when you know you’ve got an addiction issue.

So if you’ve got truly a junk food addiction how do you get rid of it?

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

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Everyone uses different strategies that help break the addiction. What I’ll do is tell you how I overcame my addiction to sugar, junk food, and refined carbs and you can try it to see if it works for you.

What is Junk Food and Why is it Addictive?

But before I share with you how I overcame my junk food addiction, let me first define what I mean by junk food: these are all processed food and refined carbs. Processed foods come mostly in cans and packs; read the ingredients list if you’re not sure.

Refined carbs are foods such as bread, noodles, pasta, vermicelli, etc. – in short, anything made from rice and flour. Don’t get deceived by pseudo health foods such as wholemeal/whole wheat/multigrain bread etc. – they are still junk and despite what the mainstream media tells you.

These processed foods have relatively high GI (Glycemic Index) & GL (Glycemic load) which will wreak havoc on your blood sugar and LDL levels. In fact, sugar, processed foods, and refined carbs are responsible for the skyrocketing chronic illness rates that we see today in most parts of the world.

My Story

I mentioned in my About Me page that I went on a junk food eating spree upon recovering from dengue in 2012. That was probably one of the darkest periods in my life because I got myself addicted to junk food, put on 5 inches of fat around my waist and got my blood sugar really high to a borderline prediabetic stage.

When I first decided that I wanted to get rid of that spare tire around my waist years and get my blood sugar back into the normal range, I made a commitment to myself to change my eating habits right from Day 1. I told myself, no excuses whatsoever! Was it difficult to make the commitment? Nope. Was it difficult to keep it? You bet, especially during those times when I had cravings.

Snack on Healthy Food

The first thing I did was to buy lots of good natural foods high in fat that could snack on whenever I had cravings: tons of raw nuts, cheese (not the processed slice cheese but real cheese), hard boiled eggs and cans of coconut milk.

I knew that natural fats were extremely satiating so every meal I’d have either egg, beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fatty fish e.g., salmon or cod, prawns, crab meat and organ meat cooked in grass fed butter, coconut oil, lard or ghee.

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For both lunch and dinner, I’d also have lots of cruciferous vegetables and a small serving of fruits on days that I worked out. And oh, did I tell you that the vegetables were also cooked in these natural fats I mentioned earlier? Sometimes, I would even melt the cheese and pour it over the vegetables to increase my fat consumption.

Every meal I would eat until I was full: protein, fats, cruciferous vegetables and make you full pretty fast; and they keep you full much longer because of the high fat intake. I discovered that when I didn’t feel hungry, I wouldn’t snack as much.

The first couple of weeks were tough especially near bedtime when I’d be having cravings. Coconut milk helped me curb those night time cravings – I’d gulped down one-third of a can of coconut milk. If I were still hungry, I’d make a coconut milk protein shake with a scoop of natural grass fed whey protein and half a can of coconut milk with the shaker bottle; after that, the craving was gone and so was the hunger.

During the day, I’d have packs of raw nuts and a can of coconut milk within easy reach. If I’m at home, it was much easier – I’d either have some nuts, a couple of hard boiled eggs and more coconut milk and some full-fat Greek yogurt.

I was really glad that I started the low carb high fat diet because when I substituted fat for junk food and refined carbs, the constantly hungry feeling was quickly gone. By the end of the 2nd week, I was eating low carb high fat FOR ALL MY MEALS. 

Each meal was EXTREMELY SATIATING because of the amount of fat I was consuming. However, getting rid of the cravings was an entirely different kettle of fish because even though I wasn’t feeling hungry, I was thinking of food – desserts and ice cream to be more precise.

Thank goodness for the low carb snacks that I had at arm’s length especially the coconut milk, cheese and raw nuts. The slight sweetness in the coconut milk really helped those times when I was craving for something sweet in my mouth.

Slowly but surely, the cravings eased, and I got less of them each passing week. By the end of the 5th or 6th week, the cravings were almost gone. After that, there were still occasional cravings, but I knew they were a thing of the past when there wasn’t a great emotional need to satisfy them.

I’m not going to say that this is definitely going to work for you because everyone is wired differently. What I’d encourage you to do is to use my experience and see how you can adapt and tweak it to make it work for you so that you can kick the junk food addiction like I did.

Check out these healthy alternatives to junk food!

  1. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Neuroscience Bio-behavior Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39. Published online 2007 May 18. doi:  10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/

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Galen Chay
Founder at Fit and Healthy Beyond 50
Galen Chay is founder of Fit and Healthy Beyond 50, a website dedicated to helping men and women especially those above 50 to stay healthy and prevent chronic illnesses through dietary and lifestyle change interventions. He has been actively involved in health and fitness forums since 2007. Those he has come into contact with have improved their health through his online conversations with them, many of whom aren't even 50 yet but have been put on medications by their doctors for chronic conditions like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and heart disease.
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