6 Tips to Help Control Junk Food Cravings

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
May 19, 2024
Couple at bakery

It’s not news that eating junk food can raise the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, gut health issues, heart health issues, depression, some cancers and dementia. Yet, 86 percent of American adults reported eating at least some junk food on any given day, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

What constitutes junk food? Junk food is defined as food with little nutritional value that’s usually prepackaged and requires little to no preparation. Examples include most: 

  • Desserts like pastries, candy, ice cream
  • Fast-food and some casual restaurant menu items 
  • Prepackaged snack items like crackers, chips, dips and cookies 
  • Adult beverages, many juices, smoothies sodas and sport/energy drinks
  • Ultra-processed prepackage, boxed, canned or frozen foods

Many people think that controlling junk food cravings is simply mind over matter -- a willpower issue. In fact, overindulgence may only be small portion of the problem.

“Manufacturers of ultra-processed foods intentionally combine ingredients high in fat, sugar and/or salt to spark multiple sensory effects that keep us wanting more,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “This is supported by a recent study found that some ultra-processed foods are as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol.”

Why Do People Love Junk Food?

Junk (or ultra-processed) foods comprise about 60 percent of the American diet. They’re popular because they’re fast, convenient, easy and affordable. Unfortunately, the ingredients used -- sugar, salt and additives — can trigger:

  • Hedonistic hunger. This is when you consume food for the pleasure of it, as opposed to a physiological need. Think of it as eating dessert even though you’re already full after dinner. Hedonistic eating often leads to overeating and weight issues; moreover, it’s considered a leading cause of obesity. Junk (or ultra-processed) foods – which comprise about 60 percent of the American diet – are known for causing hedonistic hunger.
  • Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a brain-made chemical that enables nerve cells to communicate with each other. It has many functions, but it’s probably best known for providing a sense of euphoria. Your brain uses dopamine as part of its built-in system designed to reward you when you perform survival-oriented tasks, e.g., eating, drinking, exercising, getting enough sleep and reproducing. Unfortunately, when you eat a lot of ultra-processed foods, particularly high sugar junk food, your reward system is activated, releasing large amounts of dopamine in your brain. This extra dopamine makes us happy. The brain adapts to the dopamine and creates more receptors, encouraging you to eat more sugar. This is the root of a sugar addiction.
  • Cravings. These are common when eating junk food because the processing methods involved. Take simple grains like white rice, for example. When they’re stripped of the bran and germ, they’re also stripped of nutrients. These grains are referred to as refined and are known for raising levels of dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter. They also raise insulin, which can increase hunger.

But foods like simple grains aren’t the only problem. Common food additives also affect cravings. Consider monosodium glutamate (MSG), a lab created salt commonly used to enhance the smell and taste of highly processed foods. MSG also stimulates the pancreas to produce more insulin. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another common additive that raises cravings. A corn syrup treated with enzymes to convert its structure from mostly glucose to at least half fructose, HFCS can cause a handful of health issues, including poor appetite control.  

6 Tips to Help Control Junk Food Cravings

Whether you’re hooked on honey-glazed donuts, can’t pass a drive-thru without stopping for fries or rely on frozen pizza as a weekly staple, cutting back on junk foods isn’t easy. But it is doable. Start with these tips.

  1. Understand what your cravings mean. Do you crave salty, crunchy foods, sugary treats or high-carb comfort foods? Cravings are often linked to a physiological or psychological cues. Cracking your cravings code, might help you control them.
  2. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation throws off levels of hormones that control feelings of hunger and fullness. It also increases chemical compounds that heighten your send of smell and boost appetite. Struggling to get your Zzz’s? Check out these tips >>  
  3. Prepare a meal plan. Planning your meals and snacks in advance can help you consume healthier nutrients that can help control hunger and cravings. Your meals should consist of a wide variety of unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients and include all the colors of the rainbow. Make sure you read nutrition facts labels.
  4. Shop strategically. Stick to the perimeter of the store. The perimeter is where the staples such as vegetables and fruit, dairy, meat, poultry and seafood are stocked. Interior aisles are typically reserved for processed and ultra-processed foods.
  5. Leave your house full. This can help prevent picking up fast food to tie you over until you get home.
  6. Manage stress. When stressed, cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is notorious for prompting cravings for sweet, salty or fatty foods. 

“If ultra-processed foods are a mainstay in your diet, I strongly encourage you to work with your primary care physician,” Kaminetsky says. “Your PCP can guide you on proper nutrition or if you situation is more complex, refer you to a dietician.”

If you don’t have a doctor, considering partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They more have time to help you work on your nutrition and eating that can help patients achieve their dietary goals. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
Physician Locator
Enter a full address, city, state, or ZIP code. You can also browse our city directory to find physicians in your area.
Enter Doctor's Name