8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Hate Junk Food
If unhealthy, processed food, is sabotaging your weight loss efforts, outsmart junk food cravings with these clever tricks.
By Liz Vaccariello with additional reporting by Perri O. Blumberg
Why do we crave unhealthy food?
As explained in the recent New York Times Magazine piece, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food," there's no denying that junk food cravings are powerful, physiological reactions—and, apparently, carefully and strategically developed by food manufacturers. Many of our favorite supermarket snacks are made with the “perfect” amounts of added sugar, salt, fat, and other chemicals designed to make us want more. But you can steer clear of processed food by eating as many healthy, whole foods as possible, and the less junk food you eat, the less you want. Try the following tips and see if they work for you.
1. Practice the five-ingredient rule.
If there are more than five ingredients on a food label—a red flag for food processing—don’t buy it. (Or if you do, consider it a treat instead of an everyday purchase). This is an easy way to avoid impulse buys like flavor-blasted chips or pre-made cookies when food shopping.
2. Aim for three colors.
A 2012 Cornell study found that people prefer three food items and three different colors on their plates, compared with more or less of either category. So instead of reaching for a candy bar, snack on nuts (loaded with healthy fats), fruit slices, and a small square of dark chocolate to get a healthy variety of colors, textures, and nutrients.
3. Break your routine.
It only takes a few weeks to form a habit. So if you always associate 3 p.m. with a trip to the vending machine, start a tradition to walk around the block for five minutes instead. This may kick your craving altogether.
4. Make healthy food your treat.
One of the best, easiest desserts? Stash red grapes in the freezer, and cap off dinner with something sweet without kick-starting sugar cravings.
5. Keep the healthy stuff handy.
Store healthy foods you want to eat more front and center in your fridge and out on your countertops. Snack foods are so easy to dig into—you just rip open a bag. If you had, say, red peppers all sliced and ready to go, they’re all the more tempting to dip into hummus.
6. Know your trigger foods.
Whether you've got a sweet tooth for chocolate and red velvet anything or love salty treats like pretzels, know the foods that send you down the spiral of junk food binging. You've already accomplished half of the battle by identifying them. Keep them out of the house.
7. Gross yourself out.
One surefire way to consume less processed food is to learn more about what you’re really eating. Here are a few that make us cringe: Those frozen "grilled chicken" breasts get their marks from a machine infused with vegetable oil. The preservative BHA is added to processed food like Tang, Kool Aid, and breakfast sausage even though Health and Human Services consider it a likely carcinogen. The vitamin D3 added to many yogurt brands is manufactured from sheeps's grease. And the “natural flavor” in BBQ Baked Lays is made with milk and chicken powder. Yuck!
8. Chew more than you need.
Adam Melonas, renowned chef and founder of UNREAL candy (along with Nicky Bronner, a 15-year-old determined to "unjunk candy") shared this smart tip: "If you can make people chew more, they'll eat less." Next time you sneak in a treat, chew slowly and consciously. Wait until you finish one bite to take the next.
More About Healthy Eating