How to Stop Eating Junk Food and Sugar? (Rehab for Cravings)

Weight Loss & Diets | Written by Nathan | Updated on 10 February 2022

Eating sugar can be pleasing, but it can also be addicting. Eating sugar releases a rush of insulin and dopamine in our bodies, telling us that we want more. This dependence on sugar is not only dangerous for our bodies but dangerous for our psychological state.

Just like eating sugar, eating junk foods is similar. We begin to crave the feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine, with these sugary foods. Over time, our bodies and minds become reliant.

However, it is possible to stop the repetitive cycle of eating junk food by learning some new techniques. These mindfulness tactics are designed to create a rehab for cravings and show you how to stop eating junk food and sugar for good. 

Understand What Triggers Your Cravings

Triggers can make it hard to choose healthy food choices throughout the day. Although you may know in your mind that reaching for a piece of fruit or vegetable is the healthiest choice for a snack, you might be triggered by the sight, smell, and taste of junk food nearby. This is because junk food activates the ‘reward’ neurons in our brain, leading to feelings of positivity, pleasure, and excitement [1]. 

Fortunately for those trying to break the cycle of food addiction, learning what triggers your cravings is one of the top ways to tackle junk food and sugar cravings head on. Understanding the root behind your food addiction can save you from going down the path of food-related diseases, like diabetes or heart disease.

A group of people eating greasy and sugary food at a restaurant.

People Triggers

One of the most common triggers is ‘people’ triggers. This relates to seeing another person eat, watching people overeating, or being around people who have unhealthy relationships with food. 

  • Explain to your family and friends the changes you are trying to make in your life. 
  • Tell your co-workers that you want to get off junk food and see if they would like to join you. 

Place Triggers

The second type of trigger that can help you break a junk food addiction is a ‘place’ trigger. 

  • Keep a list of why you are trying to make healthy decisions and look at motivational pictures/posters when you feel discouraged.
  • Choose walking and driving routes that do not pass your favorite fast-food restaurants. 

Timing Triggers

The third type of trigger to identify and analyze when you are trying to trick yourself into eating less is the ‘timing’ trigger.

  • Change your routine so you are less likely to binge on cereal, eat a huge lunch, or consume candy at night.  If you can’t skip the cereal or candy at night, at least try to eat healthy cereals or substitute the candy for something sugar-free. 

Mood Triggers

The last type of trigger that is a stepping stone on the road to figuring out how to eat less junk food is the ‘mood’ trigger.

  • Avoid rewarding yourself with fast food or junk food when something positive happens.
  • Turn positive or negative feelings in your life into willpower to make healthy decisions. 
  • Manage your stress to avoid choosing high-fat and high-sugar foods [2]. 

Make it Difficult to Eat Junk & Sugary Foods

Haven’t you ever heard the phrase that if you do anything for 2 weeks, it becomes a habit? It goes along with the thought that doing something enough times makes it easy and makes it commonplace in your life. If you wake up every morning, go for a run, make a smoothie, and drive to work, it will soon become a usual routine in your life.

The same goes for learning how to quit junk food. Once you figure out how to stop craving junk food, it becomes a minor thought in your mind. However, one of the biggest roadblocks to eating healthy is focusing on what you CAN’T eat. If most of your brain is occupied by thinking of how you have no willpower to stop eating, you are more likely to search for junk food

So how can you change your habits and figure out how to stop eating junk food and sugar? By changing the way your mind and body respond to cues, cravings, behaviors, and rewards, you can break a junk food addiction. 

  • Cue – Eliminating the cue to eat unhealthily can directly reduce the likelihood of bad habits from forming. 
  • Craving – Reduce the craving, and you won’t act on the thought (eating junk food).
  • Behavior – Make the behavior hard to do, and you won’t be able to do the task (i.e. blocking your credit card at a fast food restaurant or unhealthy grocery store).
  • Reward – If the reward does not satisfy your craving, the cycle will end. 

Making it difficult to access and eat sugary foods – by a conscious decision that makes it harder to access foods or changing your psychological dependence – you can get off junk food. Blocking your credit card, changing your route, altering your reward and pleasure system, and hiding food are all ways that you can quit junk food. 

Avoid, Store Away or Hide Junk Food & Sweets

If your pantry is stocked with cookies, crackers, and sweets, you are more likely to consume them at some point during the day. Seeing junk food is a direct trigger that can ‘turn on’ cravings and make it harder to choose healthy food. Studies have shown that seeing healthy foods and healthy eating habits on TV would help normalize good behaviors compared to junk food, since there are long-lasting effects of television advertisements for junk food versus nutritious food [3]. 

The same goes for what is in your house, school, or work – keeping junk food out of sight helps keep it out of mind. Keeping healthy food in reach helps reinforce positive habits and normalize healthy eating. Substituting sugary and fatty foods with healthy alternatives can be done – having the physical presence of smart food choices teaches your mind how to avoid junk food. 

Substitute the Junk Food & Sweets with Healthy Alternatives

A woman is holding up an apple and a donut to symbolize substituting junk food for healthier alternatives.

Instead of trying to eat jello for weight loss, consider substituting a high-fat or high-sugar food with something just a little healthier. A lean protein, complex carbohydrate, or low-calorie snack can be just as rewarding if you find one’s that you actually enjoy. Finding tasty alternatives to sweets is not impossible – it just takes dedicated time for meal prep and decision-making.

If you are thinking to yourself “I want to lose weight but I love junk food”, making a few small changes can be all you need. If you are craving a sugar rush from your favorite soda drink or candy, try fruit instead. Although it can take practice and reinforcement of healthy habits, it will help you avoid sugar crashes, spikes in blood sugar levels, and unhealthy long-term effects. 

For those who love comfort foods during the weekend, choosing an alternative to your burger, pizza, or French fries is key to making healthy substitutions. Learning about the differences in fats – the ‘good’ fats (monosaturated and polyunsaturated), the ‘bad’ fats (trans fats), and the okay fats (saturated) – can be the difference between obesity and mortality. Studies have shown that individuals who eat nuts or olive oil show a 39% decrease in all-cause mortality [4]. 

In addition, eating fried foods directly links to high stroke and heart attack rates, showing how healthy fat substitutions can help reduce the prevalence of life-threatening diseases [6]. So next time you question if chicken wings good for weight loss, be sure to order non-fried wings instead or bake them at home.

Some common substitutions include:

  • Fruit infused water instead of sodas
  • A banana instead of ice-cream
  • Mangoes instead of a popsicle
  • An apple instead of a donut
  • Baked chicken wings instead of fried wings
  • Mashed potatoes instead of fries
  • A chicken burger instead of a hamburger
  • Whole wheat pizza instead of a white flour crust
  • Dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate

There’s substitutes for any junk food you can imagine and the healthier you eat, the better you will feel.

By creating a healthy meal plan with easy substitutions, individuals can make small changes to reap big rewards. Learn how to change your life and reward yourself for your dedication, subsequently increasing the likelihood of adherence to a healthy diet. 

Gamify the Way You Eat

Everyone loves rewards, prizes, and pats on the back when they succeed at something tough, but what if you could turn your life into a game? Gamifying the way you eat can help you stick with your healthy eating plan

With the constant influx of media telling us to go to fast-food restaurants, try new desserts, and consume more alcohol, we are flooded with messages that promote unhealthy living. 

Teaching yourself and your children positive food habits can help develop long-term habits that are going to make a significant change in your lives. Gamification of dietary decision making can help educate yourself and your children about the nutrition of food, how to eat healthy food, and how to monitor your daily food intake are all key pieces that increase the likelihood of making healthy choices in the future [7]. 

Choosing healthy fats, organic foods, whole foods, and lean proteins are just a few of the choices that you can make to change your eating habits. Learning to listen to your body, like when you are thirsty, and making healthy food selections is a sustainable way of living without feeling like you are dieting. 

Once you know how to stop eating junk food and sugar while gamifying your life, you can get those same congratulations through your own reward system. Heck, you can even gamify your water consumption or other parts of your life too.

Drink Water

Learning how to respond to your body’s natural triggers when thirsty or hungry can be the difference between consuming 500 extra calories in unneeded snacks or simply hydrating your body. When you are dehydrated, changes happen in your body – your blood volume decreases, sodium concentration increases, and your energy levels plummet [8].  

Or in other words, drinking water can be the cure-all for these bodily sensations. Instead of eating empty calories that our body does not need, drinking water can typically remedy this feeling of hunger or thirst

Eat Mindfully to Avoid Emotional Eating & Weight Gain

Eating and drinking mindfully should be a part of all of our lives, but it’s easier said than done. 

Another way we can listen to our bodies to supply the correct nourishment is to eat mindfully. Paired with drinking water and listening to our thirst and hunger signals, mindful eating is an effective way to be more aware of what we are eating. Haven’t you ever sat down at the TV to watch a show and realized that you are mindlessly chewing and swallowing your pizza? 

This absent-minded eating is directly related to higher consumption of calories and poor food choices. Mindful eating helps with reduced weight, emotional eating, and automatic eating habits [9]. Seeing how mindfulness, eating behaviors, and obesity are related can help you understand how to stop eating junk food and sugar. 

To continue with an attainable diet that is long-lasting and provides long-term health benefits, individuals can use behavior-specific mindfulness interventions to help with weight management [10]. Instead of just telling yourself, “don’t eat junk food,” you can develop a specific plan of how to maintain a healthy diet. 

Instead of focusing on counting calories and the ‘numbers’ of dieting, focusing on mindfulness and intuitiveness with eating choices can help re-teach your mind and body how to work together. Being aware of everything happening in your life, like your eating choices, thirst signals, stress levels, sleep disturbances, and mood imbalances, can all be the key to leading a well-rounded life

Check In on the Rest of Your Life

Recognizing poor sleeping habits, destructive social scenarios, sleep disturbances, and stressful situations is essential in identifying what is healthy for your life and what is not. 

Studies have shown a direct correlation between high-fat diets, the risk of obesity, and mental health [11]. Diet, stress, and mental health are synonymous – diets rich in healthy fats, fish, and vegetables have a better effect on both mental and physical health when compared to those high in saturated and polyunsaturated fats. Furthermore, high saturated fat diets can affect mood, leading to mood imbalances, anxiety, and depression, all of which can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental state.

Researching the best diet for your needs is the real key to creating a sustainable life. Determine the healthy food substitutions that you enjoy, incorporate exercise into your life, and remedy any sleep and stress concerns causing you to lead an unhealthy life. 

Keep Experimenting to Find Out What Works Best for You

Finding out how to make healthy food substitutions away from high-fat and high-sugar foods is key to reducing the risk of long-term illness and adhering to a healthy diet. Identifying your triggers and cravings is one of the main steps to developing mental and psychological changes to begin making small changes that can add up in the long run. If you’re more of an all or nothing type of person, try out the 21 no junk food challenge to see if you can make three weeks without processed foods and then slowly reintroduce them for occasional outings. 

If the first diet you try doesn’t work, keep trying – every failure is a step closure to figuring out what works for you. If you hit a roadblock, reach out to friends, family, and professionals. There are dieticians, psychologists, and nutritionists to help you make the small changes necessary to create a rehab for cravings, or learn how to stop eating junk food and sugar.  

References

[1] Cravings. Harvard T.H. Chan. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/

[2] Rosenberg, Alec. (2016). How to break the junk food habit. Retrieved from https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/how-break-junk-food-habit

[3] Dixon, H., Scully, M., Wakefield, M., White, V., & Crawford, D. (2007). The effects of television advertisements for junk food versus nutritious food on children’s food attitudes and preferences. Social Sciences & Medicine, 65(7), 1311-23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.05.011

[4] Werner, H., & Bruchim, I. (2009). The insulin-like growth factor-I receptor as an oncogene. Arch Physiol Biochem, 115, 58-71. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19485702/

[5] Blasbalg, T., Hibbeln, J., Ramsden, C., & Rawlings, R. (2011). Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May, 93(5), 950-62. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21367944/

[6] Howard, G., Howard, V., Katholi, C., Oli, M., & Huston, S. (2001). Decline in US stroke mortality: an analysis of temporal patterns by sex, race, and geographic region. Stroke, 32(10), 2213-20. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11588303/

[7] Gamification of Dietary Decision-Making. (n.d.). NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. Retrieved from https://entrepreneur.nyu.edu/gamification-dietary-decision-making/

[8] Frank, Michelle. The Neuroscience of Thirst: How your brain tells you to look for water. SITNBoston Harvard Edu. Retrieved from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/neuroscience-thirst-brain-tells-look-water/

[9] Mantzios, M. & Wilson, . Mindfulness, Eating Behaviors, and Obesity: A review and reflection on current findings. Current Obesity Reports, 4(1), 141-46. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26627097/

[10] Mantzios M, Wilson J. Making concrete construals mindful: A novel approach for developing mindfulness and self-compassion to assist weight loss. Psychology & health. 2014;29(4):422-41. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24215123/

[11] Bremner, J. D., Moazzami, K., Wittbrodt, M. T., Nye, J. A., Lima, B. B., Gillespie, C. F., Rapaport, M. H., Pearce, B. D., Shah, A. J., & Vaccarino, V. (2020). Diet, Stress and Mental Health. Nutrients12(8), 2428. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082428

About the Author

Nathan

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.