Processed food addiction isn’t considered a legitimate medical term yet. But food addiction is very real for those of us who can’t have just one of anything processed. Fast food companies know that food addiction is real and then spend billions every year on making their products more enticing.
There have been few studies on the subject but once you are aware of how refined foods can affect your behavior it is easier to consider removing them from your diet.
If you have been struggling with your weight or have a hard time sticking to a healthy diet it’s nice to know you are not broken, just more sensitive to chemicals and processed substances than your friends who don’t overeat on sweets and junk foods.
- Emotional eating often isn’t the only issue
- Satiation and food volume versus caloric density
- What to eat and why to eat it
- Why we overeat when we are full
- What foods cause cravings and what foods don’t
- Why juicing and blending can cause cravings for some
- Fasting and cravings
- Raw foods and cravings
- Dehydrated foods and junk food cravings
- The spectrum of susceptibility to junk food cravings
- How mindful eating cuts junk food cravings
Understanding junk food cravings
Many diets suggest moderation for junk foods. But can you have just one cupcake or one cookie or a small handful of potato chips? Some people don’t have any problem eating just one potato chip or cookie but a lot of us need to go with abstinence.
Eating just a little junk food primes the brain to want more of the hyper-palatable food and gives you intense cravings that can only be resisted for so long before give up the “moderation-diet” binge.
Processed foods trigger more hunger rather than less hunger for us sensitive types because they are so refined they overstimulate the pleasure centers of the brain and a reduction in dopamine receptors over time.
Overstimulation of the pleasure centers leads to dulling of the pleasure response over time. After a while, we crave even more of the same bad foods to get any stimulation at all, and that starts the dieting and binging cycle.
Another problem with processed foods is that they throw off our hunger signals by being bereft of nutrients our bodies are looking for. You can be overfat while still being nutritionally malnourished.
The reason we can’t have just one
Foods that contain concentrated sugar, corn syrup, or flour of any kind, are highly concentrated toxic substances. They are more like straight-up drugs than foods because they are so concentrated. These foods trigger the pleasure centers and dopamine receptors in the same way heroin does.
These foods can also trigger the release of high amounts of insulin, which can cause leptin to be blocked in the brain stem. When leptin is blocked it causes hunger to rise the more you eat. Leptin is the hormone that tells you it is time to stop eating.
Your brain on sugar, flour, and oil does not get this signal to stop eating. Instead, you feel hungrier the more you expose yourself to these food-like substances.
Emotional eating isn’t the only reason we overeat
I used to think my junk food cravings were strictly due to emotional eating. I thought I was just weak, lacking in willpower.
I thought I was overeating or having cravings because of a deep-seated hunger for emotional needs is not being met. It was valid to some extent. But even after years of therapy, I had the same problems with eating.
The missing key for me was processed food addiction
There is nothing wrong with self-examination and self-growth. And sometimes we eat for emotional reasons. But physical addiction often plays a big part in the problem of eating when we don’t want to.
Focusing on just the emotions is like looking at the picture frame instead of the actual content of the frame.
Emotions might not be the only reason you are overeating or struggling with cravings for junk foods and refined foods.
With a few simple tweaks, you can make peace with your food for once and for all and lose whatever weight you need to lose.
I struggled for 30 years trying to eat moderately and eat healthy foods and get rid of junk food cravings while going to therapy and working on myself endlessly.
Once I found a few simple food secrets, I finally became free from junk food cravings, and have been able to stay on a healthy whole foods diet easily.
I lost 40 pounds in the first six months after not being able to lose any weight for over ten years.
I no longer have to worry about food at all when I am not eating it or preparing it! This is a miracle for me!
I used to struggle with junk food cravings daily, especially in the evenings. Once you know a few simple facts about how your body and brain work, it sets you free!
Satiation and satiety come from whole foods
Why diets don’t work
Diets don’t work long term because we run out of willpower when we eat less food than keeps us satiated. We need something that we can do for life.
Satiation happens when you are eating and feel full enough and satisfied.
Satiety is when you feel full and happy and don’t have cravings for 4 to 6 hours after eating. When your stomach empties, it is time to feel naturally hungry again and eat.
Certain foods can trigger more hunger as you eat them, causing you to overeat at every meal while other foods signal the body to feel full and satisfied because of bulk, water, fiber, nutrient levels.
The principle of calorie density
We instinctively eat food by weight and want to eat the same volume daily.
Humans naturally eat and want to eat an average of 3 to 6 pounds of food per day, depending on the size of the person, of course. The secret to staying thin happy and healthy is what is in your 3 to 6 pounds of food per day.
Dr. Barabara J. Rolls explains volumetrics
The Secret to Ultimate Weight Loss by Chef AJ is an excellent resource for learning about food volume.
By using Chef AJ’s system-grid, you can eat high-volume nutrient-rich foods that are the lowest in calories and highest in nutrients. Chef AJ calls these “calorie Dilute” foods as opposed to calorie-dense foods on the standard American diet.
Chef AJ suggests eating green leafy veggies at 100 to 200 calories per pound first thing every meal, including breakfast.
Next on the calorie density chart is fruit at around 300 calories per pound.
Next comes legumes, whole grains, starchy veggies like sweet potatoes at around 200 to 400 calories per pound.
Lastly, Chef AJ puts high-calorie foods like nuts seeds, avocado. These are around 800 calories per pound. She suggests having a small portion of that higher calorie food as a condiment.
She removes animal products, refined foods, and oils from the diet altogether. These foods can range anywhere from 1000 to 5000 calories per pound.
You may not want to be as absolutist as Chef AJ is. But by keeping those higher calorie foods out of your daily diet, you can lower your cravings and lose weight consistently.
Portion control leaves out a big piece of the puzzle
The concept of eating a smaller volume of food to lose weight is flawed.
Dieting and caloric restriction alone is not the answer as you probably have already noticed.
We have been taught to eat a small volume of food while keeping processed foods in the diet.
You may be familiar with the idea of only eating the amount of food that is the size of your fist etc. the saying is that your stomach is the size of your fist so that your portions should be this size. But in actuality, your stomach holds about a quart of food.
But tiny portions only make sense for denatured, processed high-calorie foods, not water-rich fiber-rich veggies.
Sure, tiny portions of refined foods work in the short run, but it isn’t sustainable. Getting a little taste of processed food three times a day just primes the taste buds for more.
Tiny portions and calorie counting lead to binging and cravings and compensation for malnourishment in the long run.
The body instinctively wants to eat the same weight and volume of food every day this is why dieting on refined foods backfires every time.
The body wants bulky foods
We are designed to eat high-fiber whole plant foods. This is why so many people end up searching through the kitchen for more food after a tiny processed-food dinner.
The body knows when you try to cheat it out of the phytonutrients, fiber, and volume it was designed for.
We are naturally built to eat big, bulky plant-based foods that are filling and satisfying and full of the nutrients we need.
Stretch receptors, and nutrient receptors in your stomach help decrease junk food cravings
Another reason for cravings is that the body is searching for missing nutrients to trigger a feeling of satiation in its nutrient receptors as well as its stretch receptors.
To feel satiated, we need to eat enough food to stretch the stomach so that the stretch receptors in the stomach get the signal that it is time to stop eating.
When we diet on refined foods without much fiber or water and eat tiny portions to lose weight, we do not get this natural satiation signal.
When we diet for months or years, eating less food volume than the body naturally wants to eat eventually, we are apt to binge and gain all the weight back and more in a short time.
Rebound weight gain after processed foods dieting is normal and to be expected.
Visual food satiety signals
We also get messages from seeing the food and knowing ahead of time that we are going to be satiated. When we see a plate full of lots of food, our brain is already reassured that we are going to be fed enough food.
If we see a plate with a tiny amount of food, this stimulates repressed feelings of lack and panic. We feel depleted and starved of nutrients. We gradually begin eating more of the processed foods that are too high in calories and gain the weight back.
When we force ourselves to eat tiny amounts of processed foods, we frustrate the essential need for the stomach to be full of high-fiber, water-rich plant matter at each meal.
Eventually, even the stomach that was surgically shrunk often stretches out again to take in the typical bulk of food, we are designed to take in. The problem is most people continue to eat the same processed foods while trying to eat smaller amounts of them.
Once they go back to average volumes of processed junk foods, they inevitably gain back the weight they lost and then some.
The answer is to eat caloric-dilute whole plant foods that are filling so that you can feel satisfied three times a day.
There is a spectrum of susceptibility to junk food and refined food
Telling yourself to just have a “little bit” of toxic trigger food is like telling a drug addict to have a “little bit” of heroin or telling an addicted smoker to smoke less, or telling an alcoholic to just drink one drink per day.
For some people, this would work to ration the amount of toxic food. If they have had a healthy diet most of their life and are genetically just not inclined to notice food very much some people can eat only one potato chip or just one cookie and be slim all their lives. But this is at the low end of the bell curve.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Medium to high susceptibility. When you look at who is still slender, it is either young people who are not fat yet or a few rare individuals who are not sensitive.
If you are not an alcoholic, for instance, you can have one drink a day, and it is no big deal. If you are not sensitive to refined foods, you might be able to have refined foods once in a while.
There are a few people who are not that interested in food, and they stay thin eating a mostly healthy diet with little bits of junk food thrown in.
Moderation doesn’t work for many people
If you look around any place there are humans, you will see many fat people who cannot use restraint when it comes to junk food and just a few thin people who may be on diets, or they may still be young enough and active enough that it hasn’t caught up with them yet.
Sometimes do you see an ancient person who has stayed thin, vital, and healthy all their life using moderation.
Mostly you will see people with brains that cannot handle moderation, and that is why most people in our culture are overweight heading toward obesity.
Abstinence is the key to being healthy and free of cravings
This might sound like bad news, but after the detox or withdrawal phase, it is beautiful to be free from junk food cravings.
If you have a brain that is triggered by refined foods, it’s better to stay away from these triggers for good.
The reason these foods are so hard to stop eating once you start is that they are designed to be hyper-palatable so you will eat more of them.
The food industry adds, sugar, flour, oil, salt, and other addictive chemicals to foods because they know people will buy more of it so they can make more money off of us.
Hyper-stimulating foods, refined foods with flour, sugar high salt, and oil are everywhere. These foods over stimulate pleasure centers in the brain and cause junk food cravings.
Why blending and juicing may trigger cravings
Don’t stop blending if you love it! But try this little experiment that Chef AJ suggests: take everything you usually put in your smoothie and try to just eat it. You will find that you are full before you can eat all of the stuff you were pounding down in a few minutes. Smoothies make it too easy to overfeed.
Smoothies make food artificially more digestible so you end up absorbing more of them. It is still a great way to get in a lot of vegetables. But you will boost your metabolism by actually chewing your food and having to process it normally. Blending makes it like baby food, easy to take in, and digest.
Anything ground into flour or sugar or blended into a “super healthy green smoothie” or protein shake is closer to becoming a processed food.
Powdered food, and ground-up food, and juices get into the bloodstream more rapidly than whole foods. This can affect blood sugar and cause insulin to spike and can cause weight gain. Smoothies can mess with the body’s sense of caloric density and the stomach’s stretch reflex.
If you have been downing smoothies every morning, you may be causing junk food cravings and binges later in the day and evening.
Don’t break down the fiber in your food with metal blades if you are sensitive to binging
The fiber in food comes in soluble and none-soluble forms. We need both the resistant starch and the soluble fiber, and it needs to be in its original form to keep the plant sugars from entering the bloodstream too rapidly and messing up your blood sugar.
Fiber creates a matrix or wall in the gut that slows down the absorption of the sugars through the intestinal walls.
Much of the fiber will still be intact when you blend but it depends on which plants you blend. The blender blades that grind the smoothie can break down the fiber too far so that everything goes into your system too fast. This causes insulin spiking and dopamine overstimulation can send the wrong signals to your brain and can keep it from healing.
This also goes for juicing. Although green juice is an excellent delivery system for nutrients, it can hamper your body’s sense of fullness and cause cravings down the road if you do it consistently. This is a very individual thing so if you love juicing and you are losing weight then don’t change a thing.
Eat your food don’t drink it
Chewing your food helps get rid of junk food cravings because you experience your food more slowly. It also helps supply the natural enzymes from your saliva for digestion by chewing thoroughly. Try going without smoothies, protein powders, and juicing for a couple of weeks and see how you feel.
Eating whole food causes your metabolism to increase in order to digest the high-fiber plant material.
Studies have been done on smoothies and juicing as opposed to eating tons of high fiber whole plants. They found that a whole plant-based diet caused neurogenesis in adults by stimulating the hippocampus and the olfactory bulb, which is new brain cells growing!
Interestingly, food texture also has an impact on AHN (Adult hippocampal neurogenesis); rats fed with a soft diet, as opposed to a solid/hard diet, exhibit decreased hippocampal progenitor cell proliferation. The authors hypothesize that chewing resulting in cell proliferation is related to corticosterone levels. Interestingly, independent studies have shown impairment in learning and memory abilities with similar soft diets.
~ Impact of diet on adult hippocampal neurogenesis
Darn it! It was so easy and efficient to blend and juice everything.
Dehydrated foods can cause junk food cravings
Eating a lot of dates and other dried fruits is around 3000 calories per pound as opposed to the regular water-rich fruits, which are about 300 calories per pound. That is a huge burst of sugar to the sensitive brain.
How to get rid of junk food cravings with mindful eating
Eat slowly without distraction from tv, music, reading, checking your email, playing games on your phone, texting, talking on the phone. Get satisfaction out of all the flavors. This is hard to do at first, but it becomes gratifying, and you find yourself eating less after a few weeks.
Wait for the food to go into the stomach before you put the next bite of food in your mouth. This way, you are really tasting your food thoroughly and experiencing each bite, and giving your body time to assimilate.
Eat about two handfuls of food, enough to fill the stomach about two-thirds of the way full and allow room for digestion. If you still feel hungry, wait five minutes to see if it is real hunger or it may just be a habit to have seconds.
If it is real hunger, you will be able to tell naturally and go back for another helping. But take a few minutes to check-in.
Overweight people are not getting satisfaction from food, so they need hyper-flavorful food. It’s a vicious cycle. You become exposed to hyper-palatable foods as a child with minimal real whole foods, and this messes up your pallet, so you can’t enjoy the delicate flavors of natural foods. Eating real foods is not satisfying at first, but your taste buds grow in newly every two weeks, so after a while, you will enjoy natural flavors.
Allow about 4 to 6 hours between each meal so that the stomach is completely empty each time you eat. This will vary from person to person. In our culture, there is food everywhere all the time, at meetings at meals, at movies, on street corners. We snack regularly, and so we need more exciting flavors to make the food palatable because we are not truly hungry.
Once you allow yourself to become hungry between meals and thoroughly enjoy each bite you will not crave more food, and you will naturally start to eat less. you will have a more delicate pallet and find yourself satisfied with less food.
Why whole foods are best for humans
Whole plant-based foods have all the flavors our brains are seeking and craving.
According to Ayurveda, there are six flavors that our body needs to have at each meal: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Pungent is any kind of spice. Bitter flavors come from greens, and astringent is the flavor from beans, lentils, and other legumes.
In the standard diet in this country, we focus on just the first three flavors, with sweet, salty, and sour if you look at fast foods, like French fries, you have salty, sweet and a little sour, or cupcakes, candy bars, sweet and a little salt.
Your system is looking for the rest of the flavors to complete the nutrient puzzle. The more salt, sweet, and sour you eat the hungry you are and the more likely you will overeat in search of the missing flavors.
Greens for breakfast provides the bitter flavor first thing in the morning instead of a predominantly sweet breakfast sets you up to be free from cravings all day.
The bottom line for stopping junk food cravings
Abstain from processed foods, and you will not want them anymore within a short time. Once you start eating whole foods and cut fractionalized foods out of your diet (any kind of powdered food like sugar, flour of all types including whole grain) you will not crave this stuff.
Recommended experts and eating systems
Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a great diet based on getting the highest level of nutrients, mostly plant-based with some meat if you want it. He has tons of success stories from patients who have gotten free of junk food cravings on his site. He suggests some smoothies and dried fruit so you might want to skip those recipes until you get cravings handled.
Dr. McDougall is excellent for people who don’t have any sensitivities to sugar or flour. He emphasizes plant-based nutrition with high amounts of whole grains and potatoes as well as greens and fruits. I find his ratios of starches to other nutrients easier to follow than Dr. Fuhrman, who does not emphasize grains and potatoes as much.
McDougall suggests staying off oil but allows pasta, bread, flour, and some sugar along with your plant-based diet. So you might have to tweak his recipes. He has been thin all his life and never been very susceptible to cravings.
He also doesn’t want to scare people away from eating a plant-based diet by creating too many restrictions. He has loads of success stories on his site.
Susan Pierce Thomson at Bright lines eating is brilliant, and it is an excellent program for getting rid of junk food addiction. She understands that flour and sugar act as drugs on the brain of many people. But she doesn’t think that oil is highly refined food and is a trigger for a lot of people to binge.
I tried the Bright lines boot camp program, but I have modified it to eating mostly whole foods.
She starts people out on small portions for faster weight loss. She recommends weighing all your food, or you can eyeball it. But I find I don’t need to weigh the food because I am eating a large proportion of greens that fill half the plate and a small amount of protein and starch that fill a quarter of the plate respectively.
I understand why she keeps oil and salt and meat in the program to make it accessible to more people, and this is good because that does work for some people who are not as sensitive to trigger foods.
Spud Fit Program for Food Addiction. Spud Fit is an excellent program for overcoming food addiction. I have tried his program and read the comments from other participants. Spudfit is safe, but you are missing out on a lot of essential nutrients by doing a mono diet. When people end his program, they often rebound and gain the weight back.
Chef AJ is brilliant. For junk food cravings and addictions. She is a Food addict who has an online program. She also has a book.
She understands the impact of flour, sugar, oil, and other refined foods on junk food cravings, but she may be too extreme for you, allowing no nuts or salt at all. So you might have to tweak her recipes.
I love her program and added the bright lines program idea using three meals a day without snacking.
She came up with a brilliant chart for calories of food by weight and has excellent videos on food volume by weight, so it is clear why you want to eat and not juice or blend your food.