Breaking the Junk-food Habit

Reviewed Sep 20, 2016

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Summary

It’s possible to break the junk-food habit and get used to healthy food. Eating healthy snacks, care in spacing of meals and mindful eating are some of the strategies.

If you’re like most people, you have some guilty pleasures in your diet. This is food that’s fun to eat, high in calories from sugar or fat, and low in nutrients. “Junk food” is its non-scientific but apt name.

A bit of it now and then is OK. But what if you can’t stop with just a little? That’s when junk food becomes a threat to your health. People with a diet heavy in treats like chips, sugary drinks, candy, and ice cream tend to end up taking in too many total calories, with obesity the result.

The bad news about the junk-food habit is that, to some degree, we’re wired for it. Connie Diekman, RD, Director of Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, says humans are drawn to foods that are high in fat and sugar and often higher in salt. “We are animals, and we are programmed to survive,” she says. “Instinctively, those are the things we would eat if we were faced with starvation.”

The joy from eating such foods also has an effect on the brain, working somewhat like the high from drugs or alcohol. They “do things to the brain not very much different from what drugs and addiction do,” says Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Addiction to a drug causes the brain to cut its output of dopamine, a chemical that helps make feelings of joy. Dopamine receptors also become desensitized. So the person needs more of the drug to get the same high—or just to feel “normal.” Researchers have found that obese people tend to have fewer dopamine receptors. Their “pleasure circuits” are less effective, needing more high-pleasure (junk) food to feel satisfied.

Feelings can also feed a junk-food habit. Morris and her team have found that high-fat, high-sugar food eases stress in animals. When such food is used in this way by humans, as a kind of self-medication, it can lead to a vicious circle of over-eating, guilt and more over-eating.

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a staff doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, explains: “It seems so benign to eat some chips, and then when you realize the whole family-size bag is gone and you’re the only one eating them, that produces guilt. But the guilt produces more of the same behavior.”

But here’s some good news: You can change your food habits. Here are some tips from nutritional experts:

Mind the mealtime gap. “Our bodies need regular fuel,” Diekman points out. And like a car’s gas tank, the body can only hold so much fuel at one time. Diekman says blood sugar levels fall below comfortable levels about three to five hours after a meal, even a hearty one. In the work world, the gap between lunch and dinner is most often longer than this. Sometime in mid-to-late afternoon, your blood sugar slumps. You can put off the slump by spacing out your meals—scheduling lunch closer to dinner, perhaps. If you can’t close the mealtime gap, you can eat a healthy snack.

Boost the protein and fiber in your food. If you need a snack to get your blood sugar back up, figure on taking in some calories. The trick is to take in only as many as you need. The problem with junk food is that it lacks the protein and fiber that make you feel full so you eat too much of it. A handful of trail mix can give you the same satisfaction as a helping of potato chips, but with fewer calories.

“Look for something that’s going to fill you up from bulk,” says Diekman. Whole grain crackers or granola bars with protein are good choices, she says, as is milk. Protein is also superior to sugar in snacks because it releases its energy over time, she says. You won’t need another snack so soon.

Pack your lunch and snacks. Planning is one key to healthy eating, mainly at work. Make your lunch or snacks in advance and have them on hand, so you won’t grab for the nearest treat when your blood sugar falls. “The thinnest people I know are the ones who carry food with them,” says Gerbstadt. “They know that when they’re hungry and pull out an apple, they aren’t going to go to the vending machine.”

Find other ways to help your mood. Junk food may be a stress reducer, but it’s not the only one. Morris says rats under stress show improved behavior not only from high-fat, high-sugar food but also from more time on the exercise wheel. “It’s not as if we need to have junk food,” she says. Gerbstadt says people should “make sure your day has exercise in it, whether on the job or otherwise.” For a wider range of activities, from taking a bath to calling a friend, Morris suggests 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, by Susan Albers. “Developing strategies where you do not immediately reach for the chocolate is good,” Morris says.

Eat mindfully. It’s not just what you eat that matters, it’s also how you eat. Are you mindlessly downing a snack while doing something else, like working? Or are you pausing from your work to take a bite, chew, and savor the taste and texture? Diekman says being aware is one mark of healthy eating. “Develop an awareness of what you’re eating and why you’re eating,” she says. Among other things, such mindfulness can alert you if you are eating for some other reason than hunger (from sheer habit or an emotional need, perhaps).

Upgrade your workplace fare. Making your own food is one good way for healthy eating. But there’s much to be said for the ease of vending machines and the low prices sometimes found at workplace cafeterias. Maybe you can’t find healthy food at these venues, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Food vendors sell what their patrons want, and if enough workers ask for healthy choices, they may get them. Don’t expect the junk food to fully vanish, but don’t give up on trying to make the fare better. Gerbstadt says that’s what happened at her workplace. She says she used to bring her lunch until she “saw how many healthy choices there were.”

Resources

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

The End of Overeating by David Kessler, M.D. Rodale Books, 2010.

Your Food is Fooling You by David Kessler, M.D. Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

By Tom Gray
Source: Connie Diekman, RD, Director of University Nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, Assistant Professor, Uniform Services Herbert School of Medicine, staff physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD; Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Summary

It’s possible to break the junk-food habit and get used to healthy food. Eating healthy snacks, care in spacing of meals and mindful eating are some of the strategies.

If you’re like most people, you have some guilty pleasures in your diet. This is food that’s fun to eat, high in calories from sugar or fat, and low in nutrients. “Junk food” is its non-scientific but apt name.

A bit of it now and then is OK. But what if you can’t stop with just a little? That’s when junk food becomes a threat to your health. People with a diet heavy in treats like chips, sugary drinks, candy, and ice cream tend to end up taking in too many total calories, with obesity the result.

The bad news about the junk-food habit is that, to some degree, we’re wired for it. Connie Diekman, RD, Director of Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, says humans are drawn to foods that are high in fat and sugar and often higher in salt. “We are animals, and we are programmed to survive,” she says. “Instinctively, those are the things we would eat if we were faced with starvation.”

The joy from eating such foods also has an effect on the brain, working somewhat like the high from drugs or alcohol. They “do things to the brain not very much different from what drugs and addiction do,” says Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Addiction to a drug causes the brain to cut its output of dopamine, a chemical that helps make feelings of joy. Dopamine receptors also become desensitized. So the person needs more of the drug to get the same high—or just to feel “normal.” Researchers have found that obese people tend to have fewer dopamine receptors. Their “pleasure circuits” are less effective, needing more high-pleasure (junk) food to feel satisfied.

Feelings can also feed a junk-food habit. Morris and her team have found that high-fat, high-sugar food eases stress in animals. When such food is used in this way by humans, as a kind of self-medication, it can lead to a vicious circle of over-eating, guilt and more over-eating.

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a staff doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, explains: “It seems so benign to eat some chips, and then when you realize the whole family-size bag is gone and you’re the only one eating them, that produces guilt. But the guilt produces more of the same behavior.”

But here’s some good news: You can change your food habits. Here are some tips from nutritional experts:

Mind the mealtime gap. “Our bodies need regular fuel,” Diekman points out. And like a car’s gas tank, the body can only hold so much fuel at one time. Diekman says blood sugar levels fall below comfortable levels about three to five hours after a meal, even a hearty one. In the work world, the gap between lunch and dinner is most often longer than this. Sometime in mid-to-late afternoon, your blood sugar slumps. You can put off the slump by spacing out your meals—scheduling lunch closer to dinner, perhaps. If you can’t close the mealtime gap, you can eat a healthy snack.

Boost the protein and fiber in your food. If you need a snack to get your blood sugar back up, figure on taking in some calories. The trick is to take in only as many as you need. The problem with junk food is that it lacks the protein and fiber that make you feel full so you eat too much of it. A handful of trail mix can give you the same satisfaction as a helping of potato chips, but with fewer calories.

“Look for something that’s going to fill you up from bulk,” says Diekman. Whole grain crackers or granola bars with protein are good choices, she says, as is milk. Protein is also superior to sugar in snacks because it releases its energy over time, she says. You won’t need another snack so soon.

Pack your lunch and snacks. Planning is one key to healthy eating, mainly at work. Make your lunch or snacks in advance and have them on hand, so you won’t grab for the nearest treat when your blood sugar falls. “The thinnest people I know are the ones who carry food with them,” says Gerbstadt. “They know that when they’re hungry and pull out an apple, they aren’t going to go to the vending machine.”

Find other ways to help your mood. Junk food may be a stress reducer, but it’s not the only one. Morris says rats under stress show improved behavior not only from high-fat, high-sugar food but also from more time on the exercise wheel. “It’s not as if we need to have junk food,” she says. Gerbstadt says people should “make sure your day has exercise in it, whether on the job or otherwise.” For a wider range of activities, from taking a bath to calling a friend, Morris suggests 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, by Susan Albers. “Developing strategies where you do not immediately reach for the chocolate is good,” Morris says.

Eat mindfully. It’s not just what you eat that matters, it’s also how you eat. Are you mindlessly downing a snack while doing something else, like working? Or are you pausing from your work to take a bite, chew, and savor the taste and texture? Diekman says being aware is one mark of healthy eating. “Develop an awareness of what you’re eating and why you’re eating,” she says. Among other things, such mindfulness can alert you if you are eating for some other reason than hunger (from sheer habit or an emotional need, perhaps).

Upgrade your workplace fare. Making your own food is one good way for healthy eating. But there’s much to be said for the ease of vending machines and the low prices sometimes found at workplace cafeterias. Maybe you can’t find healthy food at these venues, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Food vendors sell what their patrons want, and if enough workers ask for healthy choices, they may get them. Don’t expect the junk food to fully vanish, but don’t give up on trying to make the fare better. Gerbstadt says that’s what happened at her workplace. She says she used to bring her lunch until she “saw how many healthy choices there were.”

Resources

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

The End of Overeating by David Kessler, M.D. Rodale Books, 2010.

Your Food is Fooling You by David Kessler, M.D. Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

By Tom Gray
Source: Connie Diekman, RD, Director of University Nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, Assistant Professor, Uniform Services Herbert School of Medicine, staff physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD; Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Summary

It’s possible to break the junk-food habit and get used to healthy food. Eating healthy snacks, care in spacing of meals and mindful eating are some of the strategies.

If you’re like most people, you have some guilty pleasures in your diet. This is food that’s fun to eat, high in calories from sugar or fat, and low in nutrients. “Junk food” is its non-scientific but apt name.

A bit of it now and then is OK. But what if you can’t stop with just a little? That’s when junk food becomes a threat to your health. People with a diet heavy in treats like chips, sugary drinks, candy, and ice cream tend to end up taking in too many total calories, with obesity the result.

The bad news about the junk-food habit is that, to some degree, we’re wired for it. Connie Diekman, RD, Director of Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, says humans are drawn to foods that are high in fat and sugar and often higher in salt. “We are animals, and we are programmed to survive,” she says. “Instinctively, those are the things we would eat if we were faced with starvation.”

The joy from eating such foods also has an effect on the brain, working somewhat like the high from drugs or alcohol. They “do things to the brain not very much different from what drugs and addiction do,” says Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Addiction to a drug causes the brain to cut its output of dopamine, a chemical that helps make feelings of joy. Dopamine receptors also become desensitized. So the person needs more of the drug to get the same high—or just to feel “normal.” Researchers have found that obese people tend to have fewer dopamine receptors. Their “pleasure circuits” are less effective, needing more high-pleasure (junk) food to feel satisfied.

Feelings can also feed a junk-food habit. Morris and her team have found that high-fat, high-sugar food eases stress in animals. When such food is used in this way by humans, as a kind of self-medication, it can lead to a vicious circle of over-eating, guilt and more over-eating.

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a staff doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, explains: “It seems so benign to eat some chips, and then when you realize the whole family-size bag is gone and you’re the only one eating them, that produces guilt. But the guilt produces more of the same behavior.”

But here’s some good news: You can change your food habits. Here are some tips from nutritional experts:

Mind the mealtime gap. “Our bodies need regular fuel,” Diekman points out. And like a car’s gas tank, the body can only hold so much fuel at one time. Diekman says blood sugar levels fall below comfortable levels about three to five hours after a meal, even a hearty one. In the work world, the gap between lunch and dinner is most often longer than this. Sometime in mid-to-late afternoon, your blood sugar slumps. You can put off the slump by spacing out your meals—scheduling lunch closer to dinner, perhaps. If you can’t close the mealtime gap, you can eat a healthy snack.

Boost the protein and fiber in your food. If you need a snack to get your blood sugar back up, figure on taking in some calories. The trick is to take in only as many as you need. The problem with junk food is that it lacks the protein and fiber that make you feel full so you eat too much of it. A handful of trail mix can give you the same satisfaction as a helping of potato chips, but with fewer calories.

“Look for something that’s going to fill you up from bulk,” says Diekman. Whole grain crackers or granola bars with protein are good choices, she says, as is milk. Protein is also superior to sugar in snacks because it releases its energy over time, she says. You won’t need another snack so soon.

Pack your lunch and snacks. Planning is one key to healthy eating, mainly at work. Make your lunch or snacks in advance and have them on hand, so you won’t grab for the nearest treat when your blood sugar falls. “The thinnest people I know are the ones who carry food with them,” says Gerbstadt. “They know that when they’re hungry and pull out an apple, they aren’t going to go to the vending machine.”

Find other ways to help your mood. Junk food may be a stress reducer, but it’s not the only one. Morris says rats under stress show improved behavior not only from high-fat, high-sugar food but also from more time on the exercise wheel. “It’s not as if we need to have junk food,” she says. Gerbstadt says people should “make sure your day has exercise in it, whether on the job or otherwise.” For a wider range of activities, from taking a bath to calling a friend, Morris suggests 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, by Susan Albers. “Developing strategies where you do not immediately reach for the chocolate is good,” Morris says.

Eat mindfully. It’s not just what you eat that matters, it’s also how you eat. Are you mindlessly downing a snack while doing something else, like working? Or are you pausing from your work to take a bite, chew, and savor the taste and texture? Diekman says being aware is one mark of healthy eating. “Develop an awareness of what you’re eating and why you’re eating,” she says. Among other things, such mindfulness can alert you if you are eating for some other reason than hunger (from sheer habit or an emotional need, perhaps).

Upgrade your workplace fare. Making your own food is one good way for healthy eating. But there’s much to be said for the ease of vending machines and the low prices sometimes found at workplace cafeterias. Maybe you can’t find healthy food at these venues, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Food vendors sell what their patrons want, and if enough workers ask for healthy choices, they may get them. Don’t expect the junk food to fully vanish, but don’t give up on trying to make the fare better. Gerbstadt says that’s what happened at her workplace. She says she used to bring her lunch until she “saw how many healthy choices there were.”

Resources

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

The End of Overeating by David Kessler, M.D. Rodale Books, 2010.

Your Food is Fooling You by David Kessler, M.D. Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

By Tom Gray
Source: Connie Diekman, RD, Director of University Nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, Assistant Professor, Uniform Services Herbert School of Medicine, staff physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD; Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

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