How to Stop Unhealthy Food Cravings

person eating candy

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It’s the end of a long day at work and you’re coming home. You’re not hungry but craving something that will make you feel better. You stop by your favourite fast food joint and grab your go-to snack combo. 

You’re driving with one hand in a bag of fries and the other on your steering wheel. By the time you come home, the bag is empty and you have no idea how it happened.

What gives? How come it’s so hard to stop those unhealthy food cravings?

Why Is Unhealthy Food So Addictive?

There’s a reason a bag of chips is so much tastier than a plate of carrot sticks and dip. Manufacturers who produce junk food have one goal in mind. They want you to buy and consume as much of their product as possible. And one of the most effective ways to do this is to make it so delicious that it’s almost addictive. 

Unhealthy Food Is Meant to Be Addicting

Processed food is scientifically designed to appeal to your senses. A study of rats showed that when given extended access to palatable high-fat food, their brains reacted as if they were addicted to cocaine.

These are called hyper-palatable foods, as in they are created to be irresistible to your brain and your body. It’s hard to stop eating these foods because of the artificial flavors, coloring, emulsifiers, and other ingredients that appeal to all five of your senses.

Sugar, fat, and salt are the main ingredients in junk food. Think about the flavors of each ingredient. From the sweetness of the sugar, the smooth, luxurious mouthful feel of the fat combined with the sharpness of the salt makes it very appealing to our tastebuds.

Hyper-palatable food has few nutrients and high calories. It’s easy to over consume them because they are quick to eat and give us instant gratification. They are also usually cheap and very accessible.

Although it might seem like an uphill battle to stop craving unhealthy food, there are ways to help reduce those urges. 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Ever notice how quickly and easily you can finish a bowl of M&Ms when they’re right in front of you? One of the ways to help manage those cravings is to remove yourself from seeing the culprit in the first place.

A study looked at how the proximity of food relates to how quickly one consumes it. It showed that people consumed fewer chocolates, crackers, and grapes when they were located 20 feet away compared to at arm’s length.

It’s probably unrealistic to put a complete ban on junk food in the house, especially if you live with other people who aren’t willing to join your crusade. However, you can store your tempting food in areas that require some effort to get to. For instance, on the top shelf, in the basement, or even in the trunk of your car. 

Stock Up on Nutritious Food

Focusing on improving your eating habits is a more positive and effective strategy than trying to stop eating junk food altogether. When you eat nutritious foods, it can affect your mood and overall mental, emotional and physical well-being. In turn, you’re more likely to make healthier food choices.

One of the first steps to attaining a more wholesome diet is having access to nutritious, real foods. When shopping for groceries, stick to the perimeter of the store where the fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, meats, and fish are typically located. 

Pay attention to the nutrition labels and ingredient lists on packaged foods. If it has a long list of ingredients that are too hard to pronounce, it’s probably processed and not the best for you.

Try a Glass of Water

Before grabbing that last cookie from the lunch room, ask yourself whether you’re actually hungry or thirsty. It’s quite common for people to confuse signs of dehydration for hunger because the feelings of thirst are too subtle compared to those of hunger.

Therefore, before biting into that cookie, try drinking a tall glass of water and see if that settles your cravings.

Increase Your Protein Intake

Having sufficient protein in your diet can help you feel fuller, prevent overeating and suppress those cravings. When your appetite is satisfied for a longer period, you’re less likely to reach for something unhealthy.

Some examples of protein-rich meals and snacks to include during the day include:

  • Greek yogurt
  • Peanut butter on whole-grain toast
  • Tuna and crackers
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Hummus and veggies

Go for a Walk

For some people, satisfying a food craving is part of their routine. They enter the afternoon slump and are conditioned to grab that muffin to feel better. However, you can break that cycle by substituting the food craving with a healthy activity. 

A study showed that those who went for a 15-minute brisk walk had a reduced urgency to consume high-sugary snacks than those who didn’t go for a walk.

Take Time to Savour Your Food

Mindful eating involves slowing down, enjoying your food, and appreciating every flavor and texture as part of the eating experience. Being present with our food can help improve our eating habits, make better dietary choices and provide a sense of calm during mealtime.

Practice mindful eating with this raisin experiment:

  1. Take a raisin and notice its texture, shape, size, weight, color, and smell. Squeeze and notice the feeling between your fingers and their stickiness
  2. Put the raisin on your tongue and let it sit while it slowly moistens. Notice how it feels in your mouth.
  3. Move the raisin around in your mouth with your tongue and slowly chew it as you notice the sweetness and stringiness of its flesh.
  4. Chew it enough times so that it completely dissolves into a liquid.
  5. Swallow and take a moment to ask yourself how that made you feel.

Identify Your Triggers and Break the Cycle

For many people, stress triggers unhealthy food cravings. It's common to turn to food for comfort. Food can fill an emotional void, be a coping mechanism, and offer social support. 

In addition to preventing serious health issues and improving day-to-day lives, managing stress levels can nip those cravings in the bud and allow us to make better food choices.

The next time you feel stressed, notice whether you’re reaching for a cookie or a bag of chips. Identify the trigger that caused this habit and write it down in a journal. When you keep track of your emotions and how you respond, you will notice whether it is something you’re repeatedly doing.

Some ways to manage your stress levels include:

  • Doing yoga
  • Practicing meditation
  • Doing breathing exercises
  • Chatting with a close friend or family member
  • Creating art like drawing, painting, or crafting
  • Writing in a journal
  • Get a good night’s sleep

Making a positive change in your health requires patience, consistency, and balance. The best way to do this is to take one step at a time. Don’t try to go cold turkey, and stop eating junk food altogether. Drastic moves like these aren’t realistic or effective in the long run.

Instead, focus on one small goal. For instance, replacing that afternoon donut with a walk once a week. Once you’ve mastered that habit and feel comfortable with it, you can start focusing on expanding it to three times a week.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, it’s completely normal to crave unhealthy food from time to time. Give yourself a break and enjoy the foods you want without feeling guilty about your decision. Just remember that moderation is key. Please seek the advice of a dietitian, physician or healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet. 

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Langlet B, Fagerberg P, Glossner A, Ioakimidis I. Objective quantification of the food proximity effect on grapes, chocolate and cracker consumption in a Swedish high school. A temporal analysis. PLOS ONE. 2017;12(8):e0182172.

  4. Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borsini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ. 2020;369.

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  6. Dhillon J, Craig BA, Leidy HJ, et al. The effects of increased protein intake on fullness: a meta-analysis and its limitations. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(6):968–983.

  7. Eat protein foods. Canada Food Guide.

  8. Ledochowski L, Ruedl G, Taylor AH, Kopp M. Acute effects of brisk walking on sugary snack cravings in overweight people, affect and responses to a manipulated stress situation and to a sugary snack cue: a crossover study. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(3):e0119278.

  9. Nelson JB. Mindful eating: the art of presence while you eat. Diabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):171–174.

  10. Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org.

By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.