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The Science Behind Junk Food Cravings (And How to Resist)

The Science Behind Junk Food Cravings


If you live in the United States, you would need to go to extreme measures to avoid junk food.  Short of living in a cabin deep in the woods with no internet, TV or radio, there is no way to escape the marketing and easy availability of unhealthy processed foods.  There are fast food restaurants on every corner, snacks in every gas station and junk food being advertised via every form of media possible.  Anything can be delivered right to your door or workplace.  Awareness of how the junk food industry markets coupled with a little planning can help you avoid falling into a processed food trap.

Taking advantage of the subconscious

Just the use of certain words in advertising can make you crave junk food.  A recent study found that fast-food companies are using the word “snack” more on menus and in marketing materials to get people to buy food during non-meal hours, even though these "snacks" often have the same calorie content as a full meal. 

Other "craving words" include: juicy, delicious, crispy, tender, ice cold and spicy.  Even something as simple as an "Ice Cold Drink Any Size Just 99 Cents!" message can get you in the door.  We all know what happens then: you walk out with more than just a 99 cent drink.  Being aware of these craving inducing words and knowing what marketers are trying to do with them can help you stay on track and resist temptation.

Sensory overload

Television, billboards, internet pop-ups, t-shirts, social media, radio, posters, sign spinners in costumes; if there is a way to advertise, then junk food companies have done it.  The average American sees or hears 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day depending on where they live.  Fast food marketers even use your sense of smell against you.  Subway, Cinnabon and Panera Bread put their ovens near the front of their stores and bake bread and pastries near peak consumption hours. Cinnabon even bakes sheets of just cinnamon to create crave inducing smells! 

According to a report on junk food by food scientist Steven Witherly, all of the senses factor in to cravings for unhealthy foods.  Food companies actually spend millions of of dollars to perfect the "crunch" in a potato chip and the amount of carbonation in soda.  This appeal to the senses contributes to people making snap decisions about junk food when they are hungry.  

This is where proper planning comes in.  Keeping healthy snacks available is very important when trying to avoid junk food traps.  Nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, organic beef jerky and Greek yogurt are some good options.  Keep them at your desk, in your car and in your home so when you get hungry they are even more convenient than fast food.  If you keep yourself full with healthy snacks, the advertisements you see won't have as great an effect on you.  

If you want to learn more about nutrition and healthy living, contact the SCNM Medical Center.