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10 Ways to Train Your Brain to Hate Junk Food

If unhealthy, processed food, is sabotaging your weight loss efforts, outsmart junk food cravings with these clever tricks.

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stop junk food cravings

Why do we crave unhealthy food?

As explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” there’s no denying that junk food cravings are powerful, physiological reactions—and, apparently, carefully and strategically developed by food manufacturers. Many of our favourite supermarket snacks are made with the “perfect” amounts of added sugar, salt, fat, and other chemicals designed to make us want more. Steer clear of processed food by eating as many healthy, whole foods as possible. Why? The less junk food you eat, the less you want. Try the following tips and see if they work for you.

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Spot sneaky sugars

Look at labels for added sugars and sugars under other names. “There are so many names sugar falls under. Look for things like fructose, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, honey, and agave nectar,” says nutritionist Margaret Eich, RDN, a dietitian in Madison, WI.

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Skip coloured plates

A 2018 study found that people ate more pasta and soda if they consumed it off of a red or black plate versus a white one. To eat less overall, choose a white plate and get your colour from a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Learn more about what your food cravings are trying to tell you.)

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Break your routine

If you always associate 3 p.m. with a trip to the vending machine, start a tradition to walk around the block instead. This may kick your craving altogether. A 2015 study of 48 people in PLoSOne found that taking a 15-minute walk temporarily reduced cravings for high-calorie, sugary snacks. Bonus: You’ll be meeting that 10,000-step goal on your fitness tracker every day.

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Keep sweets out of sight

Move your food farther away so that if you want more, you have to deliberately—as opposed to mindlessly—go for it. Research published in PLoS ONE in 2017 found that people were more likely to snack on grapes, crackers and chocolates that were placed at arm’s length compared to when they were placed 20 feet away.

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Keep the healthy stuff handy

Store healthy foods you want to eat more front and center. Snack foods are so easy to dig into—you just rip open a bag. If you had, say, red peppers all sliced and ready to go, they’re all the more tempting to dip into hummus. Science also suggests there’s a link. A study in the journal Health Education & Behaviour found that people who had only fruit on their kitchen counter had a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who were populated visible spaces with candy, cereals and soft drinks.

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Know your trigger foods

Whether you’ve got a sweet tooth for chocolate and red velvet anything or love salty treats like pretzels, know the foods that send you down the spiral of junk food binging. Once you’ve identified them, keep them out of the house. Instead, try keeping these healthy snacks on hand at all times!

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Gross yourself out

One surefire way to consume less processed food is to learn more about what you’re really eating. Here are a few that make us cringe: Those frozen “grilled chicken” breasts get their marks from a machine infused with vegetable oil. The preservative BHA is added to processed food like chips and preserved meats, even though Health and Human Services consider it “reasonably anticipated” to be a carcinogen.

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Chew more than you need

Adam Melonas, renowned chef and founder of UnReal candy (along with Nicky Bronner, a 15-year-old determined to “unjunk candy”) shared this smart tip: “If you can make people chew more, they’ll eat less.” For participants in a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, chewing more before swallowing did indeed translate into smaller meal size. Next time you sneak in a treat, chew slowly and consciously. Wait until you finish one bite to take the next.

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Cut back on the junk food gradually

Don’t go cold turkey; cut down on your bad eating habits in baby steps. For instance, if you take three sugars in your tea, reduce it to two sugars for a few weeks, then work your way down to one. Soon, you’ll notice that you only need small amounts to satisfy your craving, says Eich.

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Eat one raisin mindfully

Leslie Korn, PhD, an expert in mental-health nutrition and author of the cookbook The Good Mood Kitchen swears by this 5-minute or less trick: eating one raisin! First, pick up the raisin, examine its texture and shape, and sniff it. Then place the raisin on your tongue, move it around in your mouth and start to chew it slowly. As you swallow it, remain still as you imagine the raisin moving throughout your body. When you’ve finished eating the raisin ask yourself: “What does my body really need?”

Mindful eating helps boost your parasympathetic dominance, a chemical reaction that slows down your heart rate and breathing, notes Korn. Practicing mindfulness in general helps increase your levels of the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA, according to an article in Ancient Science. And GABA stabilizes your appetite and improves digestion.

Next, check out the best detox foods to cure your junk food hangover.