We’ve all thrown around the phrase “junk food” to describe everything from chocolate chip cookies to a meal from your favourite burger joint. But for some people, it’s a term loaded with guilt, shame and even dread. For someone who struggles with what they consider a junk food addiction, these seemingly harmless indulgences can be at the heart of a serious mental and physical health problem.
“Here, at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), we strongly advise against this type of language when talking about food,” says Emily Tam, a special projects lead at the NEDIC and a registered dietitian. Using moral-laden language, such as “bad,” “clean” and “junk,” can make people feel guilty and ashamed when they eat these foods and subsequently lead to poor relationships with food. “It’s important to understand that using these types of words and being unnecessarily restrictive [with what you eat] can lead to binge eating and what feels like food addiction,” she says.
Not all nutrition professionals agree on whether food can be considered clinically addictive, but there is a consensus on the toll that this type of eating can take. “I don’t think we have sufficient scientific evidence to support this theory that junk food addiction exists,” says Tam. “But that’s not to say that people don’t experience problematic eating as being an addiction.” If someone finds themselves eating in ways that feel out of control, it may be helpful for them to label their eating difficulties as an addiction. “That’s their experience, and it’s totally valid,” she says. (If you think you might have a sugar addiction, check out these signs to have a better idea.)
Plus, many people who identify with food addiction also have binge eating disorder, a recognized mental disorder in which someone feels out of control around food. “At least two percent of people will experience binge eating disorder at some point in their lives,” says Tam.
The bottom line? For many so-called “junk food addicts,” it comes down to removing the taboos around certain foods, rejecting dieting and other forms of restrictive eating and giving themselves unconditional permission to eat. “In my experience, when people truly make peace with food, they don’t have these feelings anymore,” says Sarah Berneche, a registered holistic nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counsellor in Toronto.
In other words, once those salty snacks, sweet desserts and takeout meals are no longer forbidden and are normalized over time, they naturally lose their lustre. “We don’t have these addictive feelings about salad,” says Berneche. “We can have it any time because it’s deemed healthy.”
“If you aren’t looking at food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ any longer, you might not feel compelled to eat many of those foods that are seen as junk because you’ve developed more flexible thinking around food,” says Tam. “I think a natural result of making peace with food and seeing all of the different kinds of food neutrally is being able to eat in a more balanced way.”
Try these strategies to help you reprogram your perspective on so-called “junk food.” Also, check out the weight loss “rules” experts ignore.
Eat more often
Raise your hand if you’ve ever worked through lunch and then grabbed a pizza on your way home simply because you’re too hungry to even consider cooking. We don’t tend to make the best food choices when we’re famished. And if you’re doing this on the regular, it can set you up for a reliance on fast food. Tam says she often begins by coaching clients on prioritizing nourishment and making time for food. “Start by building in regular mealtimes and snack times throughout the day so that you don’t find yourself grabbing what’s on hand,” she says. Try stocking up on these guilt-free healthy snacks.
If you always skip meals, you’ve probably lost touch with some of your body’s natural hunger cues. But these will slowly come back after a few months of more-scheduled eating. Eventually, you’ll be able to listen to yourself to dictate when you need to nosh.
Knit while you Netflix
If you usually down a bag of chips while you watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, it might be time to clean up your snacking habits. If you’re planning a Netflix binge, you might want to think ahead and, when you’re about to sit down, check in with yourself to figure out if you’re hungry, suggests Tam. Do you really want those chips or is it something you’ve just grown used to pairing with TV time? You can try other activities while you watch your screen if it’s a matter of keeping your hands busy. Anything from knitting to folding laundry might do the trick. But if you do snack just for fun sometimes, don’t beat yourself up. Tam makes it clear that it’s not “bad” or “wrong” to eat in the absence of hunger.
Pack on the protein
Fans of low-carb and high-fat eating plans, such as keto and paleo diets, are probably getting enough protein throughout the day, but many women are still missing out on this crucial piece of nutrition. “Protein is important for satiety, so ensuring that your meals are comprised of a mix of carbs, protein and fat can help maintain good energy,” says Tam. Some research has also shown that a high-protein diet can cap your sweet tooth. Nibble on eggs at breakfast, a salmon salad at lunch and grilled chicken with dinner to help curb sugar cravings. Try veggie sticks with hummus or a smoothie that contains almond milk and protein powder to keep you going without junk in between. Here are the best sources of protein.
Eat foods you love (and nix ones you truly loathe, even if they’re “healthy”)
“It’s OK to hate avocado!” says Tam. Despite what social media is telling you, you don’t have to like kale or bone broth either. Your best bet for balanced eating is to build your meals around foods you actually like to eat. “Yes, they are nutritious foods, but there are plenty of other foods you can eat to get the same nutrition,” says Tam. Forcing yourself to down so-called “health foods” you dislike can backfire big time: If you’re walking away from the table feeling unsatisfied, you’re more likely to turn to comfort foods later. Focus on those good-for-you meals and snacks that make you feel good, too.
Don’t just eat; dine
“We often don’t actually sit down and savour our food,” says Berneche. “We are always eating in a rush, and that’s problematic, too.” If you’re guilty of eating on the run all the time, begin by committing to family dinners, even a few times a week. Then turn off the screens, set the table and sit down to a meal. “This might be a bit much for some people, but if you like cloth napkins, candles and music, you can really make dinner feel special,” she says. And this bit of ambience can really add to the enjoyment of your food.
If your dinner repertoire is limited, it might be time for some inspiration. Sign up for a cooking class or allow yourself to reimagine market offerings. You may never eat Brussels sprouts because you detested the way Grandma served them, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy them now, roasted with bacon. “I also recommend going to the grocery store and seeing what looks good to you in the moment,” says Berneche. That’s another way to open your mind to new possibilities and ways of enjoying foods of all types. “I encourage you to focus on a balanced approach that makes room for all types of food, even those that are widely seen as junk food,” says Berneche.
Need help with food issues? The National Eating Disorder Information Centre is a Canadian non-profit resource that can help. Check out nedic.ca for more info.