The real reason it’s so hard to quit junk food

I saw a meme on social media recently with a quote from Dr. Mark Hyman. It said, “There is no such thing as junk food. There is junk. And there is food.” And while I’m inclined to agree with Dr. Hyman (he’s a pretty wise dude), my brain doesn’t always see it that way.

In fact, the line between junk and food has become incredibly blurred in my life. I’ll blame it on a late winter food rut. But lately, when I see a bag of Trader Joe’s Baked Cheese Crunchies my brain sends out overpowering signals to sit down and eat them all. I can’t stop eating sweets either.

I know the insanity has to end soon before it starts taking a toll on my health. But I’m having a hard time breaking free. Sound familiar? Well, there’s a good reason it might…

I’m far from the only person this happens to. In fact, a new study shows that eating junk food makes changes to our brains that makes us want more… and more… and more.

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Junk food changes your brain… and not for the better

Research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science may have figured out why people have such a hard time resisting junk food…

The study included 110 people in their early 20s who were healthy eaters. Researchers asked half of them to eat normally for a week and the other half to eat junk food for a week. The junk food group was told to eat a diet high in carbs, fat and sugar.

After the week was over, all participants ate breakfast together in the research lab. They received a memory test before they ate and after they ate.

Guess who performed worse on the memory test?

Related: 6 ways to break free from junk food addiction

People who ate junk food for a week. Now, the hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays a big role in memory. And past studies in animals show that junk food does impair the hippocampus, which explains the memory deficit in this study. But do you know what else the hippocampus plays a big role in?

Appetite control. Which explains why the researchers found that people eating the junk food diet had worse appetite control after just one week.

To put it bluntly, eating junk food makes it harder to stop eating junk food. It sends you into a downward spiral of bad food and poor health that takes a will of steel to break free from.

How to cut the junk

No wonder I’ve had such a hard time staying away from junk food lately! Once I hopped on board the junk food train, the wheels were set in motion and it became a lot harder to stop

Now, I’m usually a huge advocate of moderation. I don’t think you should totally cut out the foods you enjoy. So, how do you find balance?

That’s obviously something I’m still figuring out myself. But here are a few practices I’m going to try:

  • Stop buying junk. If junk food isn’t lying around the house, you can’t be tempted by it as often. Problem solved… almost. Many of us don’t live alone… so we have to get our housemates on board with a healthier grocery list to make this one work.
  • Set a junk food schedule. I always intend to eat junk food moderately. But since I’m not actively tracking what I’m eating when, moderately quickly turns into regularly. My new plan is to set specific times during the week when I will allow myself to eat junk food. Here’s an example… I’ll pick two days every week when dessert is absolutely on the menu and refrain the other days of the week. I’m also going to pick a couple of days per week when I’ll have potato chips with lunch (because I LOVE them). Although, I’ll have to have someone hide them from me the other days of the week to keep myself from slipping.

Will this approach work? I don’t know. I’ll keep you posted. But if these suggestions sound too regimented to you, I have another option that might be more appealing… the anti-diet, an intuitive approach to getting your eating habits back in balance.


Eating junk food found to impair the role of the hippocampus in regulating gorging — MedicalXpress.

Hippocampal-dependent appetitive control is impaired by experimental exposure to a Western-style diet — Royal Society Open Science.

Should You Completely Avoid Junk Food? — Healthline.


Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and