Junk Food: 9 Strategies to Reduce Consumption and Improve Health


Junk food, encompassing ultra-processed items like fast food, soda, candy, and chips, has become a significant component of many diets. Research suggests that junk food contributes to nearly half of the daily calorie intake for the average American.1 While occasional indulgence in treats like baked goods and ice cream is fine, excessive consumption of junk food can adversely affect both physical and mental health.2 Conditions such as obesity, fatty liver, high blood sugar, depression, heart disease, and certain cancers have been linked to diets high in junk food.3,4 If you’re aiming to break free from a junk food habit, here are nine evidence-based strategies to help you achieve your goal.

  1. Embrace Home Cooking Preparing more meals at home is a powerful way to reduce reliance on junk food. Often, convenience foods like sweetened coffee drinks and fast food are chosen when healthier options aren’t readily available. Cooking at home, including meal prepping, can diminish the need for such convenient yet unhealthy choices. Studies reveal that individuals who cook at home tend to have better diets, with increased intake of fruits and vegetables and decreased consumption of fast food, along with lower obesity rates. Moreover, home-cooked meals are usually more budget-friendly.5 Start by cooking one or two meals at home per week and gradually increase the frequency.
  2. Prioritize Protein Intake Protein is highly satiating and can influence food intake and choices. Research suggests that boosting protein intake can effectively reduce snacking and prevent overeating, potentially curbing junk food consumption.6 Some studies propose that reducing carbohydrate intake in favor of protein and fat sources can alleviate food cravings and overall calorie intake. For instance, a small study demonstrated that following a diet consisting of 28% protein, 58% fat, and 14% carbs significantly reduced cravings, including those for sweets and fast food, over four weeks.7 Increasing protein consumption may also enhance dietary restraint while decreasing hunger and disinhibition, which refers to a loss of control overeating, particularly with highly palatable foods.
  3. Maintain Regular Meal Timing Skipping meals or severely restricting calorie intake might seem like effective weight management strategies, but they can backfire. While the relationship between calorie restriction, cravings, and intake is complex, evidence suggests that avoiding certain foods can intensify cravings for them. Additionally, skipping meals, such as breakfast, may elevate cravings for carb-rich foods later in the day. It’s generally beneficial to follow a meal plan comprising regular, nutrient-rich meals and snacks to support healthy calorie intake and reduce junk food cravings.
  4. Opt for Filling Foods Understanding how different foods affect your body and hunger levels can help you make healthier choices and cut back on junk food. Most junk foods are calorie-dense but lack satiating nutrients like fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Prioritizing foods rich in these nutrients can help you feel fuller for longer and prevent junk food cravings. For example, instead of reaching for a sugary donut and coffee for breakfast, opt for a higher-protein, higher-fiber meal like egg bites with fruit and unsweetened coffee to promote satiety and stabilize blood sugar levels.
  5. Ensure Adequate Sleep Quality sleep is crucial for overall health, including food choices. Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can increase calorie intake, snacking, and cravings for carb- and fat-rich foods, such as junk food. Even one night of inadequate sleep can influence food preferences the following day, leading to increased hunger and cravings for indulgent foods like chocolate. To support overall health, aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
  6. Manage Stress Levels Chronic stress can impact physical and mental well-being, including food choices. While it’s impossible to eliminate all sources of stress, adopting healthy stress management techniques can reduce junk food intake. Chronic stress alters hormones involved in regulating eating behaviors, potentially leading to increased cravings and consumption of highly palatable foods. Engaging in activities such as meditation, exercise, therapy, and spending time outdoors can help alleviate stress and reduce reliance on junk food for comfort.
  7. Revamp Your Pantry Your kitchen environment plays a significant role in your food choices. Keeping ultra-processed, tempting junk foods readily available can promote excessive snacking and calorie intake. Research suggests that merely seeing palatable foods can trigger appetite and reward responses in the brain, leading to increased snacking even when not hungry. Replace junk food with nutrient-dense options like fresh fruits and vegetables to encourage healthier eating habits and reduce reliance on ultra-processed snacks.
  8. Avoid Extreme Diets Extreme or overly restrictive diets can negatively impact health and foster an unhealthy relationship with food. Such diets often lead to weight cycling, characterized by repeated weight loss and regain, which is associated with increased health risks like diabetes and high blood pressure. Strictly avoiding certain foods or food groups can intensify cravings and promote overeating. Instead of adhering to fad diets, focus on adopting balanced, sustainable eating patterns that prioritize nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, legumes, and lean proteins.
  9. Shop Regularly for Healthy Options Frequent grocery shopping can support healthier eating habits by ensuring your kitchen is stocked with nutritious options. Research indicates that individuals who shop more often tend to have better-quality diets, including lower consumption of ultra-processed foods. Creating a grocery list can help you avoid impulse purchases and guide you toward purchasing nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins. Having a well-stocked kitchen encourages meal preparation and reduces reliance on junk food for convenience.

In Summary Junk food constitutes a significant portion of many diets and can negatively impact health if consumed excessively. Implementing strategies such as cooking at home, increasing protein intake, and managing stress levels can help reduce junk food consumption. While occasional indulgence is acceptable, focusing on balanced, nutrient-rich eating patterns can support overall health and well-being.