The Science of Junk Food


Sweet, salty, crunchy, savory, creamy, tasty, crispy…….what’s not to love about your favorite snack foods? 

How many times have you:

….. opened a bag of chips with the intention of grabbing “just one”?

…… rummaged the freezer for just a “taste” of ice cream?

Before you know it, your hand is hitting the bottom of the bag / that spoon is desperately scraping an empty container.

Isn’t it crazy how “just one” quick bite, cookie, chip, piece of candy quickly turns into the onset of consuming an entire bag or container of your favorite snack?

But here’s the truth: this is NOT as crazy as you might think. 

If you enjoy snacks and find yourself struggling with controlling your portions and cravings, today’s blog is teaching you:

  • The “science of junk food”: understand WHY it feels hard to control portions and cravings

  • 5 Tips for taking back control and building better snacking habits



First off, highly processed foods are scientifically engineered to be irresistible and designed to be eaten in large quantities. Browse through any grocery store and you’ll see endless brands of chips, cookies, trail mix, candy, and snacks available in family-size, mega-size or bulk-size packaging. 

Comparatively, stroll down any snack aisle and you’ll be hard pressed to find any single-serve packaging better for managing portions and cravings. Why? The science of junk food! Companies are master marketers and know just how hyper-palatable (irresistible and difficult to stop eating) snacks are for the majority of the population. 

Market super-size packaging as the “better value” compared to its single-serve counterpart and boom, you’re SOLD! You are now the proud owner of the biggest boxes of cereals, granola bars, muffins, poptart’s, and chips available! These packages are internationally and directly market in a way that automatically makes you more prone to purchasing larger package sizes. And, it’s no secret: the more you buy, the more you are likely to eat (hellooooooo Costco!).

The cherry on the genius marketing sundae? The current state of the economy. Inflation is driving up the costs of literally everything so saving money is very important. Naturally, you want to get more bang for your buck but, it can come at the expense of your own health and desired outcomes/goals.


Many manufactured snack products contain buzzwords like “light”, “guilt-free”, “low-fat”, “fat-free”, “low-carb”, “all-natural fruit” “plus dozen other terms to trick you into thinking it’s a healthier option. Hate to spoil the fun BUT these buzzwords do NOT mean the product is a healthier or better alternative. No fat free snack tasting that GOOD is free of additives and other chemicals because to make these snacky foods taste really, really good, three staple ingredients are used: SUGAR —> SALT —> FAT

Removing one of these 3 staple ingredients just means there is more of the other two to ensure every bite is equally as irresistible as its “full fat” counterpart. For instance, a low-fat cookie may include less fat than its counterpart BUT chances are, more added sugars and dozens of chemicals were added in its place to match the taste of the regular version.  This doesn’t make the product better or healthier but unfortunately, when the fat is removed, companies can then market it as “low-fat” and lure you in.

Keep a watchful eye on these buzzwords because these options are NOT better / healthier options.  Before purchasing any snacky food with a suspicious claim, read the nutrition label first, paying special attention to total grams of fat, added sugars and sodium content. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients or have no idea what the heck they are, move on!


As humans, having multiple choices IS EXCITING! Take your favorite frozen yogurt bar for example: a large buffet filled with candies, chocolates, fruits, sprinkles, sauces, and whipped cream flavors awaits you. What is not to love about having so many options available to fit your taste? 

The problem with variety is the more choices available to you, the larger your appetite becomes. And remember, appetite is different than actual hunger:

  • Appetite: your WANT for food, triggered by sights and smells

  • Hunger: your NEED for food- triggered by physical hunger

Here’s an example: passing a bakery and smelling freshly baked cupcakes or, seeing the flash of the golden arches. 

While you may not be physically hungry, seeing and smelling these stimulates your brain into wanting to eat right then and there. Next thing you know, you’re inside the bakery buying half dozen cupcakes or at the counter ordering a good old-fashioned hamburger strictly because your appetite was stimulated by seeing all the choices. Circling back to the frozen yogurt bar, your intention may be a cup with 1 – 2 of your favorite toppings. However, having all those options readily available results in you piling them on even though you may not be hungry / want them. The same goes for products on grocery store shelves. There is a reason companies pay more money to have their products at eye-level as you’re strolling through the aisle as well as lower shelves so your kids can see them and easily grab. When you /your kids see their favorite brand icon, colors, etc, it triggers an immediate want.


You know the feeling when you just.can’t.stop!  It tastes SOO good, you just need ONE more bite/piece/scoop, and you’ll feel satisfied. But that’s typically not how things end. Another intentional production trick to lure you in is known as “The Big 5”.  Majority of processed snacks are engineered to make you eat, crave and purchase more:

  • Calorie Dense: high in salt, sugar, and fat content – empty calories that never fill you up!

  • Intensely Flavored: have a strong flavor profile – “finger licking good!”

  • Immediately Delicious: love at first bite – you CANNOT resist!

  • Easy to Eat: minimal chewing required – pop ‘til you can’t stop!

  • Melt Down Easy: food dissolves in mouth – perfect for mindless snacking for the big game or Netflix binge.

It’s easy to understand why it’s effortless to consume more of snacky foods compared to more nutrient dense foods like broccoli or apples.


So here you are, reading this and nodding your head about the science of junk food because it’s all making sense! If you struggle with controlling your portions and cravings, here are 5 tips for creating better habits and taking back control:

#1. HAVE AWARENESS: Before reaching for the snacks, take time to evaluate your hunger level to differentiate between actual hunger versus appetite. When you are physically hungry, your stomach feels “empty” and may growl or rumble. If you have gone a while without eating, you may also feel low on energy and experience difficulty staying focused on tasks. Comparatively, appetite feels more like an instant craving triggered by sights, smells, stress, and environment.

Once you establish it is true, physical hunger you are experiencing, it’s time to eat. If this is appetite due to environmental or stress triggers, give yourself 10 minutes. During those 10 minutes, actively do something to occupy your mind: enjoy a quick walk, stretch, grab a glass of water, or make a phone call. Cravings often pass within several minutes.

#2. EAT MINDFULLY: When you eat mindfully, you become in tune with your hunger and fullness cues. Mindful eating consists of chewing slowly and thoroughly, eating without distraction (sans phone, email, work, TV, etc.), and with awareness of hunger levels. Taking the time to slow down and chew your food allows your brain and stomach time to communicate effectively and process when you become satisfied. Because snack foods are often eaten when stressed or bored, the mindful aspect of eating is removed and overconsumption occurs.

#3. KNOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS: You are a victim of your environment, and this holds true when it comes to nutrition and the foods you choose to eat. While you may not be physically hungry, having certain foods in your environment can trigger your appetite or, be your go-to choice when stress or boredom strikes. Take time to audit your environment and specific trigger foods and then begin removing those items. If you favor salty and crunchy snacks when stressed, consider removing them from your home or office. If this is not possible due to children or a partner who enjoys these items, work on making them less accessible to you. For example, instead of keeping a cookie jar on the counter, place it in an area such as a high cupboard so it’s not within arm’s reach.  Replace that counter space with a bowl of fresh fruit or, a filled water bottle to help you make better-for-you choices.

#4. EAT REAL FOODS: Eating real, nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis keeps your hunger satisfied and appetite at bay. Real foods are those items in their natural state without any/much chemical processing / altering. Not only do these foods keep you fuller longer, but they are also rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients vital to your health. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, fish, seafood, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Many of these foods also contain fiber to again, keep you fuller f longer and reduce cravings. Eating well-balanced meals throughout the day reduces mindless snacking and stress eating.

#5. PRACTICE MODERATION: Remove the “all or nothing” mindset. Instead, enjoy your favorite snack foods in moderation. By overly restricting and completely removing these foods from your diet, you run the risk of craving them even more. Remember, before enjoying your favorite snack food, evaluate your hunger. If you decide to move forward and eat, measure out one serving size and eat it separately from the remainder of the product. Chips and ice cream are perfect examples of how to practice this habit. While it may be tempting to eat directly from the bag or pint, measuring out portion sizes keep your intake in check. The serving size for items such as chips, crackers and all things crunchy is typically 1 ounce. When it comes to ice cream and other frozen treats, most serving sizes will be listed as ½ cup.

Having a food scale or measuring cups handy makes it easier measure serving sizes and bring awareness to how much you eat. Once you are ready to have your snack, chew slowly and eat it without distraction (ideally, sitting down at your kitchen table). Really take the time to enjoy your snack!

By utilizing the tips above, you are one step closer to building better eating habits while controlling your cravings and portions. A little mindfulness and awareness will take you a very long way in your journey to a healthier relationship with food. Start by choosing 1-2 of the tips listed and see how they help you control your choices. Once you become comfortable with those initial action steps, begin folding in the others to gain even more control. With Halloween and the holiday season quickly approaching, NOW is the time to begin learning and practicing how best you can control your cravings and portions while still enjoy your favorite snacks, making progress and seeing results!

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