Why We Crave Junk Food

When you’re at home all of the time — especially during this pandemic — it’s easy to grab snacks in the kitchen and eat mindlessly. Before we know it, the pounds have crept up. According to Nutrisystem’s summer poll, 76% of Americans gained up to 16 pounds these past few months! COVID weight is real. But did you know that instead of blaming the pandemic, most Americans are craving junk foods because of hormones?

Based on research published in the US National Library of Medicine, there are two hormones that control eating habits: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is a hormone that works to suppress the appetite after eating, and ghrelin is the hormone that increases appetite when hungry.

A sleep study performed by researchers at the University of California measured the levels of leptin and ghrelin in participants by drawing blood while they slept and having the blood analyzed. The results showed that participants who had less sleep had lower levels of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin. It appears that the stress and anxiety people are feeling currently are affecting sleep habits, which in turn trigger the cascade of hormonal events.

But why junk foods? Why not crave healthy salad instead of reaching for potato chips? The answer lies in the body’s response to junk foods. There’s another type of hormone that prompts cravings in addition to leptin and ghrelin.

The cortisol hormone can spark cravings for sweet, salty, and fried food varieties. They give individuals a burst of endorphins, which trigger energy and pleasure. These positive feelings could lead people to prefer junk snacks. It may also be a reason why many unhealthy choices like fried chicken and pizza are considered “comfort foods.”

If you’re looking to stop the junk food cravings, there is a simple answer — get more sleep! Another way is to incorporate a regular exercise routine, which can help curve some of the cravings. But when the hankerings for sweet, salty and fried come up, IBS Life editors suggest replacing those with something that provides more nutrients, which may also help regulate sleeping patterns. Check out the table below for healthier options to junk foods.