What Makes Junk Food So Tempting?

Why we love junk food, and how to cut back

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Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Despite its unflattering name, many people love junk food. Why? it's super available, inexpensive, and designed to hit your taste buds in a way that makes you crave more and more of it.

What Is Junk Food?

"Junk" food is the stuff we eat that has little to no nutritional value, making it high in empty calories. Think: Candy, chips, cookies, cake, sugary soft drinks, French fries, ice cream, and most things served at fast-food restaurants.

While there's a place for everything in a balanced diet, eating too much of this kind of food can cause weight gain and other health risks. Knowing more about what makes junk food tempting may help you to limit how much of it you eat.

Why Junk Food Is So Enticing

There are three likely reasons why less healthy foods (especially those so-called "junk" foods) are so popular, despite the fact that we know they are not the best choice for health and well-being.

It's Cheap

Most junk food is inexpensive. You can go to any fast food restaurant and order something off a dollar menu of some sort. If you have a few bucks in your wallet, you can buy a full meal. 

It's no different at the grocery store. Inexpensive snacks and high-sodium, high-fat meals with low price tags are readily available. And healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables have a reputation for being costlier, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture says this is not always the case.

Keep in mind that fresh conventional and even organic produce is starting to become more affordable. Although a lot of junk food may seem cheap to buy upfront, the argument can be made that junk foods end up being more expensive in the long run due to their negative impact on health.

It's Convenient

Junky snack foods lurk in vending machines, convenience stores, and in the check-out lanes of supermarkets, big-box retailers, and even office-supply stores and other places that don't typically sell food items. And those instant meals previously mentioned? They're easy to prepare, and you can stockpile them in your kitchen cabinet for a long time. 

Of course, fast foods live up to the name. You can order a fast-food meal and then eat it a minute or two later. You don't even have to get out of your car.

To combat the convenience factor, it may help to plan and prepare meals ahead of time, pack your own snacks, and choose veggie-rich meals when you do stop at a fast food restaurant.

It's Sweet, Fatty, Salty, or All Three

Rarely do junk foods tempt you with delicate or complicated flavors. They pretty much hit you hard with sweetness, fat, and salt. Picky eaters may prefer these simpler flavors—it could be the slightly bitter flavor of many vegetables turns some people off, especially kids. 

But it's more than flavor. Various combinations of sugar and fat make for textures people like. Fat makes foods smooth and creamy, like ice cream and butter. Starchy potato and corn chips cooked in hot oil have a satisfying salty crunch.

That's not to say that nutrient-dense foods aren't appealing, but sometimes the textures of fresh fruits and vegetables take a little getting used to if you tend to consume a lot of processed foods.

It's a Habit

Because junk foods are easy to find, easy to make, and a lot of them just flat out taste good, consuming them becomes a habit.

Eating a candy bar every now and then or enjoying a bag of fries on occasion can all be part of a well-rounded diet. But when you crave junk foods, and they make up a big part of your daily diet, you run the risk of becoming overweight and obese. Plus, you're not going to get enough of the nutrients and fiber your body needs for good health.

The next time you find yourself standing in line at a burger joint or staring at a vending machine, think about how your choice could affect your health, and consider making some changes. Switch from soda to water this week, for example. Then next week, swap out the fried chicken on your sandwich for grilled. Small changes can add up.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Healthy foods not becessarily more expensive than less healthy ones.

  3. Bahadoran Z, Mirmiran P, Azizi F. Fast food pattern and cardiometabolic disorders: A review of current studies. Health Promot Perspect. 2015;5(4):231-40. doi:10.15171/hpp.2015.028

  4. Mohammadbeigi A, Asgarian A, Moshir E, et al. Fast food consumption and overweight/obesity prevalence in students and its association with general and abdominal obesity. J Prev Med Hyg. 2018;59(3):E236-E240. doi:10.15167/2421-4248/jpmh2018.59.3.830

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a healthcare journalist and fact checker.