Overcome an Addiction to Fast Food

Fast food has become a common staple in the diet of many people. Recent controversy over how unhealthy fast food is has led many individuals to start looking for effective ways to break their fast food habits and choose healthier meal options [1]. Regardless of why you choose fast food, it is important to understand that you can break the habit. Following these tips can help you decrease your fast food consumption and may steer you towards a healthier way of eating.


Understanding Food Addiction

  1. Gather food addiction resources. If you truly feel like you have a food addiction, it'll be helpful to fully understand what food addiction it is and how it affects your life.
    • Food addiction can be a serious problem. High sugar and high fat foods are extremely palatable. When eaten, they trigger the release of dopamine to the brain's reward center. This triggers the desire to eat more of that food and to return to it again.[2]
    • People with Binge-eating Disorder feel a compulsion to eat unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time.[3] They may feel disgusted by their eating habits but are unable to control them.[4] If you feel compelled to eat large quantities of fast food, even if you feel bad afterward, consider seeing a mental health professional about the possibility of Binge-eating Disorder. It's highly treatable.
    • Spend some time researching food addiction online. There are a variety of sources online that may be able to help you learn more about your eating habits.
    • Purchase or check out a library book on food addiction. Spend some time reading and researching about food addictions.
  2. Write down your problems with food. Seeing your food addiction issues written down can make them more real to you. Include how often you eat fast food, your feelings or cravings around fast food and how hard you think it'll be to give it up.
    • To help you understand the severity of your food addiction, ask yourself if you are powerless around fast food or what emotions or situations make you crave fast food[5].
    • Also rate your feelings of addiction from 1 to 10 (one being weak and 10 being immensely strong). The rating may change with your emotions but it can give you insight into times, events or people that influence your rating.
    • Write down all the specific types of food that you feel addicted to. Is it only fast food? Or does your addiction include "junk foods" like candy, potato chips or soda?[5]
  3. Make a lifestyle change, don't start a diet. Diets, in the traditional sense are not sustainable long term plans, especially not for a food addiction.[6]
    • People give up, stop purchasing the diet products or get bored and stop. Aim to make a lifestyle change around your food addiction and don't just adopt a diet.
    • Write up a food plan that does not include fast food or junk food. Make sure you plan for appropriate portion sizes and snacks so you do not become too hungry at any point during the day.
    • Remove "trigger" foods from your home if your addiction includes other junk foods in addition to fast food. If you are still eating a lot of fat and sugar (key ingredients in fast food) at home, it will be harder to break your addiction to fast food.

Eliminating Fast Food

  1. Pack healthy meals and snacks. Having a healthy meal or snack available is a great way to decrease the amount of fast food you consume. Instead of going out to eat, you already have your healthy meal prepared and ready-to-go.
    • Purchase a small lunch box or cooler if necessary. This is a great way to avoid a stop at a fast food place. Keeping it stocked with healthy options like yogurt, fresh fruits or carrots and hummus can help you stick to your planned meal or to control your hunger until you are able to get home for your meal.
    • Keep healthy, convenient snacks such as portioned nuts or fruit in your purse, briefcase or car.
    • Make sure to eat throughout the day. Don't skip meals. Grab a healthy snack if you're feeling hungry. When you are very hungry, you're more likely to make bad food choices.
  2. Stop drinking soda. For many individuals, this may prove to be the biggest challenge. Try to avoid all sodas. Even diet sodas should be minimized in your diet. Diet sodas may confuse your body into feeling hungry even when you don't need to eat.[7][8]
    • Aim for 64 oz of clear, sugar-free liquids daily. You can try water, water flavored with herbs and fruit, unsweetened iced tea or unsweetened decaf coffee.
    • If this step proves to be difficult, start off slowly. Begin decreasing the amount of soda you consume by replacing a few drinks here and there with a healthier option (like water or unsweetened tea). Continue substituting other drinks for your soda until you are able to eliminate soda entirely.
  3. Drive a different route. Sometimes just driving past (or knowing you'll pass) your favorite fast food place is enough to make you pull over. Driving a different route to work or on your way home may help get you out of the routine of stopping for fast food.
    • Check out an online map. Many programs allow you to put in your starting and ending location and give you a variety of route options.
    • If you can't bypass a fast food place, try putting up a note in your car with an optimistic sentence. "You can do it!" or "Focus on your goal!" are great phrases that can keep you driving right on by.
  4. Write out the advantages of eliminating fast food. Giving up fast food might not be easy. However, having a list of positive thoughts to review when a strong craving hits, can be a helpful resource to help you overcome the drive through lane.
    • Take an hour (this could be part of your exercises in a journal) and write out a list of all the advantages of giving up fast food. Positive thoughts could include weight loss, saving money, increased energy or better health.
    • Keep a copy of your positive thoughts in your purse or wallet, car or at work. Refer to it whenever you have a desire for a fast food meal.
    • As you continue to stay away from fast food, write about your progress and add the positive events you've noticed about your lifestyle, health and diet. This will help expand that list.
  5. Go to healthier restaurants. Going out for lunch is a common workplace activity. You can take a break and enjoy 30 to 60 minutes away from your desk. If you and your coworkers typically stop by a fast food restaurant, suggest something healthier.
    • Research restaurants that are close to your workplace. Check out their menus and see if these would be a better option for you and your colleagues.
    • Let your coworkers know you're trying to drop your fast food habit. You never know, they may want to join you! Letting people around you know about your goals allows them to support you, rather than be a bad influence.
    • Agree to a lunch out just one time a week. If friends are unwilling to budge on lunch time options, only go out once a week. This can help minimize your temptations.

Planning a Strategy

  1. Write out realistic goals. Giving yourself a long-term goal to work towards can help ease you out of your fast food habit. Make sure you set a realistic and specific goal that you can achieve over time.
    • Set smaller goals along the way to your long-term one. Maybe you start by skipping the drive through on Mondays or plan to eat breakfast at home. Trying to tackle multiple goals at once can be difficult.
    • Being realistic with goal setting is important. If you feel that never having fast food again is not realistic, set a limit to how much you can have. Maybe you allow yourself a fast food meal once a month.
    • Track the progress of your goal overtime. This can help motivate you and keep you on track towards your long-term goal.
  2. Purchase a journal or notebook. Use your journal to note your meals and snacks for a few days (ideally a few week days and a few weekends). This will give you insight into how much and how often you're consuming fast food [9].
    • Also note situations that cause you to choose fast food most often. For example, do you go through the drive-through on the way to work for breakfast? Or do you have a long commute home and stop by for a quick and easy dinner?
    • Take note of any moods or emotions that may trigger you to eat or crave fast food. You may notice many days you don't consume fast food. It might occur more often when you're stressed, angry or frustrated. Understanding your connection between food and mood can help give you some insight into your fast food habit.
    • Don't have time to journal? Download a food journal app for an on-the-go version of your food journal. Having the app accessible on your phone can make it a little bit easier.
    • Think about why you make the fast food stops. Trying to identify the underlying cause for your fast food addiction is an important step in breaking the habit.
    • Note how you feel after eating fast food. You may feel regretful, guilty, or ashamed. If you notice negative feelings and write them down, you can reference them in the future before deciding to get fast food. Remembering how bad you feel after eating it may help you avoid it.
  3. Count the calories. If you haven't accounted for the calories you're consuming in fast food meals, you might be surprised at how much you're actually consuming. Take a day and tally up all the calories of your typical fast food meal. The number might be enough to give you the motivation to drop the habit [10].
    • Try figuring out how far you'd have to run or bike to burn off that meal. It usually takes a considerable amount of exercise to burn off the calories from a fast food meal. For example, you have to bike a full hour at a high speed to burn about 800 calories, that's half a pizza...
    • Compare the calories in your fast food meal to a similar meals that you could make yourself at home. It'll help you realize how many more calories you get from fast food.
  4. Track the costs of your fast food habit. One of the benefits of fast food is that it can be pretty cheap - especially with menu items that are $1.00 or less. Even with these low prices, fast food can still add up.
    • Keep your receipts and add up how much money you spend in one week. It might be more than you think.
    • Give yourself $10 or $20 in cash and see how long that lasts you throughout the week. It's easy to swipe a credit or debit card. Cash is sometimes harder to part with.
  5. Write out a weekly meal plan. Having a set meal plan in place may help keep you to stay organized and focused throughout the week [11]. You won't be wondering what you're making for dinner or bringing for lunch - it's been determined already!
    • Take an hour or two during your free time to write out your meal plan. Make sure to include breakfast and snacks for each day too.
    • Consider including recipes or meal ideas for quick, easy-to-prepare meals to help you with your busy lifestyle.
    • After your meal plan is finished, write up the corresponding grocery list. You'll be able to buy only what you need.
  6. Go grocery shopping. Having healthy food on hand is key to giving up fast food. Shop weekly for meals and snacks so you always have another, healthier option ready-to-go.
    • Stock up on lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
    • Purchase ready-to-eat products that require little to no cooking and can be eaten on-the-go. Examples include whole fruits (like an apple or banana), individual yogurts, -washed and cut salads or vegetables or precooked lean protein (like grilled chicken strips).

Implementing Coping Strategies

  1. Build a support network. Any change in diet can be difficult - especially if you're giving up a habit that feels like a food addiction. Having a support group can help motivate you and encourage you as you make difficult changes. Studies have shown that many people stick with positive changes longer if they have a support group[12].
    • Ask family members, friends or coworkers to support you. In addition, you can see if anyone would like to join you on your journey to give up fast food.
    • Research online support groups and forums that you can log on throughout the day. It's a great way to have support any time of the day.
  2. Talk to a registered dietitian and a licensed therapist. These health and nutrition experts can play a key role in helping you understand and overcome your fast food habit. They have the training to help you drop the fast food habit, help you plan healthier meals in addition to giving you coping mechanisms to deal with your food addiction.
    • Ask a dietitian for help with meal planning, cooking skills or basic nutrition knowledge so that you have the skills necessary to drop your fast food habit.
    • Discuss with a licensed therapist about your food addiction and any emotional eating issues that have come up.
    • Check with your primary care or other doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian or licensed therapist. They may know or work with someone locally.
    • Check out EatRight.org and use the "Find an Expert" button to search for dietitians in your local area.
  3. Write out a list of self-soothing activities. When you're stressed or a fast food craving hits hard, it's important to have a list of activities that you can do to distract yourself and calm down. Have these handy when a craving hits.
    • Try engaging in mentally and physically active things. For example: taking a walk, cleaning out your junk drawer, calling a friend or family member, keeping a journal or reading a good book.
    • Sleeping longer or getting lost in TV may not make you feel better. You're not addressing the issue at hand. Instead, it's being ignored or slept through.[13]
    • Try to stay away from drinking alcoholic beverages. Drinking alcohol is never an appropriate coping mechanism for addiction.[13]
    • Write down your feelings. Get that notebook or journal out and write down your feelings and how they are affecting your cravings or feelings of hunger.
    • Keeping a journal can help you clearly identify your situation and make the difference between emotional eating and physical hunger.[14]
    • A journal can also act like a mental release allowing you to pour out all your emotions and feelings onto paper.[15]
  4. Meditate. Studies have shown that even a few minutes of meditation can calm your mind, help you feel more centered and assist you in overcoming addiction.[16] This can be an easy way to help ease your mind.
    • Start with just 5 to 10 minutes a day - especially if you've never tried meditation before.
    • Check online for free audio guided meditations. These can help you ease yourself into meditation by following the gentle commands of a guide.
    • Try active meditation which allows you to focus on a small object - a stone, a fruit or a jewel. This can help give your mind some occupation while you try to stay in the present.
  5. Stock your pantry, refrigerator and freezer with healthy foods. Always keep a stock of healthy items at home. This will allow you to cook nutritious meals without having to stop at the store on your way home.
    • Having a well stocked home may help alleviate the stress around cooking or getting a meal on the table. You'll already be prepared with the basics of a meal.
    • Pantry staples can include beans, canned vegetables with no salt added, canned fish, whole grains (like brown rice or whole wheat pasta) and nuts.
    • Freezer staples can include frozen protein (like chicken or fish), frozen vegetables and fruit, frozen cooked whole grains (like brown rice or quinoa) and low-calorie frozen meals (for a night that cooking isn't an option).
    • Refrigerator staples can include washed and cut fruits and vegetables, low-fat dressings and sauces, eggs, low-fat yogurt and cheese and cooked proteins (like grilled chicken breasts).
  6. Prepare new recipes. Whether you you're in a recipe rut or need some help coming up with healthy meals, trying new recipes is a great way to explore a variety of different healthy foods. Try one or two new recipes each week.
    • Need recipe ideas? Try purchasing a healthy eating cookbook, looking up healthy eat blogs online or asking friends or family for new recipes to try.
    • If you're short on time, search for recipes that require minimal cooking and preparation. Many times, you can just assemble your meal instead of preparing everything from scratch.
  7. Recreate your fast food favorites at home. Burgers and fries or chicken nuggets are delicious - that's why it's hard to break a fast food habit. Try making your favorites at home with healthier cooking techniques. This will help you to "indulge" but with a much healthier option.
    • If you love fries, try baking them at home. Sliced sweet potatoes also make a great french fry alternative. Plus they have a lot of vitamins and minerals![17]
    • Bread chicken with crushed cornflakes or crackers and bake for a crunchy, low-calorie version of fried chicken or chicken nuggets.
    • Research some recipes online for your favorites. You'll find some great ideas and a variety of recipes for healthier versions of common fast food meals. Try searching for "fast food swaps" to find healthier substitutes for your favorite fast food options.

Eating Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants

  1. Read online menus. Any restaurant with over 20 locations is legally required to have an online menu and a menu in store that contains all of the nutrition information.[18] Review the menu for options that are lower in calorie and lower in fat.
    • Plan your meal option before going out to eat. This will help keep you from temptations by reviewing the menu or hearing what others are ordering.
    • Some places even have "meal calculators" that will allow you to choose different options for your meal and provides the calorie and other nutrition information for you.
  2. Choose grilled options over fried. Fried foods typically contain more calories and fat compared to grilled items [19].
    • Go for a grilled chicken sandwich or grilled chicken nuggets instead of fried chicken.
  3. Avoid the combo meals. The calorie count can get pretty high when you get a combination meal - fries, sandwich and drink. Just purchase the sandwich instead for a lower calorie count.
    • Choose items from the "à la carte" menu (one after another) to avoid the option of the combination meal.
    • Refuse the upgrade for a "super-size" or bigger portion.
  4. Purchase a healthier option. Many fast food restaurants have been responding to consumers desires for healthier options. They even have special "healthier" menus that can guide you toward a lower calorie meal [20].
    • Try a salad with grilled chicken or a grilled chicken wrap. Use a small portion of light dressing or dipping sauce to help keep the calories lower.
    • If you're stopping by for breakfast, try oatmeal, yogurt with fruit or a breakfast sandwich with an egg white and cheese.
    • Choose a sandwich with a side of fruit or a vegetable side instead of the typical french fries.


  • Slowly eliminating one unhealthy food at a time is a gentle way to start cutting junk food out of your diet. Going cold turkey and cutting out all unhealthy food items at once can lead to unpleasant symptoms such as headaches and irritability, and makes you less likely to stick to your plan.
  • Consider setting rules for yourself that will make fast food less convenient. For example, if your favorite fast food place is a long way away, only allow yourself to buy fast food if you walk there instead of driving. Not only will you get a healthy walk in if you do give in to the craving, but it will make cooking your own meal seem easier than the fast, greasy alternative.
  • Putting some numbers to your fast food habit might make the reality sink in. Estimate or keep track of how much money you spend and how many calories you consume each week or month on fast food--it will shock you.
  • Make this switch slowly, one piece at a time (for example, start by laying off the food court at lunchtime, or avoiding snacks between meals.) Make a small, but real changes, and then move on to something more ambitious. Remember that you want this to be an entirely new lifestyle.
  • If you and your friends are addicted to fast food, you can all give it up together. This way you will have less temptation than if your friends are chomping away on burgers in front of you.
  • Look into groups or networks of healthy people to surround yourself with to provide support through this important stage of life.
  • The "Eat This, Not That" books compare fast food options and recommend the ones that are "better" for you.

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Sources and Citations

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  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-obesity-an-addiction/
  3. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/binge-eating-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20033155
  4. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/binge-eating-disorder
  5. 5.0 5.1 http://foodaddiction.com/step-1/
  6. http://foodaddiction.com/food-plan/
  7. http://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/10/3-reasons-you-should-kick-your-diet-soda-habit/
  8. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/diet-soda/faq-20057855
  9. http://www.webmd.com/diet/20080708/keeping-food-diary-helps-lose-weight
  10. http://www.webmd.com/diet/lose-weight-fast-how-to-do-it-safely
  11. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/menu-planning/art-20048199
  12. http://www.apa.org/topics/obesity/support.aspx
  13. 13.0 13.1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shrink/201206/five-strategies-overcoming-emotional-eating
  14. http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/19/5-tips-to-overcome-emotional-eating/slide/keep-a-journal/
  15. <http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/19/5-tips-to-overcome-emotional-eating/slide/keep-a-journal/
  16. http://www.sparkpeople.com/blog/blog.asp?post=food_addiction_is_real_and_6_ways_to_deal_
  17. http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2667/2
  18. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm248732.htm
  19. http://www.webmd.com/diet/10-foods-that-are-health-horrors
  20. http://www.prevention.com/food/healthy-eating-tips/what-nutritionists-eat-fast-food-restaurants?slide=6