Most of the foods we have cravings for are not so good for us, and we know it! But we still crave them anyway. Why? There have been dozens of studies proving the harmful effects of eating processed, junk food. So why do we think it's okay to indulge? In this article, we take a close look at possible answers and how to manage food cravings as well as specific alternatives to unhealthy foods.
What is a Food Craving?
A food craving is a strong signal for something the body needs or wants. It may feel like the urge is uncontrollable until you get that particular food.
Ayurveda teaches that if you are in balance and healthy, you crave those foods that are best for your optimal health… and if you are out-of-balance and unhealthy you will crave processed foods that are toxic and harmful.
Why Do We Experience Food Cravings?
There are many explanations for why we have cravings. Some experts say it's because our brain releases dopamine when tasting certain foods. Other people believe cravings are psychological, while others think they come from nutritional deficiencies.
Most of the time our cravings come on quickly and are triggered by things like boredom, stress, emotions, or just be seeing certain foods.
Are Food Cravings Mental, Emotional, or Physical?
The answer is, it depends. People who don't have food cravings may believe food cravings are all in your head, and in some cases, they may be correct. According to research, there are three areas of the brain – the hippocampus, insula, and caudate that are activated when we have good cravings.
Food cravings can also be caused by emotions. Often we crave carbohydrates when we are anxious or stressed because they boost serotonin which has a calming effect on our body.
Vitamin or mineral deficiencies can also cause you to experience food cravings. People who eat a lot of processed foods suffer from malnutrition because they are not getting the nutrients they need from whole foods.
Certain situations, people, or places can also trigger cravings. For example, Friday night can be movie night with your family. That could also mean it's pizza night. You likely don't need pizza every Friday, but you've conditioned yourself to crave it on movie night.
Addiction can also cause you to crave certain foods like sugar or alcohol because they stimulate the reward center of your brain the same way cocaine does. These foods stimulate you to release “feel good” hormones every time you eat them.
As you can see, there is no simple answer to why you experience food cravings and everyone is different.
The Harmful Effects of Food Cravings
Cravings can have many harmful effects on you like:
Weight Gain – Eating excessive amounts of sugar, processed foods, fatty foods, drinking alcohol, and consuming salt can add extra pounds to even the healthiest person.
Health Issues – Salty and fatty foods can both lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Sugary foods like diet soft drinks can lead to heart attacks, dangerous blood clots, and other cardiovascular problems.
Dental Problems – Sugary, processed foods as well as alcohol can all lead to dental problems ranging from tooth decay to gum disease.
Psychological Issues – Trying to control your craving for certain foods and not being able to stop can lead to thoughts of low self-esteem and thinking something is wrong with you.
Overcoming and Managing Your Food Cravings
Now that you have some ideas on how to manage food cravings, it's time to find ways to overcome them. Overcoming cravings may seem simple, but it can be one of the hardest things to do.
Here are some expert tricks to overcome your food cravings without sabotaging your physical and mental well-being in the process:
Avoid Your Triggers
“You crave what you eat, so if you switch what you're eating, you can weaken your old cravings and strengthen new ones”, says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., of the Monell Center. Gradually cutting out and avoiding what you are craving helps you to begin to want them less.
Do Away With Temptation
Go through your kitchen food pantry and get rid of all the junk foods you crave. If you bought a box of cookies on your last shopping trip, give them away.
Drink Lemon Water
Sometimes our bodies and minds are just confused about whether we are hungry or thirsty. When you feel a craving or feel like eating a sugary snack, try drinking a large glass of lemon water and you may see the craving evaporate.
Snack on Nuts
Eat an ounce of nuts with two glasses of water to help you overcome your craving. The crunch will satisfy your need to chew and the water will make you feel full.
Stress is a huge reason for food cravings. Learning how to reduce and deal with the daily stress in your life can help you overcome food cravings. Look for different techniques like conscious breathing or exercise that can help.
Take a Nap
Cravings can often become strong when we are fatigued. Take a quick power nap to re-energize.
Keep Your Hands and Mind Busy
Food cravings can be triggered by boredom. Find activities you are interested in to keep your hands and mind occupied.
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Have a Cup of Tea
Take a few moments to sip a cup of warm tea. Sipping something warm has a calming effect that combats cravings.
Indulge Within Limits
It's okay to indulge occasionally as long as you don't overdo it. Don't go for a whole pint of ice cream. Instead, have one scoop at your favorite ice cream shop. Instead of buying a large box of cookies, find recipes for sweets made with healthy sweeteners and ingredients.
Be Mindful of Your Habits
Do you know how to build healthy habits? Do you have to have pizza on movie night or ice cream after dinner? Instead, on movie night, why not fix a healthy dinner together with your family to eat while watching the movie? Instead of having ice cream every evening, why not go for a walk instead?
Take Spinach Extract
Made from spinach leaves, spinach extract is a fairly new weight loss supplement on the market. It helps to delay fat digestion which increases hormones like GLP-1 that reduce hunger. Studies have shown that 3-5 grams of this product with meals may reduce cravings for hours afterward.
Alternatives to Help Overcome Specific Cravings
Certain foods or food type cravings can be more difficult to overcome than others. Sugar, alcohol, carbohydrates, and caffeine are some of the top offenders.
Here are some of the more specific cravings and alternatives to help overcome them.
How To Manage Food Cravings
Sugar and Sweets
Sugar is not just found in candy bars and soft drinks, it's also in healthy foods like power bars and granola. Eliminating it from your diet will take a bit of detective work and diligence.
Specific Cravings and Alternatives to Help Overcome Them
Here are some of the more specific cravings and alternatives to help overcome them.
Sugar has been designated an addictive substance by the scientific community. It is also responsible for:
- Decreased immunity
- Abnormal cell proliferation
Sugar is not just found in candy and soft drinks. It's also in healthy foods like power bars and granola. Eliminating it from your diet will take a bit of detective work and diligence.
To prevent sweet cravings try the following:
Eat a little bit of sugary food, like a bite-size candy bar. Allowing and enjoying a small amount of what you love helps you from feeling denied.
Combine your food cravings with a healthy one. Dip a banana in melted chocolate for example. Or mix almonds with bits of chocolate bar.
Cut out all simple sugar cold turkey. It may take 48 to 72 hours before the cravings start to diminish, but over time your craving for the taste of sugar will become satisfied with alternatives.
Eat more fruits and nuts. Fruit is naturally sweet and you get healthy fiber and nutrients from them.
Go for a walk. When sugar cravings hit get up and do something to change the energy to take your mind off the craving.
Be sure to eat regularly. Often a sugar craving comes on when our blood sugar becomes unstable. Waiting longer than 5 hours between meals sets you up for sugar cravings. Try to eat a protein, fiber-rich meal every three to five hours.
Alternatives to Satisfy Your Sugar Craving
- Plain frozen yogurt with fresh fruit
- A small portion of dark chocolate
- Fresh fruit, fruit kabobs, or a fruit smoothie
- Dried fruit
- Chewing gum
- Mashed sweet potatoes
- Light chocolate milk
- Peanut butter stuffed dates
- Baked apple stuffed with nuts and oats
- Frozen bananas, grapes, or other fruit
- Coconut water
- Flavored tea or water
- Nuts with drizzled honey on top
- Cherry tomatoes, baby carrots
- Popcorn with dark chocolate
- fruit gelatin
Caffeinated drinks have evolved into beverages that are abused too often. From our first sip of coffee in the morning to a glass of tea with dinner, it seems we are constantly flooding our bodies with caffeine.
Too much caffeine can result in:
- Heart flutters
- Stomach upset
- Liver irritation
- Poor digestion
- Kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- Joint pain arthritis
- Foot pain
To overcome caffeine cravings:
Get enough rest. Make time to relax and get enough sleep.
Change your morning routine to include taking a walk first thing in the morning. Drink room temperature lemon water first thing. Do simple stretching to wake each part of your body.
Use positive affirmations to begin your day.
Switch to decaffeinated alternatives like flavored water or herbal tea.
When the craving for caffeine hits you, do something different or drink something different. If the craving comes first thing in the morning, grab a bottle of water and go for a run.
Don't drink caffeine simply because everyone else is. Make a conscious effort to make a better choice.
Drink sparkling water if you crave soda.
Boost your B vitamins. B vitamins are what your body uses to metabolize the food you eat and are essential for the production of energy. Upping your B vitamin levels can help you do away with caffeine if you crave it for the energy boost. Try eating more lean meats, nuts, eggs, and fortified grains.
Alternatives to Caffeine
- Water, sparkling water, flavored water
- Decaffeinated versions of coffee, tea, soda, sports drinks
- Herbal teas such as ginseng
- Teeccino caffeine-free herbal coffee
- Yerba Mate
- Matcha Green tea
- Wheatgrass juice
- Reishi Mushroom Tea
- Rooibos tea
Your body requires salt to live, Yet, excess salt in the form of sodium chloride and in the absence of adequate magnesium leads to various problems including high blood pressure and kidney damage.
Craving salt indicates stress in the kidneys and adrenal glands. These organs need salt to operate properly. Craving salt is often associated with low levels of magnesium and vitamin C.
Overcoming Salt Craving
Stay away from processed foods. Almost all processed foods have some form of sodium. A better alternative is to make your own snacks and meals. Baked sweet potato chips with parmesan cheese is a tasty alternative to processed potato chips.
Stay away from fast food whenever possible.
Use herbs as an alternative to salt when cooking.
Drink plenty of water. Stay hydrated.
Reduce stress to keep your emotional salt craving under control.
Pay attention to how you're feeling when your salt craving hits. Are you bored, anxious, or lonely?
Alternative to Salt
- Pistachios and other unsalted nuts
- Herbs like cilantro, parsley, dill, basil, and oregano
- Sunflower seeds and other seeds
- Oven Baked Kale chips
- Tamari-seasoned crackers
- Air-popped popcorn tossed with olive oil and chili powder
- Spicy wheat pretzels
In certain limited situations, alcohol can be helpful. Yet, there are many more unhealthy situations and concerns related to drinking alcohol. Alcoholism and medicine interactions are two of the many concerns.
Overcoming Alcohol Cravings
Recognize your “triggers”. External triggers include people, places, things, or times of day. Knowing your triggers helps you to avoid them.
Internal triggers can be due to emotions, or even nutrition deficiencies. When you have an urge to drink, think about what you are feeling. Are you sad, frustrated, or nervous? Try to become conscious of these situations.
Keep alcohol out of your home.
Avoid activities that involve drinking whenever possible.
Remind yourself why you are limiting alcohol.
Talk to someone when you cannot handle the craving. Contact your sponsor, a trusted friend, or family member who understands and supports you.
Distract yourself with healthy activities like lifting weights, meditating, or watching short videos that interest you.
Eat a healthy meal three times a day.
Alternative to Alcohol
- Non-alcoholic beers and wines
- CBD Infused Drinks
- Coffee and tea
- Fresh fruit and vegetables, more protein
- Going for a walk, swim, or another exercise
- Taking a long relaxing bath
- Spending quality time with your kids and family
- Listening to your favorite music
- Learn a new skill or hobbies like cooking or drawing
In your body, carbohydrates convert into sugar. You may find that carbohydrates give you a similar craving to that of candy or other sweets.
Overcoming Carbohydrate Cravings
Get rid of all white flour products including white bread, white rice, instant mashed potatoes, crackers, potato chips, processed pasta, and muffins.
Empty the freezer of French fried, hash browns and premade breakfast foods like frozen waffles.
Stock up on 100 percent grains like whole-wheat bread and old-fashioned oatmeal.
Experiment with new grains like barley, millet, amaranth, whole-wheat couscous or bulgar.
Pack lunches and snacks with healthy snacks
When a carb craving hits, ask yourself what you really want. Are you just trying to fill an emotional need? Do you want something creamy, sweet, or cold? Do you want something crunchy or chewy?
Find alternative activities. Get a manicure, clean your closets, or spend time playing a game with your kids when a craving hits.
Eat breakfast every day and don't skip meals.
Eat more protein to stay satisfied longer.
Consume whole-carbohydrate foods – whole grains, squash, potatoes, and so on.
Add flavor with spices and sauces.
Get plenty of sleep.
Fix your gut by eliminating foods you are intolerant to such as dairy or gluten.
Alternative to Carbohydrates
- Lettuce wraps or low-carb (Keto) bread instead of bread
- Portobello mushroom “buns”
- Eggplant or zucchini for pasta
- Butternut squash turnips and carrots instead of French fries
- Cauliflower in place of mac and cheese or mashed potatoes
- Shirataki noodles
- Fresh, raw vegetables
- Eat cooked eggs like a boiled egg for a snack
- Sardines, and nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts) make great snacks
- Add more beans, cauliflower, bananas, and mushrooms to your dishes.
Each particular food or food type has its own specific triggers. Knowing what triggers your food craving, and how to overcome it will help you get past the urge. There are healthy alternatives to every craving type as well.
Conclusion of How to Manage Food Cravings
Food cravings are not as simple as you may believe. People are often told to use willpower or simply stop eating certain foods. But food cravings are often rooted in psychological, physical, or emotional needs.
The first thing to curbing your cravings is to figure out what causes them and then why you can't control the urges.
Outside factors such as manufacturers and advertising media have an effect on cravings. Sugar, salt, and carbohydrates in processed foods make you want more. However, these are not the only reasons cravings can grab you when you least expect them.
They can be the result of a lack of nutrients. It could also be stress, emotions, or conditioning that makes us crave certain foods.
Cravings can be harmful in several ways. Some of the more common problems include weight gain, which can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or heart disease.
Another harmful outcome of cravings is addiction. Foods like sugar, and anything that breaks down sugar such as alcohol, can be addictive and very difficult to be without.
There is good news though, cravings can be controlled with changes to your diet, lifestyle, and habits.
For instance, if you normally eat lots of processed foods, begin cooking your own meals to help control the amount of sugar, salt, and fats.
Meal prepping is an excellent way to plan ahead for a week’s worth of healthy meals and snacks. If done well, it’s easy to batch your food prep and reduce time in the kitchen too.
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Take advantage of fresh herbs and spices to add more flavor to your meals. Filling up on savory healthy meals every three hours or so will help curb your cravings.
Control your environment and the people you associate with as well. If you have trouble saying no in social situations, you may need to find new activities.
In the end, curbing your cravings can help you lead a MUCH healthier life.
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The information presented here is in no way meant to serve as medical advice. It is merely information and opinion. All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or health care provider. If you are experiencing symptoms of any kind, please consult with your physician.