Even the healthiest (and strongest) among us has fallen victim to a late night Papa John’s binge or a sweet tooth that seems to be only be satisfied by chocolate cake or double fudge ice cream. Cravings get the best of us every now and then, but what really is a craving? The difference between cravings and just plain hunger is that a craving does not come from our body’s desire for energy and nourishment – it is strictly an intense mental desire for a specific food or taste. It might be an emotional craving (i.e., your mind is wired to crave certain foods when feeling certain emotions like boredom, sadness, or anxiety), or an actual addiction (the most common culprit: sugar).
Cravings are problematic because they actually can be bad for our health – food cravings have been shown to bring on binge-eating episodes, which can lead to obesity and eating disorders. They also cause us to reach for the foods we know are not good for us instead of more nutritious options. But for most of us, indulging in a “craving” is not only bad for our physical health, but for our mental health as well, by bringing feelings of guilt, shame, or lack of control.
But food – most importantly cravings – should not dictate our life, or dictate our emotions. Instead of trying to turn off cravings to no avail (we’ve all felt the shame of eating that second office donut we “weren’t supposed to eat…” or the attempt to resist when you really want some french fries), here are the hacks to actually get rid of those cravings, shame, and guilt once and for all.
1. Don’t ignore your cravings – find healthy alternatives
If you have a sweet tooth, grab a square of dark chocolate (75% or more cacao) after dinner. If you’re craving something salty and fried like french fries, DIY sweet potato fries by tossing sweet potato slivers with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and baking them in the oven. If heavy carbs are your medicine of choice, score a frozen cauliflower crust from Trader Joe’s to top with tomato sauce and organic cheese. Craving carbonara? Opt for vegetable-based pasta alternatives like chickpea pasta, or my personal favorite, hearts of palm pasta (low-cal, low-carb, high fiber, and tastes like the regular kind to me!).
Whatever you’re craving, get in the kitchen and get creative with a healthy alternative made out of natural, plant-based foods. It might not taste as good as the real thing, but after a while, your taste buds adjust and your body will start to crave the healthier alternative instead… trust.
2. Load up on foods that reduce cravings
Instead of worrying about just what to do when you have a craving, focus also on how to prevent them. Give your body the proper nutrients it needs, and it’s less likely to crave (i.e. a few cups of leafy greens a day, organic produce, healthy fats, plant-based fiber, and lean proteins). Focus on eating more of the good stuff, instead of focusing on less of the bad, and you’ll immediately have less cravings. Foods high in fiber (like chia seeds or beans) can keep you fuller for longer, making your blood sugar less likely to drop and cause cravings (more on that below!).
3. Clean out your kitchen
I know you have that just-in-case sugar stash or maybe even a “junk shelf” for when you’re having people over. But let’s be honest with ourselves – do you reach for your sugar stash more often than “just in case” or sometimes stuff a hand into the Doritos bag when you’re at home alone on a random Tuesday night? I don’t blame you – having these foods around keeps up the cravings in our brain because whenever we see a food and tell ourselves we can’t have it, it keeps up the craving cycle. Donate anything that’s too processed or high in artificial ingredients to soup kitchens or food banks – out of sight, out of mind.
But don’t leave your kitchen empty – instead, stock up on a wide range of better snacking options, like celery, almond butter, dark chocolate squares, organic popcorn (no salt added!), nuts, etc. Let yourself eat when your body wants to eat, but choosing the healthier, more natural options will help you decipher between an emotional craving and an actual need for nourishment.
4. Add spices and herbs to your diet
Healthy eating should not taste bland. If it is, you’re not eating the right foods, or preparing them the right way. Reduce cravings by satisfying your taste buds with flavors they actually enjoy. Add superfood cinnamon to your coffee for a little more flavor if you’re trying to get off your double mocha frappuccino habit, or sprinkle it over frozen yogurt for an ice cream alternative that tastes a little more decadent than your average greek yogurt.
Cloves, ginseng, and fenugreek are sweet spices that can even trick your mind into thinking you’re having sugar, and you’ll be surprised how some curry spices, cayenne pepper, and a little bit of cilantro satisfy your craving for Mexican or Thai food. Make your healthy food delicious and you won’t feel like you’re missing out. Plus, you’ll be getting extra nutrients and anti-inflammatory benefits — what’s not to love!?
5. Brush your teeth
Ever had those post-meal cravings for something sweet that a piece of dark chocolate can’t fix, late-night eating binges, or mid-day snack attacks when you’re not even hungry? After you’re done with a meal (in other words, your body is perfectly nourished and you’re neither hungry nor over-stuffed), try brushing your teeth. The act will train your brain that eating time is over, plus the minty toothpaste taste will ruin any taste afterwards, at least for a little while. If you can’t stop yourself from reaching for the snacks when you’re not even hungry, pick up a toothbrush and go to town. Bonus: your dentist will be so pleased.
6. Identify the root cause of your craving
While a general sweet tooth might be the case of a sugar addiction, and daily food cravings are out of habit, random cravings here and there can tell us a lot about our health and what our bodies are trying to tell us. For example, salty cravings can be a sign of dehydration, or a sweet craving can explain a hormone imbalance or change (aka why you need chocolate when you’re PMSing). Research what your specific craving means, and then give your body what it actually needs to fix the craving altogether.
7. Stabilize your blood sugar
Oftentimes, when our body is lacking energy, (consciously or subconsciously) it tells us to reach for quick fixes to stabilize blood sugar. The quickest fix is obviously sugar, which hits the body quickly and then causes a crash after a couple hours (causing more sugar cravings in order to bring blood sugar back up).
If you’re a healthy person without diabetes or another chronic blood sugar issue, make sure you’re getting enough protein and healthy fats at every meal, and keep healthy snacks on hand at all times. You should not be waiting to eat until you’re starving — this is when blood sugar is low and your body tells your mind to reach for the quickest fix. Instead, have a few nuts, a hard-boiled egg, or a handful of baby carrots an hour or so before you’re hungry enough for your next meal to prevent low blood sugar. Also make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep a night and limiting caffeine intake (two things that majorly mess with blood sugar levels).
8. Stop giving yourself food rules
When you tell yourself, “I can’t have that” or “I didn’t workout today so I don’t deserve that slice of pizza,” you are not only damaging your relationship with food, but you’re putting those “bad-for-you” foods on a pedestal, turning them into something you lust after, which causes emotional cravings. Stop labeling foods as good and bad. Stop telling yourself that a greasy meal or high-sugar dessert is something to be “earned.” Instead, eat intuitively — focus on how your body feels after everything you eat, consume mindfully (and slowly) so that you can tell when you’re full and be aware of what you’re consuming is doing to your body. Which brings me to…
9. Learn about your food
OK so I’ll admit it — all my knowledge on the inflammation caused by sugar virtually goes out the window as soon as a really delicious chocolate cake is in front of me. But I’ll be honest – the more I learned about the benefits of healthy foods, the more I consciously want to fill my plate with the good stuff instead of indulge in something that doesn’t give my body much nutrients.
Instead of just knowing what foods are healthy (don’t we all know to eat our veggies by now?), know the specific nutrients in foods that are good for you, like how papaya helps digestion or broccoli makes your skin glow. I love the book Eat Pretty by Jolene Hart because it not only walks you through seasonal produce and how to cook with it, but also gives you the specifics of what foods actually do for your body, and the nutrients they have in them to keep us healthy, energized, and yes, beautiful. Knowledge is power, and in this case, it’s also the secret to curbing your cravings.