Why do we crave food that’s bad for us? It seems counter intuitive. And maybe you’ve even fallen into the old “if my body is craving it, I must need it” rationale. But here’s the deal: just because we want it, doesn’t mean we should eat it or that our bodies need it.
That said, don’t feel bad that you crave junk food with high salt, fat, and sugar contents. It’s in your biological makeup. When you take a bite into a big juicy cheeseburger and wash it down with a sugary soft drink, your brain rewards you with a burst of dopamine.
So… what kind of cruel game is your mind playing here?!
Your brain is actually rewarding your body for being efficient — “efficient” for eating the most calorie-dense, fattening food you can find.
The theory is: when humans were scavengers this came in handy as we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from — it was feast or famine! We had to work physically hard to obtain food and went long periods between eating. Storing up fat and energy was crucial in the event we lost consistent access to food.
When given the choice between an avocado or a handful of kale, our brains guide us in the direction of the more calorie dense option: the avocado. We are rewarded with this choice by receiving a small burst of dopamine, making us feel happy. Next time we’re asked to make the decision between the two, we remember the dopamine burst and choose the avocado to achieve that feeling again.
In modern times, most humans have better access to food and our lifestyle is relatively sedentary. But our brains haven’t caught on.
We continue to store fat in preparation of a fast or the need for an exuberant amount of physical energy (events may never come). We keep on storing and storing and storing, eating and eating and eating.
This is problematic because instead of choosing an avocado, we are now choosing a Big Mac or Ice Cream. These high fat foods are not found in nature and are out of the realm of what our bodies were meant to process.
Not to mention, food companies spend millions perfecting the combination of fat, sugar, and salt — what they call the “bliss point” — to keep us coming back for more junk. All these processed foods trigger the same reward system in our brain that cocaine and gambling does — making it really hard to break the cycle.
On top of all this, we’re living in a culture that glorifies unhealthy foods as “treats.” From a young age we are rewarded with junk food when behaving well or when celebrating exiting events like birthdays, graduations, and holidays. Not engaging in these traditions goes against cultural norms — and can feel isolating. You also may feel like you’re depriving yourself when you are “supposed” to be treating yourself.
So you’ve got your brain chemistry working against you, processed food manipulating the “bliss point” and keeping you hooked, AND culture telling you to indulge all the time. Guess it’s safe to stop blaming your willpower.
The good news? You can unhook from this cycle!
You don’t have to ignore your craving altogether. Depriving yourself can just glorify what you “can’t have” even more, making it all the more irresistible.
Instead, find a replacement “junk food” that is whole food plant based. Find recipes to check all the boxes: sweet, salty, crunchy, and creamy.
Have these snacks on hand and try filling up on the whole food plant-based version before assessing whether or not you still need the junk version.
For example, if chocolate is your weakness find a whole food plant-based cacao recipe that fills you up and satisfies that craving, like this dairy-free chocolate peanut butter shake.
If French fries are your weakness, cut up some potatoes, blanch them, and bake on 400 degrees until crispy. Toss in sea salt, black pepper and garlic powder and enjoy French fries free of oil and guilt!
Eat when you’re hungry and don’t let yourself get to the point of feeling insatiable. This is when you body craves calorie dense foods the most. Keep healthy snacks on hand like fresh fruit, trail mix, hummus and veggie wraps, and thick shakes.
Before you leave the house for a long excursion, blend a frozen banana with your favorite fruits, nut butters, and plant based milk and sip your shake as you drive to your destination. You will show up satisfied which will help restrain you from diving head first into the candy bowl at work.
What’s more tempting than reaching into the cookie jar? Not a lot. Easy solution: don’t have a cookie jar to reach into.
Before you grocery shop, listen to a video on NutritionFacts.org or read a chapter from your favorite plant-based nutrition book or magazine to get amped about eating right.
Then, most importantly, fill the tank! There is nothing worse than grocery shopping on an empty stomach.
Bring a whole food plant-based shopping list with you so you don’t just grab whatever you see (which often leads to less healthy choices).
Since Americans eat so much processed food — laden with excess fat, sugar, and salt — we experience inflammation that dulls our tastebuds.
Luckily, you can re-set your tastebuds in a matter of weeks by cutting out processed and high-salt/high-fat foods and switching to whole food plant-based dishes. Research shows you’ll quickly regain taste bud sensitivity and start to enjoy (and prefer) healthier foods.
Make the transition to whole food plant-based foods easier by getting plant-based versions of your comfort foods favorites, delivered to your door, ready to heat-and-eat. Learn more here.
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell.