What do you think when you hear someone say, “Honesty, I don’t really care about burgers or chips anymore. I’d rather have a salad”? Probably that they are either lying or aren’t real human beings. We get it – despite all your good intentions and attempts to stick to a healthy diet, you still find yourself craving junk food on a daily basis.
Pizza is calling your name when you walk by restaurants, you accidentally find some ice cream in the freezer and it’s gone in a flash, or the thought of the leftover pasta bake in the kitchen keeps you up at night.
We get it – pretty much everyone has been there. Most of us live in an unhealthy food environment. We’re surrounded by temptation, and we grow up eating all of these highly pleasurable treats. And our brains remember – they love it!
Our bodies, not so much.
We’re caught between wanting and not wanting, throwing the chocolate bar into the trash and picking it out again after half an hour (yep, we’ve been there, too).
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel! If you would have told us a couple of years ago that we would be utterly unimpressed by all the fried foods, chips, and chocolate cakes around us, we would have laughed.
Today, we truly want to reach for the veggie wrap, the baked sweet potato and the avocado mousse while leaving the junk food behind.
And we want to share with you how we (and lots of other people!) did it.
Exclusive Bonus: CLICK HERE to download your FREE Guide to a Junk Food Craving Free Life!
Craving Familiar Junk Food
If you’re transitioning to a more whole food plant-based diet and trying to cut out animal-based foods and junk food, it’s very likely that you will be craving the exact items you want to eliminate.
And sugar isn’t the only one to blame here!
While we often hear about people trying to stop sugar cravings, this refined carbohydrate isn’t really the villain it’s often portrayed as. Yes, it does cause your blood sugar to spike and fall quickly and your brain to release the hormone dopamine – but so do other junk foods that are high in fat or salt, according to recent studies.
Please know that cravings are not “bad” and that you’re not always going to succumb to them – they have a reason, an origin.
Cravings are signals that you want something that’s supposed to be beneficial to you. We crave sleep, water, fun, social connection, food and much more.
The problem is that we have a lot of unhealthy things to choose from nowadays to satisfy these cravings.
The best way to deal with cravings for destructive things is to replace them with “good” cravings – just as we now crave cheesy plant-based pasta or a creamy, starchy risotto instead of unhealthy meals.
That’s because we trained our minds to think of specific foods when we’re getting hungry and we trained our bodies to prefer wholesome foods because we know how junk food makes us feel.
Unfortunately, most people don't know how to eat “healthy” – and do so sustainably – when they want to make changes.
They focus on eating lots of vegetables and salads thinking they need to cut back on carbs, so their meals end up bland, repetitive and simply not satisfying.
Nobody could stick to this type of diet, and if you try, chances are you won’t be able to succeed long-term!
Munching on too many calorically dilute foods is one of the main reasons we have cravings for junk food – simply put, our bodies are not getting enough energy, so we look for calorically rich sources to satisfy our physiological needs. It’s simply a survival mechanism.
Now, even though we don’t want to promote an unhealthy relationship with food, the harsh reality is that many things we find in grocery stores today are driving us away from feeling good and being healthy.
We all would be better off replacing candy with fruit while still having the occasional semi-healthy treat. Agreed?
Alright, then let’s go to the part where we tell you about how to deal with cravings for unhealthy food!
1. Eat Enough Healthy Filling Food
Does that one seem too obvious? Okay, but are you actually doing it? Oftentimes, trying to eat healthier or going plant-based goes hand in hand with loading up on veg – and not much else.
Sure, you might feel full after a huge green salad, but how long does it take for the sugar cravings to kick in? A proper diet requires a good amount of complex carbohydrates (e.g. starches like potatoes, whole grains or legumes) as a base.
While it’s possible to feel full on fruits, veggies and nuts, it’s not really sustainable for most people. Starches have built the dietary foundation of pretty much all successful, healthy peoples throughout human history.
They offer some nice health benefits and shouldn’t take the backseat! They are delicious, they are energizing and they are slimming. So, go for them!
Fill at least half of your plate with these satiating foods and try to eat around 2000 calories in total. After three baked potatoes, do you think you’d want to reach for the chocolate or would you be full until dinner?
2. Focus on Nutrient Density
Once you’ve made sure that you’re eating enough food when it comes to the caloric intake, let’s examine the nutrients you’re getting.
Most people just think in terms of “carbs, protein and fat”, but what about all the essential vitamins and minerals?
Your cravings for chocolate or chips could actually stem from not eating enough green veggies, and in reality, your body is just longing for some magnesium or iron.
Think fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds to meet your nutritional needs.
We’d also like to mention the possibility of your body being just thirsty, especially when you’re craving moist food. Try drinking a glass of water or tea and see if you feel better! This tip isn’t meant to keep you from eating when you’re actually hungry; you just need to consider your need for liquids here, too.
Read our full article Vegan Food Pyramid to see how to meet all your nutritional needs easily.
3. Have Healthy Food Available
The reason why we sometimes go for unhealthy processed food is simply due to a lack of choice. We can only eat what we buy at the store – and if you have frozen pizza and candy bars in your cart instead of a sack of rice and fresh veggies, then this is what you’ll eat later.
But it goes further than that: we highly recommend that you not only have a sack of rice somewhere in your kitchen – even better would be having a batch of pre-cooked rice in the fridge. Or maybe some leftover bean chili. Fruit can do wonders in terms of sugar cravings, too!
Generally, we try to cook our food in batches as often as possible so that once hunger hits, we can immediately munch on some filling starches. This can also work with frozen leftovers, which you just reheat in your microwave!
Since human beings are often drawn to convenience, we want your fridge to offer the quickest and most accessible meal at any given time.
4. Make a Clear-Cut Commitment
Apart from having healthy food at home, the next most important step to creating a healthy environment is to simply not buy any more unhealthy foods.
Stick to your grocery list, eat a big lunch before you go shopping and challenge yourself not to buy your go-to junk food for a specific period of time.
You can mark a day on the calendar to tell yourself when you want to stop eating x, and make a commitment to stick to healthier alternatives from then on.
Once you have other foods in your kitchen, this is what you’ll tend to eat more of – out of sight, out of mind in regards to the junk food.
If you’re looking for a very interesting read on this subject, we highly recommend “The Pleasure Trap” (Amazon Link) by Dr. Doug Lisle and Dr. Alan Goldhamer!
5. Replace, Don’t Restrict
When you think of just not eating chocolate or chips ever again, what’s your immediate reaction? Something like panic?
That’s the cycle we were caught in for many years. When you’re confronted with having something taken away against your will, your brain might go crazy and want to protect you from starving (‘cause that’s what would happen when living without chocolate, right?).
The answer to this is finding healthier alternatives for your favorite junk food! You can tackle one food at a time, too.
How about whipping up an oil-free and wholesome vegan mac and cheese instead of the fatty, rich, unhealthy version? Awesome replacement!
This crowding-out-food strategy won’t put your brain into “panic mode” thinking there’s a shortage of food and trying to hoard everything in sight.
Read our full article on smart food swaps for more.
6. Change Your Routine
Cravings are oftentimes just a learned behavior, and you can retrain your brain to crave something else instead.
When cuddling up on the couch and watching Netflix, you might think to grab a bag of potato chips at first.
How about making your own oil-free sweet potato or veggie chips in the oven and have your body nourished with low-fat and nutritious goodness instead of feeling a bit yucky once you hit the bottom of your plastic bag?
Human beings truly are creatures of habit and you might feel a bit of resistance when thinking about changing things up. But hear us out!
It’s possible that these new choices will feel a bit “off” the first few times, but sooner rather than later, all you’ll crave will be these homemade baked chips – you’ll have used your tendency towards a routine to your advantage.
Another idea is to skip the “reaching for food even though you’ve eaten enough” step and go for another feel-good activity instead when you’re looking for a dopamine hit (more on that below). Because this is what we actually want, our brain rewards us for giving it a calorically dense food source!
Admittedly, there will be some getting used to when it comes to making healthier choices, but in the end, you will feel just as happy eating less stimulating (aka low sugar, salt and fat) foods.
Keep at it and enjoy the rewards! Check out the book “The Power of Habit” (Amazon Link) by Charles Duhigg for further reading on this topic.
7. Stick It Out
Even though this probably isn’t what you want to hear right now, the longer you haven’t eaten a specific food, the less you will crave it. The magic lies in your body kind of “forgetting” what it tastes and feels like to have a specific junk food so it becomes way less appealing.
Cravings work with imagery, and the better you can imagine eating something tasty, the more you’ll want it.
The longer you haven’t been exposed to them, the harder it becomes for your mind to create a vivid image of eating these unhealthy foods, just like other memories that fade with time.
We crave what we’ve eaten in the past few days (or weeks) and your taste buds will change to finding overly salty, fatty or sweetened foods appalling.
We wouldn’t have believed it ourselves, but potato chips and rich desserts aren’t really interesting to us anymore and we’d much rather go for more wholesome treats.
Bottom line: the longer you’ve been eating a healthy plant-based diet and the more junk food you’ve crowded out, the fewer cravings you will have.
8. Remember the Benefits
There are certainly a few reasons why you want to stay away from unhealthy food in the first place.
Maybe you’re already struggling with health issues or want to prevent them, maybe you’re just not feeling as great or want to be a good example for someone else.
Focusing on these from time to time will strengthen your commitment and might bring you to add an extra portion of vegetables to your plate that day, crowding out even more processed food.
Also, once you stay away from really stimulating and tasty foods (or only have them as a treat), they will taste so much better compared to eating them nearly every day!
Overall, your mindset will make the biggest difference in all of this, so you’re well-advised to not neglect this aspect. The easy part is just knowing what foods are healthy.
9. Perspective and Detachment
When it comes down to it, cravings are just impulses, like feeling tired or hot or excited about something.
As long as you make sure that you’re properly nourished and have met your nutritional needs for the day, you can relax and start to just observe the waves of wanting a certain food come and go again.
These mindfulness practices are super helpful in life in general and definitely apply to your goal of wanting to make healthier food choices. Once you know that these urges are just automatisms created by your brain, you can kind of disconnect, knowing that you don’t have to follow them.
This gives you more time to react and choose what you truly want at that moment.
Maybe it really is that chocolate cake, so eat it mindfully, experience it with all its characteristics, and then evaluate how it made you feel.
Was it even as delicious as you expected? How does your body react? Is the craving gone now or did it send you down the rabbit hole?
10. Retrain Your Brain
Similar to the tip about changing your routine, this one works by tweaking the habits you’ve already set up. So many different situations can trigger cravings for unhealthy food or comfort food – especially since eating is very much linked to emotions.
We associate food with memories, traditions, people and places.
When we celebrate, we eat cake.
When we’re sad, we have ice cream.
When we want to treat ourselves, we order the large pizza.
When thinking about giving up these foods, we fear that we’re losing all of these connections and coping mechanisms, the memories, and good times.
But by simply replacing the associations, not making everything about food but rather about the positive experience, and finding healthy and delicious replacements for our celebratory food choices, we can create useful habits!
11. Reframe Healthy Eating
Does the idea of eating your veggies every day make you shudder a bit? That’s probably because you think they wouldn’t be satisfying – surely neither good flavors nor sufficient fullness could be achieved that way.
Nobody would want to make such a change under this impression!
But think about connecting whole plant-based foods with feeling nourished, showing yourself love and respect, and living a long and pain-free life – how colorful cashew cheese lasagnas can simply replace the meat and dairy casseroles.
The reason why you might think healthy eating is boring or unsustainable is that you’re not eating enough calories, which invariably leaves your body ravenous and permanently on the lookout for food, making it 100 times harder to choose wholesome dishes.
12. Carving Your New Path
Forget about the concept of cheating on your diet or having a cheat meal – these exceptions are just teasing you with the food you’re trying to avoid.
What we’re looking for is good nourishment most of the time and a little fun on the side. Nobody wants you to stick to only healthy foods 100% of the time, and this type of thinking can really stand in your way.
A big part of changing your food environment is learning the difference between good and bad food choices.
Much of your exposure to food is outside of your control, and we don't want you to keep fighting with yourself trying to control everything.
There’s a better, gentler and ultimately more sustainable way to a healthy diet!
Sometimes, cravings will simply go away when you let some time pass and do something entirely different that either distracts you (like brushing your teeth to signal your brain that eating time is over) or boosts your overall happiness!
Going outside and moving your body, playing with your pet or kid – the fun you have doing these activities lasts a lot longer and feels a lot better than a few bites of a candy bar.
You Got This!
We hope that these ideas and insights have given you a better understanding of where your cravings for junk food come from and how you can prevent them.
Should you have just read this article while having really strong cravings, we won’t leave you hanging! Download our Free Cravings Guide by clicking the button below.
You'll find a list of quick, delicious and healthy snacks to make for when the cravings hit you as well as a few very simple recipes to prepare snacks in advance.
We also added a cravings checklist to help you figure out the missing pieces to a junk food cravings-free life!
Do you know what kind of personality you have? Would it help you to regularly have a small bite of the exact food you are craving to keep you sane, or are you an “all-or-nothing” type who does best when skipping junk food entirely? What are your favorite healthy snack ideas? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.