When we think of the word "cravings," our mind instantly wanders to fast food, salt, sweets, and Chrissy Teigen's first stab as an author (her cookbook, Cravings, is aptly named, considering it's full of Frito Pie, fried chicken, and the like). "Craving" is seldom a word paired with anything leafy, green, or plant-based (and no, french fries don't count). Unfortunately, we don't crave foods that are good for us—eating healthfully usually manifests itself in a begrudgingly slow movement from our salad bowl to our mouths, followed by a disappointed face as we chew. Why can't we yearn for spinach the way we yearn for a donut? Should we resort to hypnotism? Positive reinforcement? We need answers.
Loving bad food is a learned behavior and a product of our environment—we aren't inherently wired to want cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Of course, this means having an affinity for nutritious foods can be conditioned as well. In fact, a recent study found that obese individuals who were put on a special healthy diet plan had a greater affinity for healthy food after a six-month period. The participants' brain activities were measured using an MRI, and when shown pictures of healthy food, the reward system areas in their brains were triggered, whereas pictures of unhealthy food did not provide this same level of stimulus. So how do we get to the point of conditioning ourselves to want healthy foods (without necessarily going on a diet plan)? We turned to Keri Glassman, New York–based dietitian and creator of the blog Nutritious Life (as well as some additional psychology-backed resources), to figure out how to genuinely want to be a healthier person. Ready to overhaul your cravings? Keep reading!
"Don’t burn yourself out," says Glassman. "You don’t need to switch your eating habits 180 degrees overnight. Start to incorporate new healthy habits to eventually create an overall healthy lifestyle."
Pack Your Snacks
If your office is stocked with junky snacks and sweets that tempt you to no end, consider packing your own nutritious treats in a plastic bag to have on hand when the cravings strike, suggests Carolyn Ross, MD, an addiction specialist.
Glassman also suggests preparing your vegetables and fruit ahead of time (peeling them, dicing them up) so that they're more easily accessible than say, a candy bar or cookies.
Choose "Natural" Sweets
Do you have a mean sweet tooth? While fruit isn't exactly the same thing as chocolate, if your taste buds are searching for sweetness, Ross suggests keeping fruit on hand to satiate your craving.
Switch Things Up
A surefire way to unsuccessfully eat healthy foods is by getting stuck in a monotonous rut. Instead, Glassman suggests making the quest more enjoyable and alluring: "Grocery shop and try new produce/healthy foods. Make cooking fun by learning how to incorporate something new into your diet."
Below are a few of her tips for keeping things fresh (pun intended):
- Are rice, potatoes, and corn your usual side dishes? Try oven-roasted broccoli rabe drizzled with olive oil to accompany salmon or chicken instead.
- Do you normally buy apples and bananas? Grab a few grapefruits, pears, or pomegranates.
- Do you have a sandwich every day at lunch? Wrap your turkey and cheese with a collard green or a sheet of Nori seaweed to mix it up and keep lunchtime new and exciting.
Measure Your Success
Glassman suggests creating small goals for yourself to achieve each week as a way to gamify the healthy eating process. "Buy and prepare two new vegetables a week that you've never cooked with before," she explains. "This way, you will be motivated by achieving these small goals, and making your body feel good by having a healthy diet will be a huge benefit."
Stress eating is real. It's much more enticing to reach for something comforting like bread and cheese when you're feeling overwhelmed than to crunch into some produce, but Glassman says this can be overturned by being in the right state of mind. Try regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness to clear your mind so that your nutritional judgment is more sound.
Wean Yourself Off of Bad Cravings
Over time, our taste buds adapt to higher levels of sugar and salt to the point where something notably high in either flavor tastes normal (today's movie theater popcorn might have made us gag over a decade ago). However, you can wean yourself away from high sodium and levels of sweetness. Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, says that if you "execute the same change [Ed. note: a decrease in salt or sugar] over a longer period, very gradually, then we keep adapting." If you gradually reduce your sugar levels little by little, desserts and sweets will begin to feel overpowering, and the natural sweetness in fruits will feel just right.
Deckersbach T, Das SK, Urban LE, et al. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutr Diabetes. 2014;4(9):e129. doi:10.1038/nutd.2014.26