Whether you go fully vegan or you’re trying to cut out sugar, dairy, or other foods, change is hard!
There are many reasons why we crave certain foods and there’s also a variety of approaches to curb cravings. Today, I will help you understand why you experience these cravings and teach you how to control them.
Why do we crave certain foods?
Our brain’s first source of energy is glucose. This means that when you haven’t eaten for a while and run out of energy, your brain naturally triggers more of a carb craving. This is not bad in itself as complex carbs are healthy and necessary in your diet. Complex carbs release energy slowly, providing you with lasting energy. Often we answer these cravings by grabbing simple carbs (chips, cookies, donuts,…) and get a quick sugar and energy spike, followed by a quick drop.
If you take carbs out of your diet altogether, you will crave them because they are needed by your body and brain. If you choose to eat whole food carbohydrates you can help combat simple carb cravings.
Studies have found that there are neurochemical similarities between drugs of abuse and sugar (read the study here). This means the brain shows similar changes after sugar consumption when compared to changes after drug abuse:
“In summary, rats in the intermittent sugar access schedule fulfill five of the eleven criteria in the DSM-5 and induces other brain changes that resemble drugs of abuse. Thus, confirming that sugar can be addictive and plays a key role in the broader construct of “food addiction,” at least in this animal model.”
Dairy products, especially cheese, can also have addicting effects. Cheese is more concentrated than dairy. Here is how Jodi from Livekindly.co explains it:
“The answer here is a little thing called Casomorphin; aka protein fragments from the milk protein, Casein. Casein breaks down during digestion where the peptide, Casomorphin is formed and begins to release histamine into the body, which is why so many people are intolerant or allergic to dairy products. Casomorphin is an opiate and operates no differently here to anywhere else you would find the stuff – with repeated consumption, a dependency can form as a state of euphoria is produced each time the protein is ingested and abruptly breaking consumption habits can even lead to withdrawal symptoms. During the cheese-making process, the water from the milk gets removed leaving behind a concentrated amount of fat and casein, meaning the opiate levels are much higher in cheese products when compared to other dairy items like milk or yogurt.”
If you have strong cheese cravings, I suggest reading The Cheese Trap by Dr. Neal Barnard.
There are many ways we form habits and, once repeated many times, those habits become a lifestyle. Our body’s natural need for glucose could be the cause of our simple carb habit. Maybe you fell into the “cheese trap” habit. Sometimes it is simply a busy life that leads us to eat quick snacks, fast foods, or processed/packaged foods on a regular basis. Once this habit gets repeated enough times, those choices take control of our lives.
Restaurant foods and processed store bought foods contain high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, giving these foods a strong and desired flavor. Your taste buds eventually get used to these strong flavors making simple foods “bland” or “boring”. Naturally, you’ll develop the habit of choosing these strong flavored foods. But you can reverse this habit and re-train your taste.
Poor Meal Planning
Poor time management can accelerate your cravings. If you wait too long to eat, your cravings become stronger and you are more likely to grab fast food, chips, cookies, etc. If you don’t meal plan and have no meal idea, or fresh produce at home, you are more likely to pick up a quick dinner at a restaurant.
A nutrient deficiency, a large caloric deficit, or an imbalance of macro nutrients can lead to cravings, as well. Restricting calories can make you very hungry so you long for foods high in salt, sugar, and fat. Low calorie diets do not provide all the minerals and vitamins your body needs to function properly so you will not have lasting energy. Another mistake that leads to more cravings is cutting out whole food groups like carbs or fats. To satisfy your body, your meal needs to contain all macro nutrients (Carbs, Fats, Proteins, [I always include Fiber here]). A balanced meal is key to curbing cravings.
Get a free 3-day meal plan below:
How To Overcome Food Cravings
Change your mindset
When I crave meat or cheese I remind myself why I chose this lifestyle and it helps me overcome those cravings. I choose to remember all the health and environmental benefits. I also acknowledge that the cravings come from a habit I formed in the past and they are not a sign that I am made to eat meat or cheese. To say it plainly: I do not miss out or give up anything. I focus on the food I choose to eat, not on the food I choose not to eat. And that approach provides satisfaction.
In my own life I noticed that understanding the psychology behind my behavior makes it much easier to take control and adjust the behaviors that are causing problems. Habit change starts in the mind. Once we make a decision we typically act out on this decision. Repeating the same action over and over forms a habit. This habit turns into a lifestyle. In order to change your habits we have to understand that habits start with our decision to act on our thoughts.
Let’s look at the root of behavior change.
The repetition of a behavior sends signals through pathways to your brain. Imagine a pathway you have made in a forest by walking through the same bushes and grass over and over. Now imagine you stand in front of the forest and you want to take a walk, which way would you go? The pathway would be the easiest. But would it be possible to form another path? Absolutely. Will it take time? Yes. Will it get easier? Of course. Once you have walked the path often enough the grass and bushes are trampled down and walking your new path is easy! There will be a little resistance at first but after repeating it often enough you make your path more easy to walk and won’t have a problem picking the healthy snack. Don’t let your emotions fool you. The resistance you feel is only the sign of a previous bad habit, not a sign that you should’t make the better choice.
Use transition foods
There are many plant based alternatives for burgers, nuggets, strips, vegan cheese, and anything else your heart desires that can be used to curb your cravings. Find your favorite plant based meat alternative and have it available in your freezer during your transition phase. With time, you will find more and more tasty whole food plant based recipes that hit the spot while reducing your desire for processed vegan food. I can assure you that the cravings will subside. Change and growth occur when you face challenges and power through adversity.
To stop cravings on a plant based diet make sure to eat a full meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This means eat enough calories with each meal (around 500-600 cal) and make sure you feel full after the meal. Including each food group in your meal will fuel your body for lasting energy and provide all nutrients and minerals for proper organ and muscle functions. Try to focus on mostly whole foods. You can use the free tool Cronometer to track your nutrition during the day. This tool provides an overview of all macro and micro nutrients, too.
If you want more meal plan ideas or need help organizing meals and shopping list, check out this plant based meal planner with only whole food ingredients.
For sugar cravings, use maple syrup or use dried dates to sweeten. Maple syrup does not spike your blood sugar as quickly as table sugar, but it should still be used sparingly.
If you are struggling with more obstacles during your transition to a vegan diet, or you are unsure how to eat right on the vegan diet, check out PLANT POWERED HEALTH where I discuss, amongst other things:
- Eating plant based with your family
- Your Time, Habits, and Motivation
- Reading labels
- Social situations