If you've struggled to maintain a healthy diet or get your cravings under control, you're not alone. Nature designed human beings to seek out fattening foods to ward off starvation. While this served an evolutionary advantage, today it can lead to many negative health outcomes.
Fortunately, you can train your brain to hanker for healthier meals by making them look and taste great. You can even overcome food addiction, too. Here's how!
Why You Crave Unhealthy Foods
Human beings evolved in areas where droughts often led to famine. Many evolutionary biologists believe humans originally began eating meat in an attempt to consume sufficient calories to stay alive.
One gram of fat contains nine calories compared to only four calories for carbohydrates and protein. This is why, even though early humans could find adequate protein from plant-based sources just as they can today, in lean times, they needed fat to get enough calories to function.
In the modern world, however, fast food restaurants and convenience stores line nearly every street corner in America. And while many more people are fortunate enough to no longer struggle with food insecurity nowadays, genetic cravings for fat and sugar are hard-wired in human DNA.
When Unhealthy Eating Becomes an AddictionSometimes, unhealthy eating habits can even descend into addiction. People form habits by responding to sensory cues — like spying a set of golden arches. We fall into routines, and when cravings are satisfied, our brains release chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that make us feel good.
Over time, the brain grows addicted to these feel-good chemicals. This happens with food cravings the same way it does with alcohol or drugs. By the time you start experiencing the negative health effects of overindulging in sugar and fat, your brain considers these foods doubly rewarding.
If you fear you suffer from food addiction, seek help as you would for any other substance abuse issue. Medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you break the cycle. You can also find support groups for food addicts both online and in person.
How to Train Your Brain to Crave Healthier FoodsWhether you want to improve unhealthy habits or break the cycle of food addiction, you can train your body to crave healthy foods instead of fatty, sugary ones. It takes time, so treat yourself kindly and exercise patience as you work through this process.
- Start small: Fad diets backfire in multiple ways. Your metabolism slows down when you restrict caloric intake too severely. This means you gain weight more easily when you return to normal eating. Instead, begin by exchanging one fat-laden or sugary meal or snack for a healthier one. Instead of hitting the drive-thru at lunch, for example, opt for a salad. Then, enjoy what you want for dinner. Each week, swap out one additional meal or snack.
- Blend healthy foods with those you already love: If the thought of drinking a kale smoothie gives you dry heaves, try adding the veggie as a garnish on a sandwich. Or, if you enjoy salads with iceberg lettuce, try incorporating shreds of darker greens like spinach and Swiss chard into the blend. Think outside the lettuce, too, to increase your vegetable intake. Cucumbers and radishes add a satisfying crunch to meals like healthy wraps.
- Learn to cook and meal prep: You won't likely stick to healthy eating if you associate it with foods you find unappetizing. Find healthy foods you adore and learn how to prepare them in creative ways. For example, if you love a comforting crock of chili, try this superfood vegetarian version served over red lentil pasta or zoodles. Prepare individual portions of foods you love on the weekend and brown-bag your workday lunch. This reduces your temptation to hit the nearest fast food joint when you're famished.
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal: Portion sizes matter. Fortunately, you can eat a ton of vegetables and fruit without gaining weight. These foods provide fiber, which keeps you fuller longer, without adding many calories. If raw vegetables upset your stomach, try cooking them.
- Leave a bit on your plate: Are you a card-carrying member of the clean plate club? While you don't want to waste food, continuing eating after you feel full packs on extra pounds. The damage you do to your health outweighs the environmental impact of scraping a few leftovers into the trash. You can also always store away leftovers for a light meal or snack later! Either way, make it a habit to put your fork down for 2-3 minutes whenever you feel full. If you still feel sated after taking a break, stop eating.
- Allow yourself the occasional treat: You can enjoy the occasional fat-laden or sugary treat. Too many people think one slip up means abandoning their commitment to healthy eating altogether. Avoid this all or nothing thinking by forgiving yourself and opting to eat cleaner at your next meal.