You crave a bag of potato chips to overcome the afternoon slump, dig into a pint of ice cream during your period and yearn for a heaping plate of French fries after a stressful day at work.
Cravings are normal. Research published in the journal Appetite found that 97% of women and 68% of men reported experiencing periodic cravings for specific foods or flavors. Cravings tend to be strongest for foods that are high in sugar and fat, such as chocolate and ice cream, or salt, like potato chips and French fries. All of the most crave-worthy foods are also high in calories.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap (Rux Martin/HMH), believes stress and fatigue, positive associations with certain foods and environmental triggers—such as seeing a commercial for a sweet treat or passing an aisle of snack foods at the supermarket—can trigger cravings. What’s more, “getting too hungry and wanting quick, unhealthy calories is a big cause of cravings,” says Blatner.
Trying to constantly white-knuckle your way through cravings with sheer willpower might work for a day or two, but it isn’t a long-term answer. A better idea is to find suitable substitutes—a food that will give you the salty, sweet or fatty taste you crave, but in a healthier package.
Crave substitutes generally have much higher nutrient levels. In fact, research shows cravings could be used as clues to underlying health issues, including nutritional deficiencies. Craving chocolate, which is high in magnesium, could signal a lack of this crucial mineral, a preference for salty foods could be related to zinc deficiency and a desire to chew ice could mean your iron levels are low.
Cravings might be linked to mood, too. Researchers who have linked carbohydrate cravings to depression note that carbs promote the release of serotonin, a key brain chemical. In depression, serotonin dips; eating carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta gives levels a boost.
While there is nothing wrong with giving in to an occasional craving, reaching for something sweet or salty every time you get a hankering can lead to a diet that lacks essential nutrients and contains too many calories.
“There are so many naturally sweet and salty foods that you really can give yourself a version of what you crave but get valuable nutrients while you’re at it,” says Blatner. Giving in to cravings too often “becomes a vicious cycle,” she adds. “You’ll just keep wanting more and more, day after day.”
The next time you have a craving, consider one of these healthy—and satisfying—swaps.
Noodles made from zucchini, spaghetti squash or butternut squash are great substitutes for processed pasta. Use a spiralizer blade in a food processor (or any of the tabletop models) to shred a nutrient-dense vegetable into thin strips that look like spaghetti noodles. Add olive oil to a skillet and cook over medium heat for one minute, then add water and cook for five to seven minutes. Top your “noodles” with tomato sauce and serve.
Unlike pasta, which has 40 grams of carbs and 220 calories per cup, zucchini has just four grams of carbs per cup and 10 times fewer calories, plus it’s chock-full of vitamin C and potassium, according to Blatner.
“[Vegetable noodles] give you the same fork-twirling fun but without
as many blood sugar–spiking carbs,” she says.
The abundance of natural sugars in fruits like blueberries, strawberries, mangoes and grapes will help satisfy your sweet tooth, notes Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, author of Total Body Diet for Dummies (For Dummies). Dried fruits like dates and raisins, as long as they were processed without added sugar, are also good alternatives, but frozen fruit, thanks to its texture, feels more like a decadent dessert.
“Since candy is high in refined carbohydrates—sugar with no nutritional value—you want to reach for foods that offer vitamins, minerals, fiber and plant nutrients that can benefit your brain, heart and cell health,” Retelny says. Fruit also has a fraction of the calories in candy.
You can go ahead and give into your cravings—as long as you choose dark chocolate.
Unlike milk chocolate, which has as little as 10% cocoa blended with butter, milk and sugar, dark chocolate has up to 90% cocoa and contains no milk. Cocoa contains flavanols, compounds that have been shown to protect the heart and lower blood pressure.
A study in the European Heart Journal found that eating six grams of dark chocolate—the equivalent of one to two small squares—was linked with lowered blood pressure and inflammation, and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Dark chocolate also contains less cocoa butter, which means less saturated fat. For the biggest health benefits, Retelny suggests choosing chocolate with at least 60% cacao—the more, the better.
You can eat small amounts of dark chocolate solo, but Palanski-Wade suggests mixing it into a trail mix made from air-popped popcorn, nuts and dried fruit for a craving-conquering snack that’s rich in fiber and nutrients. Remember, portion size is important: Dark chocolate might be heart healthy but it still packs a lot of calories, so don’t overdo it.
Lay’s Potato Chips chose the iconic slogan, “Betcha can’t eat just one” for a reason: The salty snacks are addictive—and high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol, including “bad” LDL cholesterol, and lead to blockages of arteries.
Conquer your cravings with DIY chips. Diabetes educator Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies (For Dummies), suggests cutting potatoes into thin slices, adding a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt and baking them in the oven. You can also add flavorings like malt vinegar or chili powder. Palinski-Wade calls the homemade alternative “a crunchy snack packed full of fiber and nutrients.” Or you can opt for air-popped popcorn, which is higher in fiber and has fewer calories than processed potato chips.
Blatner also loves kale chips; this low-calorie snack will satisfy your craving for salt and provide a boost of nutrients like fiber, vitamins C and K, beta-carotene, iron, calcium and potassium, which benefit digestion and immunity as well as skin, bone and heart health.
Greek yogurt is a nutritional powerhouse. Packed with protein and calcium with fewer calories and less sugar than ice cream—not to mention the active cultures that are a boon to gut health—Greek yogurt is a thick, creamy alternative that will keep ice cream cravings in check.
To make Greek yogurt feel more like a decadent dessert than a health food, pop it in the freezer so the texture is closer to ice cream.
Skip the low-fat and fat-free versions. Several studies show that full-fat dairy helps reduce belly bloat, and decreases the risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Going with full-fat dairy could also help you lose weight because it’s more satisfying and helps prevent overeating.
If you’re vegan or lactose-intolerant, Blatner recommends “nice cream” made with frozen bananas blended into an ice cream-like texture. “You’ll get the same creamy mouth feel but for fewer calories and more fiber, potassium, vitamin C and biotin than regular ice cream,” she explains.
SWEET POTATO FRIES
Sweet potatoes are considered a superfood thanks to all of the fiber, potassium and vitamin A packed into one small spud; sweet potatoes also contain fewer calories than the regular variety. But cooking sweet potato fries in a vat of oil counteracts the nutritional benefits, putting the potatoes on par with conventional French fries. Instead, Retelny suggests using an air fryer, which relies on hot air—not artery-clogging oils—to cook food. “It’s a healthier, lower calorie and fat alternative to deep-frying,” she says.
You can also make fries from zucchini or eggplant. Add a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt; these nutrient-dense “French fries” will satisfy intense cravings for the fast-food snack.
Sweet Potato Fries
1 large sweet potato, washed, peeled and chopped into strips
1 heaping tbsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
dash black pepper
In a medium bowl, put in the potatoes, spritz with the vegetable spray 2 or 3 times,
and sprinkle in garlic powder, salt and pepper. Gently toss together until
potatoes are well coated.
Pour into the basket of the air fryer. Cook at 350° for 10 minutes, check and toss,
and put in for another 10 minutes. Repeat until potatoes are fully cooked.
Serve immediately. (Note: If these fries are not eaten right away they become
soggy and cold.)
Serves 2 (1 cup each)
Recipe courtesy of Vicki Shanta Retelny, from simplecravingsrealfood.com