That's where healthy eating gets tricky—because while it's tempting to completely cut out "bad" foods, or replace them with healthier dupes, those actually are not successful strategies for most people. What’s more, resisting the foods you crave can become not just an exercise in willpower but a full-on distraction from other things in your life.
In order to find that happy medium between eating what you love and eating a healthy, well-rounded diet, experts have a somewhat counterintuitive suggestion: indulge that craving.
It’s not news that taking a balanced approach to healthy eating is more sustainable than following strict food rules.
Sure, some foods might be more nutritious than others, but trying to avoid foods you think are “bad” and only eat “good” foods isn’t likely to make you healthier overall. “When you tell yourself something is off limits, you're likely to think about it more often,” says Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of The Diet Survivor's Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care. You know how when you were a kid and your parents told you not to do something—making you even more desperate to do that very thing? That applies to food cravings, too. “When you do eventually eat it, there's a good chance you'll overeat or binge on that food, which is a natural reaction to deprivation," Matz says. This creates shame about overeating and can make a person charge back into restriction mode, and the cycle continues.
On the other hand, giving yourself permission to eat what you crave often leads to a balanced diet without food fixation. “Our bodies like a wide variety of foods. I like to think about having a healthy relationship with food, as opposed to trying to eat only ‘healthy’ foods,” Matz says.
When you learn to eat what you crave without guilt, you’ll probably find that cravings for “unhealthy” foods become way less intense.
Maybe you’re thinking, “If I gave into my cravings all the time, I’d be eating cookies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” That’s a common response, and it might be true at first. “Deprivation of specific foods sets you up to overeat them when your control breaks down,” or when you finally allow yourself to eat them, Matz says. But this doesn’t last forever.
“When you eat what you want to, and the sense of restriction or scarcity has gone away, you’re able to tune into your body and listen and actually decide if you want a certain food or not,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, nutrition therapist and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “And eventually, everyone gets to the point where they don't have intense cravings. This is explained in research by the science of habituation: The more you are exposed to a food, the less interested you become in it."
Here's how habituation works. You know how when you hear that new Ariana Grande single for the first time on the radio, you can't get enough of it...but then you start hearing it every time you get into your car, and you're sort of meh about it a week later? Habituation kind of works like that—when presented with a food often enough, a person generally ends up eating less of it over time. For example, a small 2011 study looked at the long-term effects of habituation in a group of 32 obese and non-obese women for five weeks. Some of the women were presented with mac and cheese once a week, and some were presented with it every single day...yet the women who encountered mac and cheese every day ended up consuming less of it than the women who only got it once a week. So basically, if you regularly incorporate into your diet a food that you typically crave, over time you're less likely to have an issue with it—because it won't be so novel to you anymore.
Trying to trick your body by eating a “healthier” version of whatever you crave doesn't usually work.
Lower-calorie, less processed versions of our favorite comfort foods—cauliflower pizza, banana ice cream, spaghetti squash and meatballs—are everywhere. And there's nothing wrong with these foods per se; they're certainly healthier than their full-fat, full-carb counterparts. However, if you're craving a sandwich with thick slices of crusty bread, those substitutes likely will fall flat of your expectations. (Sorry, but sweet potato slices are NOT the same as sourdough.)
“Trying to mislead your body never works,” Rumsey says. “While the 'healthy' version may physically fill you up, it likely will not result in mental satisfaction—which means you'll still end up searching for more food to fill up that void.”
That said, swaps like these certainly have a place in some people’s everyday diets. “if you have a specific health concern, then making a substitution can feel care-taking,” says Matz. If you have high cholesterol, for example, substituting sorbet for ice cream might be a way to satisfy a sweets craving while also taking your health into consideration. And if you have Celiac disease but still love pizza, a cauli crust is probably best way for you to still enjoy that food.
But for most people, eating the real deal is still the best option when that's what you truly want to eat. “If you consistently substitute so-called ‘healthy’ foods for what you really crave, you're likely to experience that sense of deprivation,” Matz says.
Ultimately, giving into food cravings won’t hurt a balanced diet.
Of course, this doesn't give you carte blanche to start eating cheeseburgers and fried chicken every day. But making allowances for some cravings foods is generally a good thing—and something that will make it easier to stick to a healthy eating plan for the long haul.
Even with all this reassurance, you might still be afraid that healthy eating will go totally out the window when you start eating what you actually want. This is where learning to listen to your body comes in. “When you have a craving, think about how it will feel in your body, as well as how it will taste,” Matz says. Maybe you’ll go totally overboard on cookies one day (which is okay!), but later realize that this made you feel sluggish all afternoon. Keep this in mind the next time you honor a cookie craving, and stopping after one or two will feel like listening to your body, as opposed to feeling like restriction.
As both Matz and Rumsey mention, cravings for less-nutritious foods should get less intense and less frequent once you start honoring them. “I've never met anyone who craves only foods such as cake, candy, ice cream and chips, just as I've never met anyone who only craves salads, fruits and veggies,” Matz says.
The TL;DR version: Go ahead and eat that slice of cake or bowl of mac and cheese when you're hungry for it, then move on with your day. Trust that you won’t go overboard, and remind yourself that you’ll probably be craving a veggie-packed grain bowl or a fresh fruit salad in the not-so-distant future. Because really, a well-rounded diet does have room for a lot of different kinds of foods—even those traditionally considered "unhealthy."
Here's how one writer learned to love food while still knowing *too* much about nutrition. And here's the healthiest (and still most delicious) bread, according to RDs.
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