Sneaky Reasons for Your Unhealthy Cravings

There’s a reason you’ve been longing for greasy french fries and chocolate cake.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

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So, you’ve got a hankering for a salty snack, like popcorn or potato chips. Or maybe you’re more in the mood for something sweet, like a dish of ice cream and a slice of chocolate cake. You’re not alone. One study found that 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men experienced cravings.

Why is your body telling you to eat these foods? How can you sate your cravings without blowing your diet? The answers, though simple, might surprise you. Here are four reasons for your most unhealthy cravings, plus ways to beat them.

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You have unhealthy habits

Humans are creatures of habit, and once formed, bad habits—like eating in front of the television—are hard to break. “If you sit in front of the TV and you always have chips, then every time you sit in front of the TV, you start craving chips,” says Jessica Hargroder, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Mark’s Hospital.

Why? Habits are formed by repetition and strengthened by the body’s release of dopamine, a chemical that regulates pleasure.

If you have the willpower to cut habits like this from your routine, go for it! If not, try upgrading your snacks; munch on a cup of air-popped popcorn or a handful of crunchy carrot sticks, instead.

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You’re just thirsty

Your mind and body have a way of playing tricks on you. “A lot of people mistake hunger, or a craving, when they’re thirsty,” Hargroder says. “I might even crave something like ice cream before realizing, once I drink some water, I didn't want that anymore,” she adds.

Recognizing the signs of thirst could prevent unnecessary, and often unhealthy, eating. Before you reach for the sweet—or salty—treat you think your body is craving, consider how much water you’ve consumed and whether you exercised harder than usual that day. Try sipping a tall glass of water before you eat anything; once you’ve rehydrated, you’ll likely find your cravings have disappeared.

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You’re feeling emotional

There may be justification to craving ice cream and chocolates when you're sad, stressed, angry or bored. One study suggests that stress makes people seek comfort in eating, and more inclined to choose high-fat and high-sugar foods. “Comfort is a big reason that people crave things,” Hargroder says. “Those foods bring back positive emotions or memories when we eat them."

Eating isn’t the only way to quell negative emotions—exercise can help control anger, meditation may combat stress, and chatting with friends can prevent sadness and loneliness. So, before you reach into the refrigerator, take a walk, call a friend or try some yoga.

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You sip diet soda

If you’re trying to cut calories, drinking diet colas may not be the best strategy; some research suggests they actually make you crave more sweet foods. “Diet soda tastes sweet, but it doesn't actually have any sugar,” says Hargroder. "It's giving your body the taste that it's getting sugar, but it's not getting it, so you keep wanting to drink more and more."

The best option for quenching thirst is always water, but seltzer is a good option, as well. Reach for a cold can of sparkling seltzer the next time you’re craving a diet soda.

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Beat your cravings

For many, cravings are inevitable. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to sate them without going overboard.

Snack between meals: Waiting too long to eat can lead to binging. Try an apple or a cup of sliced cucumber. If you stay full, you may be less likely to crave junk in the first place.

Try healthy alternatives: For salty cravings, Hargroder recommends dried seaweed sheets or lightly salted nuts. For sweet cravings, she suggests trail mix or a banana with a tablespoon of all-natural peanut butter.

Practice moderation: “For some, maybe having a little bit of what you’re craving is okay,” Hargroder says. “For others, [it] just makes you want more. You have to figure that out for yourself.”

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