If you often find yourself daydreaming about (or even eating) foods like brownies, and cookies, and even pasta, you might wonder why you’re so often craving junk food.
A lot of different factors could be at play here, including your stress levels, your sleep patterns, and your home and work environments. However, one of the biggest and most common contributing factors is an unbalanced diet.
In this post, I’m going to tell you about the link between your diet and junk food cravings and share 2 strategies for taming your sugar monster.
Blood Sugar and Craving Junk Food: A Quick Chemistry Lesson
Think about the types of foods you eat on a regular basis. Do you prefer foods like pasta, rice, crackers, potatoes, and sweets?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating these foods, especially in small amounts. However, all of these foods are sugary or starchy carbohydrates, which can actually leave you craving junk food when you eat lots of them. Here’s a very basic rundown of how it works:
Our bodies break down dietary carbohydrates into simple sugars, which make their way into the bloodstream and cause our blood sugar to rise. To counteract these spikes in blood sugar, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which pulls sugar into our cells for energy and storage.
Our bodies release more insulin when blood sugar levels are higher. However, higher amounts of insulin can cause your blood sugar to dip low. And when this happens, we tend to crave starchy foods (which bring blood sugar levels back up). It’s a vicious cycle.
There are two ways to get off of this blood sugar roller coaster ride: Eating fewer sugary and starchy carbs and creating more balance in your meals and snacks. Let’s talk about those in a bit more detail.
Strategy 1: Eating Fewer Processed, Sugary, and Starchy Carbs
Admittedly, sugary and starchy carbs taste delicious. Who doesn’t love a big plate of pasta, followed by a slice of chocolate cake?
Unfortunately, these foods present a bit of a double whammy when it comes to food cravings. For one, they’re highly palatable, meaning it’s really easy to keep going back for more. And, as we discussed above, they can easily spin you into a cycle of blood sugar spikes and dips, making you more likely to crave sugary and starchy foods later in the day.
One way to combat this is to simply limit your intake of processed carbohydrates (as well as naturally starchy foods).
Now, before you jump to conclusions, I just want to go on the record and say that I’m NOT endorsing a super low-carb diet. You’ll still get plenty of carbs from whole foods, like vegetables, fruit, beans, and legumes.
Here’s what I’d suggest. Grab a piece of paper and divide it into 3 columns by drawing two lines that are equally spaced apart. Label the first column “green,” the second column “yellow,” and the third column “red.”
- The “green” column represents unprocessed carbs. These are foods that you could pick from a tree or bush or dig from the ground (examples include whole fruits and veggies, beans, legumes, rice, quinoa, oats, and whole grain breakfast cereal. We’ll also count frozen fruits and veggies with no additives in this group).
- The “yellow” column represents carbs that have been processed, but still aren’t too bad for you. Examples of yellow carbs include whole grain bread, pasta, and applesauce.
- The “red” column represents highly processed carbs, like cookies, crackers, chips, pretzels, juice, soda, sugary breakfast cereal, and flavored oatmeal packets.
Now, categorize each of the foods you eat on a regular basis by green, yellow, and red.
Your goal is to eat mostly green carbs, maybe a few yellow carbs, and very little red carbs each week.
If you want to take that even a step further, you might limit starchier green foods like potatoes to the meal after your workout.
Might this strategy be challenging at first, if you’ve been eating lots of processed, sweet, and starchy carbohydrates? One thousand percent yes. It’s common to experience cravings, brain fog, irritability, and fatigue for a few days as you adjust to your new way of eating.
The tradeoff is that it’s very effective at stabilizing blood sugar (and therefore, lowering junk food cravings) with time and consistency.
No worries if this approach is feeling like too much for you! There’s another way.
Strategy 2: Never Eat a Carb Alone
If you’re often craving junk food and want to feel a bit more in control, there is a gentler approach that allows for some of the carb-heavy foods you love.
A quick motto to help you stay on track? Never eat a carb alone.
Every single meal or snack you eat that includes a sugary or starchy carbohydrate should also include a lean protein and a healthy fat.
Proteins and fats help prevent steep blood sugar spikes by slowing the digestion and absorption of sugary and starchy carbs. In turn, your insulin response won’t be as aggressive, and you’re less likely to crave carbs later in the day.
So, what should your meals and snacks look like? Here are a couple of rules of thumb (pun 100% intended).
Meals should include 1-2 palm sized portions of lean protein, 1-2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats, and (optional) 1 cupped handful of starchy carbs. You’ll also want 1-2 cupped handfuls of nonstarchy veggies—any veggie except for potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, or corn.
Snacks should be about ½ of those portions, and only if you’re truly hungry.
You’ll eat on the higher end of those ranges if you’re a larger man, and on the low end if you’re a smaller lady.
Another easy way to keep your blood sugar in balance is the plate method. Clinical dietitians actually use as an educational tool for people with diabetes, but it’s great for anyone.
Here’s how it works. You’ll start with a 9” plate (roughly the size of an old school paper plate—the ones with fluted edges).
Divide an invisible line down the center of that plate, then another invisible line down the middle of one half. You should have 3 sections on your plate.
You’ll start by filling the biggest section with nonstarchy veggies (again, any veggie except for potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, and corn). Next, you’ll fill one of the smaller sections with lean protein, like chicken breast, shrimp, or tofu. This leaves about ¼ of the plate for your rice, pasta, potatoes, corn, peas, a slice of bread, or similar.
What about fats? You might or might not need to add any, depending on your meal. If you roasted your veggies in oil or maybe had chicken thighs instead of chicken breast, you probably don’t need extra fats. But if you’re eating lean proteins and raw veggies, for example, feel free to add a thumb-sized portion of oil-based dressing, cheese, butter, etc.
If you’re a sugar monster, you might be asking yourself, “But where are the sweets?” Friend, I’m sorry to tell you…those are special occasion foods. Keep those to small portions, no more than once or twice per week.
Whether you choose the hand-sized portions or the plate method, the nice thing is that you can still include some of the carb-rich foods you enjoy, albeit in smaller amounts.
The Best Approach if You’re Craving Junk Food?
So now that I’ve given you a couple of different methods for balancing blood sugar and reducing junk food cravings, you’re probably wondering which is best.
The answer? It depends.
I know, right? It’s infuriating when people say that. But here’s the thing—we’re all different. Some people can keep their starchy carb portions small and be perfectly satisfied, while others find it easier and less tempting to limit them.
And really, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can experiment with both, and then have a couple of different tools in your toolbox! I personally like strategy 1 for most days, but I like to use strategy 2 for vacation, meals out at restaurants, and other special occasions.
If you just can’t wrap your head around which strategy to choose, or if you have a good idea but need a little support and accountability, then you’d be a great candidate for nutrition coaching!
1:1 coaching allows me to get to know ALL about you—your diet history, your goals, your lifestyle, your food preferences, and your triggers. Then, we work together to implement and fine-tune a plan that’s completely individualized to you.
Interested in learning more? Email [email protected], and let’s have a chat!
So now that you have a couple of different strategies to control your blood sugar and keep sugar cravings at bay, I want to hear from you! Are you more likely to succeed with strategy 1 or strategy 2, or something in the middle?
Let me know in the comments!