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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Food Cravings and Healthier Plant-Based Alternatives

There is a reason we crave processed comfort foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, especially when feeling stressed, anxious, or tired. The taste of these foods provides us with immediate pleasure. But the blissful flavors of sugar, fat, and salt are short-lived. We are then left with uneven blood sugar levels, lack of energy, and unhappiness with ourselves. These negative physical and mental feelings often result in consuming more of these foods; thus, we find ourselves in a cycle of unhealthy food patterns:

  1. Reason -> feeling stressed, anxious, or tired
  2. Action -> eating comfort foods (highly processed; high sugar, fat, and salt)
  3. Immediate effect -> feelings of pleasure, better mood, burst of energy (though short term!)
  4. Continued effect -> uneven blood sugar, feelings of sluggishness, foggy brain, and self-loathing, which leads back to feeling stressed, anxious, craving comfort foods, and repeat

Key to avoiding this unhealthful cycle is an awareness of your moods, emotions, and energy levels and the resulting food cravings. Begin noticing which foods you automatically reach for when feeling stressed or tired. Then, stop and consider whether you can substitute something else. A chart to get you started follows. Look at the list of commonly craved foods and corresponding plant-based alternatives. See which choices might work for you, then try it out. The goal is for you to stock up on foods that are healthful yet pleasurable to eat. Strive to develop a pattern that replaces unhealthy comfort foods with nourishing, tasty alternatives. You’ll be creating a cycle that boosts physical and emotional well-being:

  1. Reason -> feeling stressed, anxious, or tired
  2. Action -> eating nourishing comfort foods (minimally processed; low sugar, fat, and salt)
  3. Effect -> stable blood sugar; more energy, alertness, and self-satisfaction
Craving Healthier Alternative
  • Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao), in small amounts
  • Unsweetened cocoa in nondairy milk, cold or hot
  • Cacao and date cookies and brownies
Refined sugar
  • Naturally sweet fruits (pineapple, berries, watermelon)
  • Naturally sweet vegetables (carrots, corn)
  • Carbonated water sweetened with mint leaves or splashes of fruit juices
  • Dried fruit
Refined baked goods (cake, cookies, pastries)
  • Fiber-rich carbohydrates such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes, or multigrain pasta
  • Whole-grain baked goods sweetened with dates, ripe bananas, or applesauce
  • Nondairy or vegan cheeses (read the labels, avoid oil and processed ingredients)
  • Hummus (has a cheese-like consistency when warmed)
  • Nutritional yeast flakes (cheese-like flavor)
Creamy foods
  • Creamed soups and sauces from cauliflower, potatoes, avocados, or nondairy milk
  • Plant-based macaroni and cheese
  • Puddings from nondairy milk
Ice cream and
frozen treats
  • Sorbet or smoothies from frozen bananas and berries
  • Frozen grapes
  • Frozen bananas rolled in cocoa or coconut
  • Frozen cacao, date, and nut bars
  • Lower-caffeine teas
  • Decaffeinated coffee
  • Sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice or pieces of whole fruit
  • Whole-grain pretzels and crackers that are salt-free or have lower salt content
  • Popcorn – either air-popped or popped in a paper bag in a microwave; sprinkle with cinnamon, nutritional yeast, smoky paprika, pumpkin pie spice, or other flavoring

Finally, be kind to yourself. Be committed to eating healthily, yet allow yourself to be imperfect. I often hear people remark, “I’ve been bad,” or, “I’ve fallen off the wagon.” There is no wagon to fall off on this journey. Remember: you are traveling on your individual path toward overall health and well-being.

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