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December 5, 2012 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Why do I crave junk food so intensely?

Lately I've been getting extremely strong cravings for junk food.

When I say junk, I don't mean like "something that is not low-carb" or "a food that can be unhealthy if eaten to excess". I'm talking about ridiculous things not fit for human consumption, like doritos, or twinkies, or gnarly fast food. Not even worthwhile junk like ice cream or pastries or something deep fried.

These are really strong cravings. Cravings that leave me tempted to get in the car and drive to a place I can get these things. Cravings that make me want to go on Yelp or whatnot and find the nearest McDonald's. (I just moved to this area and, because I generally don't eat fast food, I barely know where to even get it.)

I grew up in a family where we didn't ever have junk like that in the house. As an adult, I might indulge very occasionally, like when the caterers at work made deep fried twinkies that one time, and I'd never had a deep fried twinkie before, so I tried one. Which happened two years ago. As I said, I eat fast food so rarely I couldn't even tell you where the nearest place to get that stuff is.

I don't usually crave things like this, though I will sometimes crave more rational high quality treat foods like artisanal doughnuts or a really good cheeseburger.

The only thing I can think of that has changed in my diet lately is that I'm broker than usual, so I've been eating more processed carb type foods. More meals revolve around iterations of pasta. Tortillas are cheaper than bread in my neighborhood, so it's been taco night a lot lately. But I don't see how "black beans in a corn tortilla" or "noodles with pesto sauce" translates to a strong desire to drive to the nearest Chic Fil A and stuff my face, gay rights be damned. Especially since it's not like I'm transitioning off a low carb or paleo diet -- just eating more oatmeal for breakfast and less eggs.

How can I make it stop? Right now the "junkiest" thing in the house is a jar of peanut butter. I really can't get any healthier with my food choices without going vegan. I also can't really afford to do a high protein diet right now.

Are there affordable foods that are high in the sorts of fats and proteins that might help with satiation? And is that even connected to these freaky cravings for lard and corn syrup?
posted by Sara C. to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, I am not obese but am probably at the upper limit of healthy. I would like to lose ten pounds, in that way that society conditions women to want to lose ten pounds. I am not entirely comfortable with the size of jeans I've been wearing lately. But I don't have an out of control compulsive eating habit, or even a real weight problem.

I had problems with disordered eating as a teenager when there were a lot of other things going on in my family, but it never got to the "diagnosed with anorexia" point. This was all a very long time ago, and those issues with food have mainly been resolved.
posted by Sara C. at 12:09 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you had a physical lately? One of my big symptoms of insulin resistance (thin people can have it too) was that I had to have All The Food. Now. The crappier the food, the more I have to have it. I know all about the 25 cent Sara Lee snack cakes and Biggie Size fries (seriously? 'Biggie Size'? Who was the marketing genius there?). Once I got treated the cravings lessened to what I consider a normal level.

The only other advice I have is watch Food Inc. or Fast Food Nation and gross yourself out. Good luck!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:13 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: Depending on how recently you moved to a new area, it is very possible you are comfort eating. If you are feeling disoriented in a new neighborhood, your routine being shaken up, your support system not the same as it was, you might be clinging to familiar fat-laden comfort food.

I think cravings are often calls to fill some other need in our lives and food can be an easier to obtain stand in for whatever you really need. Of course, sometimes a burrito just sounds awesome too. The trick is to recognize when it's about the food and when it's about something else.
posted by cecic at 12:13 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

For taco night, replace the tortilla shells with romaine hearts. It's not a perfect substitute, but it works (in the purely functional "get taco filling down gullet" sense.)
posted by griphus at 12:14 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only thing I can think of that has changed in my diet lately is that I'm broker than usual, so I've been eating more processed carb type foods.

Everyone's body is different, but I definitely notice that when I eat more simple carbs, I want to eat ALL THE SIMPLE CARBS. When I keep the intake low, the cravings go way down.
posted by rtha at 12:15 PM on December 5, 2012 [25 favorites]

Best answer: Given that you are broke and eating different foods than normal, are you sure you're you eating enough calories? When I have under-eaten at times in my life, I have had VERY STRONG cravings for things I normally dislike - mostly junky things that are very high in fats and carbs. I think this is true fairly universally when someone is really hungry.

If you're sure you're eating enough, maybe it's a blood sugar regulation thing - where eating processed carbs raises your blood sugar; then it crashes; then you crave food/calories/more processed carbs. Sort of like first scenario, only you don't actually need more calories overall. If that's the case, try adding some fat & calories to your carb meals. Oil is really cheap, eggs are often not that expensive either.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:18 PM on December 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh, and, yeah, like everyone else says: carbs definitely have both a snowball effect and an addictive quality; go ahead and ask someone who has kicked both a drug habit and carbs which one was harder to do and watch them have to think about it. Combine that with a craving for comfort food -- you just did a cross-country move to a very different environment and I am sure your mood is all over the place -- and you've got a nasty (in all senses) junk food craving.
posted by griphus at 12:19 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Are you getting enough fat in your diet? Pasta and rice and beans are great, but they're pretty low-fat, even with pesto on the pasta. Maybe you need to add some avocado or cheese or sour cream to your tacos. I eat a lot of salads and rice and beans and pasta and not a lot of meat. I notice that when I haven't been eating enough fat, my body goes a bit haywire and starts craving all sorts of weird shit, like someone flailing around hoping to hit the right target by accident. Once I make sure to actually get some kind of fat integrated back into my diet, the weird flailing/cravings go away.
posted by colfax at 12:23 PM on December 5, 2012 [13 favorites]

have you had any changes in medication? I got a crazy sweet/carb tooth out of nowhere on an anti depressant and didn't realize it until 15 pounds later - thanks doctor for not telling me about that side effect. Turns out it increases your sweet/carb cravings like whoa.

And yeah carbs are addictive, I find. If I'm really strict about avoiding certain things, after about three weeks I find myself not wanting them.
posted by sweetkid at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2012

My first guesses are too many carbs or pregnancy. Either way (and I am not being a smartass here, I swear to God) I suggest unsweetened pickles. They are a great low carb trick to satisfy cravings for sweet and salt. Also many foetuses enjoy them.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:29 PM on December 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh also for alternatives - I keep a crate of clementines in my kitchen and grab one when I ave a sweet craving - they are only 35 calories each so I can have two and be fine, and won't keep at them like I would with cookies because of the acid. I can't eat a lot of different raw fruits for allergy reasons so clementines are my choice, but citrus seems easily findable in your New Location if not clementines. Clementines are also easily portable so I can throw them in a bag if my lunch might not be enough.
posted by sweetkid at 12:34 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: Along with the question of whether you are getting enough fat, I'd make sure you are ok with your salt and protein intake. Fast food tends to have a lot of these, and you will crave them if they are low.
posted by Forktine at 12:36 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: But I don't see how "black beans in a corn tortilla" or "noodles with pesto sauce" translates to a strong desire to drive to the nearest Chic Fil A and stuff my face, gay rights be damned. 


A full glass of one/two percent milk can measurably help. If you don't like milk, yogurt will work as well.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:52 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Were there any changes in your life or relationships lately? I started having much stronger cravings for food (in general! junk or otherwise) while starting a new job this summer. I think stress plus some uncertainty brought it on, because it was unmistakeable in how differently I suddenly felt about food (and it's not like I always eat perfectly healthy meals). The fact that it is junk food you are craving makes me think that it's less about hunger/something with your diet and more about emotions or stress.

To break cravings for high fat/sugar foods I would just avoid junk foods completely for a few weeks. If you're really hungry and think protein would be key, eat some sliced turkey, hardboiled eggs or legumes (lentils or beans with rice, etc). It's really true that cravings for sugar and fats are lost after a few weeks of avoiding them. The taste will actually be kind of gross after a while, too. Good luck!
posted by marimeko at 12:52 PM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: The comfort eating thing might definitely be a thing. I am generally feeling uprooted, and while I'm very happy with the new location (sunshine! fresh squeezed oj from the tree in my yard!), I'm also definitely still finding my place here and lacking in a support system.

It's very possible that I'm not getting enough fat -- in fact now that you mention it, the most satisfying meals I've had over the past few weeks have involved smoked salmon* and avocado, both of which are fatty without being junky.

I am not too interested in "replace all carbs you eat with some other thing that is only nominally food" as an approach. I feel like responding to cravings with deprivation is going to drive me over the edge and into the sea of cream filling**. That said, lettuce wraps sound really good. I'm already brainstorming a recipe for larb, which might imply that I can transfer the fast food cravings to something proteiny/fatty.

Not pregnant. Not on any medication.

*Was a housewarming gift, sadly, and not one I can afford to have in my diet regularly.

**I am sadly aware that it would actually be cheaper to subsist on nothing but Little Debbie snacks and Carl's Junior.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing the questions about fat and adding proteins. Are you getting enough fat and proteins in your diet? Glad to see you're taking that advice on board.
posted by Milau at 12:55 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: Stress does this to me every time.

I'm not a fast-food lover, I can't stand how greasy and fried and gross it is, except when I'm stressed, then it's how much garbage can I eat out of paper time.

Drink more water, go for walks, dispell the stress.

Add more fat to your diet, that should help, add cheap sources of protien, chicken legs, fatty hamburger, tuna.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:55 PM on December 5, 2012

One other suggestion: go to an Armenian grocery store (from what I recall, they're easier to find in LA than a Russian/Ukranian/Polish one) and get yourself some salo, sliced thin. Keep it in the freezer and when a craving hits, have some on bread with butter. It's really solid dose of straight-up fat and salt and may abate the craving.
posted by griphus at 12:57 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: Yeah, the easiest way to cut out shitty carbs is with good proteins and fats. As mentioned above, I will totally have a big glass of 2% milk instead when I'm hungry for something indefinable but bad for me.

Unfortunately sometimes cake is involved.
posted by elizardbits at 1:07 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Comfort eating, almost definitely. I've suffered a lot from that as well.
posted by bswinburn at 1:10 PM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: You've just moved from the East coast to the West? You might be reacting to the difference in the quality and angles of sunlight with a sort of "pad up for winter" instinct, even though the temperatures are not extreme. Add stress and an entirely new routine to that, and you've got a deep comfort/hibernation requirement.

I agree about fat. Even the fanciest eggs are only about $5.00 a dozen. If two eggs is a small meal, that's $0.75 a meal. Chicken thighs are cheaper and fattier than breasts, and if you're in a tortilla neighborhood you can probably find a carniceria where you can get good deals on meat and fish - uncooked or cooked, sometimes you can get pollo asado and carnitas cooked cheaper than you'd pay to take it home and cook it yourself.

But even a few slices of cheap-ass cheddar can help when you're jonesing. If you're not taking a multivitamin, you might do that too, just in case you're just low on something that your body thinks is only found in Twinkies.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:11 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Eat deli meats (low sodium if you can find it/stand it, though I am always BLECH when I eat low sodium deli meats so YMMV), eggs eggs eggs and don't sweat it if they're not organic, and learn how to cook cheapo meats: oxtails, liver (so good for you), drumsticks, whatever is discounted without looking yeeeesh.

Nthing everyone who's said that the more crap carbs you eat, the more you crave them, the hungrier you are, and then blammo, your pants don't fit. Carbs are especially tempting when you're stressed, hungover, tired and fragile. To end the cycle: start out with a breakfast of eggs, butter (please tell me you have/can afford butter!), maybe some hot sauce or sriracha and salt. It'll help you feel fuller for longer, and give you the energy to braise some tasty oxtails like a Jamaican grandma.

I am skeptical of milk just because the lactic sugars always affect me like most other fast-acting carbs, and every time I drink it out of thirst it winds up making me thirstier for some unexplainable reason and then suddenly I've consumed like 500 calories worth of milk.

Vegetables are so important to keeping you full and well-nourished as well. I know there have been times when I can't really afford to get a head of broccoli, but goddamn if Ina Garten's roasted broccoli isn't a great way to keep myself from eating carbage. HOWEVER, yes, vegetables are pricy, so get familiar with their seasonality.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:14 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there an asian grocery store nearby? Tofu in broth is high in protein and fat, pretty cheap and very quick. Here in Large Midwestern City, I can buy a block of firm tofu for about $1.10 (which would give me two 200 calorie servings) plus various brothy things at various pricepoints. If you can also swing a bottle of sesame oil and a little bottle of japanese white pepper, this will be even more enjoyable.
posted by Frowner at 1:27 PM on December 5, 2012

Replacing the processed carbs with unprocessed stuff like vegetables, rather than low-carb faux-food, is a great way to go. I have virtually zero junk food cravings now that I eat mostly poultry, vegetables, and nuts. I keep the potatoes and rice at a minimum, but the key is really: eat enough fat, limit sugar & starch, and make sure you're hydrated and well-rested. Once the stress and newness of the new location die down a bit, that'll probably help as well.
posted by bedhead at 1:50 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are you sure you're eating enough? You really just might be hungry and not realize it. Sometimes I will crave junk food and only realize once I start eating it just how famished I was.

My cure? Having a bottle of natural peanut butter on hand, and dipping in with a spoon when the craving starts.

I definitely also agree that it could be comfort eating.
posted by imalaowai at 1:58 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are there affordable foods...

Try finding a Smart & Final store near you. They used to cater primarily to the restaurant industry but have been aggressively courting Costco shoppers. (There are a number of things I used to buy at Costco that are cheaper at S&F.)

They have huge produce sections with prices that I can only assume are loss-leaders and you don't have to buy anything in bulk. (They have some organic produce, too.) Last week I bought a pack of 9 or 10 drumsticks that were on sale for $4.00; there are still a lot of items sold in bulk, but in more manageable quantities than Costco.

I will leave the consumption advice to others, but S&F has become my new favorite place to shop, just to discover something new and cheap. With the money I save I can afford to splurge on things like good tomatoes, Harry's Berrys strawberries, and twee eggplants at the farmer's market.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:40 PM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: Try finding a Smart & Final store near you. They used to cater primarily to the restaurant industry but have been aggressively courting Costco shoppers.

Huh, I thought Smart & Final was some kind of Marshall's/TJ Maxx type place, not a food store. There's one not too far from home, but the Mexican supermarket even closer practically pays me to take the produce off their hands so I hadn't looked anywhere else for cheap food. I'll check S&F out for deals on other stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 4:12 PM on December 5, 2012

When I'm not eating a nutritionally robust diet, I get crazy cravings -- even when I'm eating more calories than I need. Are you getting enough greens, proteins, healthy fats?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:24 PM on December 5, 2012

So I'm kind of embarrassed to admit where I heard this, but consider an oil supplement like fish oil or linseed oil. I find when I get the crazy fat cravings, that's what the body is REALLY after, the good stuff in those kinds of oils, not Doritos or Twinkies.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:29 PM on December 5, 2012

I find if I start eating crap food I will eat more crap food. Try eating something you don't crave, on a regular basis (cheapest in-season raw veggies! or even a $1-2 bag of baby carrots could last a week). After a while you will start craving that. For me I force myself to eat a new in-season cheap veggie by keeping it--and only it--at my office. That way when I need a snack I am pretty forced to eat it. And I drink a few glasses of water when I do it.

Frowner mentions tofu, good idea! Tofu can be really expensive or really cheap. Best is to go to your city's chinatown or just find a store that has tofu in tubs. Look for it in produce, in little green strawberry baskets in a tub of ice water. Way cheaper than mass-packaged stuff, but you wouldn't see it unless you were looking.

And raw nuts! These can also be pricey but buy whatever's on sale. Great to keep in a baggie in your bag when you get a craving have some of that!
posted by manicure12 at 10:58 PM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: Hey guys!

So I went on a big grocery shop and stocked up on foods that are rich in protein and healthy fats. I got some more avocados, some deli meat, ground beef for that larb recipe I was brainstorming. Went crazy in the dairy aisle. I also let myself splurge on a few things in general, wanting to appease my hibernating/comfort seeking monkey brain (I got a tire pressure gauge! wheeee!). I am moments away from tucking into a dinner of pan fried chicken gyoza with a side of homemade raita.

I also took myself out to lunch at a legendary local taqueria, thinking that maybe if I found room in my budget for something that feels like a treat but is mostly healthy, that might stave off the junk cravings.

It seems to be working so far... At any rate, life is a little more delicious and I haven't ruined my budget yet.
posted by Sara C. at 7:58 PM on December 7, 2012

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