How to Fit Fast Food Cravings Into a Healthy Diet

The summer diet you started (and then re-started because the first time didn’t count) has probably been pushed to the back of your mind for quite some time and that Popeye’s around the corner is starting to look extra inviting.

But, luckily, there are ways to satisfy fast food cravings without binging on something you know is terrible for you.

Why you crave it

“The reason you get addicted to fast food is that the ingredients are addictive,” said Molly Lee, certified holistic health coach and founder of Energizing Nutrition. “They are non-nutritional forms of energy. You’re not getting real nutrients or real energy.”

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According to an article by habit and behavior writer James Clear, junk food is designed to signal to your brain that your body is getting nutrition while also signaling that you are not full. This makes you eat large amounts of food that don’t have any nutrition value.

Lee said the most common question she gets from her clients is about how to cut out sugar and, usually upon further digging, she finds that most of these clients are stressed or sleep-deprived and look to sugar for an immediate burst of energy or satisfaction.

Lorraine Kearney, holistic nutritionist and founder of Lorraine Kearney Nutrition, said that many of her clients crave fast food not in their everyday lives, but after a night of drinking.

“Your electrolytes are depleted and you crave sodium,” she said. “And sodium is in that fried food. And you really need just a pinch of salt as opposed to reaching for a Big Mac.”

Whether your fast food habit is linked to stress, drinking, both or neither, you can inject your daily life with healthy habits that will reshape the way you eat and the way you feel.

Start with breakfast

Although everyone’s told breakfast in the most important meal of the day, it’s also the easiest one to skip. After hitting snooze for the third time, for a lot of us, a meal is the last thing you think to prepare before heading out the door.

But skipping breakfast can lead to cravings throughout the day and the lack of food will put your body in fight or flight mode.

Let’s say your day starts with skipping breakfast because you’re already late, and when you get to work you have to take care of some emails. Deadline after deadline elevates your stress levels and puts your body in a stress-response mode.

“Once the body is going into fight or flight the first thing that goes is digestion,” Kearney said. “The body will hold off on digestion because that is something you can hold off until later.”

A stressful day at work with no real nutrition is followed by a much-too-large Seamless order, which the body finds more difficult to metabolize because your digestive system has come to a halt.

Lee agrees that taking a moment for yourself in the morning to eat is an important step toward a healthy lifestyle. At the very least, replace coffee with water.

“If you start with coffee right away it will upset your nervous system,” she said.

Find satisfying replacements

It’s also important not to be overly restrictive and find moderation and adequate substitutes.

Wean yourself off of McDonald’s by supporting your local burger joint.

If you are accustomed to having a McDonald’s cheeseburger three times a week, try eating a burger from a local burger joint once a week. This can satisfy the craving and one trip to the alternative probably costs about the same as a few trips to McDonald’s.

Something even more cost efficient is cooking burgers yourself.

“If you do have time, pick up grass-fed patties and cook them,” Lee said. “You won’t get addicted to it like you would a burger from a fast food chain because those are made with chemicals and oils.”

If your day does only allow for something quick, Lee suggested going to places that are a tier up from the average fast food, like Shake Shack.

But if you’re truly not ready to step away from you favorite fast food chain, you can also just diversify your order.

“Instead of ordering a burger and fries, get a burger and a salad,” she said. “These are little things you can do, sort of stepping stones, because some people may not be ready to go to the whole other place. Or their budget only allows them to go to fast food. Even McDonald’s has salads.”

This can be applied to soda as well—if you don’t want to skip a flavored drink, try tea or juice.

It’s really about self-care

Lee said that, ultimately, altering you food habits is about making higher quality choices for yourself.

“When it comes to health, people go into the diet mentality but it actually comes down to self-care,” she said. “Self-care and mindfulness.”

Making better choices could take the form of waking up 15 minutes earlier to enjoy a small breakfast and some water at the dinner table as opposed to black coffee on-the-go. Or it could be cutting down your Big Mac intake from four a week to two. There is no amount of improvement that isn’t significant.

Aditi Shrikant

Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer whose goals are to eliminate mansplainers along with the top sheet. You can follow her on Twitter @Aditi_Shrikant and Instagram @aditishrikant.