• Feelings of stress and anxiety can cause anyone to not only resort to eating more than normal but to consume food that’s unhealthy or lacking proper nutrition.
  • Turning to junk food at time like these is understandable, too -it tastes better than what’s considered healthy and is even proven to be addictive.
  • We tapped nutritionist, Samantha Cassetty, for advice on how to curb those cravings, as well as personal-trainer-turned-food-blogger, Mason Woodruff, who supplied a few unique recipes capable of replicating junk food favorites as something healthy.

Spending more time inside takes a toll on anyone’s mental and physical health. Even if you’re keeping some semblance of a weekly fitness routine, the very nature of staying home means you’re still likely to be moving much less than you’re used to. Tack on the impact a less than positive news cycle has on your mental wellbeing and it’s clear the current normal is anything but typical.

This has inevitably created an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. According to Samantha Cassetty, an MS, RD, and nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City, it’s why many people turn not just to snacking more between meals but also to picking something that’s not particularly healthy.

To help you curb this behavior, we tapped a couple of experts, including Cassetty, to find out why our cravings increase in quarantine, why we crave junk, and to provide a few healthier recipes for you to nosh on.

How quarantine amplifies our cravings

According to Cassetty, "chronic stress can actually alter your food preferences, which is why you may experience cravings for sugary, high-carb fare." This means you're more likely to grab a bag of chips or a second or third cookie instead of something like a bag of carrots.

Higher stress levels also alter your two main hunger hormones: Leptin and ghrelin. When these hormones are thrown out of whack, you'll start experiencing food cravings more often, even if you're not physically hungry.

Another reason why we turn to food in times of stress, particularly junk food, is because it's a quick way to release dopamine, a hormone that elicits a feel-good response. Cassetty adds that if you find yourself whipping up indulgent treats more often, it may be because doing so reminds you of a more comforting time.

Or you're just bored as hell. A series of three studies found that individuals sought out snacking as a way to entertain themselves. This would explain the desire to constantly want to snack while trying to make time pass each day. And being bored at home is far different than being bored in the office.

Let's say you typically had four hours of actual work to do. You'd likely fill your remaining time by talking to coworkers or pretending to look busy, and perhaps taking a few breaks for small snacks or a walk around the office. Now that your home is your office, gym, and place of relaxation, it's easier to kill time by doing what you want - including making frequent trips to the kitchen.

Why we turn to junk food

When you're raiding your fridge for food, chances are you don't immediately reach for an available bell pepper or piece of fruit, instead opting for chips or chocolate or soda. There's a reason for that.

For one, junk food just tastes better. Plain and simple. Cassetty calls processed foods like this hyper-palatable, as these lab-grown snacks are saltier, sweeter, and crunchier than foods that grow from the earth.

That artificial deliciousness can even lead to a real addiction, too. A 2018 study had participants place an initial bid on foods such as Cheetohs, Snickers, and Coca-Cola. After being exposed to the treats, the participants increased their bids by 38%. Another study showed that rats become addicted to sugar when exposed to it under some circumstances, suggesting that humans can experience the same obsession.

As Cassetty alluded to earlier, some foods elicit a positive psychological response. A response that's strong enough to sway your subconscious behavior, too.

"Perhaps baking reminds you of feeling safe and cozy when you were growing up," she told Business Insider. "Even if you aren't conscious of it, the behavior of baking is linked to a feeling of comfort. It takes work to untangle that connection."

How to subdue cravings

Putting a cap on your cravings is far easier said than done and there are more than just one or two factors involved in making a change. According to Cassetty, it takes a multi-pronged approach. She suggests four methods for how to start:

  • Be mindful of where you work: Make sure your workstation is out of and away from your kitchen. This helps avoid being triggered to eat. Being around your kitchen, Cassetty said, keeps your mind off work and on your next meal instead.
  • Eat balanced meals every four hours: "A balanced meal contains mostly whole, plant foods," Cassetty said. "Half your plate should be covered with non-starchy veggies that are accompanied by protein and some healthy, plant-based fats (such as avocado, nuts, or seeds)." This balance helps you to feel full, so you're less likely to want to snack.
  • Take a pause before you eat: Before eating, ask yourself if you're actually hungry or if underlying feelings are causing you to want to eat. If it's the latter, try to pinpoint what those feelings are and how to combat them. For example, if you're craving a connection, set up a Zoom call with your friends. If you're bored, pick up a book or watch a TV show. If you're stressed or not sleeping well, Cassetty suggests addressing your overall self-care routine. Meditate, exercise, go to bed earlier. These add up and help you feel better.
  • Be realistic: "It's not practical to expect you'll never seek solace in food again," Cassetty added. "Maybe it's more realistic to work on one healthier coping tool this week and see how it goes. Focus on the process instead of the outcome - in this case, reducing cravings. As long as you're continuing to put effort into the process, you're making progress and you should feel really good about that."

Don't forget to be kind to yourself, too. As Cassetty pointed out about being realistic, it's not a damning characteristic to be swayed by junk food. Especially right now, those feelings aren't just normal, they're warranted (and expected).

Craving that? Cook this

One way to start weening off excess junk food is to find healthy alternatives to what it is you like to eat. To help, we turned to Mason Woodruff, an at-home chef who runs the popular cooking blog, Kinda Healthy Recipes. Woodruff originally wanted to be a registered dietician but shifted gears by combining his love for food science and healthy eating to develop better-for-you takes on traditional junk food.

The following are five of his go-to recipes that anyone can easily cook at home to help satisfy a variety of cravings. Maybe you feel like downing a basket of garlic fries? Try Mason's garlic parmesan air-fried carrots instead. There's even a cookie recipe included for anyone with an insatiable sweet tooth.

Craving: Buffalo chicken mac & cheese


Cook this: Buffalo chicken chickpea mac & cheese

Classic macaroni and cheese is a fat and carb bomb void of protein. Woodruff cuts down on the carbs by replacing standard pasta with a chickpea variety that contains a third of the carbs of regular elbow macaroni.

The recipe also combines full-fat Monterey jack with fat-free cheese powder and yogurt to deliver the same gooey texture but with less than 20 grams of fat per serving. To amp up the protein, he adds ground chicken to the mix, too.

Craving: Garlic parmesan French fries


Cook this: Garlic parmesan air fryer carrots

There are few culinary joys as indulging in a basket of garlic fries. They're salty, crispy, and cheesy. Like most junk food, though, they offer almost no nutritional value in the form of vitamins. That's why Woodruff replaced high-carb, low-vitamin potatoes with carrots, a vegetable that has more than half the carbs and is packed with vitamins A and C.

By cutting them into thin strips, seasoning them generously, and cooking them until crispy, you get the same satisfying texture as fries but with none of the fattening side effects.

Craving: Spicy popcorn chicken


Cook this: Spicy popcorn chicken

Although the name of each dish here is similar, Woodruff differentiates the two by instead asking for honey and corn flakes to make the chicken's coating. In doing so, you get a sweet and spicy flavor with a satisfying crunchy exterior, which goes a long way to quell your cravings for anything fried.

Craving: Cheeseburger from a fast food chain


Cook this: Cheeseburger Bites

Burgers may be high in protein but they also pack about a day's worth of fat for most folks. Compared to most healthy versions of fast food, however, burgers can be easily modified while keeping flavor and familiarity intact.

Swap 80/20 beef for the extra lean variety, cut back on the amount of cheese you use, and instead rely on mustard, ketchup, and pickles to flavor the meat. In his version, Woodruff ditches the bun and bakes these balls in a muffin tin to create a low-carb treat.

Craving: Chocolate chip cookies


Cook this: Chocolate chip protein cookies

This recipe is a little more involved, as you have to make your own dough, but it's well worth the elbow grease if you're craving something sweet. You'll still use standard flour and chocolate but will mix it in with low-calorie sweeteners and protein powder for more balanced macros.