The Real Reason You're Craving Fried Food

Craving french fries or chicken wings? As you might have heard, food cravings are often due to stress, vitamin deficiencies, or sleep deprivation. For example, some people turn to sugary, salty, or fatty foods when stressed, notes Cleveland Clinic. Dehydration may cause cravings for high-sodium foods, while a lack of sleep can make you crave high-fat or high-carb foods, explains Nebraska Medicine.

If fried foods are a mealtime staple, it might be time to tweak your diet. Frying not only destroys some of the nutrients in food but also promotes acrylamide formation. This compound results from a chemical reaction between sugars and the amino acid asparagine, and may lead to cancer in the long run, warns the FDA. What's more, deep frying increases the fat content of potatoes and other foods while altering dietary proteins and amino acids, according to clinical research published in Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición.

A diet high in fried foods may also contribute to mental illnesses, heart disease, and obesity. For example, a 2016 study found that people who eat fried foods regularly are more likely to become depressed, reports the journal Lipids in Health and Disease. Another study, which appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, says that fried food consumption can lead to coronary artery disease and diabetes.

Given these aspects, it makes sense to think twice before reaching for a bag of chips. But first, try to figure out why you're craving fried foods — and what to eat instead.

What causes cravings for fried food?

Fried foods are often high in fat and sodium, but some also contain large amounts of carbs. So, if you're craving potato chips, you might actually feel the need to eat more carbs or salt. Holistic nutritionist Stephanie Kay says that fried food cravings may indicate you're not getting enough omega-3s and other healthy fats. Deep-fried bacon, fries, potato chips, and other fried foods contain trans and saturated fats, leading to inflammation. Ideally, fill up on nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, salmon, and tuna, which are loaded with healthy fats.

Surprisingly, individuals with higher than average zinc intakes are more likely to crave fried food, suggests a 2016 study conducted at Texas Christian University. This mineral plays a key role in protein synthesis, immune function, and other biochemical processes, but you only need it in small doses. Too much zinc can inhibit copper absorption and cause digestive distress, according to Mather Hospital. To stay safe, try not to exceed 40 milligrams per day.

Last but not least, you may be craving junk food — including fried foods — because of sleep deprivation or emotional stress. Fried foods are highly palatable and stimulate the brain's reward center. "Sugar makes us want to eat more sugar. Fat makes us want to eat more fat," registered dietitian Beth Czerwony told the Cleveland Clinic. "Our brains are chasing that pleasurable state of food euphoria," she added. 

Manage food cravings without giving up flavor

An occasional serving of chicken wings is unlikely to harm your health, but try not to make a habit out of it. Meanwhile, seek healthier alternatives to the foods you crave. For example, baked chicken wings taste just as good as their fried counterparts. Serve them with homemade tzatziki, aioli, or garlic sauce for extra flavor. Likewise, you can swap french fries for baked potato fries, zucchini fries, or kale chips. Air-popped popcorn, zucchini chips, and roasted seaweed are all healthier alternatives to potato chips.

Another option is to use an air fryer, recommends WebMD. Air-fried foods are up to 80% lower in calories and contain about 90% less acrylamide than conventionally fried foods. This cooking method also reduces the formation of cholesterol oxidation products (COP), a class of compounds linked to heart disease, cancer, and atherosclerosis. Sprinkle some fresh parsley or chives over your favorite foods to further decrease their COP content. The downside is that air frying may lower the amount of polyunsaturated fats and increase COP levels in fish, suggests a 2017 study featured in the Journal of Food Science.

As discussed earlier, fried food cravings may also be due to stress and lack of sleep. If that's your case, try to squeeze more "me" time into your daily schedule. Regular exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and relaxing activities like walking, dancing, or cycling can all reduce stress, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness.