Carbohydrate Craving

Carbohydrate Craving: Overview

Alternative names: Carbohydrate addiction.

A carbohydrate craving can be described as a compelling hunger, craving or desire for carbohydrate-rich foods; an escalating, recurring need or drive for starches, snack foods, junk food or sweets.

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The term "carbohydrate craving" is used in a theory about the relationship between carbohydrate, insulin and appetite.  We know that eating carbohydrate raises insulin, which then lowers blood sugar.  This causes a desire (or craving) for more food and, for some people, carbohydrates in particular.

High-sugar, refined starch, convenience and comfort foods feed the addiction like a drug.  They produce correspondingly high blood sugar and insulin levels, which lead to even more cravings.  They also produce higher levels of the brain chemical serotonin.  In sensitive people, particularly those who may have low serotonin levels to begin with, a carbohydrate binge is the equivalent of self-medication – getting a sugar "high."

Causes and Development

We don't really know enough about all the factors that cause specific food cravings; more research is needed to help understand appetite.  Many studies suggest that a decrease in blood sugar stimulates hunger.  This might help explain a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, which are a quick energy source.  Biology isn't the only reason why we eat.  Food is powerfully connected to our emotions.  For many people, the mere thought of a favorite food evokes strong associations that blend image, senses, emotion and memory into a mixture that is nearly impossible to separate into the different parts.

Some of us eat when we are tense, but tension hurts our weight loss efforts in several ways.  Tension not only triggers carbohydrate cravings, it also makes it more difficult for us to lose any additional weight.  Cortisol also stimulates insulin, which leads to blood sugar dips and fat storage.  It's a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, over and over.  The more we try to ignore a feeling, the stronger it grows.  It's so much easier to deal with an issue while the emotion is still in a "fixable" stage.  But, our denial system is incredibly effective in shielding us from honestly facing ourselves.

Denial stems from a fear of admitting, "Yes, this bothers me."  The consequences of this admission are even scarier "Now I must take responsibility for making changes to correct the situation."  But honestly admitting to ourselves, "Yes, this is the emotion underneath my food craving" is such a tremendous relief!  That emotional relief then reduces, or even eliminates, the urge to overeat.  If the food you crave is associated more with pleasure and immediate gratification than it is with pain, it's going to be hard to stop eating it.  So, now the question has to be, "How does that short-term pleasure stack up against the long-term pain and guilt of eating food that keeps you fatter than you want to be?"

Treatment and Prevention

Some people advocate severely reducing carbohydrate intake, thus reducing the insulin response and cravings.  Others recommend choosing carbohydrate-containing foods with a lower glycemic index in order to lower insulin response and appetite.  Research so far is inconclusive, and this is complicated by the fact that individual responses to carbohydrates can vary considerably.

Diets low in carbohydrate are likely to lack sufficient amounts of essential nutrients found in plant foods that promote good health.  People following these diets may not get enough vitamins, minerals and fiber to avoid blood chemistry imbalances, constipation and other health problems.

The American Heart Association recommends choosing a wide variety of foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.  While people need to watch their calorie intake to prevent obesity, they should consume a diet rich in grains (6 or more servings of breads, cereals, rice, pasta and beans) and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.  Combined with 2-4 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products or dairy alternatives, most healthy diets will contain at least 50-55% of calories from carbohydrates.

Diets severely restricted in carbohydrate may be low in components that we need.  For instance:

  • Diets low in grain products are likely to be low in B-vitamins and minerals.  Whole grains are also rich sources of potassium and fiber.
  • Low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium, protein and riboflavin.
  • Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber.  They may also have other components with health benefits that are still being discovered.

Some experts stress the importance of eating breakfast and at least two other meals a day to help control hunger.  People with insulin resistance or diabetes may need to spread their calories out over a whole day by having small meals and 2-3 small snacks.  (This can also help reduce hunger.)

Though many people recommend dealing with cravings by having "just a little" of the food you crave, this is not always a good idea.  While it may work for some, this sets up a chain reaction of biochemical processes in sugar-sensitive people that invariably translates to an overwhelming desire for more of the same.  For sugar-sensitive people, one bite of a chocolate chip cookie is almost impossible – it's like an alcoholic having "just one drink".

Further Suggestions

  • Practice waiting.  Postpone your instant gratification when hunger hits.  Tell yourself you'll wait 15, or better 30, minutes to eat.  Chances are good if your cravings are only stress-related; they'll disappear when you allow yourself to become distracted.
  • Eat small portions of seasonal goodies AFTER protein-containing meals or snacks.  If you eat sweets on an empty stomach, you'll experience blood-sugar lows that trigger the desire for more sweets.
  • Avoid becoming famished during shopping trips and while traveling.  Carry protein-rich snacks such as nuts, cheese strips or hard-boiled eggs.  These high-power foods are great when you feel your energy drop.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Carbohydrate Craving:

Symptoms - Food - Preferences

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Conditions that suggest Carbohydrate Craving:


Recommendations for Carbohydrate Craving:


Smaller, More Frequent Meals

Eating regularly is important.  If too many hours have passed between meals, blood sugar will drop and your body will crave carbohydrates since these are the foods that will provide the quickest supply of energy.  Eat small meals or snacks containing some protein every few hours to keep blood-sugar levels steady.  Skipping meals causes blood sugar levels to drop, which leaves you yearning for processed carbohydrates and sweets for energy.

Processed Foods Avoidance

Be selective about the carbohydrates you eat.  Avoid nutrient-stripped foods made of white flour, white rice, refined sugar and highly concentrated sweeteners.  Look for foods rich in fiber, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, which level off blood sugar.

Grain-free Diet

The reason why many people continue struggling with sugar and carbohydrate craving is that they are still consuming grains and sugars.  The grains break down readily into sugar, raising insulin levels which work to perpetuate the craving/addiction.

Alcohol Avoidance

Limit your intake of alcohol, fruit juice and caffeinated drinks e.g. soft drinks.  These cause abrupt blood-sugar highs followed by troublesome blood-sugar lows, leaving you starved for energy.

High/Increased Protein Diet

Don't skimp on protein and fat to "make room" for large amounts of carbohydrates.  Protein and fat give the body extended energy, help balance blood sugar and keep cravings at bay.


Increased Sleep

Get enough sleep.  When the body and mind are well-rested, cravings for carbohydrates often vanish.


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