Carbohydrates are an important part of any diet plan. They give you energy and provide your body with quick fuel to keep going.
At the Eating Disorder Treatment center where I work, I always remind clients their brains need carbs to function and think!
Without carbs you will feel foggy, low energy and depleted.
But of course we all understand how too many carbs leads to weight gain and obesity.
And many people have a bad relationship with carbs due to their cravings for them.
What is it about these delicious foods that make us crave them? And how can we find balance with carbs?
To have a great relationship with carbs, you need to understand how blood sugar (glucose), protein / fat and hunger all fit together.
Understand The Basics: Foods Turn Into Glucose
To understand why you crave carbohydrates you must understand your food turns into glucose. Glucose is also known as blood sugar.
Please know that just like carbs, protein and fats are also broken down into glucose to be used for energy.
We’ll cover this more later but for now let’s just realize these important points:
- Carbs, protein and fats are all converted into glucose.
- Glucose is blood sugar.
- Thus, the more you eat the higher your blood sugar levels rise.
Glucose Is Important!
Before we talk about why you get carb cravings, let’s turn our attention to glucose in more depth.
Glucose is very important!
Your body needs glucose for several different reasons, including:
- to give you the energy you need to function, like thinking and moving
- to repair and rebuild muscle
- as a building block for your cells
Because glucose is so important, your body will crave glucose (in the form of carb cravings) when you run low on glucose reserves.
Why Do I Crave Carbs?
So glucose is important, but why do you only crave carbohydrates like French fries?
Since protein and fat also give glucose, then why don’t you also crave these foods?
To understand why you get carb cravings, we have to introduce one more concept!
In the above diagram you can see:
- Carbs – quick and high burst of glucose, fades away fast
- Protein – medium boost of glucose, fades away normal speed
- Fat – low boost of glucose, fades away slow
Carbs give you quick energy! Fats and proteins on the other hand don’t give you as quick of energy, but they last longer.
You Get Carb Cravings Because Your Blood Sugar Is Running On Empty
The primary reason you crave carbs is because your previous meal was MAINLY carbs. Let me explain this in more detail.
First let’s be clear. I’m NOT saying you ate ONLY carbs. Most likely you ate a carb-heavy meal or snack with some protein and some healthy fats.
Here are some typical examples of a carb-heavy meal with some, but not enough, protein or fat:
- Cereal and milk
- White bread and thin layer of peanut butter
- Pizza with cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms
- Pasta (with meat sauce)
So what I AM saying is the main source of energy for your body at this point was carbohydrates, and you just finished that meal.
Now a few hours have passed. You are feeling a sense of tiredness and fatigue because you don’t have any glucose left in your body.
Your body starts to get carb cravings.
Why Does My Body ONLY Crave Carbs Though (And Not Healthy Fats Or Protein)?
Put yourself in your body’s shoes for a moment.
Your body is running out of energy. It’s tired. It’s foggy. And your mood is getting grumpier!
This is an emergency, from your body’s perspective.
You may just be at work minding your own business, feeling tired but nothing too bad.
But your body is starting to SCREAM for more energy. Your body is EMPTY. It’s craving QUICK energy. NOW!
This is why your body is craving carbohydrates and not protein and fat. Because protein and fat don’t give you the immediate boost in your blood sugar levels. Remember that graph I showed you above?
This IS Why Are Carbs So Addictive!
When your body is in an emergency state, it feels like you NEED to be eating carbs NOW. It FEELS like you are an addict. Hence the craving …
This craving is partly true. If you’re depleted on energy then you do NEED carbs. In this sense your carb cravings are valid.
Most food cravings in fact have some truth behind them!
But your problem is you then FILL UP on MAINLY carbohydrates.
You stuff your face with pizza, or those cheap muffins at work. You fill up on processed carbohydrates!
Then the cycle repeats itself. An hour or two goes by. You get stressed and forget to eat. A few more hours go by.
All a sudden your body is getting cravings for more carbs. And you feel like an addict. Like your body NEEDS these carbohydrates to function.
Can you see the pattern I’m talking about? Let me know in the comment section at the end if you know what I mean!
Because this is why it’s so hard for some people to stop eating carbohydrates. It feels as if without these carbs, your head will explode and you’ll be sitting in the corner.
If you want to change this carb carvings habit, then it’s critical that you start filling up on protein and fat too.
You may also be trapped in the Binge Eating Cycle too, but that’s a conversation for another day. If you want to learn more about binge eating check out my comprehensive page here.
How Do You Stop Craving Carbs?
The important thing is to eat a balance of proteins, fats and carbs.
Let’s focus on the protein and fat part because carbs are pretty accessible. Just scroll down the supermarket aisle and you’ll be bombarded with tons of sugary carb choices!
- Eat something protein-rich and healthy before you eat carbs. Protein will help to stabilize your blood sugar levels without the crash of a carbohydrate high followed by a low (like when eating chocolate).
- Add protein powder or lean meat to your morning smoothie.
- Stir in beans, lentils and other plant-based proteins into pastas and rice dishes.
- Take high-quality whey protein powder as snacks throughout the day for quick bursts of energy with amino acids.
- Eat avocados. Embrace the avocado toast fad! 🙂
- Add new flavors to your salads with olives, avocados and nuts like almonds or walnuts.
- Switch from butter to olive oil for cooking. Butter is high in saturated fat while olive oil has healthy fats which are much better for you!
- Use coconut milk instead of dairy-based creamers such as heavy whipping cream or sour cream
Eat Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
I know there’s a lot of talk these days about intermittent fasting or low carb diets.
I don’t want to bash intermittent fasting or low carb diets, but if you have a carb craving it’s best for you to stick with the basics right now.
- Breakfast, lunch and dinner – at a minimum!!
- 1-3 snacks for the times between meals and for after dinner if needed
- Protein every meal and snack!
For dinner, try to eat a meal with a whole grain like pasta or rice (whole grain is better because they are complex and are digested more slowly than simple processed carbs such as white rice or pasta).
If you don’t want to have pasta or rice for your meal then go for something like an acorn squash that has more natural sugars and less starch.
This will give you some of the sugar intake without having all those extra carbs which can lead back into cravings!
Make sure not to skip any meals during this time. Breakfast is also important because it gives you energy when starting off the day. so make sure breakfast isn’t skipped either!
Don’t forget about lunch as well! Many people tend to get very hungry around now and may resort back to old habits such as eating lots of sugary snacks instead of healthy food choices.
How To Find Balance With Carbs
Be sure you don’t fall into the diet mentality that all carbohydrates are bad.
Instead you must find balance with carbs. But how do you find balance with carbs?
The key is to try to eat ‘complex’ instead of ‘simple’ carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates include:
- Sweetened cereal
Complex carbohydrates include:
- Brown rice
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grain breads
- Sweet potatoes
Most people are getting too much of the simple carbohydrates instead of the complex one. This is one reason why they get cravings for carbs so often!
So try to make sure you’re including more foods high in complex carbohydrates in your diet. Don’t just think low carb is the solution!
And remember, it’s not all about what you eat but when you eat too!
Is Craving Carbs A Sign Of Diabetes?
There is some evidence that both high and low blood sugar levels cause higher cravings for carbohydrates.
If you’re concerned about diabetes, the guideline is to test your blood sugar levels and consult your doctor!
I hope this blog post has helped you understand the basics of glucose, and how important it is to your body.
You crave carbohydrates because your body is running on empty and needs more fuel for energy. But, once you eat that carb-laden food, the craving doesn’t go away for long!
This is why carbohydrates are so addictive!
Luckily there are ways to stop cravings from happening in the first place, by following a healthy diet rich with protein/fat and fiber (and no processed foods!).
If you’re interested in learning about treatment options for cravings or want help creating an eating plan that will actually work, please feel free contact our team here!