If you have a food craving it's much more likely to be for cookies, cake or pasta than for broccoli or chicken. Craving carbs is common, making this much misunderstood food group one that's often feared. But understanding carbohydrates and their role in the body can help you embrace, not shun them.
You may be craving carbs because you are not fueling properly or are stressed. Trying to avoid carbs completely isn't the answer — moderate amounts of carbs are useful for good health.
In fact, carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel source and vital to health, according to the Mayo Clinic. They are broken down into glucose during digestion and used for energy by the brain and muscles. Harvard Health Publishing warns that if the body can't get a hold of carbohydrates from the diet, it may use protein for fuel, which can compromise the building of muscles and other cells.
Why is Craving Carbs Common?
Given the biological importance of carbs, it stands to reason that carbohydrate cravings are more common when you are eating too little to fuel yourself adequately. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when people follow restrictive diets or completely cut out groups of foods, cravings, including carbohydrate cravings, can become more intense.
Uncontrolled stress might also another reason you crave carbs. Harvard Health Publishing says many animal studies have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of foods high in sugar and fat, with high cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, likely to be responsible.
Is carb addiction a real thing? Feeling like you just can't stop eating sugary foods can certainly make make you feel you have a full-on carb addiction. But a November article in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews suggest that food addiction and carb addiction probably don't exist in the sense of you being chemically hooked on carbs, like it is possible to be on hard drugs. Instead, "eating addiction" is a better term to describe behaviors around food that prompt you to eat impulsively.
Pick the Right Carbs
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends eating more lower glycemic index carbohydrates, like whole-grains, beans and lentils. Compared with sugar and refined carbs (e.g. white rice, candy and many breakfast cereals) these raise blood sugar more slowly and are linked with lower levels of inflammation and diabetes. They may also be better at helping with weight loss.
However, you don't need to be virtuous all the time. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says a balanced eating plan that allows foods you enjoy — including some favorite high carb or high sugar foods — is easier to maintain than trying to eliminate those foods completely. They add that keeping your body biologically fed with the right foods can help manage carbohydrate cravings. Keeping some healthy, nutrient-dense snacks on hand can help.
Despite many popular diets advocating a drastic cut in carbs to manage weight, most experts say it's not necessary. Research published in the February 2018 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association compared low-carb diets with more traditional low-fat diets and found there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two regimes at 12 months.
For general health, moderate carb diets are also best, according to a September 2018 study in The Lancet Public Health. It found people eating a moderate amount of carbohydrates (50 percent to 55 percent of daily calorie intake) had lower mortality rates over a 25-year period than those who typically ate low-carb meals (40 percent or less of daily calories) or high-carb meals (70 percent or more of calories).
- Mayo Clinic:"Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Carbohydrates — Good or Bad for You?"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How to Handle Food Cravings"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat"
- Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews: "'Eating Addiction', Rather Than 'Food Addiction', Better Captures Addictive-Like Eating Behavior"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar"
- Journal of the American Medical Association:"Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion"
- The Lancet Public Health: "Dietary Carbohydrate Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study and Meta-Analysis"