Foraging for carbs the way a squirrel looks for nuts? Here's the first thing to know: Carb cravings are totally normal, they're not bad and they're certainly nothing you should feel guilty about or label yourself as "bad" for having.
But having a very carb-centric day can provide some clues about what's going on with your mental and physical health, and addressing those factors can improve your sense of wellbeing. Bottom line: Eating carbs is not really the issue.
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Here's what might be going on:
1. You’re Labeling Carbs as 'Bad'
Right now, the world is not kind to carbohydrate-containing foods. But labeling a food as "bad" or "off-limits" only backfires.
"Making a food forbidden creates a stress response in your brain around that food because you're constantly telling yourself not to eat it. The brain alleviates that stress by giving into the craving," Gabbi Berkow, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
This can result in a binge cycle, meaning you restrict carbs, then eat all the carbs, then repeat.
Repeat after us: There is nothing wrong with giving yourself permission to enjoy the foods you love.
2. Your Blood Sugar Is Low
If you haven't eaten in a while, you may need the pick-me-up that another hit of glucose (sugar from food) will provide. And carbohydrates provide that glucose, which becomes energy for your cells.
What's more, "your brain runs exclusively on glucose, so when blood sugar drops, 'willpower' goes out the window," Berkow says.
That may result in you choosing foods that quickly cause your blood sugar to rise — candy, chips, cracker-y snacks — rather than making a more informed choice that will benefit you in the long run.
Fix it: You can stop this from happening in the first place, Berkow says. She recommends eating in a way that will keep blood sugar stable, which means consuming a meal or snack that contains protein, fiber and fat every three to five hours.
3. It’s SAD
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs with the changing seasons, and it affects millions of adults in the United States. Most often that's during winter, when there's less daylight, but it can also happen in the spring.
For winter SAD, you may notice an uptick in cravings for carb-heavy foods, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), along with sleeping more, weight gain and withdrawing from friends.
Fix it: Treatment includes light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressant medications and/or vitamin D. Your doctor can help you develop the right plan for you, because you deserve to feel better.
4. You’re Stressed
This day is a doozy and has you feeling scrambled. The antidote, it may seem, is a stack of Oreos. And for good reason: "Carbohydrates lead to the synthesis of serotonin, which is our brain's relax, feel-good and anti-anxiety neurotransmitter," Berkow says.
Your brain wants to be flooded with serotonin, and so it basically directs you to your pantry for a snack in hopes of a little lift.
Fix it: Emotional eating is normal, but it doesn't have to be the only way you deal with stress. Berkow recommends pausing, taking a few deep breaths and then get curious: Are you really hungry?
If the answer is yes, eat something with 20 grams of protein (at least), a fiber-rich carbohydrate and healthy fat, she suggests.
If the answer is no, you're not really hungry, then ask yourself what you really need. Stress calls for doing something that will relax you, like taking a break to stretch or have a warm shower.
"Remember that food won't solve the problem — coping with the emotion will," Berkow says.
5. You Didn't Fuel Up for Your Workout
Your muscles need fuel to crush it when you sweat, and this also prevents low blood sugar (which, remember, can drive carb cravings), says Berkow, who's also a certified personal trainer.
She advises eating at least 30 grams of carbohydrates along with protein as a pre-workout snack (this could be a couple of slices of whole-grain bread with some nut butter, for instance). Then have 20 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs post-workout (e.g. a protein smoothie).
You can also hit these marks by planning your workouts in between meals. So maybe you finish your workout and then eat a lunch like a quinoa bowl with veggies and chicken, for instance.
Because getting ahead of wayward carb cravings actually starts with eating carbs — just make them the complex kind, like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
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