Why Do You Crave Carbs?
Carb (carbohydrate) cravings are a common discussion amongst those who are trying to get fit, lose weight and keeping an eye on their diet.
Carbs, in simple terms, are foods consisting of sugar, starch and fibre.
We often find that our body craves carbs - particularly the sugar variety - from mid-afternoon on wards.
Why do we crave carbs? Why do we not crave celery sticks? Why is it always sweet foods, that are high carbohydrates, that we long for?
Why Do We Have a Problem with Carbs?
The problem with carbs is that they can cause spikes in blood sugar. This means that, although we may feel perkier and more energised after consuming carbs, the feeling is relatively short lived, as this presentation of sugar in the bloodstream triggers the release of insulin within our body, which coverts this sugar into a product that is more easily used by the body.
As the insulin restores the blood sugar levels to a safe and normal level, the energy from the sugar which has not been used by the body is stored for future use. As these stores accumulate over time, this leads to weight gain.
The average carb-craver can eat an additional 800 calories per day more than those who are able to control their carb cravings.
So, although they don’t have the same amount of calories as fat, if we overeat them, we can gain weight. Also, the foods that we regard as carbs often contain fat too - such as chocolate, cakes and donuts, which makes them higher in calories.
If we eat too many carbs too often, in particular simple carbs such as chocolate and sweets, this can result in our body working harder in order to control blood sugars. This can lead to Type II Diabetes through either our body no longer being able to produce enough insulin, or that the body eventually becomes resistant to the insulin we produce.
Why Do We Crave Carbs in Larger Amounts at Certain Points of Our Day, Month and Year?
We crave carbohydrates for a number of reasons.
Firstly, our body may just be telling us that we do not have the right balance of protein, fibre and healthy fats in our diet.
Getting the right balance helps maintain healthy blood sugars, as the energy is released from different types of foods in different stages. So rather than the sugars being released all at once into the blood stream, and our body having to release an amount of insulin in order to cope with it all at once, foods containing protein, fats and fibre, are digested at different rates, releasing their sugars at different times and in different quantities. This means that the body can cope with balancing the blood sugars in a more efficient and steady manner.
It is known that our mood will get better around 20 minutes after eating carbohydrates. This could be another reason why we crave carbs.
If we feel down or low throughout the day, it could well be because we are experiencing a dip in the levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical that is associated with having a good mood.
By eating foods high in carbohydrates, we can raise the amounts of serotonin in our body, and therefore enhance our mood once more. This may explain why women crave carbs more during times of PMT, and through the stages of menopause, as during these times, serotonin levels can be low.
This trend is also seen during the winter months and especially to those who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), again, as there is a low level of serotonin production.
Other people will argue, however, that it’s not the body that craves the carbs, but the mind.
There is a debate that the more carbs we eat, the more we are likely to crave them.
This is partly due to habits that we create, and partly due to a positive feedback cycle that occurs. The more we eat, the more serotonin is releases, the happier we become. As explained before, however, the good feeling doesn’t last too long as insulin does it’s job breaking down the sugar, and before you know it you are craving carbs all over again, just to get that great feeling.
Whatever the main reason, we all crave foods high in carbohydrates.
Carbs are Not Our Enemy
After all this talk of raised insulin levels, weight gain and diabetes, it is a common thought that carbs are bad for you.
While this may be true of over eating the simple forms of carbohydrates (the forms without the fibre and nutrients, eg chocolate), complex carbohydrates form an important part of our diet.
Examples of complex carbohydrates include fruit, legumes (peas, chickpeas, lentils etc), wholemeal products such as breads and pasta, brown rice, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes.
These types of carbohydrates contain vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre that are essential for a healthy body.
Carbs we should eat less of, that is, the simple carbohydrates, include; white rice, white bread and cakes, foods and drinks that contain refined sugars such as sweets and soft drinks.
How Can We Eat Carbs in a Healthy Way?
As mentioned above we tend to crave carbs in the afternoon. There is a natural reason for this. It has to do with our natural wake/sleep cycle.
One of the reasons is that serotonin plays a major part in our sleep cycle. It is the precursor to the melatonin, another brain chemical that is required for sleep.
Melatonin is a chemical that we need in order to feel tired and go to sleep. As the day turns to night, more melatonin is produced, and serotonin levels decrease. As the level of serotonin begins to drop as the day goes on, we tend to crave the carbs that will help replace it.
After a period of sleep, the melatonin levels begin to decrease and, as the new day rises, serotonin levels increase, allowing us to wake up.
To help promote a good night’s sleep, you might wish to try and eat protein and fibre for breakfast and lunch, then switch to healthy, light carbohydrates for dinner such as pasta or rice with vegetables and only a small amount of protein. This allows for enough serotonin to be available for the process of sleep, but not causing too much that it will keep you awake! Having these carbohydrates for a light evening meal with also help sustain your energy levels through to morning.
There are lots of ways in which your body uses healthy carbohydrates, and this is only one example.
So, it’s not great to ignore your carb cravings - you just need to have more control over them and be more selective as to what carbs you choose to eat, and when. It’s all about keeping a healthy balance.
Choose healthier complex carbs and cut back on the simple carbs that contain refined sugars. As with all meals and snacks, be mindful of your portion size, and remember to stop eating when your body is telling you that it’s full.
Enjoy your food, keep to a practice of moderation, drink more water and stop worrying too much about it.