Many people salivate over the smell of fresh-baked bread or cookies. Think about the scent of popcorn at the movies…does it give you a feeling of longing? I never eat Cinnabons, but I admit that the smell of these aromatic treats attracts my attention every time I walk near a store. Everyone’s favourite carb is different, but most people have a strong physical and emotional connection to carbs, unlike what you might expect with cauliflower or chicken breasts.
Many people find that their nutrition plans get held back by carb cravings.
What Do Carbs Do For You?
Carbs provide your body with energy to do what you need to do on a daily basis. Carb sources like fruits, beans, vegetables, and legumes have a wide variety of phytonutrients that improve our health. Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body doesn’t digest, which helps promote regularity and prevent constipation (which isn’t fun!). Fibre promotes satiety, the feeling of fullness from a meal, lowers your blood cholesterol levels, and also helps reduce your risk of colorectal cancer (which is terrible!).
Carbs also prompt the release of serotonin, a hormone that induces a feeling of relaxation. It’s one of the reasons I normally recommend that my online coaching clients use carbs in the evening to wind down, rather than have them first thing in the morning so they feel like snoozing before noon.
Are Carbs Holding You Back?
I’m sure you could follow a strict diet of lean protein and vegetables for weeks if it wasn’t for your cravings for those pesky carbs, right? Many people find that their cravings for carbs prevent them from following a consistent nutrition plan that gets them lean. Carbs, generally in the form of things like bread, pasta, pancakes, potatoes, donuts, cake, granola bars, muffins, pizza, and cupcakes, can be a major craving for many people. Since most of those carb sources are calorie dense, it’s easy to over-consume them and end up in a caloric surplus. That means that you may start to put on fat.
So it’s not necessarily the carbs that are the problem, but the other ingredients and the total calorie and macronutrient composition of the food. Muffins and pizza are high in calories and fat, in addition to carbs. Few people become overweight from just eating plain white or sweet potatoes. Single slices of bread, even processed white bread, aren’t a complete disaster, but few people have a single slice and eating bread can produce desire for many more slices of bread (I used to eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting!).
Reducing your cravings for those carbs can play a big part in helping you get lean. Being able to make a food decision without the gnawing craving for low-nutrition, calorie dense foods is what you’re aiming for.
Here Are Some Ways To Get Those Carb Cravings In Check:
1) Eat Protein At Every Meal
This one tip helped me develop the habits I needed to annihilate my persistent carb cravings for good. Protein helps stabilize your blood sugar levels so that you don’t experience the insulin surge, followed by massive drop, that creates sugar cravings later on. As the most thermogenic macro, protein also takes your body more energy to digest than carbs and fat.
2) Drink Plenty Of Water
You’ve probably heard it before, a thousand times or so, but cravings can often be halted by making sure that you’re properly hydrated. Thirst can be mistaken for hunger. If nothing else, drinking a glass of water or two and waiting 20 minutes to see if you’re actually hungry gives you the opportunity to be a bit more mindful about what you’re about to consume. And giving that cupcake a second thought might be a good idea.
Once you reach your 1.5-3L water limit (depending on your size, activity level, and the temperature where you’re living), there’s no point in drinking more water. As with everything, more is not necessarily better, and drinking too much water can lead to a dilution of solutes (particularly sodium), headaches, and nausea. Don’t let the detox crowd convince you to guzzle water to flush everything out – you shouldn’t.
3) Reduce Your Overall Intake Of Carbs (Initially)
The more carbs you eat, especially in excess of need, the more carbs you’re likely to crave. You have to stop the cycle of carb consumption to help reduce your desire for carbs. A low-carb nutrition plan can be a good choice when you’re first starting out on your fat loss journey. Your body will adjust to burning more fat for fuel (this normally takes a couple of weeks) and you’ll feel less of a desire for carbs.
I’ve noticed this personally, and many of my online coaching clients have observed the same effects. You need to break the cycle of carb eating (by making the choice and following through) and then your cravings will diminish. If your carbs get too high again, for your own particular tolerance, you may see a return of your cravings. This happens to many people after holidays and special occasions. They want MORE carbs because they consumed too many. Sometimes the best way to get the cravings under control is to cut the carbs down drastically and then gradually increase them again as the cravings reduce.
4) Increase Your intake Of Healthy Fats
Fats have high satiety, meaning they fill you up and keep you feeling full. If you’re just trying to eat lean protein and vegetables, you’re going to struggle to keep your appetite under control. Add some avocados, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter, or macadamia oil to your meals. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are a good choice, as well as good-quality (grass fed or wild) red meat.
5) Get Adequate Fibre
Along the same lines as fat, fibre also increases the feeling of satisfaction of a meal. Most women should aim for about 25g a day and most men should eat about 38g per day. This can be adjusted slightly for caloric intake, meaning that if you’re a larger woman eating around 2500 calories, you might need more than 25g. A smaller man consuming around 2000 calories may need only 25-30g.
As with most things, more is not better. Eating too much fibre can cause bloating, intestinal cramps, and can reduce your absorption of vitamins and minerals. Excess fibre may also cause constipation, especially if you don’t drink enough water. Manage your fibre intake so that you’re not getting too much or not enough.
6) Supplement With Cinnamon
This spice has been shown to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce carb cravings. Add 1/2 tsp to your coffee, tea, yogurt, fruit, or other meals a couple of times a day to experience the benefits. Use Ceylon (“True” cinnamon) if you’re taking higher doses. Cassia cinnamon contains significant amounts of a compound called coumarin, which may be harmful to the liver of susceptible people in large doses.
7) Take A Moment To Breathe First
This is going to sound super-cheesy to many of you, but a lot of carb cravings are psychological and don’t represent what your body actually needs. It’s your mind (or perhaps your soul!) that’s craving pancakes with maple syrup because it’s what your parents used to serve on Sundays when you were a child. Unravelling the deep psychological associations you may have with food is beyond my expertise, but I can tell you that being aware of why you’re really seeking out certain foods is a good start.
If you eat when you’re stressed or unhappy (which was a habit of mine for years) you need to find different ways to cope with those emotions so food isn’t the solution anymore. Stress management with deep breathing and meditation can be very helpful. Much like exercise and good nutrition, meditation requires commitment and practice. It’s not a quick fix and you need to be patient to see results.
Do The Type Of Carbs Make A Difference?
Not all carbs are the same in terms of how they make you feel and what they do for your health. It’s not just the carbs that are the issue with some carb-rich foods, but the unhealthy fats and the lack of vitamins and minerals. So there’s nothing wrong with having a sweet potato post-workout, if you’ve trained hard. Don’t feel that you have to avoid carbs altogether. Some carbs provide fibre, as well as lots of nutritional value (think starchy veggies or berries).
And remember, the mental aspect of the whole thing is important too. Telling yourself, “I can’t have carbs” isn’t helpful.
Many people could do with reducing their carb intake a bit, particularly the crappy carbs with little nutritional value and high caloric density (like pizza, donuts, most breads, and cake), but half a cup of blueberries after a protein-rich meal isn’t going to do you harm. Keeping carb cravings in check will help you make better food choices, both in quantity and quality.
Are Carbs Really Addictive?
Have you heard that sugar is as addictive as heroin or cocaine? It might be fabulous click bate, but it’s not exactly true. Definitions of addiction vary, but there are certainly some kinds that could apply to carbs and sugar.
Tolerance And Withdrawal
Physiological addiction refers to a drug causing physical changes in the person which make the person want the drug so desperately that it’s practically impossible to resist. Dependence has two symptoms: tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance is the need for more of the drug to get the same effect. Withdrawal refers to the unpleasant symptoms that occur when the drug is taken away.
Neither tolerance nor withdrawal has been shown scientifically in humans with carbs, sugar, or any other nutrient or food (with the possible exception of caffeine). Although rats can become sugar-dependent under fasting conditions, tolerance has not been convincingly demonstrated (even in rats!).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders does include “substance use disorder”, which is a version of addiction.
Among the eleven symptoms that would count towards a diagnosis of this disorder are “having a strong desire or craving to consume it”, “consuming more of it than you intended”, “having persistent unsuccessful attempts to cut it out”, and “continuing to use it even when it causes you problems (like obesity) if those symptoms cause you significant impairment or distress”.
If your concern is that you will develop a physiological dependence on sugar and/or carbs, don’t worry. The kind of addiction that one might have to heroin doesn’t happen with food. That doesn’t mean, however, that carb cravings can’t cause significant health and psychological impact.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Carb cravings are a legitimate challenge to weight loss, and we need to solve them, rather than debating terminology. Still, don’t use some hidden overwhelming force as an excuse for giving in to your carb cravings. There is a solution, if you commit to the process.
If you’re still struggling with carb cravings after using the tips I mentioned above consistently for several weeks, it’s possible that you have an underlying medical condition that can be causing your cravings. Check with your doctor to rule out diabetes, chromium deficiency, or thyroid problems.
Better Carb Choices
Replacing some of your carby treat foods (donuts, cakes, cookies, cereal) with a less-processed, lower-calorie density, higher nutritional value foods like fruit can be a good option. Yup, a bowl of strawberries after dinner is a better choice than two slices of pecan pie, and if those kind of substitutions help you then try to make them. Not all the time, necessarily, because that might just intensify your cravings for that pecan pie, but as much as you can.
Bad Habits, Not Cravings
It’s often not a true craving, but a habit that’s been developed over long periods of time that causes you to feel the urge to consume excessive amounts of carbs. For every unhelpful habit you have (like eating mindlessly in front of the TV), you need to come up with a better substitution. Maybe have a smaller carton of popcorn split between you and your partner at the movies, rather than a large one kept to yourself. The more frequently you go to the movies, the more important it is to make some concessions. So if you go to the movies every week or two then give it more consideration. If you go once or twice a year as a special treat then you don’t have to worry about it so much.
The same policy applies to going out and travelling. If you travel every week or two for work, or eat out a few times a week, you need to be more careful about what you eat than if travel is once a year and dinners out are only once a month or so.
What Happens If You Give In To Carbs?
There’s a difference between consuming planned carbs and feeling an inexplicable need to consume carbs outside of hunger and planned food intake. You need to earn your carbs through physical activity (and by getting your body lean).
Everyone has a different tolerance to carbs. Some of this is genetic, and some is based on your current level of leanness. As you get leaner, your insulin sensitivity increases and makes you more body more able to utilize the carbs you’re eating for energy. So lower your carb intake initially to get your cravings under control. As you get leaner, increase your carb level up until it’s just below the point when you start developing cravings again or start gaining weight (go gradually up with your carbs and then dial back as needed).
Unless you’re diabetic, there’s no need to severely restrict carbs for the rest of your life, and you can derive health benefits from eating the right carbs. Cutting out carbs completely isn’t necessary or beneficial for losing fat either. A life without sweet potatoes and ice cream isn’t for me…and it doesn’t have to be for you either.