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In a world filled with tempting convenience foods, it’s no wonder many of us deal with constant carb cravings. While carbohydrates are a critical part of the human diet, sugary desserts and starchy snack foods can lead us down a dangerous path. Ultimately, it can lead to obesity, diabetes, autoimmunity, and other chronic conditions. If you’ve been struggling with processed carb cravings, here’s why and how to get back on track.
Why We Crave Processed Carbs
Several factors influence our cravings for processed carbohydrates, like sugary snacks, pastries, and refined grains. These include biological, psychological, and social elements. Here are several reasons why that donut has been calling your name.
Growing Up on Unhealthy Food
Once you get a taste for high salt, high sugar, MSG-enhanced foods, it sets off cravings for more. That’s especially true during times of stress, sadness, or boredom, which cause us to turn to familiar comfort foods. These foods can provide a temporary emotional boost or distraction. Ultimately, this can lead to cravings when similar emotions arise.
Cultural and Social Influences
There’s a reason we call it the “Standard American Diet.” Food preferences and cravings are also influenced by cultural and social factors. Just think of some of our cultural activities as Americans. If you go to a baseball game, you buy a hot dog. Go to the county fair, and you’ll want an elephant ear or cotton candy.
Advertising, societal norms, and social gatherings often involve processed carb-rich foods. These influences can also contribute to cravings and eating patterns.
Candida albicans is a type of yeast that naturally lives in our digestive tract. However, several things can cause candida to grow out of control. Examples include:
- Prolonged antibiotic use
- A weakened immune system
- High sugar intake
- Hormonal imbalances
Candida can then crowd out the beneficial bacteria we need for a healthy digestive system. This imbalance can affect multiple processes in the body. It can alter the production of neurotransmitters and disrupt appetite regulation. These imbalances may lead to cravings for specific foods, including processed carbohydrates. Candida also notoriously thrives on sugar.
A Need For a Quick Energy Boost
Processed carbohydrates are often high in simple sugars, which are rapidly digested and absorbed by the body. This rapid absorption causes a quick increase in blood sugar levels. While this can provide a temporary energy boost and positive feelings, it can lead to more unhealthy food cravings.
Emotional Eating (Dopamine Response)
Along those same lines, highly processed carbohydrates can trigger dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This dopamine response can create a cycle of cravings as the brain seeks to recreate the pleasurable sensation.
How to Get to The Root of the Problem and Curb Cravings
Identifying and addressing the root cause(s) of carb cravings can help us better manage them. Here are some strategies that can help.
Address Mental Health Issues
Overeating carbs and processed foods is often a way to deal with emotions. Feelings of anxiety or depression can trigger binge eating an entire tub of ice cream or a whole bag of chips. Eating carbs and sugar increases serotonin levels to make us feel better temporarily. But the weight gain and health issues that follow can lead to more mental health issues. And the cycle repeats.
A better way to deal with emotional ups and downs is with therapy and/or physical activity. Exercise also raises endorphins and the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. It’s good for overall wellness and may contribute to healthy weight loss when needed. In my experience, resolving past trauma through therapy was the lynchpin that helped me finally lose weight.
Committing to a sugar detox can help reset your taste buds. It can also help stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce sugar cravings and other junk food cravings. Here’s how to start one:
- Set a sugar detox goal: Decide how long your sugar detox will be. It could be a week, two weeks, or even longer. A specific timeframe helps you stay focused and committed.
- Remove sugary foods: Clear your home and work environment of all sugary foods and drinks. These may include candies (even organic), sodas, pastries, breads, and processed snacks. Restricting these foods from your space will help you stay on track.
- Focus on whole foods: Emphasize whole, unprocessed foods during the detox. Shop the outer aisle! Look for fruits, vegetables, grass-fed/free-range/wild-caught proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. These foods provide essential nutrients and fiber while minimizing sugar.
- Read labels: When grocery shopping, carefully read labels to identify added sugars in products. Remember that sugar can hide under various names like sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, dextrose, and others. Choose foods with little to no added sugars.
- Manage cravings: You may get cravings during the sugar detox. When this happens, distract yourself with engaging activities. Practice mindful eating and reach for healthier alternatives. For example, opt for a piece of fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.
When you’ve reached the end of your sugar detox, continue to limit your simple carb intake. Stick to an overall low-carb diet to keep sugar cravings at bay long-term.
Reach For Complex Carbs Instead
You don’t have to cut all carbs and go full-out keto to be healthy. Opting for healthy complex carbs instead of simple carbs can keep cravings at bay. Examples of complex carbs include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Squash (especially winter squash)
- Chickpeas (hummus)
- Fruits, including plantains
- Root vegetables
If you focus on healthy complex carbs in the first place, you’re less likely to crave unhealthy carbs.
Eat Healthy Fats
Healthy eating includes fats! Eating fats like avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish is another strategy to kick carb cravings. Fat not only adds richness and flavor to foods but increases satiety. When meals are flavorful and satisfying, you’re less likely to crave carb-rich foods for taste or pleasure.
Consuming healthy fats with carbohydrate foods can also slow down the digestion and absorption of glucose. This helps prevent rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels, which can trigger carb cravings. Including healthy fats at each meal can promote balanced blood sugar levels and reduce processed carb cravings.
Don’t Forget Proteins!
Getting enough protein can also help keep cravings at bay. Research shows protein satiates our appetites. A study published in Obesity, followed overweight men who increased their protein to 25% of daily calories. They reported the increase in protein lowered their cravings.
A study on overweight teen girls who usually skipped breakfast tried a high protein breakfast to combat cravings. Eating at least 35 grams of protein for breakfast lowered cravings for sweet or savory foods throughout the rest of the day.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated. Avoid sugary beverages like sodas, fruit juices, and energy drinks. If you crave something sweet, opt for herbal tea or infuse each glass of water with fresh fruits for flavor.
Plan Meals and Snacks
Prepare your meals and snacks in advance to ensure you have healthy options readily available. Having a meal plan in place will help prevent impulsive choices like potato chips and ice cream. It will also make sticking to your detox plan easier.
Not getting enough sleep has many harmful health effects and increased appetite is one of them. According to a 2004 clinical trial, sleep deprivation causes leptin (the fullness hormone) to decline. Ghrelin (the hungry hormone) goes up. That means you could feel hungry even when eating plenty of calories. When you wake up in the morning, you’re already starving.
Sleep deprivation can set you up to consume too many calories the next day. And when we’re tired we crave sugary, simple carbs for a quick burst of energy.
Share your sugar detox goals with friends, family, or a support group. A support system can provide encouragement, accountability, and motivation along the way. Some people may also want the help of a nutritionist or registered dietitian for guidance and accountability.
Certain supplements may also help. One herb called gymnema helps reduce sugar cravings. Chromium (a trace mineral) helps with blood sugar and insulin levels.
Monitor Your Progress
Keep track of how you feel throughout the detox. Note changes in your energy levels, mood, cravings, and general well-being. This can serve as a reminder of the positive effects of reducing sugar intake.
Remember, a sugar detox is just a temporary reset. After completing the detox, gradually reintroduce natural sources of sugars like fruits. Still, stay vigilant and be mindful of added sugars in processed foods. Aim to maintain a balanced and sustainable approach to your diet in the long term.
The Body Needs Some Carbs
Women and children especially need some carbohydrates to be healthy. But we need to keep them in a healthy balance with the other two macronutrients, proteins, and fats. Here are some reasons why we need carbs and what they do in the body:
Carbohydrate-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, contain essential nutrients. These vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients support immune function and protect against cellular damage. Eating a carnivore-style diet means many of these nutrients are missing from the diet. Supplementing with certain nutrients like vitamin C may be necessary when skipping all carbs. But supplementation isn’t the same as getting nutrients from whole foods.
Carbohydrates play a role in supporting the production and conversion of thyroid hormones, including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid hormones regulate metabolism, growth, and development. Insufficient carbohydrate intake can affect thyroid hormone production and metabolism, leading to imbalances.
Carbs also influence the production and regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone made by the adrenal glands. Carbohydrates stimulate insulin release, which helps regulate cortisol levels. Adequate carbohydrate intake supports healthy cortisol levels. This can help prevent imbalances that often come from chronic stress.
Carbohydrates indirectly support the production and function of sex hormones. These include estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Carbs provide the energy necessary for producing and regulating these hormones. They also help maintain a healthy balance of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG is a protein that binds to sex hormones and influences their activity in the body.
This is why in the long term keto for women looks different than keto for men.
Fiber and Digestive Health
Carbohydrates include fiber, which is essential for a healthy digestive system. Dietary fiber adds bulk to the stool, aids in regular bowel movements, and supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Certain fibers serve as prebiotics, promoting a diverse microbiome. Healthy gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs or “postbiotics”), which nourish the brain.
Dietary fiber from carbohydrates also helps regulate blood sugar levels and promotes a feeling of fullness. Both of these can aid in weight management.
Final Thoughts on Carbs and Cravings
While carbohydrates are important for overall health, it’s crucial to make wise choices. Opt for complex carbohydrates found in whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, veggies, and legumes. These sources provide a broader array of nutrients and fiber than refined or processed carbohydrates. Balancing carbohydrate intake with protein, healthy fats, and other essential nutrients is key to maintaining a well-rounded and nourishing diet.
Have you managed to kick the carb cravings? What worked best for you? Share with us below!