by Marsha Hudnall MS, RDN, CD
When we think carbohydrate-rich, we don’t generally think of watermelon, carrots, beets, peaches, cherries, and the like. But according to some popular diet books, those foods are off limits if we want to reach a healthy weight.
In truth, that advice causes many of us (specifically the diet traumatized, who are the greater percentage of people who try such diets) to only struggle more. And we generally end up weighing more when we try to follow such advice. Are carbohydrate cravings really the problem here?
Advice to limit carbohydrates may make good sense for many of us. But the devil is in the details – what does ‘limit carbohydrates’ mean? In popular low-carb diets, limit often means eliminate. That just sets us up for carbohydrate cravings.
We need carbohydrates for good health. In our fast-paced world, however, we often eat too many refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are easy to find, taste good, but often too low in fiber and other important nutrients.
So when we at Green Mountain talk about limiting, we mean to moderate the use of refined carbohydrates. That doesn’t include fresh fruits and vegetables, which are sources of complex or unrefined carbohydrates. Indeed, we eat far too few of these types of food for our health. They’re not making us fat!
Why Do Carbohydrate Cravings Occur?
Understanding carb cravings start by acknowledging why you’re feeling this WHY. You might be craving carbs because your body is warning you of a deficiency, because you’re not used to limiting carbs yet, or because you’re just hungry. Each cause requires a different response.
There are several theories for why carbohydrate cravings occur:
- We’re hungry. Our bodies run on carbohydrate, so when we get hungry, it may be the body’s wisdom telling us that it needs fuel – especially when we get too hungry. Carbohydrates are digested faster than protein or fat, so energy gets to the body faster. Can you think of any behavior that sets you up for carbohydrate cravings? If you said, calorie counting, you’re right. How many of us walk around feeling truly satisfied when we were watching every calorie we eat?
- We’re deprived. It’s obvious that when we’re cutting out carbohydrate foods, we might feel a little deprived and want them more. For someone who’s never dieted, this may be an easy thing to overcome. But for the diet-weary, it’s a big hurdle to overcome. Diet deprivation not only sets up carbohydrate cravings, it generally causes us to eat more than we really need to feel satisfied.
- We’re carbohydrate-deficient. Technically, the body can make carbohydrate from protein and fat. But it takes longer. Ask an athlete who has tried to limit carbs – energy levels are dramatically decreased.
- We’re insulin resistant and making the wrong choices. This reason still needs to be elucidated, but it does appear that some people crave carbs because their bodies don’t handle the types they eat well. Note the emphasis on type. It’s not the whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables that set us up in this instance; it’s the very sweet and/or low-fiber sources eaten in excess.
Solving Carbohydrate Cravings
The solution is relatively simple although we realize putting it into action takes intent because it means changing behaviors. It’s the basic eating plan we’ve been promoting since we were founded in 1973:
- Eat regularly – when hungry, generally about every 3-5 hours. If you don’t know your hunger cues, eat by the clock until you get in better touch with them.
- Eat well balanced – that means eating at most meals and snacks a balance of protein foods, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and starchy vegetables (which include plenty of fiber), and healthy fats.
- Eat what you like – to avoid the diet deprivation that can trip us up. If this is confusing because of the previous point, read our FitBriefing “Redefining Healthy Eating.“
- Stay active – so your body can operate like it’s designed to do. Physical activity also helps put us in touch with our internal cues for eating.
For a more in-depth discussion about cravings, see our FitBriefing “Coping and Managing with Food Cravings.”
For more help managing your food or carbohydrate cravings, consider the Green Mountain at Fox Run program. We can help.