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Craving Carbs: Is It Depression?

Many people crave carbohydrates when they feel low.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Does a bad day at the office or a tiff with your spouse send you marching to the cookie jar or the corner bakery?

Or do you find yourself at the vending machine every day precisely at 4 p.m. for some crackers or candy?

If either scenario fits, you're not alone. Many people crave carbohydrates -- especially cookies, candy, or ice cream -- when they feel upset, depressed, or tired.

"Carb craving is part of daily life," says Judith Wurtman, PhD, a former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet.  She and her husband, MIT professor Richard J. Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to mood and depression.

The Wurtmans published a landmark article about carbs and depression in Scientific American in 1989. They are convinced that the carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the feel-good hormone serotonin, which is marked by a decline in mood and concentration.

Other experts aren’t so sure. Some wonder if depressed mood and reaching for carbs are both related to an external event -- such as the stock market decline -- or to simply habit.

Carbohydrate Cravings: What's Known? What's Debated?

Carb cravings seem to be related to decreases in serotonin activity, says Wurtman.

"We discovered years and years ago that many people experience the 'universal carbohydrate craving time' between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. every day," she says. "I suspect the tradition of English tea with its carb offering is a ritual developed to fill this need."

"It's a real neurochemical phenomenon," she says. 

The Wurtmans’ work, however, has its skeptics.

Edward Abramson, PhD, a psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Chico, wrote the book Emotional Eating. He does not think the link is strong and clear-cut.

"You could be down because of loss of money in the stock market," he says. "The depression is triggered by an external event, not by [only] a dip in serotonin. It may be the external event causing the dip in serotonin, not the dip occurring, then the craving, he says.

Another possibility, says Abramson, is that carb craving may be just a habit, learned early. For instance, a woman brought up to believe that anger is not an acceptable emotion may turn to eating treats such as cookies instead -- because that's what she did as a kid and perhaps was encouraged to do by a parent.

Carb cravings can also result from diets, says Evelyn Tribole, RD, a dietitian in Newport Beach, Calif., and author of Healthy Homestyle Cooking. 

She sees quite a few dieters who crave carbohydrates, especially if they’re on one of the high-protein, low-carb diets.

"You don't want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you'd kill for a piece of bread. It's a clear signal,” she says, “that your body needs more carbs. It’s not an abnormal craving.”

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