Craving Carbs: Is It Depression?
Many people crave carbohydrates when they feel low.
Carbohydrate Cravings: The Research
Several research studies have uncovered interesting facts about carb cravers.
- Wurtman found that carb cravers can eat 800 or more calories a day than other people. While many carb cravers do become overweight or obese, others control their weight by exercising more, eating less at meals, or turning to low-fat carbs such as popcorn.
- Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that carb cravers who have a mildly depressed mood seem to be self-medicating. They studied women who were overweight and had a history of carb cravings. They gave them a choice between a protein-rich beverage or a carb-rich one. They found that when the women reported being in the worst moods, they picked the carb beverage more often than the protein one. In addition, the carb drink improved their mood better.
- Eating carbohydrates seems to help carb cravers feel better in about 20 minutes, according to Wurtman’s research. When you eat carbs, your body makes more serotonin, the feel-good hormone that is boosted when you are on an antidepressant. Eating the carbs, she says, is an attempt to undo the depressed mood.
Carbohydrate Cravings: Normal or Not?
Step back and analyze your cravings a bit, Wurtman suggests.
Do you crave carbs only when you see someone eating something you like? Then, says Wurtman, you may simply be succumbing to the power of suggestion.
Or do you crave carbs when you face an unpleasant task, like balancing the checkbook, and feel better after you’ve had some? Then you may be “self-medicating.” Your serotonin is up, and you are doing what you are supposed to, says Wurtman.
Late-afternoon carb cravings are also quite normal, Wurtman says, and don’t necessarily signal depression. "The reason we want to self-medicate with carbs late in the afternoon is not just that life is difficult and filled with frustration, but that it is a normal day-night cycle."
When is a carb craving over the top? If you go to great lengths for a carb-rich food continually, you may want to seek professional help, Wurtman says.
She recalls a woman who was driven to have a brownie from her favorite bakery many times a week. When a ride wasn’t available, she would go to great lengths to get it, even walking several blocks in the dark or bad weather.
That kind of persistent craving may be a sign of depression, not just a funky off mood, and perhaps a clue you should seek mental health care, Wurtman and others say. If your mood stays low and the carbs don't seem to be helping, you should also consider checking in with a health care provider.
Carbohydrate Cravings: Living With Them, Taming Them
If you're a carb craver, you can learn to cope with them -- at minimal or no expense to your health or waistline, experts say.
Time your eating to accommodate your cravings. The carb cravings typically grow stronger as the day goes on, experts agree. So eat healthfully at breakfast and lunch and focus on protein-rich foods. "In the afternoon, by the time the sun and your mood start sinking, have a carb snack -- popcorn or breakfast cereal -- around 4 p.m.," Wurtman says. Then for dinner, pick pasta, rice or waffles, she suggests.
Choose sensible carbohydrate-rich foods. Carbs don't have to be gooey and chocolatey every time, Wurtman says. She suggests low-fat crackers, for instance, or pretzels. It keeps the fat low but gives you the carbs you want.
Don't buy into the guilt. "The current low-carb phase is making people feel guilty," Wurtman says. "There is nothing wrong with having a carb for dinner, or for a snack. You have to have it in a very low-fat form."
Focus on carbs that are "slow foods." Think sip, not gobble, when eating these. One of Tribole's favorites: hot chocolate. "You get carbs in the milk and the sweetened chocolate," she says. "It's hard to guzzle hot chocolate, so you are going to savor it."