Craving Carbs: Is It Depression?

Many people crave carbohydrates when they feel low.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 25, 2011
5 min read

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.

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 they 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.”

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.

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.

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."