How to Beat Carb Cravings

Got carbs on your mind? Most of us do. The carb craving syndrome struggle is real, but there are things you can do to keep it from getting the best of you.

Why Do We Crave Carbs?

Cravings often come when we feel stressed. When you eat carbs, it releases a "happy" chemical in your brain like serotonin. Many of the foods we tend to crave -- sweets, white breads, and sodas -- are filled with simple carbs that your body processes very fast. This boosts your feel-good hormone levels quickly, but it also causes your sugar levels to spike and drop.

How to Beat Carb Cravings

Keep your brain busy. It’s hard to think about cravings when your mind is occupied with fun. In one experiment, volunteers who played the video game Tetris for a few minutes found that it curbed their craving for food, drugs, and other pleasures. The researchers think that’s because your brain has limited capacity to juggle competing images.

Eat mindfully. Sometimes you reach for carbs not out of hunger but boredom. Or it’s your habit to indulge in a bowl of ice cream after dinner. Mindful eating may help. Practice paying attention to why you’re eating, slow down to savor the taste of your food, and focus on the moment. This helps your brain get in sync with your stomach and get the signal that you're full. Studies show a strong link between mindful eating and lower body weight.

Go for the right kind of carbs. Not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs, the ones you find in whole grains and veggies, are your body's main source of energy. They take a while to digest, so your blood sugar levels rise slowly and you feel satisfied longer. Non-starchy veggies, such as carrots, have fewer carbs than starchy ones like potatoes. Check the labels on the foods you buy for both carbohydrate content and for sugar in the ingredient list. Even foods that aren't "sweet" can have more added sugar than you'd expect.

Find a system that works for you. You might be able to cut out foods like bread, sweets, and pastries "cold turkey." Or, if you try this, you might end up feeling deprived and obsessing over what you tell yourself you can't have. If that's the case, do it a little at a time: Try unsweetened tea, or go for carrots and hummus instead of a cookie. You may find that once you cut down on sweet foods and drinks this way, you’ll want them less.

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Be active. Exercise, especially the aerobic kind, works to keep your appetite in check. It's also a natural mood booster and can help you form a positive body image. All these good things can keep your hand out of the cookie jar.

Get Your ZZZs: Did you sleep well last night? If you don't get enough rest, you tend to eat more calories during waking hours. Lack of rest can affect hormones that work with your appetite. This can cause weight gain. Aim for 7-9 hours of nonstop sleep per night.

Drink water. Many times when you think you're hungry, you're actually dehydrated or bored. When you yearn for carbs, or are about to eat mindlessly, grab a glass of water. As an added bonus, water has no calories or carbs. Don't like to drink water? Try sparkling water, or add few slices of fruit, like lemon or orange, for added flavor.

Take a timeout. Are you stressed? Tension can trigger those carb urges when we least expect it. Stress management tools like yoga and meditation may help you eat more mindfully. Wherever you are, hit reset and step away for a 5-minute mental break.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 29, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

The Journal of Nutrition: "Sugar and Fat: Cravings and Aversions."

Eating Behaviors: "Carbohydrate craving: A double-blind, placebo-controlled test of the self-medication hypothesis.”

American Heart Association: "Carbohydrates."

Harvard School of Public Health: “Carbohydrates,” “Healthy Weight.”

CDC: "Diabetes and Carbohydrates."

American Diabetes Association: “Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes.”

University of Plymouth: “New study reveals Tetris can block cravings.”

Diabetes Spectrum: “Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat.”

Journal of Behavior, Health & Social Issues: “Mindful eating and its relationship with body mass index, binge eating, anxiety and negative effect.”

David Creel PhD, registered dietitian, psychologist, and exercise physiologist, Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric & Metabolic Institute.

Harvard Health Publishing: "Why stress causes people to overeat."

Katherine Zeratsky, registered dietitian nutritionist, Mayo Clinic.

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Psychology and Health: "Exercise and body image: A meta-analysis."

Mayo Clinic: “Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating.”

National Sleep Foundation: "The Link Between a Lack of Sleep and Type 2 Diabetes."

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