Are you feeling overwhelming urges to reach for carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, pasta and sweets? Are these constant cravings interfering with your efforts to lose weight? Let’s understand why you’re craving carbs and explore practical tips to regain control of your diet and health.
While many popular low-carb diets paint carbohydrates in a negative light, there’s a fundamental reason your body craves them: it needs them.
Carbohydrates are one of the three essential macronutrients, alongside protein and fat, that ensure our bodies function optimally. Their primary role? To provide a quick energy source. During digestion, carbohydrates are the macronutrients most efficiently converted into glucose.
Glucose is your body’s preferred fuel source. Since organs, like your brain, can’t store extra glucose, you need a consistent supply to feel energized and well.
But it’s not just about energy. Carbohydrates also supply fiber and other nutrients that play a pivotal role in gut and heart health.
What’s more, there’s no evidence that cutting carbs from your diet improves weight loss. Certain studies have shown low-carb diets lead to faster initial weight loss, but these results don’t last.
Research shows negligible weight loss differences between individuals on low-carb and low-fat diets after the first few months. Furthermore, many find low-carb diets challenging to maintain over the long haul.
However, excessive consumption of high-sugar, low-fiber carbohydrates can indeed compromise your health, heightening the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So, while there’s no need to swear off carbs and ignore your body’s requests for these foods, it is important to get a handle on how best to answer these carb cravings with food choices that optimize your health and weight loss results.
To effectively tackle these carb cravings, it’s essential to understand why they’re happening in the first place. Let’s look at some common reasons.
Overly restricting calorie and carbohydrate intake means your body is not receiving enough of its preferred energy source to meet its needs.
This sets off several internal alarms, resulting in metabolic shifts aimed at encouraging you to seek out more energy, including raising the hunger hormone ghrelin. You feel this as cravings for sweets, bread and snack foods, which provide a nearly instant infusion of energy-producing glucose.
It’s estimated that 42% of the calories in adult diets come from refined carbohydrates. These carbs are notably low in whole grains, nutrients and fiber but are packed with added sugars. Think snack foods, white bread, desserts, cookies and sodas.
After eating, refined carbohydrates are quickly absorbed into your bloodstream, causing a surge in blood sugar levels. In response, your body releases the hormone insulin to shuttle glucose out of your blood and into your cells, resulting in an equally rapid dip in your blood sugar levels.
Ultimately, these foods’ energy and satisfaction boost is short-lived, leaving you reaching for another bite shortly after your last.
The sluggish, low-energy feelings accompanying a night of poor sleep could be behind your carb cravings. Poor sleep habits and obesity are strongly linked, in part because insufficient sleep causes an increase in hunger-stimulating hormones.
Experts have observed that people who are sleep-deprived eat more calories. Specifically, they eat more carbohydrate-rich snacks compared to people getting eight solid hours of sleep each night.
You may find that you’re reaching for a particularly carb-heavy food because you’ve made a habit of doing so. According to behavioral experts, a habit loop consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.
Maybe you always grab a bagel as you sit down to start your work day. In this case, sitting at your desk may be a cue that causes you to crave a bagel, hungry or not.
Similarly, if you typically end your day on the couch with a bag of snacks, this routine triggers your carb cravings more than a genuine desire for these foods.
Sometimes, you may reach for food to satisfy an emotional need. During times of stress and struggle, refined carbohydrate foods are particularly effective at delivering that needed pick-me-up.
Research has shown these types of foods stimulate pleasure centers within your brain. This positive reward can make you seek high-sugar carbs in the future to help you avoid feeling down.
When carb cravings hit, take a minute to assess what’s behind them. Are you stressed, tired, bored?
If you determine your cravings are due to hunger, it’s time to eat. It’s usually best to eat the food you’re craving rather than try to eat around it, which can lead to overeating.
If you’re facing carb cravings often, it may be time to adjust your total calorie intake. The official Nutrisystem app, NuMi, can help you determine a personalized calorie recommendation and adapt it as you progress toward your goal.
Seek out healthier, nutrient-dense carbohydrate options to replace refined carbohydrates in your diet. Fiber-rich, low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates cause a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels, helping to maintain satiety between meals.
Select whole grain bread instead of white bread, switch from sugary cereal to low-sugar oatmeal, and enjoy fruits, popcorn or whole grain snacks as healthier alternatives. Additionally, consider incorporating sweet potatoes, squash or beans as substitutes for pasta or white rice in your meals.
Eating mindfully can help you stay attuned to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, making it easier to regulate your carbohydrate intake. Distractions during meals can disconnect your brain from your stomach, reducing the satisfaction derived from eating and making you more prone to overeating.
To practice mindful eating, remove distractions such as your TV, computer or phone while eating. Dedicate at least ten minutes to focus solely on your meal, savoring each bite and connecting with the sensory experience of eating. Engaging all your senses while eating can enhance your enjoyment and satisfaction from the meal.
Getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night can help regulate hunger hormones and manage cravings the next day.
To improve your sleep habits, consider establishing a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This helps regulate your internal clock and improves sleep quality.
Additionally, creating a relaxing bedtime routine with calming activities like reading or deep breathing can signal your body that it’s time to wind down.
Lastly, minimize screen time before bed, as the blue light from screens can disrupt sleep. Turning off screens well before your scheduled bedtime will improve your ability to achieve a night of deep and restful sleep.
If you’re turning to carbohydrates out of habit or as a coping mechanism for stress, boredom or other emotional factors, consider developing alternative habits or rewards. Pay attention to the habit cues that stimulate your cravings for particular foods. Can you adjust your routine and respond to these cues with a different food or activity?
For example, if you are in the habit of ending your day in front of the television with a bowl of ice cream, can you find equally relaxing ways to change up this routine? Maybe replace that ice cream with a warm cup of tea or end your day by reading a good book.
When addressing emotional needs, activities like meditation, exercise and listening to music provide similar stimulation to feel-good brain pathways as eating delicious food.
If you’ve been struggling to figure out how to stop carb cravings so that you can reach you’re weight loss goals, you’re not alone. Navigating the landscape of carb cravings can be challenging.
But remember, carbs are not the enemy. Being informed about the role of carbs, recognizing the reasons behind our cravings and employing strategic methods to manage these cravings is possible.
Instead of shunning carbs, embrace them mindfully, choose nutrient-rich options and listen to your body’s genuine needs. Consider signing up for a program like Nutrisystem that allows you to enjoy carbs with a balanced meal plan and perfectly portioned meals and snacks.
With knowledge and practice, you can find that sweet spot between satisfying cravings and maintaining a healthy diet.