Do you feel like your goals and your body are warring one another: you have specific rules for what foods are allowed and all your body is bringing to the table are unrelenting carb cravings?
It can feel frustrating when your body seems to be missing the memo about the policies you’re trying to enact…but what if your body is telling you important information…and you’re missing it?
Maybe you’re the one missing the important memo? Yikes!
In this post, I’ll be answering allllllll the common questions I get about carbs. What are they? Are carbs bad? And why in the heck am I craving carbs all the time…especially at night?
Let’s dive into the details, starting with a quick review of what carbs actually are. Lots of myths about carbs to bust!
What are carbs?
Carbs – short for carbohydrates – are one of the three nutrients that our body needs to function on a daily basis (the other two are fats and proteins).
Carbs are a pretty diverse group of foods, including everything from fruits, starchy veggies (hey, potatoes!), bread, rice, sweets such as cookies and donuts, and sweetened drinks like soda and lemonade.
Some kinds of carbs offer more nutrition than others. For example, whole wheat bread has more fiber than white bread, but all carbs are welcome and “allowed” as an intuitive eater.
Despite the claims of the Keto diet and diet culture at large, carbs are not the enemy. But they are quite misunderstood. And because of this, it is common to feel guilty or like you’ve done something wrong if you’re craving carbs (and heaven forbid, eating them).
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I will always value the nutrition that most people think of when they picture the work of a dietitian: increasing fiber, prioritizing fruits and veggies, and other nutrient-dense foods.
But as an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I include all foods. I don’t have food rules and don’t recommend that you do, either.
Every. Single. Food. Is. Allowed.
Even the foods that don’t offer as much nutritional value. Why? Because food doesn’t just offer us nutrition: it offers us pleasure, satisfaction, connection to friends and our family culture, and even comfort. All are valid reasons to eat food. Some foods nourish our bodies more and some our souls. We need and deserve both!
Psst: Have you heard of Smart Carbs? This is one more diet that I’ve done a review about. You can check out that post here: Are Smart Carbs Really THAT Much Better?
Turns out: a carb craving is just a message from your body saying that something is off and she’d like some support, please.
Why am I craving carbs?
There are actually a lot of reasons that your body can be sending up the bat signal for carbs on carbs and it isn’t anything that you need to feel bad about.
The answer to your question – why am I craving carbs – depends on why your body is sending out the signal to begin with.
Let’s explore a few reasons why you might be craving carbs.
You’re in need of fuel
I like to start with the simplest solution first: your body has carb cravings because it is time for your next meal or snack. The tank is low and so your body is letting you know that it is time to stop, drop, and have some fuel.
It is typical to need something to eat every few hours; whether it is a more formal meal or a snack. We have a limited amount of reserved carbohydrates (our bodies preferred energy) stored in our liver as something called “glycogen”. This fuel reserve usually lasts about 3-6 hours. So it makes sense that we need to refill that frequently throughout the day!
If it has been a few hours since you’ve eaten, it is probably time for fuel in order to protect your energy, mood, and your ability to focus.
The more you deny your body the energy that she needs, the more desperately she is going to work to get you to take action: IT IS TIME TO EAT. This can manifest in extreme hunger and even binging. The Truth About Extreme Hunger covers this topic in more detail.
You have a craving
You might be having a carb craving because you are seeking the pleasure or comfort of a specific food. And you know what? That is 100% a-okay! You might be surprised to hear this from a registered dietitian, but it is actually okay to use food for comfort.
This is so counterintuitive, that it bears repeating: it is okay to eat food for comfort.
Whew – what a relief, right?
Food offers us many benefits, including the fuel mentioned above. But it is important to acknowledge and give ourselves permission to enjoy our food. And, to draw comfort solely from our food and expect it to “solve” our issues.
The more we shame ourselves into not eating foods that sound good, for the sole reason of their pleasure or comfort, the more we want those foods and make ourselves feel crazy. This kind of restriction can lead to binge eating episodes.
My only caveat is that I don’t recommend having comfort food be your only source of comfort. Always a good idea to have several tools in the toolbox so that you can have the best solution in the moment.
More on this in my Emotional Self Care post – be sure to bookmark that for later.
Ready for a new podcast recommendation? Here you go, Your Go-To Guide for All Things Emotional Eating.
If guilt is your common eating companion, know that I’ve been there before. I get it. And it sucks. You can also work through this so that you can eat for pleasure and fun, without guilt. How To Stop Feeling Guilty After Eating is a great post to visit when you’re ready.
Meanwhile: what else can cause carb cravings? Hormones – but not the ones you’re probably thinking about.
You’ve been restricting
Neurotransmitters can also play a role in carb cravings. And the one I want to chat about in this post is one that you may have never heard of before: Neuropeptide Y, which can be abbreviated NPY.
NPY is an abundant neurotransmitter with several important functions in your body, including increasing your drive to eat carbs. When you’re under-fueled, as when you’re chronically dieting, NPY increases your drive to eat carbohydrates. Fasting or restricting revs up NPY and your carb cravings to boot.
One hormonal connection between you and your carb cravings? Your period. Changes in different hormones related to your menstrual cycle can also increase food cravings at large, but also carb cravings specifically. What To Eat On Your Period: 7 Foods To Include.
You’ve just exercised
Did you know that your body stores energy – from carbs – in your muscles and liver so that you have quick-acting fuel at all times? These stored carbohydrates are called glycogen.
When you exercise it is possible that you’ve depleted your glycogen stores and so your body wants to refill those energy batteries. It is completely normal to feel hungry after a workout and it is a great opportunity to refuel.
It’s also possible to have exercise stunt your hunger cues though- everyone is different! Regardless of your cues, providing your body with the fuel it needs (maybe using a little practical hunger here!) helps to have a more productive, enjoyable workout the next time and may also reduce the risk of burnout: win-win!
A combo of protein and carbs helps to replenish your stored carbs and keep you satisfied longer. My Banana Protein Muffins might be just what the doctor – I mean, dietitian – ordered!
Turns out our brain sometimes isn’t all that great at distinguishing between hunger and thirst. You may be having cravings for carbs because you’re actually in need of a big glass of water. Or both water and a snack.
But if you’re thinking about food, are having a hard time focusing and you haven’t gone #1 in a while, bottoms up on a glass of water, please.
(P.S. this is in no way meant to sound like the diet culture BS advice of “have a glass of water instead of a snack” to trick your body into eating less. Sometimes we need water, sometimes we need a snack, sometimes we need both. All are okay. As an intuitive eater you start to more accurately interpret your body’s cues!)
You need rest
Did you know that a bad night’s sleep can set you up for carb cravings on top of being a crank pot?
It isn’t in your head that simple, craveable foods sound best after an all-nighter studying or a night spent tossing and turning. When you aren’t well-rested, you have a spike in hormones that makes those foods sound irresistible. When you have a crappy night’s sleep, you wake up with less leptin (the fullness hormone) and more ghrelin (the hungry hormone); that is a combo for an increased appetite!
Not only is having a good sleep routine the foundation for emotional self-care, but it also helps to calm cravings.
How much sleep is enough? 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep is what the experts recommend each night (and unfortunately, those hours do not roll over).
Last but not least? Maybe you’re craving carbs because of a nutritional deficiency.
You have a deficiency
I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that just because you’re craving carbs you have a deficiency, but for the sake of completeness in this post, it is worth mentioning.
Again: simplest answer first. Carbs are nutrients (not an enemy) and you might be craving carbs simply because you need them. Your body wants to refill the energy tank when it is low.
In addition, it is possible that certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause carb cravings – such as magnesium or sodium – but they aren’t that common nor are they well established by good quality research. It is more common to have cravings because of underfueling, food rules, stress, and lack of sleep (or some combo of all of the above).
It is also worth mentioning that women are far more likely to experience cravings. And who is also more likely to be dieting and having food rules? Women as well. The more we villainize something, the more we tend to want it.
We’ve gone over some of the common reasons that you might be having carb cravings. Now: what to do about it?
What to eat when you crave carbs?
The simplest answer is to eat carbs. The less you make foods fit into categories of “allowed” and “not allowed” the less you’ll have cravings that leave you feeling out of control or guilty.
But just to know, you’ll always need fuel, you’ll always need carbs and sometimes certain foods will sound better than others: this is completely normal!
If you keep not feeling your best and craving specific foods, some emotional self-care and some gentle nutrition (maybe have some whole grains to keep you full & satisfied longer!) may allow you to get some traction for a daily eating and living routine that lets you feel good throughout each day.
How do I stop craving carbs?
Before I answer that, let me answer your question with another question:
Why do you want to stop craving carbs?
Carbs are an essential part of daily living; they provide the nutrition and energy that our body needs on a daily basis to function properly.
They also provide comfort, enjoyment, and pleasure.
…why do you want to stop craving them?
If you are not comfortable giving yourself permission to eat carbs, you probably have some food rules about them. How To Identify & Break Food Rules is a great post for you to visit and explore your own food rules (and begin to let those suckers go – you have a life to lead).
How many carbs should you have each day?
How much is enough? You may be wondering how many carb servings are part of a balanced day?
While I don’t like talking about specific numbers (these can be triggering for folks recovering from dieting), some guidance might be helpful. In general, about half of your total calories can come from carbs. A typical range is anywhere from 45-65% of your total calories might come from a variety of carb foods.
Overall, it is important to learn to eat in a way that supports your mental and physical wellness. This takes practice, and some trial and error, especially if you’ve been restricting.
We tend to feel good (and well-nourished) when we eat from multiple food groups for meals and snacks. Not only does that offer us long-lasting energy, but it also offers us a wide variety of nutrition.
In general, when I’m thinking about a full meal, I aim to include carbs, protein, and fats. This offers lasting energy and satisfaction. This isn’t a “rule”, I just know that I’ll feel best when I follow this pattern more often than not. But if I don’t, I also don’t stress about it.
Lately, for breakfast, I’ve been loving some overnight protein oats– so easy, delicious and filling! A few common lunches lately have been egg salad sandwiches (ya gotta checkout my no-peel Instant Pot egg salad recipe!) .or maybe some canned tuna and crackers. And dinner can be fun and exciting or just functional (Hello 25 minute broccoli chicken stir fry!) at the end of a long day. Every meal does not have to be your favorite meal: sometimes you’ve just gotta eat.
From a gentle nutrition perspective, I do look for whole grains that I enjoy, such as whole wheat bread and whole wheat tortillas. I like them and find them to be more satisfying than white bread.
But from a satisfaction standpoint, sometimes I prefer the “less healthy” version of a carb, such as white rice. I like it waaaay more than brown rice. So, I buy the white! A good question to ask yourself when deciding to go whole grain or not is “Would it take away from my enjoyment and satisfaction?” if yes, it would, maybe you find a different time to include a whole grain! That is 100% okay: enjoyment is part of healthy eating and living.
Remember that fruits and sweets are carbs too and fit well into a rhythm of eating foods that you enjoy. An apple with peanut butter is a simple and tasty snack. And sometimes what I really want is a Homemade Vegan Pop-Tart warm from the air fryer. With food freedom, I enjoy what I want, when I want, and no longer feel at the mercy of carb cravings.
I wish the same freedom for you.
Key takeaways: Carb cravings understood
For many of you reading, I’ll make an educated guess that the most common reason that you’re craving carbs is that you’ve been living a life with food rules and restrictions.
Gorgeous, it doesn’t always have to be this way.
Intuitive Eating helps to manage carb cravings because you learn to build trust with your body and eating. No more food rules, no more restrictions.
Doesn’t it sound nice to not obsess over each meal, each snack, and each bite?
Ready for more support? I’m ready to help you. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel for more tips to help in your intuitive eating journey and take the no food rules quiz which will tell you what’s holding you back from truly finding food freedom and give you customized resources (and a workbook!) to overcome it!
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