What causes carb cravings? (Plus 6 ways to control them)

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceWhat causes carb cravings? (Plus 6 ways to control them)

Reducing your dependency on simple carbs may take some time, especially if you have a history of consuming too much, too often. Certain individuals may even find carbs and sugars to be sort-of “addictive.”

To be clear, every individual is different. While a low-carb diet may help one person elevate their performance, others may feel their best consuming more carbs. This article is for the people who want to reduce their carb intake — particularly those struggling to avoid refined foods and improve blood sugar regularity.

Repairing your glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity doesn’t happen overnight. It takes discipline. When the body is on a blood sugar roller coaster, inertia wants to keep it in that loop. And while the brain may not want to give up simple sugars and refined foods, you can opt to make healthy choices each day until your brain adapts.

The good news? The longer you eat a healthy diet, the more hunger hormones settle, flavor preferences shift, and the easier it gets. You just have to take it one day at a time.

In this article, I’ll explain what causes carb cravings and share best practices — both psychological and physiological — to help you reduce them. These strategies will help you avoid sugar, eat more whole foods, and stay healthy.

What Causes Carb Cravings?

Craving is rooted in both mind and body. Here’s what waters those roots.

#1: Eating too much junk food

If you’ve ever gone cold turkey on coffee before, you’ve experienced the power of caffeine dependence. In a sense, sugar is like caffeine. It has the potential to elicit addiction-like behaviors.

“Sugar elicits addiction-like craving, and self-reported problem foods are rich in high-glycemic-index carbohydrates,” write the authors of a 2018 review from the Journal of Clinical Chemistry. To say that sugar is an addictive substance, however, is a stretch. Many of the studies which have reported neurological addictions to sweet foods have used techniques like fMRI assessments, which have some real problems.

Still, that doesn’t mean people don’t crave sugar and consume it beyond their better judgment. When you eat sugar, your brain releases a bunch of dopamine, a reward chemical that makes you feel happy. Your brain likes feeling happy. It wants that feeling again and again. It wants more dopamine, so you crave more sugar. It can be a vicious cycle.

To be fair, this is more-so an issue with refined carbohydrates. I don’t know anyone who can’t help themselves around plain baked potatoes or white rice. But ice cream and soda? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “I need my <popular brand name here>.” In many cases, it is the hyper-palatable combination of salt, sugar, and fat which produce the greatest response — the addiction-like properties grow stronger as we eat more.

#2: Blood sugar fluctuations

Of all the macros, carbohydrates tend to raise blood sugar the most significantly. The extent to which this occurs can be blunted by fiber content, the total amount of carbohydrate you consume, and the nature of the carbohydrate (simple vs. complex carbs, for example).

Eating the types of foods I mentioned above can create a pleasurable rush in the moment, but when your blood sugar inevitably crests and then falls, the resulting hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) sends a powerful hunger signal. This is a definite issue in individuals — like diabetics and insulin-resistant people — who have blood glucose clearance issues.

To use an analogy: By eating a high-sugar, ultra-processed diet, you’re buying a ticket for the blood sugar roller coaster. The highs are high, but the lows are low. And when you’re low, you tend to crave sugary foods. Later, I’ll explain how to hop off the coaster and buy a ticket for a better ride.

#3: Hunger hormones

Hunger doesn’t happen by accident. Controlling this primal urge are ghrelin and leptin — two hormones that regulate your appetite by binding to receptors deep within your brain. There are a number of others, but generally speaking, these are the largest movers and shakers in the world of hunger hormones.

Ghrelin and leptin are opposites in terms of how they affect hunger. Ghrelin stimulates hunger, while leptin satiates it. Ghrelin encourages you to start eating, while leptin helps you stop.

Carb cravings often stem from dysregulations in these two hunger hormones. Take leptin, for instance. High-carb diets can lead to leptin resistance (at least in rodent models), or the inability of leptin to promote the feeling of fullness. As you can imagine, leptin-resistance could create serious problems with overeating if this is also true in humans.

We’ll talk about managing ghrelin and leptin later. First I want to cover the mental aspect of craving.

#4: Habit and conditioning

Cravings are not merely a matter of biology. They’re also a matter of psychology. If you have a giant bowl of cereal each night at 10 PM, your mind will habituate to that pattern. The closer the clock draws to 10, the stronger the cravings get. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve just eaten and you’re full — you’ll still get that itchin’ for ice cream.

This is a conditioned response, a phenomenon made famous by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov back in the 1890’s. Pavlov found that he could stimulate salivation in dogs by merely ringing a bell. The trick was to ring the bell (the stimulus) every day before mealtime. This would train the dogs to associate the stimulus with food. Eventually, the stimulus alone was enough to get the dogs salivating — no food required.

What stimuli might make you salivate? Maybe it’s the sight of ice cream in the freezer, the whiff of freshly baked cookies, or the clock hitting 10 PM. The point is: Being unaware of your triggers can lead to mindless eating, while proper awareness can help you take back control.

6 Ways To Control Carb Cravings

Now that you know what causes carb cravings, you’re in a good position to control them. This section will help you do just that.

#1: Try a ketogenic diet

I’ll go ahead and rip off this band-aid now: the ketogenic diet is NOT the answer for everyone. For many, however, a clean keto diet can be a powerful tool for improving dietary choices and health outcomes. It was central to my health transformation and that of many people I’ve coached. I eat low-carb to this very day.

The ketogenic diet has the potential to shift your metabolism quite substantially. By consuming fewer carbohydrates in a hypocaloric state, the body increases its access to stored body fat. 

Blood sugar has fewer peaks and fewer valleys. And more consistent blood glucose is a massive win for overall health.

The research has shown that adapting to keto can lead to:

  • Reduced levels of ghrelin, your hunger hormone
  • Reduced neuropeptide Y, an appetite-stimulating brain factor
  • Increased cholecystokinin (CCK), a fullness-promoting hormone

Appetite suppression, I suspect, is responsible for much of the weight loss people achieve on keto. Fewer cravings, less overeating, less weight gain. Simple as that!

#2: Avoid refined carbs

Keto isn’t the only diet compatible with hunger management. A whole-foods focused, Paleo-style approach with healthier choices of carbohydrates like sweet potato and fruit can work quite well, too — especially in metabolically healthy people.

But however you eat, it makes a great deal of sense to avoid refined sugar. This means saying no to sodas, cookies, sauces, crackers, dressings, and most other packaged foods. These are foods that may reinforce your preference for sweet foods. They can wire your brain to crave more refined carbohydrates.

Low-carb, ketogenic, and paleo approaches supplant junky carbs with nutrient-dense proteins and fats. As your body adjusts to this new way of living, you’ll experience a marked increase in your ability to resist carbs.

#3: Get sufficient protein and electrolytes

Protein and electrolytes can play a significant role in feeling full and satisfied after a meal. Protein takes longer for the body to digest than carbohydrates or fats, so it helps you feel full for longer. Diets higher in protein can therefore help reduce overall calorie intake and promote weight loss — the increased satiety leads to fewer cravings and snacking.

Professors Raubenhaimer and Simpson from the University of Sydney showed that all organisms have a specific appetite for protein. Their ‘Protein Leverage Hypothesis’ follows that people will continue to eat until they meet their body’s demands.

Something similar seems to occur with several micronutrients, especially electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Electrolytes play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of fluids and minerals in the body, which can influence hunger. Studies suggest that a diet rich in these nutrients helps to reduce cravings and suppress appetite.

For example, low levels of sodium in the body can lead to increased feelings of hunger and cravings for salty foods, while low levels of potassium can cause fatigue and weakness, which may lead to overeating in an attempt to boost energy levels. By ensuring that your diet includes sufficient protein and electrolytes, you can help support a healthy metabolism, reduce cravings and snacking, and feel more satisfied after meals.

#4: Sleep well

Remember the hunger hormone, ghrelin? Well, get this: When you don’t sleep enough, your ghrelin levels rise. Poor sleep drives cravings through other mechanisms too — some physical, others psychological. Impulse control, for instance, plummets in a sleep-deprived state, making it harder to resist cravings. Don’t let sleep torpedo your diet. Guard your 8 to 10 hours in bed like a penguin guards an egg.

#5: Remove temptations

Oscar Wilde once said that “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” It’s a pithy quote, but it’s not a sustainable way to control food cravings.

If you yield to cravings for refined carbohydrates, they’ll only come back stronger. (Sugar can elicit an addiction-like response, remember?) This is likely due to longer-term effects on brain chemistry and the programming we discussed earlier. Better to attack the problem at its source.

This means going through your kitchen and chucking any problem foods — most importantly, anything with refined sugar. It also means not buying those foods in the first place. There’s an old adage that the mind won’t crave what the eyes can’t see. Even if that’s not true in your case, fortifying the barrier between you and the food you’re craving is a solid technique.

Of course, you won’t be able to remove all temptations. Your waiter will bring out the dessert tray, and it will look damn delicious. But if your home life is largely free of these foods, it’ll bolster your ability to skip the crème brûlée.

#6: Ride it out

Food cravings aren’t subtle. They demand your attention and beg to be satisfied. While they may seem like they’ll never go away, this simply isn’t true. As anyone who practices meditation knows, everything that arises also passes. Hunger is no exception. It follows a natural ebb and flow. It peaks, dissipates, and levels out throughout the day — even when you don’t eat!

In fact, one group of researchers found a 36-hour fast and a 12-hour fast to affect ghrelin levels roughly equally. In other words, your hunger hormone stabilizes over time. So if you’re craving carbs, hang in there. The intensity is bound to subside.

Mastering Carb Cravings

Okay, that was a lot of info. To recap, carb cravings are caused by:

  • Refined sugar: Super sweet foods can exhibit addiction-like behavior.
  • Blood sugar changes: Riding the blood sugar roller coaster on a high-carb diet equals a roller coaster appetite.
  • Hunger hormones: When hunger hormones are dysregulated, you may crave more food, especially highly refined foods.
  • Conditioned responses: The mere sight of a Cinna-bon can make you salivate.

And to manage your carb cravings:

  • Consider eating a low-carb, keto, or paleo diet: Low-carb diets can improve hunger hormone levels, and protein and fat are more satiating than carbs.
  • Skip the sugar: Avoiding refined carbs helps keep blood sugar stable.
  • Get enough sleep: Poor sleep increases your appetite and reduces impulse control.
  • Control your food environment: Having cupcakes close by won’t help your cause.
  • Wait it out: Cravings ebb and flow, so hang in there.

I hope this article helped you learn something new. Thanks for reading!

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