Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients – carbs, fats, proteins – that are essential for a healthy and balanced diet. Limiting carbs is common advice for weight loss or certain health conditions. However, many people struggle with unwanted carb cravings and find themselves racking their heads against the wall wondering, why am I craving carbs so much?
From what I have seen as an eating psychology coach, most people that struggle with craving carbs are restricting carbs. Not only that, but they might even be afraid of carbs because of the so-called link between carbs and weight gain — and we’ll explore this link with plenty of clinical evidence soon.
If you struggle with unwanted carb cravings, let’s draw an important parallel: the fear of carbs swirling around us is similar to the fear of fats back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Back then, low-fat diets were hugely popular because we believed that eating fat made us fat, but now we know better. These days carbs are the enemy, and I hope that the future will bring us to a place where we know better.
Why Am I Craving Carbs? I Want to Be Healthy
Do you struggle with the cycle of craving carbs and then feeling frustrated or even guilty for it? It’s a growing trend, because our news feeds are flooded with articles naming carbs as the enemy of good health.
Some of these articles are evidence-based, and many aren’t. For example, while it’s true that a low-carb diet can improve diabetes, it does not mean that it’s appropriate for everyone with diabetes. Researchers carefully state this in their studies, but it’s easier for writers to say, “Eliminate carbs to eliminate diabetes!” instead of, “Eliminate carbs to potentially eliminate diabetes in some people, but not all.”
Whether you’re trying to eat low-carb to lose weight or manage a medical condition, it’s important to avoid black-and-white thinking. Labeling carbs — or any food group — as “bad” can intensify our preoccupation with them.
Studies have shown that when we restrict or deem certain foods off-limits, our minds tend to fixate on them even more. Furthermore, the dieting mentality, often accompanied by these restrictions, has been linked to increased shame and decreased self-esteem.,  This is no surprise, as anyone who has personally experienced the restrict-binge cycle knows how it can really shake your confidence.
Beyond these emotional repercussions, such binary thinking can pave the way to food aversions or even fear foods, which are associated with eating disorders. While not everyone who labels carbs as “bad” will develop an eating disorder, it is a potential step in that direction.
Weight Loss Goals Sabotaged by Craving Carbs?
Before we dive into the list of reasons behind craving carbs, let’s look at weight loss in particular. Weight loss is a common motivation to reduce carbohydrate intake. Given the abundant clinical evidence supporting low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet, it’s no wonder even devoted anti-dieters can find it challenging to resist such approaches, myself included.
When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose to be used as energy. The ketogenic diet operates on the principle of sharply reducing carbohydrate intake. This forces the body into a state of “ketosis,” where it burns fat as its primary fuel source instead of glucose.
There’s a certain allure to ketosis. I’ve personally experienced it during my (ineffective!) low-carb phases. The body feels less hungry when carb intake is minimal because the ketogenic diet has been shown to decrease ghrelin, the hunger hormone. This reduction in hunger, combined with visible weight loss, can make the ketogenic diet feel like a success.
However, at a certain point, your body adapts and reacts. Everybody has different needs, and while some people may become “fat-adapted,” or more efficient at using fat as fuel, many people don’t — and one way that your body communicates with you is through cravings.
If a low-carb diet is not right for you, your body will communicate its needs by causing you to crave carbs.
I’ve been there many, many times in the past. Back when I was dieting, low-carb was one of my favorites. However, it always ended the same: I’d restrict carbs successfully for several days, and then the cravings would come in strong and I would binge on carb-rich foods like cookies and crackers — undoing all my weight loss efforts (the restrict-binge cycle).
Exploring 7 Evidence-Based Reasons for Craving Carbs
Not all cravings for carbs stem from a low-carb or ketogenic diet. There are many other factors to consider when determining the root of carb cravings. Up next, we will explore all possible reasons why you might be wondering, why am I craving carbs all the time?
Here are some evidence-based reasons for carbohydrate cravings:
1. Emotional Hunger
A common reason for craving carbs is emotional hunger. Emotional hunger arises not from a physical need for food, but from emotional or psychological factors such as:
- Comfort Food Association: Carbs are often associated with comfort foods. Many people grow up associating carbohydrate-rich foods, like pasta or baked goods, with warmth, comfort, or celebration.
- Serotonin Release: Consuming carbohydrates leads to an increase in the brain’s release of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin. This means that eating carbs can provide a temporary mood boost, making them an attractive choice when one is dealing with negative emotions.
2. Physical Hunger
Physical hunger is the body’s natural signal that it needs more energy or specific nutrients. This hunger stems from genuine physiological needs and is accompanied by symptoms such as stomach growling, low energy, or irritability.
When you find yourself thinking, “why am I craving carbs so much?” ask yourself if it’s emotional or physical hunger. Ask yourself when you last ate, if you skipped a meal, or if your meals have been too small. If you have a history of excessive dieting, keep in mind that physical hunger is often diminished by long periods of restriction.
If you struggle with knowing what hunger feels like, it’s okay to rely on a little logic and eat when it makes sense. In other words, if you haven’t eaten for 4 hours, you might need some food to help regulate blood sugar levels and improve satiety. This can also help reduce the likelihood of extreme hunger and potential overeating later.
3. Imbalanced Blood Sugar Levels
Another biological reason for craving carbs is imbalanced blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar levels are low, your body may crave carbs as a way to quickly raise blood sugar levels and gain energy. While this is especially common in people with diabetes or other blood sugar disorders, it can happen to anyone that goes too long without eating, exercises intensely, or eats a meal loaded with refined carbs.
I want to emphasize the importance of asking yourself when you last ate or how long you’ve gone without eating. Some of my coaching clients express frustration with emotional eating patterns and yet they often skip breakfast and work straight through lunch. It’s no wonder they were craving carbs – and at that point, it’s urgent physical hunger, not emotional hunger (though you may feel crabby going that long without eating).
4. Lack of Sleep
What if you’re eating enough food and don’t resonate with emotional eating? A lack of sleep could be the culprit as it’s linked to cravings for hyperpalatable foods, which includes cravings for carbs. Unfortunately, these biological adaptations not only cause carb cravings, but also make the body predisposed to weight gain. This is a compelling reason to create a nighttime routine that helps get you to sleep on time.
5. Non-Medical Dietary Restrictions
Do you know the saying, “we always want what we can’t have” or “forbidden fruit is the sweetest”? These sayings can describe carb cravings — in a scientifically proven way. Substantial evidence indicating that depriving yourself of carbs can increase cravings for carbs., ,  This strengthens the argument for choosing a well-balanced diet over a radical diet that cuts out essential macronutrients like carbs.
What if you’re required to limit carbs because of medically necessary dietary restrictions such as celiac disease (a chronic autoimmune disorder where gluten damages the small intestine)? How can you navigate necessary dietary restrictions while eating intuitively?
Usually, dietary restrictions don’t trigger the restrict-binge cycle when they come from a place of wellness, not weight loss. When carbs are limited due to medical reasons, such as limiting gluten in someone with celiac disease, it is unlikely to perpetuate the psychological desire for gluten (i.e. the “forbidden fruit” effect).
6. Low-Carb Diets Are Linked to Carb Cravings (The Glycogen Connection)
Research provides a fascinating explanation for carb cravings rooted in our body’s energy management system. Our bodies store energy in three forms: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. In an average person, there’s a vast reserve of energy stored as fat, a moderate amount as protein, and only a small portion as carbohydrates. What’s interesting is how the body regulates these stores, especially carbohydrates.
When someone adopts a low-carb, high-fat diet (like the popular ketogenic diet), they reduce their carbohydrate storage significantly. This decrease mainly affects the liver’s glycogen (a form of carbohydrate storage), which is crucial for maintaining our body’s energy balance.
The body strives to keep a steady level of glycogen, and when these levels drop, as they do on a low-carb diet, the body signals us to eat more to replenish the glycogen.
This is where the carb cravings kick in. You start craving carbs because your body is trying to restore its preferred glycogen level. This response is quite specific to carbohydrates as the body doesn’t react the same way to changes in fat or protein levels.
This mechanism shows how our body prioritizes maintaining carbohydrate balance, linking it directly to our dietary cravings. Therefore, when you’re on a low-carb diet and find yourself craving carbs, it’s just your body doing its job to keep things in balance. (This phenomenon is also closely linked to set point weight theory.)
7. Learned Behavior and Habits
Finally, can our habits contribute to our cravings? Absolutely — but try not to get stuck here. In my opinion, compulsive eaters already have an abundance of willpower — enough willpower to overcome emotional cravings for carbs. This abundance of willpower is developed through years and years of dieting. Even though dieting doesn’t work, we strengthen our willpower through it nonetheless.
Here’s my video where I explain this in depth:
Learned behavior and habit formation are intrinsic to the human experience and play a pivotal role in cravings for carbs and hyperpalatable foods. The brain is wired to respond favorably to rewards, which includes rewarding foods like carbs and sugar. This response is central to “hedonic eating,” where we eat for pleasure instead of physical hunger.
Furthermore, the food industry has capitalized on this by engineering hyperpalatable foods that strategically combine carbs, fat, sugar, and/or salt to stimulate the reward pathways in the brain. This includes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, which can perpetuate carb cravings for the reward and pleasure factor.
However, I’ve found it unproductive to focus on habit formation in the realm of food. When we get distracted by the habit of reaching for carbs, it can encourage people to repeat ineffective patterns of restriction.
How Eastern Medicine May View Carb Cravings
Everything so far has explored carb cravings from a Western perspective. For a holistic approach, let’s explore carb cravings from an Eastern perspective. In the last several years working with a fifth-generation Chinese herbalist, I’ve learned fresh insights into alternative viewpoints on carb cravings.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), carbs are viewed as “yin foods,” or those that cool and moisten the body. On the contrary, foods commonly consumed on a low-carb diet are often “yang foods,” or those that warm and heat up the body.
TCM practitioners believe that when yang foods (like meat) are consumed in excessive proportion to yin foods (like carbs), it can lead to heat-related ailments such as constipation, IBS, and bad breath — coincidentally the hallmark side effects of the ketogenic diet, which steers people towards meat and away from carbs.
In support of this idea, a 2022 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that constipation was effectively treated by “nourishing yin,” which can be achieved through dietary changes (like eating a balanced amount of carbs), acupuncture, or Chinese medicinal herbs.
Craving Carbs Meaning
Ultimately, what does it mean when you’re craving carbs?
Compelling evidence shows that craving carbs means you’ve restricted your diet too much. Craving carbs could also mean that blood sugar levels are low. On the other hand, Eastern medicine interprets the meaning of carb cravings as the body’s potential quest for yin-yang balance.
Up next, we will explore effective ways to manage cravings for carbs through a lens of eating psychology and intuitive eating.
How to Stop Craving Carbs: Tips Rooted in Eating Psychology and Intuitive Eating
Rather than channeling your energy into mere restriction, it’s essential to shift your focus to the broader spectrum of your psychology. Delve into your emotions, triggers, beliefs, and mindset that shape your eating habits. Programs grounded in eating psychology — like my philosophy, Psycho-Spiritual Wellness — can help you break free from the restrict-binge cycle.
Here are some steps you can take to effectively address unwanted cravings for carbs:
Separate Emotional Hunger from Physical Hunger
One of the foundational steps in fostering a healthier relationship with food is discerning the distinction between emotional and physical hunger.
- Physical Hunger: This arises from the body’s genuine need for nourishment. It develops gradually and manifests in physical symptoms, like a growling stomach or low energy. It doesn’t care what you eat, as long as you eat.
- Emotional Hunger: Often sudden and intense, emotional hunger stems from feelings or situations rather than physiological need. It craves specific foods, typically comfort or hyperpalatable foods, and it can lead to mindless eating.
Recognizing the source of your hunger can be transformative in navigating your food choices and ultimately in establishing a balanced relationship with food, including carbs. If you determine that your hunger is physical, eat intuitively and enjoy the foods that sound good, even if it includes carbs.
Studies have shown that intuitive eating, which is the opposite of dieting, leads to improved body satisfaction and decreased intention to diet. If you’re afraid that you’ll gain weight or eat less healthy if you let go of the food rules, know that research shows that the more intuitively a person eats, the more fruits and vegetables they consume.
This might not happen at first – as we usually go through several stages after we stop dieting – but it’s something to look forward to down the line.
Address Emotional Eating with Structure
Common advice to address emotional eating is to “feel your feelings.” While I agree with this advice, I find it a bit unhelpful. After all, what does it really mean or look like?
When you’re craving carbs without physical hunger, my Stop, Drop, & Feel method can help prevent a binge on those carbs — and it adds some nice structure to help you feel supported while breaking away from dieting. Keep in mind, the Stop, Drop, & Feel only works with physical hunger and, in the presence of true nutritional needs, it will not work. Only food will help with physical hunger!
The Stop, Drop, & Feel method:
- Stop: Whenever the compulsion to eat strikes, especially a craving for carbs, pause to give yourself the space to determine if this is genuine hunger or an emotion-driven desire. Give yourself full permission to eat the carbs if that’s still what you really want, but first give the SDF a try.
- Drop: Transition to a quieter environment if possible, and set a brief timer. Then, get curious about how you’re feeling.
- Feel: Engage with your emotions genuinely. Grant them the space they need, even if they’re uncomfortable, like loneliness or stress. By giving space to these feelings, you’re developing an emotional tolerance, a skill that diminishes the need to use food as an emotional crutch.
A pivotal aspect of the Stop, Drop, & Feel is the understanding that it’s not about restricting food. It’s about fostering emotional awareness and getting to the root of emotional hunger. Granting yourself permission to eat after the process ensures that the SDF doesn’t become another restrictive mechanism.
This approach not only stops a binge in its track most of the time, but it also help you break free from diet mentality as you begin to focus on the emotional that drive unwanted carb cravings. Instead of remaining stuck in the restrict-binge cycle, the Stop, Drop, & Feel helps you focus on something else entirely.
Stop Restricting Carbs and Embrace Food Neutrality
For more help letting go of diet mentality, try to create awareness around any food rules that you have. When we view food in terms of “good” and “bad,” it can lead to stress and an unhealthy relationship with food. This is where the concept of food neutrality really shines.
Food neutrality encourages us to view all foods as equal, morally neutral, and without judgment. For example, food neutrality can sound like, “I don’t want dessert because I’m full, thanks,” while diet mentality sounds like, “I shouldn’t have dessert because sugar is bad for you.”
Studies have found that giving up dieting, viewing foods neutrally, and eating intuitively improves both physical and mental health in the areas of eating habits, lifestyle, body image, self-esteem, and overall quality of life. I know from personal experience how scary it can feel to give up dieting – it’s a groundless, out-of-control feeling – but there are many worthwhile benefits waiting for you on the other side.
Add Joy to Your Life Outside of Food
When carb cravings are emotional, it’s also important to consider the layer of hedonic eating, or eating for pleasure. While hyperpalatable foods like carbs are addicting in nature, we can use tools like the Stop, Drop, & Feel to curb carb cravings without hunger.
Keep in mind, though, that all the emotional tolerance in the world might not quell cravings for carbs or “fun food” when your life is void of fun as well. Joy is a basic human need, and when we don’t get it from our lives, we may compulsively seek it through food.
As you do the hard work of Stop-Drop-and-Feeling in the moment right before a binge, and as you unravel the food rules and embrace the initially vulnerable space of intuitive eating, make sure that you’re treating yourself to plenty of non-food rewards.
Carbs Are Not the Enemy
The belief that eliminating carbs is a universal solution to craving carbs oversimplifies a complex issue. Instead of focusing on the surface-level of food, it’s essential to address the psychology of eating with structured techniques like the Stop, Drop, & Feel and by embracing food neutrality.
Personally, it was only after I gave up dieting and focused all my effort on the inner work that I finally stopped binge eating, stopped craving carbs, and stopped thinking about food 24/7. This is what’s waiting for you on the other side of diet culture. I hope you’ll join me on this courageous journey.
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