Craving Carbs

Last week, feeling depressed, I found myself in front of a Chinese grocery. I bought a pint of curried rice noodles and sat at the bus stop eating them right out of the box. They were delicious. Just plain little noodles with bits of cabbage, but yum!


As I ate, I noticed my mood lightening. With each bite, I seemed to get happier. I finished the last of the box as my bus came.

For the next three hours, I felt really good. But by that evening, my blues had returned, worse than ever. There was a quarter of a chocolate cake my son had brought over the day before. I grabbed it and ate most of it to feel better.

That’s what refined carbs can do. That’s why carb cravings are so hard to control.

Carb cravings are a big problem for anyone trying to maintain a healthy diet in modern America, but with diabetes, the stakes become higher. Where do these cravings come from, and what can we do about them?

According to WebMD,[refined] carbohydrates [like sugar] stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin… The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural ‘high,’ says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant.” Ah ha. So that’s why I felt so good.

There are also emotional effects. Sweets taste good, and from childhood, you were probably rewarded with sweets when you did something good. So sweets carry a strong built-in positive association.

It’s no exaggeration to say that refined carbohydrates are addictive. On The Huffington Post, Frank Lipman, MD, wrote, “The bottom line is that sugar works the addiction and reward pathways in the brain in much the same way as many illegal drugs… Sugar is basically a socially acceptable, legal, recreational drug, with deadly consequences — and like with any drug addiction, you have to have a flexible but structured plan to beat it.”

I think Dr. Lipman may be overstating his case a bit, but other experts have found sugar addictive. Addiction counselor Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, author of Potatoes not Prozac, calls sugar the gateway to all other addictions. In her work with alcoholics and drug addicts, she found they usually couldn’t recover from their addictions until they stopped eating sugars and refined flours. Then they could get better. She calls these people “sugar sensitive.”

So how can we get control over sugar addiction and carb cravings? I’d like to hear your strategies, but here are some from online doctors and advisors.

• Have some substitutes handy — when sugar craving hits, grab a stick of gum, or a piece of fruit, or some trail mix. Always have healthy snacks available.

• Distract yourself by doing something — like taking a walk or involving yourself in an engrossing task.

• Avoid cravings in the first place — don’t let yourself get too hungry. Always eat a good breakfast, including some protein. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Perhaps divide lunch in two parts, and save one part for a mid-afternoon snack.

• Try to have some protein and/or fat with each meal. Make sure the carbs you do eat have a lot of fiber, so they don’t absorb too fast.

• Reduce stress – The Web site Gallbladder Attack says, “When we’re stressed the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline as if we were preparing to fight tigers in the jungle… [This can] deplete the body’s energy reserves… T[he result is] lack of energy, fatigue, and cravings for sweets or caffeine,” to restore our energy.

Dr. Lipman’s article has no fewer than 20 suggestions for dealing with carb cravings. These include:

• Eat natural foods — “The closer a food is to its original form, the less processed sugar it will contain.”

• Add spices such as cinnamon and coriander. These will reduce sugar cravings and give you a nice burst of flavor so you don’t feel deprived.

• Exercise more, sleep more.

• Avoid artificial sweeteners — they can increase cravings

• Recognize that a lot of sugar craving is emotional — like my depression before the noodles. Try to identify your emotional cravings and deal with them without sugar.

• Most of the “complex” carbohydrates we consume like bread, bagels, and pasta aren’t really complex at all. They are usually highly refined and act just like sugars in the body. They will really get your cravings going. If you’re sugar sensitive, it’s probably best to avoid such carbs entirely.

• Sometimes what we perceive as sugar craving is really thirst. Drink water.

Dr. Lipman and others say it’s important to realize that “Cravings usually last for 10–20 minutes maximum. If you can distract yourself with something else, it often passes. The more you do this, the easier it gets and the cravings get easier to deal with.”

It’s also important to pay attention when you’re eating. Really taste the food, enjoy it, and feel what it’s doing to your body. Addiction counselor Judy Chambers, LCSW, says we should plan food instead of grabbing. “Think about what you’re eating,” she says. “Slow down, plan, and eat what you intend to eat, instead of eating when you’re desperate.”

Relaxing, breathing, and meditating can all reduce cravings. Possibly vinegar and a supplement called L-glutamine can too. And sometimes you just have to give in, because it feels so good. But try to keep those times to a minimum.

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  • Tim Fikes

    See this article from about a month ago by Patrick Nemechek. He recommends drinking a small salty beverage, such as a cup of broth to help relieve the craving. We did this a lot during our initial conversion to low carb, and then occasionally when we have a strong craving. It really seems to work.


  • calgarydiabetic

    The urge goes away with time. After 5 years I don’t like carbs that much any more. and mostly avoid them except for fruits. And an occasion small bowl of quinoa.

  • Cathy A.

    I eat a lot of fruit and as a result I don’t really care for things like bread or candy. Give me a good apple, orange, or watermelon slice. This time of year I am in heaven with all of the choices. It is amazing to want fruit rather than cake. Don’t know how this happened but I have lost a lot of weight because of it. I was the original cookies, cupcakes and candy bar person – that after having a big sandwich, so this is a big change for me. Know what else? The depression seems to be going away too.

    Great article. Good suggestions.

  • Krishna Kumar

    I have been a diabetic for more than 15 years. I can identify with all the points made in this article. However, after I eat sugars, I get a bitter taste in my mouth, and I start hating the sweet dish I just ate. Of late, I have been thinking positively about that bitterness, so I can stop eating sweets for fear of getting that bitter taste in my mouth.

    What I want to know is, does anyone else get this feeling?

  • M. B.

    I am a type 2 diabetic for over 20 years now, last 5 of which I am on 2 different insulin shots several times a day and I do not crave the carbs per-se. I was a big kid all my life and I still am overweight. Knowing what the carbs, especially sugars and flours in the form of cookies and pies, do to my weight, I avoided them all my life long with the exception of my late grandmothers home made pies. I like them but I try not to eat them.

    My problem is, my insulin regiment. For some reason, same food with same amount of carbs and sugars in it (frozen meals we are talking about here) when eaten for lunch with the same amount of insulin injection just before the meal, show wildly different result. Some day, I measure my glucose level 2 hours after meal to find out it is in 50s. No wonder I was feeling woozy. And I start looking for something to eat. Higher the sugar content better I will feel faster. I usually go for a mango nectar from the vending machine, assuming it is at least juice of some sort and should have some benefits. But on the other hand, losing weight is nearly impossible with the job and life I have (almost no exercise other than taking the dog out for walks when it is not hotter than hell outside.

    My insulin injections are Lantus (long term) once a day and Novolog (rapid acting) before meals. Does anyone have or had the same issue and if you did, how are you coping with it ? Any better type of insulin brands or variety ?

  • Delores Carr

    I was replacing my sweet cravings with fruit, and also as a snack, but the nurse at the diabetes clinic told me not to do that. That fruit makes your sugar spike, I should eat fruit with my meals. I don’t really crave carbs, I will eat them, but they make my sugar spike. As for that bitter taste in your mouth, I think it’s the medication I was taking. I’ve changed meds, I don’t have that dry mouth and bitter taste anymore.

  • Ralph D. Smith

    Diabetic 13 years. Have been on the ‘no sugar/no flour’ diet for four months; weight loss of 10%; no cravings for any type of food. Lower glucose readings and doctor has eliminated one diabetic control drug. Lower Hb1ac.

  • P s b

    To mb re varying reactions:
    Yes, I ‘ve had similar variations in blood sugar levels after roughly same amount of carbs & calories in a meal. I’m on low dose of 1/daily long-acting Lantus (5 mg) and low dose (2mg) short-acting Novolog. Not as extreme as your reaction, but troublesome.
    However, I do not have these reactions if I carefully stick to vegetables, fruit, beans & lots of green salads. I think I’m especially simple (refined) carb-sensitive. I, too, like frozen dinners–so easy to prepare with all carbs indicated, so I think I can predict my reaction. Can’t.
    I used to be on higher dosage. Lost 45 lbs with all the salads & beans. However, though I’m fairly good, processed foods & simple sugars remain temptation/downfall.
    Good article, good suggestions.

  • Kelly

    I am type 2 diabetic. Been so for over 10 years. On Actos, Victoza, metformin and chlorestoral lowering drugs. I have been on many diets and know how to eat but I get off on these binges that are hard to end. My doctor has threatened to put me on insulin if I don’t lose weight, she didn’t really threaten!! I have lost 75 lbs three times on Weight Watchers. I love WW I have always lost on it. But I am having a hard time staying on it right now.

    Right now I really want candy. Like desparately. I don’t want any other carb, candy only. But after I eat the candy, I didn’t enjoy it. What is up with that?

  • David Spero RN

    Kelly, your doctor’s “threat” to put you on insulin if you don’t lose weight doesn’t make much sense. Insulin usually causes even more weight gain. When he says “lose weight,” translate that to “lower your blood sugars.” That’s what he really means.

    But you have to get over the carb cravings or learn to deal with them. Read some of the suggestions readers posted above. I would suggest going one week with no flours or sugars of any kind, except small amounts of fruit.

    You will need to substitute other foods — I suggest beans and vegetables and nuts, although there are other things you could try. Pay attention and see if the cravings let up.