The addictive nature of carb cravings changes brain functions. The remedy is to address the underlying causes. Learn the best ways to control your cravings.
You may have the best intentions of cutting down on unhealthy carbohydrates, but sometimes carb cravings can make it very hard to resist temptation.
Willpower alone won’t cut it since it’s a limited resource that gets used up. Before you know it, you’re looking in the fridge or cupboard for goodies.
That’s why addressing the underlying causes of carb cravings is the key to controlling them.
Here’s everything you need to know for banishing cravings once and for all: eating strategies, dietary supplements and a collection of emergency tips from some of my favorite nutrition experts.
Controlling Carb Cravings: It Starts with Food
The number one cause of carb cravings is actually eating sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
I’m not talking about the naturally occurring sugar found in a carrot or an apple.
I’m talking about refined sugars that are hidden in processed foods.
Processed foods make up 70% of the American diet and virtually all of them contain added sugar. (1)
This is not a coincidence!
Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, reveals in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, that food manufacturers like Kraft and Nestlé create processed foods that are intentionally addictive.
They hire teams of scientists to create products that achieve the perfect blend of salt, sugar, fat, and additives known as the “bliss point” to make these foods irresistible. (2)
These processed foods flood your brain with dopamine, the brain chemical in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
In this way, being addicted to junk food is not much different than being addicted to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, shopping, porn, online gaming, or gambling.
Remember, sugar is not a food.
It is an isolated chemical with zero nutritive value that alarmingly may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine! (3)
The next time you feel like your carb cravings are a sign of weakness, understand that powerful forces have spent billions of dollars figuring out how to hijack your taste buds and, more importantly, your brain.
But this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.
Say No to Sugar
The best thing you can do to stop carb cravings for good is to “just say no” once and for all to processed foods, meaning foods with added sugar.
The first step for avoiding sugar is to take an unflinching look at your diet to see where it might be hidden.
Avoiding sugar can be harder than you think since it goes by dozens of other names and is found in abundance even in foods we’ve all been told are healthy.
This includes energy bars, cereal, fruit juice, smoothies, multigrain crackers, and low-fat yogurt.
Here you’ll find a list of alternatives names for sugar that manufacturers use to sneak it into processed foods.
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Say Yes to Protein, Fat, and Fiber
Eating either too little fat or too little protein will have you raiding the pantry for unhealthy carbs.
So will eating too few overall calories.
What should you eat instead?
Your diet should include plenty of high quality protein like grass-fed meat, wild seafood, and eggs, and healthy fats like nuts, nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocados.
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Eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you like, but eat healthy carbs like whole fruit (not juice) and starchy vegetables in moderation.
Plant foods contain fiber that slows digestion, makes you feel full, absorbs nutrients, and feeds your intestines’ good bacteria. (4)
Lastly, cravings can be your body’s way of telling you that you need more nutrients. (5)
Ironically, people that are overweight are most likely to be malnourished. (6)
A body starving for nutrients keeps sending signals that it needs more food — until it gets the nutrients it needs.
Eating nutrient-dense foods can quell cravings at the source, whereas eating junk is only a temporary fix.
Benefits of Cacao Nibs: A Brain-Smart Snack That’s Better Than Chocolate
A Word About Chocolate Cravings
As cravings go, chocolate is in a class of its own.
Chocolate is one of the most commonly craved foods, especially by women.
We even have a word for someone who craves chocolate — a chocoholic.
There’s a theory that we crave chocolate because we need its magnesium.
If true, know that there are plenty of other ways to get more of this mineral like green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and, of course, magnesium supplements.
While chocolate offers many health benefits, don’t use that as an excuse to binge on it.
The added sugar in your favorite chocolate bars can keep you craving more.
I was disturbed to learn that my favorite small (1.65 ounce) dark chocolate bar contained a whopping 5 teaspoons of added sugar.
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I can’t imagine totally giving up chocolate, but I plan to eat fewer chocolate bars and more unsweetened cacao nibs instead.
Cacao nibs provide the same health benefits as the darkest chocolate but with no added sugar.
Supplements to Control Carb Cravings
Sometimes changing diet alone isn’t enough to kill cravings, especially if you are new to phasing unhealthy carbs out of your diet.
If you need a little help, here are the top supplements to consider.
Some work by diminishing your desire for carbs, while others work by providing missing essential nutrients.
It’s a precursor to both the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin.
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This is not a supplement I recommend for depression since there’s no conclusive evidence it’s effective. (7)
Also it can be dangerous when combined with prescription antidepressants and even other mood-boosting herbs like SAM-e or St. John’s wort. (8)
However, it really does the trick to reduce carb cravings.
You should notice the effects almost immediately.
5-HTP should not be taken for more than a few months since it depletes other important neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. (9)
But that should not be a problem since it shouldn’t take that long for you to overcome your carb cravings, especially if you are vigilant about cutting processed food out of your diet.
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If you are concerned about the downside of 5-HTP, consider a tryptophan supplement instead.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found mainly in animal protein foods that gets broken down into 5-HTP.
Tryptophan more readily enters the brain than 5-HTP where it increases serotonin and reduces carb cravings. (10)
Tryptophan is an unusual case in that it works better in supplement form than in food.
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Only 1% of dietary tryptophan is available for serotonin synthesis in the brain. (11)
Like 5-HTP, it should not be combined with antidepressant drugs.
Chromium supplements are taken to balance blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity in those with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Ninety percent of Americans are low in this essential trace mineral with seniors and anyone who eats a lot of processed food being most at risk. (12)
One study found that a chromium supplement significantly reduced carb cravings and mood swings in 65% of those who tried one. (13)
Glutamine is an amino acid that’s found in abundance in the central nervous system. (14)
It’s a precursor to the calming neurotransmitter GABA which is essential for feeling happy and relaxed.
Glutamine also provides the brain with an alternative source of energy to glucose, the brain’s usual fuel. (15)
Glutamine usually comes as a powder that’s mixed with water.
You can also take whey protein powder which is usually a good source of glutamine.
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Gymnema sylvestre is a tropical plant from Asia that’s been used to treat diabetes for over 2,000 years. (18)
It’s considered a blood sugar balancer so is useful for people with either hypo- or hyperglycemia.
It goes by the common names gurmar, which means “sugar destroyer,” and miracle fruit.
And for anyone with a sweet tooth or diabetes, this herb is almost a miracle.
Gymnema contains compounds called saponins that suppress the ability to taste sweetness. (19)
It may also reduce the intestine’s ability to absorb sugar molecules thus reducing blood sugar levels. (20)
It seems to reduce appetite to help with not only cravings but also general appetite control. (21)
If you try these supplements and find you still crave carbs, you may still have some nutritional gaps that need filling.
Common nutritional deficiencies that contribute to carb cravings include magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and B complex vitamins. (22)
Carb Craving Tips from the Experts
Besides these dietary changes and supplements, there are some creative lifestyle tweaks that can prevent or diminish carb cravings.
Here are some tips from some of my favorite health authorities.
AuthorityNutrition.com recommends walking or taking a hot shower when carb cravings strike.
Experts at PsychologyToday.com offer suggestions such as getting more sleep, managing stress, and listening to what your cravings are trying to tell you about your life.
Dr. Andrew Weil suggests eating more bitter foods like olives, endive, radicchio, and cooked greens which can balance your desire for sweets.
He advocates mind-body techniques like hypnosis and breathing exercises to reduce the stress that leads to emotional eating.
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He finds that intestinal flora imbalances can be a hidden source of cravings.
This is particularly true if you’ve taken a lot of antibiotics.
Eating both prebiotic and probiotic foods and taking probiotic supplements can help.
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You’ll find a list of these foods on DrPerlmutter.com.
Other tips from the experts include hanging out with others who eat healthy, avoiding emotional triggers, and liberally using spices like cinnamon to liven up foods and control blood sugar levels. (24, 25)
Let me add a few of my own favorite carb craving tips.
Avoid artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame — they confuse the brain and actually increase appetite and hunger. (26)
If you must sweeten your foods, switch to natural non-caloric sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit instead.
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And don’t let unhealthy snacks be your downfall.
Most of us get 25% of our calories from snacks. (27)
Obviously, you need to remove junk food from your house and your desk drawer at work.
And always have a good supply of healthy alternatives for when carb cravings strike.
Check out our article on brain healthy snacks that blast carb cravings with foods like coconut cream, avocado, smoked salmon, and even a little dark chocolate.
Underlying Health Conditions that Cause Carb Cravings
For most people, these healthy lifestyle tips will be enough.
But for some, an underlying health condition can sabotage even the best effort.
Diabetes, hypoglycemia, hormone imbalances, thyroid disorders, candida overgrowth, and food sensitivities may be the root cause of your carb or sugar addiction. (28)
If you know you have any of these problems, take whatever steps are required to get the disorder under control.
And if you suspect you have a problem, discuss it with your health care professional to know for sure.
Arming yourself with good information may be your best defense against unhealthy cravings.
Carb Cravings: The Bottom Line
Carb cravings can derail your best intentions to eat healthy.
The top cause of carb cravings is the consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar in all its various forms.
Emphasize healthy protein and fats, and eat vegetables in abundance and fruit in moderation.
Keep healthy food on hand for those carb craving emergencies and consider using supplements to diminish your interest in refined carbs.
And lastly, make sure all of your basic nutritional needs for vitamins, minerals, and essential fats are being met.