Are carb cravings a sign of a nutritional deficiency? Find out whether this is true, and how you can control your carb intake
Craving high-carb junk food isn’t just a matter of giving into instant gratification. It could be a sign that your body’s trying to tell you something.
While some people blame a sweet tooth for their urge to eat carbs and sugar, others suggest that nutritional deficiencies of magnesium, zinc, chromium, amino acids (tryptophan), or vitamins (vitamin D especially), may actually be the culprit.
The idea behind this is that when you are deficient in these nutrients, your body cannot use carbs effectively as an energy source so it tries to compensate by consuming more carbohydrates. This theory, however, needs more scientific evidence to back it up.
Do nutritional deficiencies really cause cravings?
Although you do need to consume various micronutrients in optimum amounts, being deficient in them does not necessarily mean you will crave carbohydrates. And many people with a micronutrient deficiency have actually reported that they had a reduced appetite, which goes against this hypothesis of carb cravings.
Scientists suggest that carb cravings occur because of the effect that carbs (especially sugars) have on your brain. Consuming sugary foods increases the levels of the “feel-good” hormone (serotonin), making you correlate feeling good with having carbs. So eating carbs can actually make you want more. This is further supported by the fact that people tend to consume more carbs when they are stressed, anxious, or depressed.
What should be your daily carb intake?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (the other two being protein and fats) that are a crucial part of a healthy diet. They provide your body with its main fuel (glucose), used to release the energy needed to function and move properly. One gram of carbohydrate releases four kilocalories of energy.
The amount of carbohydrates you need to consume depends on various factors, such as your age, general health, underlying health conditions, physical activity, and gender. But it’s not just the quantity that matters, but also the quality of carbs you’re consuming.
The USDA recommends the healthy plate approach. According to this, you must fill:
- 1/2 of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- ¼ of your plate with whole grains.
- ¼ of your plate with protein (beans, dairy, fish, meat, or poultry).
How can I control carb cravings?
You can control carb cravings by:
- Adding enough protein and fiber to your diet, as it keeps you feeling full for longer.
- Including moderate amounts of healthy fats, such as nuts and dairy in your diet.
- Choosing complex carb sources, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, instead of processed carbs, such as chips, fries, and pastries.
- Staying hydrated with water and non-sugary beverages. Not drinking enough water can make you hungrier and crave more food, including carbs.
- Managing stress through activities such as meditation, music, yoga, or other healthy hobbies.
- Staying active. Exercise helps release serotonin in your body as well, and helps to maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that promote satiety.
- Practicing moderation. Cutting down carbs completely from your diet may create a rebound craving for more carbs. So follow a balanced diet while keeping track of your carb intake according to your body’s needs.
- Getting enough sleep. Lack of rest can worsen carb cravings.
If you can’t seem to control your carb cravings, talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying health conditions.
Medically Reviewed on 7/14/2021
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Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. July 2013;16(4):434-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23719144/