Why Do We Crave Carbs?

  • Why do I crave carbs?
  • Why does the smell of baking bread or chocolate cake or cookies or  hot chocolate or popcorn or…well, you get the idea…why does that stuff make me so hungry?
  • Why don’t I crave broccoli or tuna fish or butter?
  • Why am I such a slave to sugar?

Insulin, my friends, insulin. And here’s why….

emotionaleating1 Why Do We Crave Carbs?

Must…Eat…Chocolate

The Science behind Insulin and our Addiction to Carbs

  • Insulin is secreted by the pancreas.
  • It’s job is to take glucose from your blood, store it in your liver and muscles as glycogen and stop the use of body-fat for fuel.
  • It’s your storage hormone.

This you may know. You probably also know that the glucose in your blood comes from eating carbohydrates.

  • Carbs = Sugar.

What you may don’t know is that insulin isn’t being secreted all the time. It is produced in waves or pulses.

In Fact:

  • The first insulin pulse comes just seconds after you eat carbs
  • This insulin pulse occurs before the sugar in the food even reaches your bloodstream
  • This burst of insulin lasts for 20 minutes before dying down
  • As the first insulin pulse fades away, a second, more gradual injection of insulin is released by the pancreas
  • This pulse lasts for several hours

So what does this all mean?

This means that:

  • The first insulin pulse is designed to prime your body for what is about to happen.
  • Your mind tells your pancreas that sugar is about to be released into the bloodstream and that it had better get ready
  • Ergo, it starts squirting out the insulin

Why does the pancreas need advance notice?

It takes 20 minutes for insulin to have any significant effect on blood-sugar.

Without the advance notice, and the pancreas’ early warning system, a heavy carb meal could result in symptoms of hyperglycemia:

  • A feeling of nervousness or jitteriness
  • A racing heart and pulse
  • Sweaty palms
  • And also a headache

So, is this is a good thing?

  • Yes and no.

Here’s the bad news.

This first wave of insulin secretion has also been described as increasing the “metabolic background of hunger.” As the insulin grabs hold of the blood-sugar and stores it away for later use, it also shuts down the release of body-fat as fuel.

Temporarily, this leaves your body starved for nutrients. You can’t use the energy from the meal or the fat from your love handles. Ooops.

As a result of this, you get hungry!

As a result of this, that meal starts to look better and taste better. And that’s why you keep making trips to the buffet. Your body is searching for energy. More importantly, it’s fuel of choice is sugar…fast absorbing sugar.

After some time, your metabolic system does balance out, and nutrients are released to be used as fuel and your hunger decreases.

So What Does This Have To Do With My Carb Addiction?

  1. Our diet is based on carbs – wheat, corn, rice, sugar
  2. When we eat meals based on carbs, our insulin spikes
  3. When we eat meals based on carbs, our appetite increases
  4. When we eat meals based on carbs, food (carbs in particular) tastes better
  5. When we eat meals based on carbs, we overeat trying to fuels our cells
  6. As a result, when we eat meals based on carbs, we force our bodies to crave carbs

And this is a best case scenario.

I am not even going to discuss how this pattern of overeating carbs can and does lead to Type 2 Diabetes. I will save that discussion for another day.

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.

27 Comments

  1. Pingback: Derby City CrossFit | DarkSide Strength | Louisville Saturday 6/8/13 - Why Do We Crave Carbs?

  2. Dan

    March 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    It’s interesting also that this might be sparked by dopamine the neurotransmitter than is released upon expectation of a reward. Or at least tied into it somehow. So not only do you physiologically get hungry, but the dopamine will make you psychologically hungry. All this from just LOOKING at food. I guess it brings a new meaning to the phrase ” I just need to look at food and I put on weight”.

  3. jona

    January 25, 2013 at 8:57 am

    GREAT Article! More people should be aware of how food immediately affects our body

  4. Pete kinloch

    December 9, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Great article

  5. julian

    October 21, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Point is that bread whether its wheat or white is bad for you. Even Oatmeal or whole grain pasta. Try foods like brown rice or quinoa for whole grains or sprouted bread which is low glycemic. Eat more fruits veggies and fish. Avocados and raw nuts. Baked yams. No processed junk.

  6. JanFowlerFolsom

    June 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I’ve recently discovered this for myself.  Once I cut out most carbs, I stopped craving them.  And I lost 30 pounds!

    • healthhabits

      June 10, 2012 at 11:03 am

      @Jan – how do you feel if you eat a bunch of carbs now?

  7. smayton1974

    April 15, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    I understand all you posted here, as my grandmother is diebetic. I, myself, have changed my carb intake as a result if her diet. Just today is when I got insane cravings. Ive began getting cravings for honey buns, or cake. Thinking I just wanted sugar, I ate chocolate, then a Popsicle, then peanut utter cheese crackers. None of those things reduced my cravings at all. I don’t understand that. Any ideas? I’m just not really one to crave anything.

    • healthhabits

      April 16, 2012 at 4:48 am

      There are a LOT of factors at play in your body right now.

      The basal ganglia portion of your brain is responsible for habits…and you have some very strong carb-eating habits that will take time to wither and be replaced with non-popsicle eating habits.

      Your hypothalamus is sending out all sorts of chemical signals telling you that PB and chocolate is required right now.

      And when we take in the posibility of insulin insensitivity and the active hormonal activity of your existing body-fat, it makes it a sure thing that you are going to have to fight cravings for sugar for a while until your new habits take root and your bod realizes that you mean business.

      Distraction is a useful too when the cravings hit. Small bursts of physical activity (jumping jacks, push-ups, bike riding) can short circuit the cravings – If you can’t exercise, throw yourself into an activity that requires a lot of focus.

      I can’t guarantee that the cravings will completely & immediately go away, but….

      • sunshinemonkey74

        May 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

        thank you i will try this…because this is so me…i crave sweets and salt and the bad. i am ready for a change. so i will trt this sounds like a good start for me.

  8. Charral Izhiman

    October 4, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Hi there… I am craving cake over my usual carbs like chips, rice and bread. Any cake but preferably Chocolate. I never cared for sweet food my whole 35 years and now for months I crave cake. why?

  9. Pingback: Why you crave chocolate and other carbs! « Feel Good Tips

  10. Mike

    December 9, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Excellent post thanks for the info. I personally have cut out all white carbs and sugars about a month ago. The first few days were tough. I had low energy and a slight headache through those days. Now as posted by DR Dan my appetite is satisfied almost half way through meals. It’s great! I tried to explain this to my friends who can see how healthy I’m looking but when I tell them the changes they will have to make to there diet thy simply think I’m crazy. Funny thing is I think it’s crazy to continue to eat that way. Sugar has many bad effects of the body http://thinkingonhisfeet.blogspot.com/2010/11/im-going-to-try-and-be-as-straight_3517.html

  11. Pingback: Why Do You Crave Carbs?

  12. Pingback: Weight Loss...Weight Gain...Weight Loss...Weight Gain... | Health Habits

  13. Pingback: Sugar doesn't cause obesity... | Health Habits

  14. Pingback: Sugar is Evil « Healthy SHOULD be Easy

  15. Katrina

    February 20, 2009 at 9:13 am

    I can definitely relate to what you’re saying. But, every time I see people advocating a diet low in grains and carbohydrates I immediately think of people I know who eat high-carbohydrate diets and still stay thin, fit and healthy. For example, one of my friends who speeds along mountain bike tracks for up to 6 hours at a time, is a fantastic rockclimber, very fast sprinter, does forty chin-ups, fifty sit ups (and more) a day and is very lean with really defined abdominals, arms, legs – muscles all over his body.
    Here is the carbohydrate content of a typical day for him:
    Breakfast: big bowl of muesli and whole wheat cereal,
    Morning tea: half a white bread panini
    Lunch: sandwhiches or pasta or rice or potatoes or starchy vegetable soup and bread or pastry etc. Afternoon snack: about five slices of toast
    Dinner: pasta or potatoes or rice or pastry etc. Dessert: biscuits or cake or ice cream.

    How?
    How do some people stay so unbelievably fit, thin and healthy on a diets high in carbs?
    Why is it that asian countries where rice has been a staple part of the populations’ diets for hundreds of years have had (and still have) such low rates of obesity?
    Do thin, healthy and fit carb-lovers still feel uncontrollable cravings for it?

    Perhaps thin, fit, healthy people do still feel these carbohydrate cravings.
    So, this must mean they either don’t give in to them (meaning they’re not uncontrollable so why can’t I resist them…?) or they do give in to them (and stay healthy, meaning that the cravings weren’t unhealthy in the first place).

    I’m sure your diet is healthy. But how can I believe high- complex-carbohydrate diets are unhealthy when I know healthy people who naturally eat them?
    Eating is so incredibly frustratingly complex.

  16. totaltransformation

    January 7, 2009 at 8:57 am

    My Pancreas must be seriously pissed off now that I am on the Velocity Diet. HA!

  17. Dr Dan

    November 16, 2008 at 5:10 am

    This is exactly what I believe. The emaciated obese. When I ate a diet high in carbs I was constantly hungry. But now I only get carbs from veges I can eat something and end it half way through if I feel like it. My hunger is far more in control. Great post. I wrote a post very similar to this.

  18. DR

    November 14, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Emily,

    Thanks for the suggestion (and the compliment).

    Did you see this post?

  19. Emily

    November 14, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Great post as always — it’s scary when you think of what you’re actually doing when you eat lots of sugar (and yet, sometimes I do it anyway — I know I should ignore the message from my brain that says to gorge myself, but it seems so overpowering sometimes! Then, in contrast, when I’ve been “off sugar” for a while, I feel like you couldn’t pay me to eat cake — I just don’t want it at all. Oh, insulin…)

    Also, in case you’re ever looking for other post topic ideas, I’d also be interested in reading about diet and skin (inflammation/acne connection?). But I think your posts are really interesting, so keep up the good work.

  20. DR

    November 14, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Rambodoc,

    Let me clarify:

    I am amazed that our body has evolved to respond to the potential ingestion of sugar by having the pancreas produce insulin in advance of sugar entering the blood stream.

    For the purpose of this article, I was playing devils advocate and imagining what would happen if our pancreas didn’t secrete insulin in advance of a carb heavy meal.

    I believe that if our pancreas didn’t anticipate the influx of carbs/sugar, our blood sugar would increase unabated and we could be faced with these symptoms of hyperglycemia.

    The symptoms that I listed are symptoms that I am seeing more and more often in my new clients.

    * A feeling of nervousness or jitteriness
    * A racing heart and pulse
    * Sweaty palms
    * And also a headache

    These are symptoms that arise after a heavy carb meal.

    And it’s not very difficult to make these symptoms go away…a week of no grains, sugar, booze, starchy vegetables (essentially no carbs except for low density vegetables) combined with supplemental fish oils, magnesium & various other insulin-sensitivity boosting products (Cinnamon, etc..).

    A week of this and, like magic, the symptoms go away, along with a loss of 3 -8 lbs of excess water. (carbs force the body to delay the elimination of sodium which results in excess fluid)

    When we lose that fluid, they ALL see an immediate drop in blood pressure

    And none of these patients have been told by their doctors that they have high blood glucose levels.

    The ones that have been tested were all in the normal range.

    Maybe the normal range is wrong.

  21. superhealthykids

    November 14, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Guess I’ll be eating a little more protein today.

  22. rambodoc

    November 13, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    DR:
    High blood glucose levels almost never cause any symptoms. If one is a diabetic, one can guess that his or her glucose levels are uncontrolled by certain symptoms, eg, a sudden infection in the body-anywhere, an increase in the trips to pee, or even a recent onset tightness of the penile foreskin (in medical terms, a recent-onset phimosis from balanoposthitis), etc. In extremely high, fatal levels of blood glucose, patients can show signs of what you describe. I think these could be features of a condition called keto-acidosis.
    In short, if any one of us has a blood glucose of 2oo mg/dl, I doubt if we would notice any symptoms. Even the frequent trips to the toilet.

    Perhaps you are saving up the rest for another post: the issue of how to eat foods that don’t cause an insulin spurt!

  23. Super-Trainer

    November 13, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Great info here – Makes a lot of sense and is very true about craving the carbs -

  24. DR

    February 21, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Hi Katrina,

    It’s just not fair. Some of us just do better with carbs than others. And for those of us that are more prone to storing carbs as fat, the problem only gets worse as we get fatter.

    For a few different reasons (hormones, enzymes, brain chemicals), it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I have had a lot of clients who were able to tolerate carbs when they were younger. In fact, they could eat pizza and burgers and drink beer and never gain a pound. But then, one day, they gained a pound and then 5 and then 20 and then 50. And the weight gain continued even after the cut back on the junk and replaced it with boring health food.

    But at that point, their body was unbelievably efficient at putting on that body fat. At that point, even a healthy asian or mediterranean diet might even be too carb heavy to get the body-fat melting.

    And you’re right. It is complex.

    Carbs aren’t necessarily healthy or unhealthy. The same food that your friend thrives on may make someone else pack on the pounds. When I was heavier, I had to cut back on the carbs to lose the weight. As the weight came off, i became more sensitive to insulin and my body could tolerate higher glycemic carbs without stopping my weight loss.

    Everyone is different. We have lived different lives. The best diet for me today is not the same as the one I needed when I was losing weight.