Oh, carbohydrates. Lately, they seem to have such a bad rep. Well, if we look at all the macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) fat has also been scrutinized due to the lasting myth that fat makes you fat, while protein has a shining light. Let’s just be clear that we need all three of these macronutrients and they are all vitally important in their own way. In recent years, carbohydrates have been examined in relation to weight gain and other chronic diseases such as diabetes.
First, it’s important to recognize that carbohydrates come in many forms, including dark leafy greens, to carrots, berries, and other produce, as well as rice, oats, wheat, flours, bread, bagels, crackers, sugars and commercial cereals. It seems that most often when people refer to ‘carbs’ they are talking about refined, processed grain-based products. These products have been refined down to ‘simple’ carbohydrates, which taste much sweeter, but have lost the majority of nutrients. Simple carbohydrates, especially those that are refined, contribute to weight gain as they increase blood sugar quickly, causing spikes in insulin secretion (insulin is the hormone that brings down blood sugar by promoting this excess energy to be stored as fat).
So, why do we crave carbs? If you tune in more to your cravings, you might notice that you tend to crave carbohydrates (whether it’s grains, flours or sugars) more often when you feel stressed, deflated, down, upset or scared. Cravings carbs during stressful times is actually a natural, biological reaction – however, a habitual craving for carbohydrates, particularly the sugary kind, may be closer to a sugar addiction (‘happy’ chemicals are released with sugar consumption!).
When we are stressed, B vitamins, which are energy-producing vitamins, are depleted. We tend to crave carbohydrates when we are stressed in order to acquire energy and deal with the stressor. On a deeper level, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are also released to help us deal with the stressor too. Adrenaline sets a chain reaction to release blood sugar stores to go to the muscles to physically help us (e.g. needing to run away from ‘danger’). The concern is that most stressors we encounter are not physical, but are emotional, and sometimes, long term. Stress increases our blood sugar levels by igniting the fight or flight response and also promotes cravings for energy (a.k.a. carbohydrates). If we don’t use this extra energy to physically deal with the stressor (e.g. run away), insulin is secreted to bring blood sugar back down. Insulin and exercise are the only mechanism to lower blood sugar levels.
So what can you do about your carbohydrate cravings?
- When you’re feeling stressed, try to take deep breaths. Take at least 5 deep breaths (e.g. big belly breaths where you count for 4 seconds on the inhale, pause and exhale for 4 seconds). Deep breathing calms the nervous system to halt the release of adrenaline and cortisol.
- Don’t eat when you’re feeling stressed. Stress shuts down the digestive system as energy is directed towards the muscles.
- Fuel yourself with proper nutrition. Consume plenty of whole, good quality, natural foods. Avoid fueling the cycle of sugar cravings!