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You know the feeling. That intense craving for carbohydrates when all you are trying to do is eat clean and healthy. What do you do when this craving hits? Do you avoid it completely? Do you cave in? Or, do you try your best to find a healthier substitute that satisfies the craving without derailing your nutrition plan?

If you’re not quite the latter, you might just be short of ideas for foods that can help meet your need of a carbohydrate fix. I’ve got some insight on why this type of craving is so common, along with some suggestions for go-to foods when they strike.

Where do cravings come from?

First thing’s first — why do so many of us crave carbohydrates?

Most people believe that these cravings are strictly psychological. They blame their lack of willpower for their lack of success. Yet most cravings are actually derived from some sort of physiological imbalance going on inside. One example of this is what happens inside of your body when it’s stressed out. Your cortisol (stress hormone) levels elevate, which causes your blood sugar levels to elevate as well

When your body has high levels of blood sugar, it releases insulin (a fat storing hormone) to help bring that blood sugar down (storing the sugar as fat). Insulin often overcompensates, leaving you with a lower blood sugar and confusing your body into thinking it needs more energy — causing some serious carbohydrate cravings. 

Have you ever found yourself super stressed out at work and instantly craving something naughty out of the vending machine? This is the exact process of why that feeling happens. Even worse, having a poor night of sleep, or simply a diet too high in processed carbohydrates, creates the same impact on blood sugar levels and insulin. Do you know anyone that doesn’t get enough sleep and maybe has too much stress? Try the majority of the adult population in America.

All of these imbalances really put you at a disadvantage when it comes to cravings and trying to eat healthy, which is why it’s so important to realize why you have them to begin with — but also what you can do to help dampen them. 

Why are carbohydrate cravings so hard to ignore?

Truth be told, food manufacturers are really good at their job. If you made money off people buying certain food products, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to make them want more? 

Processed food today is chock full of artificial ingredients, sugar, and salt, which influence your taste buds to want more. And unfortunately, these foods are not typically filling, making it easy to overeat and not support a healthy waistline. Not to mention, many of us get a good feeling after consuming them. 

What You Should Eat

When trying to lose weight, cravings for carbs can completely derail your nutrition plan. But if you have them, you can set forth some strategies to have in your back pocket when cravings arrive. 

It’s also important to consider long-term strategies in the event that your body is going through chronic periods of stress or lack of sleep. In those cases, supportive supplements — or even meditation — would be advantages when it comes to your weight-loss plan.

The foods below should help feed your fix for carbs while providing your body good nourishment — and without leading to additional blood sugar imbalances.

If you’re craving a salty carb:

Chips and pretzels are your jam. Whether it be because of the crunch or your need for salt (a common symptom of a chronically stressed individual), to help get your fix, try something similar in texture, such as:

  • Raw carrots and hummus
  • 1–2 cups of homemade popcorn with some butter and Himalayan sea salt
  • Roasted Chickpeas
  • Baked cheese slices. Line a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes.

If you’re craving a sweet carb:

Candy, dessert, or chocolate is something you fixate on. This is likely because your blood sugar has dropped and you’re craving sugar. Whether right after a meal or in between, these choices are quick, easy, and taste great.

  • Frozen or fresh berries with heavy cream
  • Chocolate protein shake
  • Small square of 80 percent or higher dark chocolate
  • Small banana with natural almond butter

If you’re craving a starchy carb:

Pasta, bread, cereal — you name it. For some, they crave starchy carbs because they’ve been a staple at mealtime their entire lives. Others might crave them after a really tough workout (where you might need additional carbohydrate to refuel). These choices below are better staples for your menu for those days when you just don’t feel like solely eating meat and vegetables.

  • Spaghetti squash noodles or zucchini noodles
  • Cauliflower substitutes (pizza crust, mashed, and even riced)
  • Almond Butter Banana Muffins
  • Homemade granola: chopped cashews, coconut flakes, and sunflower seeds mixed with a 1 tbs. of dark chocolate chips or dried fruit

When can I have the real thing?

Minimally processed and real-food carbs — outside of fruits and vegetables — can have a place in a diet when it comes to losing weight and being healthy. Higher carbohydrate foods, such as steel cut oats, brown rice, or quinoa, can be eaten alongside any combination of quality protein and fats.

I encourage clients to keep portions to a half cup or less, and to save these higher carbohydrate foods for post workout (a time when their body can have increased needs for this type of fuel) or at night/dinner time.

One awesome tool many of my clients use as a pre-workout fuel or snack is Generation UCAN. It’s a powdered sports-energy drink that is made up of SuperStarch — a complex carbohydrate that breaks down slowly over time and doesn’t spike your blood sugar like other carbohydrate foods and beverages.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Anika Christ, RD, CPT

Anika Christ is a registered dietitian, personal trainer, and the senior director of nutrition and weight loss at Life Time. She’s known to many as “Coach Anika,” and is one of the original virtual coaches who continues to lead a number of digital programs each year. She started at Life Time in 2008 and has spent her entire career helping build Life Time’s nutrition and fat-loss programs. When she’s not at work, she enjoys reading, lifting weights with her husband, and playing with her two daughters.

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