Why do You Crave Carbs When You Diet or Your Mood Is Low?

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good carbs to eat
good carbs to eat

When you don’t just want, but feel you need that pastry, that piece of toast when all you can think of is sinking your teeth into a doughnut what do you do? Maybe you had cravings before, but they got worse when you tried to cut back on what you were eating.

Why, when you try to lose weight, does your body develop a mind of its own and decide it wants the foods you are trying to cut back on?! Do you ever feel like you and your body are on different sides?! That you are fighting against it? Whilst I totally get that it can feel that way, it’s actually your body’s way of trying to make you feel good! There’s a biochemical reason why you can end up craving carbs when you diet.

In this article, we are going to look at why this happens and what you can do about it. Even if you don’t crave carbs, this article is still helpful for you, as the areas we are looking at also help bring your body into balance in other ways.

Sarah’s story

Returning to Sarah, in the past, every time she had tried to lose weight, it was futile. She’d ended up craving carbs and sugar. Even more than normal! So, she was fascinated when I explained why this happened.

She had also noticed that this time, unlike ever before, her cravings were diminishing, her PMS wasn’t as bad and the weight was gradually falling off. Removing the focus from her weight onto balancing and supporting her body was a significant mental and emotional shift for her, as well as biochemical.

In three months with me, she was increasing the nutrients her body needed and increasing protein at breakfast resulting in balanced blood sugar levels all of which can help reduce cravings for carbs. Her mood was more stable not so easily plunged into self-defeating, critical thoughts. It wasn’t like Sarah woke up one morning and suddenly her cravings for sugar and carbs had gone.

It had been a gradual change, and sometimes her old pattern returned. But at a lower level of craving. More of a desire than a craving. She no longer felt compelled to eat the cake, the chocolate, the biscuits. It felt like more of a choice, where it wasn’t such a big deal not to have it. She also now had strategies in place for when she did want sugar—better options that were sweet but reduced her sugar intake.

This was a big shift for Sarah. She felt so much better within herself, healthier, less controlled by food—definitely more relaxed around it.

Why you crave carbs when you diet or your mood is low

Craving carbs when you diet or when your mood is low has to do with serotonin, a chemical in your brain that makes you feel good. When you are on a low-calorie diet, your serotonin levels can drop, leaving you depressed. But why does low serotonin make you crave carbs?

Your body makes serotonin from tryptophan. We get tryptophan in our diet from certain protein-containing foods. (Tryptophan is an amino acid found in some, but not all proteins.) Once you have eaten the tryptophan-containing food, your body converts it into a substance called 5-HTP and then into serotonin. If you follow a low-calorie diet, you are likely to have lower levels of tryptophan in your blood.1 Therefore, less of it available to convert into serotonin. This can leave you feeling down.

But why don’t you crave foods that contain tryptophan? Why do you crave chips, bread, cake or other carbs? Why do you reach for biscuits to cheer yourself up? Why not a bowl of tofu or some turkey, both of which contain tryptophan? This is because tryptophan is converted into serotonin in your brain.

But first it has to get into your brain, and you need insulin to transport it there. So how does your body raise its insulin levels quickly? By getting you to eat sweet and refined carbohydrates. This is why you may crave cakes, biscuits or chips when your mood is down because of low serotonin. When you eat sugar and refined carbs, you release more insulin.

This carries more tryptophan into your brain. So, more tryptophan is able to be converted into serotonin. And you get a greater mood boost. It may seem counterintuitive that serotonin is made from a component of protein, yet at the same time when your serotonin is low you paradoxically crave refined carbohydrates. However, the insulin boost from the carbohydrates raises your serotonin more than if you eat foods containing tryptophan.

For our distant ancestors, refined carbohydrates were not available. Our bodies are not well equipped to deal with them. In the short term you get the mood boost, but refined carbs destabilize your blood sugar, causing it to rise, then drop. This does not help your mood.

Nor do these foods help your cravings over the longer term. Even though you may get an immediate mood boost by eating the quick fix, it is better to bring your body into balance and support it over the slightly longer term.

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What to do if you crave sweet foods because your mood is low

1. Eat unrefined carbohydrates

You know by now that it’s not advantageous to have high levels of insulin! You need the correct levels. And as you have learned in this article, one of the things that insulin does is carry tryptophan into your brain, where it is converted to serotonin, boosting your mood. Obviously, you want enough insulin to enable good serotonin levels.

So how do you raise your insulin levels, without sending them rocketing? By including unrefined carbs. (Remember, this also helps stabilize your blood sugar levels, which can help with cravings. For the steps on how to balance your blood sugar levels.)

2. Include foods that contain tryptophan, which your body converts into serotonin

Tofu, turkey and chicken, fish, eggs, oats, milk, yogurt and cheese are high in tryptophan. It is best not to include large quantities of dairy, but to eat a variety of foods. It is also important to include foods that contain vitamin B6, as your body needs it to convert tryptophan into 5-HTP, the precursor to serotonin.

Vitamin B6 is in a variety of foods, including chicken, turkey, some fish, oats, bananas, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, squash, broccoli, asparagus, lentils, red kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, onions, nuts, seeds, eggs and whole grains.

3. Include Omega 3 fats and vitamin D

Many people have low levels of Omega 3 fats and vitamin D. You need these nutrients to make and use serotonin properly. The sun is our main source of vitamin D. However, wearing sunscreen with SPF15 or above blocks vitamin D production by your skin. You do not make vitamin D from the sun in the UK between October and March.

If you have dark skin, it is less efficient at making vitamin D from sunlight. To boost your vitamin D levels, expose your skin to sunshine, but do not let your skin burn. It is best to stay out of the sun when the sun sits high in the sky, typically between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

4. Make sure you can absorb and use your vitamin D

Remember from the previous article that you need magnesium to absorb and use vitamin D, and these nutrients, along with calcium, work together in your body. (Also, that if you are low in calcium, magnesium or vitamin D, you are more likely to be overweight.)

Many people when they think of calcium think of dairy. Whilst dairy is a good source of calcium, it has a very high ratio of calcium to magnesium. We need our calcium and magnesium to be at the correct levels relative to each other, and many people are low in magnesium. (Remember also that dairy can be inflammatory.

As there is a link between inflammation and obesity, it makes sense to consume dairy in moderation and include a variety of other sources of calcium.) Did you know that three canned sardines (75 grams; approximately 3/4 tin) provides 90 percent more calcium than a 30-gram serving of cheddar? Other tinned fish with bones, such as pilchards (herring), are also a good source of calcium.

Calcium is also found in tofu, chickpeas (hummus) and parsley. Nuts and seeds (like almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and sesame seeds), green leafy vegetables and cooked dried beans are good sources of both calcium and magnesium. Other foods that contain magnesium include whole grains, lentils, green peas and fish.

5. Eat breakfast, particularly one high in protein

If you have food cravings, eating breakfast, particularly one high in protein, can help. This increases your levels of dopamine, which is involved in food motivation and reward, giving you a sense of pleasure and well-being. Having breakfast, particularly one high in protein, gives you a greater sense of ‘reward’ and reduces cravings for both sweet and savory foods.

The more weight you carry, the more likely you are to have a blunted response to dopamine. This means you need more food to get the same feeling of reward. Increasing protein at breakfast may help you regulate your food intake.

Read Also About good carbs to eat

Tailor to the imbalances in YOUR body

Female hormone imbalances

A high intake of calcium and vitamin D may reduce the risk of PMS. If you suffer from depression pre- or post-menstrual, foods that contain tryptophan may help.

Appetite regulation disruption

Increasing protein at breakfast helps you feel fuller and stabilizes you’re eating throughout the day.

Slow metabolism

Include more calcium-containing foods, as calcium can speed up your metabolism.

Your next step

If you have worked your way through this book, you have probably already implemented a number of things covered in this article. Your next step is to look at where you still need to make changes. Are you balancing your blood sugar levels? (Remember, balancing your blood sugar levels doesn’t just reduce cravings. It has many benefits.

It stops you from giving your body the message to store fat. It supports your body when you are stressed, and it helps you balance your female hormones.) Are there still steps you need to take to balance your blood sugar levels? Are you getting enough Omega 3 and vitamin D? Are you including foods that contain calcium and magnesium? Do you need to increase protein at breakfast to help stabilize you’re eating throughout the day? Would it help to include tryptophan-containing foods?

If you crave carbs because your mood is low, try tryptophan-containing foods with some carbohydrate, for example, yogurt (tryptophan) with a banana (carbs) or egg (tryptophan) on toast (carbs). Write down one or two changes that you most want to focus on next. Then be specific about how you are going to approach them. For example, you might focus on increasing your vitamin D levels by having an egg once a week for breakfast and/or adding a hard-boiled egg to your vegetable curry.

Key things you have learned in this article

  • Dieting may cause your levels of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical, to drop. This can leave you depressed, craving carbs.
  • Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. However, you need insulin to carry the tryptophan into your brain, where this conversion into serotonin happens. 
  • You release insulin upon eating carbs. The insulin release boosts your serotonin. It boosts it more than eating tryptophan-containing foods does. Consequently, when your serotonin is low, you crave carbs.
  • If you crave carbs because your serotonin is low, it can help to include in your meal’s tryptophan-containing foods, as well as complex carbohydrates.
  • You need Omega 3 fats and vitamin D to make and use serotonin properly. Many people are low in these nutrients.
  • Balancing your blood sugar levels and eating a high-protein breakfast can help reduce cravings for carbs and sweet foods.

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