on July 18, 2019
You’re minding your own business, going about your day like a good keto follower, when all of a sudden it hits you: a carb craving. Carb cravings can strike whether you’re on day 1 or 1,000 of following the keto diet, and unfortunately, they can feel pretty powerful.
Although carb cravings are unpleasant, you might take comfort in knowing that they’re not all in your head; there’s biology behind your cravings, and if you understand why they happen, you can take steps to not only fight them off but to make them fewer and farther between.
A carb craving is an intense and sudden desire to consume food in the carb family, be it bread, pasta, pizza, or even a starchy vegetable like corn.
You’ve no doubt experienced cravings for other foods in your life, but before going on the keto diet you may have been able to make them disappear simply by giving in or distracting yourself with a similar treat.
When you’re on keto, it’s not so easy. The cravings can feel even more intense than normal because the food you want is truly “off-limits” and there are higher stakes associated with fighting the craving. If you give in to it, your hard work to stay in ketosis could go out the window.
Instead of throwing in the towel, stand firm. Keep reading to learn a few of the underlying reasons for your cravings and some actionable steps to deal with them.
There are a number of reasons we get cravings, from the physical to the mental. Here are three of the biggest carb craving culprits.
This is the primary reason for carb cravings in the early stages of adopting a keto lifestyle. Your body is used to running primarily on carbohydrates for fuel, so when they’re not there, your brain signals for you to refuel by way of eating carbs.
Cravings in this stage can range from mild to almost painful and can be accompanied by headaches, fatigue and mood swings--symptoms commonly known as the “keto flu.” While it’s uncomfortable, it’s not actually an illness. It’s your body going through withdrawal-like symptoms while transitioning from carbs to fat as its primary fuel source.
The good news is that this phase will pass as your body gets used to relying on ketones from fat rather than carbs as its number one fuel source.
Though this is another common culprit for new keto dieters, it can happen to even the most dedicated keto follower.
Let’s say you forget to grab breakfast on your way out the door or you work through lunch on a busy day. You’re going to be hungry, plain and simple, and if you’re hungry enough without a low-carb snack nearby to fill you up, you may be more susceptible to falling into old habits, like reaching for a slice of pizza or a bag of potato chips. Old habits die hard, and when we’re experiencing a moment of uncertainty our brains fall back on old habits by default. Hence, a carb craving.
Since you can’t rely on carbs to get your recommended daily intake of calories while on the keto diet, it’s super important to get enough calories from fats and proteins--perhaps more than feels natural at first. Getting a sufficient amount of calories for your body each day is key to preventing cravings.
As if being stressed out wasn’t taxing enough on its own, it’s also a prime time for cravings to hit (thanks a lot, biology!).
When we’re under stress, our body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a cravings nightmare because it makes us want to eat. And it’s not just any food our bodies crave--one of the biggest things it wants is sugar. Sugar, unfortunately, acts as true comfort food in moments of stress. Sugar has a feedback effect on our bodies that dampens stress-related emotions and makes us feel better in the short term.
But, as we know, in the long term sugar is one of the worst things you can put in your body. It’s responsible for weight gain, inflammation, increased risk of heart disease and more. So, having alternate tools to deal with stress is an important factor in fighting carb cravings.
It’s important to know that although cravings may feel worse on keto, science says cravings aren’t actually made worse by restricting a certain type of food and thus they’re not “caused” by following any specific diet. In fact, a high-fat, low-carb diet was shown to be associated with fewer cravings than other types of diets.
What this means is that the cravings most likely feel worse simply because of the old paradox: we want what we can’t have. When carbs are off-limits, it’s all that much harder not to think about eating them.
While you can’t prevent carb cravings completely, you can dramatically increase your chances of getting through them successfully by arming yourself with some tools to deal with cravings.
Practice these three tried and true techniques to beat carb cravings on the keto diet.
The first step to take in the moment a craving strikes is to eat something keto-friendly instead. If the food you’re craving contains a carb substitute, reach for that right away. Some examples are:
You can also curb cravings by eating plenty of fiber. Fiber not only keeps us feeling full, but it’s actually a carb that’s keto-friendly. Unlike other carbs, fiber can’t be broken down into sugar molecules and instead passes through the body undigested. Some good high-fiber snacks are chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, and avocados.
Finally, be sure to drink plenty of water. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, so if you feel a sudden craving for a keto enemy like carbs, drink a tall glass of water and wait a few minutes. You might find the craving passes because your body was actually signaling for hydration rather than a snack.
Though we generally think of mind games as being a bad thing, when it comes to cravings, they can be our friend. Studies have shown you can effectively stave off a craving by focusing your mind on something else, like playing a game on your phone, for a short period of time.
Aim for an activity where your mind is required to focus on something--even something mindless--rather than wandering back to food. You might try:
Experts say food cravings may last only a few minutes (assuming, of course, you’re not lacking calories as we talked about earlier), so getting your mind off your carb urge and focusing it on something else, even for just a few minutes, can be an effective way to ride out a craving successfully.
As we’ve discussed, stress can be a big trigger for carb cravings. Instead of turning to food to ease your anxiety, de-stress in a healthier way.
Exercise. Experts say any form of exercise, from running to yoga, can act as a natural stress reliever. When we get your body moving it produces endorphins, the neurotransmitters that cause a feel-good response. Exercise also has a meditative effect, taking your mind away from the day’s stressors.
Deep breathing. This is our body’s natural way of calming itself. When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to relax and let go. Your muscles relax, your heart rate lowers and your blood pressure slows down. Next time you feel the stress start to rise, take a step back and try a few deep breaths.
Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation elevates the stress hormone cortisol, which can then further disrupt our sleep patterns. It’s a vicious cycle. Experts recommend most adults aim for getting seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night.
There’s a light at the end of the carb-craving tunnel.
As your body adapts to getting fuel from ketones rather than carbohydrates, your cravings for carbs should drop in intensity and frequency. In fact, followers of a low-carb, high-fat diet have reported fewer cravings across all food groups than before they went on the diet.
You might still get hit by a craving every now and then, but by using the coping skills we outlined above you’ll get better at recognizing it when it happens and taking action to combat your craving before it gets the best of you.
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