Here's Why You Crave Carbs When You're Stressed—and What to Do About It
We spoke with Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, about why many of us tend to crave sugar- and carbohydrate-rich foods when we feel stressed or anxious.
Stress eating is a common practice during life's more intense moments. And it's not just stress—anxiety, depression and even feelings of sheer bliss can give us a hankering for certain foods. In a time of life that feels more uncertain than ever, enjoying our favorite comfort foods is a simple way to ease some of the stress and burden associated with this global pandemic. But why do those cravings come in the first place? We spoke with Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, about the brain-craving connection.
How Are Our Cravings and Emotions Related?
"Food is emotional," Rumsey says. "Having an emotional connection with it is simply part of having a healthy relationship with food. It's a symbol of history, culture and family—not just a source of fuel. Food is not all about the fiber or minerals a food may bring. It's also about taste and the happiness it brings."
Why Do We Crave Carbs in Times of Stress?
"Reacting to stress by wanting to comfort yourself is a natural reaction, and food can certainly be a comfort," Rumsey says. She says there's also a lot of stress and uncertainty right now: "There are also some real feelings of scarcity with food and staying at home. There is also the stressor of finances coming up now too."
Rumsey says our brains and bodies are wired to go into "save mode" if there is any type of scarcity—either from dieting or actual scarcity of food. This increases our appetite and cravings because our body wants to store up calories when we feel stress.
Carolyn Williams, RD, PhD, previously told us we can specifically crave carbs during times of stress because carbohydrates increase production of serotonin, our body's "feel-good" chemical. She says carb-rich foods (especially those with added sugars, like ice cream and cupcakes) increase our blood sugar to provide a burst of energy, which our bodies might need after long, stressful days or sleepless nights. Most of us could benefit from more energy and serotonin right now, so our bodies are likely trying to help us out by making us hungry for these types of foods.
What Are Some Healthy Ways to Manage Our Cravings During Times of Uncertainty (and While Spending Lots of Extra Time Indoors)?
Rumsey says it's important to first and foremost acknowledge that it's okay to eat emotionally sometimes—and especially right now during this crisis. She says the guilt and shame around emotional eating can actually cause more stress and lead to a downward spiral of binge eating later.
"There is this belief that we need to 'get back into control' or have 'more willpower' to fight off our cravings. Dealing with cravings has nothing to do with the willpower—I find it's actually about the opposite."
Rumsey says having an abundance of food—and not just food deemed "clean" or "healthy"—actually makes it lose its powerful grip on us and lets your brain relax a bit. You might be gobbling up Oreos by the sleeve right now, but that could be because they are usually deemed "off-limits" or "bad" in your household and you don't know when you're ever going to eat them again.
"If you're craving chips, your body wants the chips. Carrots are likely not going to satisfy," Rumsey says. "Eventually that chip craving is going to come back and you'll go crazy after trying to satisfy it."
Most of us have more packaged foods in the house than we're used to, but Rumsey says there's nothing wrong with that. Most foods are processed in some way, but that doesn't mean they are inherently bad for us (here's why it's OK to eat processed foods, according to a dietitian). Give your body and brain time to adjust to having some new foods in your house, let yourself enjoy them and watch as they start to lose their power over you.
Eating (and Living) Mindfully
Mindful eating is one way Rumsey says we can enjoy our favorite comfort foods in moderation. She advises working in a five-second pause before, during and after eating to check in with your emotions and hunger and fullness cues.
While it can be difficult for us to eat completely distraction-free right now, she says incorporating these pauses is a simple way to ensure we are eating until we are full and actually enjoying what we are putting into our bodies. We don't have to beat ourselves up over finishing that piece of cake even if we recognize we're full, but it's important to be aware of your hunger levels and feelings when eating.
"If food really is your only coping mechanism right now, or if it's not actually helping you to cope, that's when you may want to take a look at cultivating other ways to deal with stress and your emotions," Rumsey says. "I've been eating a lot more ice cream and cookies than I normally do because those actually do make me feel better—and I eat them intentionally without guilt or judgment. But you also need to seek other coping mechanisms like journaling, reading, listening to music, stretching or connecting with friends and family however you can."
The Bottom Line
This is a stressful time for all of us, and it's one we won't soon forget. Rumsey advises looking at the bigger picture before freaking out over eating a family-sized bag of Doritos or all your Easter candy.
"Your body doesn't tally up what you're eating each day," Rumsey says. "Spending several weeks—or even months—away from your normal routine is not going to drastically impact your health."
She says it's also important to define health as more than just nutrition right now. Mental health is always an important component of our overall health, and it's something that might need to take more priority over getting the perfect nutritional balance right now. If your current food routine is causing you even more stress and anxiety, you may need to reassess.
Otherwise, focus on enjoying your family and friends in new ways, get enough rest, take time away from social media and the news to do something you love and sneak in some movement—right now, these things will all benefit your health much more than an apple ever could.
Related: 7 Foods for Stress Relief