Arguments surrounding carbs and their role in optimal health have dominated discussions of the human diet for nearly 5 decades.
Mainstream diet fads and recommendations have continued to change rapidly year after year.
At the same time, researchers continue to discover new information about how your body digests and responds to carbs.
Therefore, you may still be wondering how to include carbs in a healthy diet, or what makes some carbs so hard to say no to at times.
This article reviews the current research on whether carbs are addictive, and what that means for their role in the human diet.
Carbohydrates are one of the main macronutrients your body needs.
In fact, of all the macronutrients, carbs are arguably the most important source of energy for your body’s cells, tissues, and organs. Not only do carbs produce energy, but they also help store it (1).
Still, serving as a good source of energy isn’t their only function. Carbs also serve as a precursor to ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), transport molecular data, and aid cell signaling processes (
When you think of carbs, often the first types of foods that come to mind are refined carbs like cakes, cookies, pastries, white bread, pasta, and rice.
Their chemical makeup includes three primary elements — carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
However, many healthy foods are also carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain breads, pasta, and rice.
Carbs are one of the main macronutrients required by your body. They’re needed for many functions, including producing and storing energy.
You may have noticed that it can be hard to resist junk food at times, especially carbs that are high in refined sugar, salt, and fat.
Many people have wondered if this is a matter of willpower, behavioral or psychological traits, or even brain chemistry.
One major study revealed strong evidence that high-carb meals stimulate regions of the brain that are associated with cravings and rewards (
GI stands for glycemic index, a measure of how the carbs in a meal affect blood sugar levels. A food with a high GI increases blood sugar levels more dramatically than a food with a low GI.
This suggests that the human urge for refined carbs could have much more to do with brain chemistry than initially believed.
Additional research has continued to support these findings.
The case for addictive carbs
Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that refined carbs in the form of fructose have addictive properties that closely resemble those of alcohol. Fructose is a simple sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and honey.
These scientists found that, like alcohol, fructose promotes insulin resistance, abnormal fat levels in your blood, and liver inflammation. Plus, it stimulates your brain’s hedonic pathway (
This pathway triggers appetite and influences food intake through a system of pleasure and reward rather than being based on true physical hunger or actual energy needs.
Not only do insulin resistance, inflammation, and abnormal fat levels increase your risk of chronic disease, but repeated stimulation of the hedonic pathway may reset the level of fat mass your body wants to preserve, contributing to increased body weight (
High-GI carbs that promote rapid changes to insulin and blood sugar levels also appear to affect dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain that sends messages between cells and influences the way you feel pleasure, reward, and even motivation (
Furthermore, some research in rats shows that granting periodic access to sugar and chow food mix may produce behavior that closely mirrors the dependency often seen with drug abuse (
A second study used a similar model, allowing rats periodic access to a 10% sugar solution and a chow food mix followed by a period of fasting. During and after the fast, the rats displayed anxiety-like behaviors and a reduction in dopamine (
It’s important to note that most of the experimental research conducted thus far on carbs and addiction has taken place in animals. Therefore, additional and more rigorous human studies are needed (13,
In one study, women ages 18 to 45 who were prone to emotional eating episodes were more likely to choose a carb-rich drink over a protein-rich one after being induced into a sad mood — even when blinded from which drink was which (
The connection between carb-rich foods and mood is just one theory as to carbs may sometimes be addictive (
The case against addictive carbs
On the other hand, some researchers are not convinced that carbs are truly addictive (
They argue that there are not enough human studies and believe that most of the research in animals suggests addiction-like behaviors from sugar only in the context of periodic access to sugar specifically rather than from the neurochemical effect of carbs in general (
Other researchers conducted a study in 1,495 university students in which they assessed the students for signs of food addiction. They concluded that total calories in a food and unique eating experiences were more influential on calorie intake than sugar alone (
Further, some have argued that many of the tools used to evaluate addictive-like eating behaviors rely on self-assessment and reports from people participating in the study, which leaves too much room for subjective misunderstandings (
Some evidence suggests that high-carbs meals may stimulate different types of brain activity than low-carb meals. Particularly, carbs appear to affect the areas of the brain related to pleasure and reward.
In 2015, researchers from the University of Michigan and the New York Obesity Research Center used the YFAS scale to measure addiction-like eating behaviors in students. They concluded high-GI, high fat, and processed foods were most associated with food addiction (
GL is a measure that considers both the GI of a food as well as its portion size. When compared to GI, GL is typically a more accurate measure of how a food impacts blood sugar levels.
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With the exception of cheese, each of the top 10 most addictive foods according to the YFAS scale contains significant amounts of carbs. While most cheese still provides some carbs, it isn’t as carb-heavy as the other items on the list.
Moreover, many of these foods are not only high in carbs but also refined sugar, salt, and fat. Plus, they’re often eaten in highly processed forms.
Therefore, there may still be much more to uncover about the relationship between these types of foods, the human brain, and addictive-like eating behaviors.
The most addictive types of carbs are highly processed, as well as high in fat, sugar, and salt. They also typically have a high glycemic load.
Even though research shows that carbs display some addictive properties, there are many techniques you can use to overcome cravings for carbs and other junk foods.
One of the most powerful steps you can take to stop carb cravings is simply to plan for them ahead of time.
Having an action plan in mind for those moments when cravings hit may help you feel prepared and empowered to pass up carb-laden junk foods and make a healthier choice instead.
As far as what your action plan should entail, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer. Different techniques may work better or worse for different people.
Here are a few ideas you can try:
- Fill up on protein first. Both animal and vegetable sources of protein, including meat, eggs, tofu, and beans, are renowned for helping you stay fuller for longer (
- Eat a piece of fiber-rich fruit. Not only does the fiber in fruit fill you up, but its natural sugars may also help satisfy cravings for something sweet (
- Stay hydrated. Some research suggests that dehydration may trigger cravings for salt. Since many salty foods are also high in carbs, drinking water throughout the day may ward off cravings for both types of foods (
- Get moving. Boosting your activity levels with steps, strength training, or any other exercise of your choice triggers the release of feel-good endorphins from your brain that might interrupt your carb cravings (
- Get familiar with your triggers. Pay close attention to which foods are hardest for you to avoid and prepare yourself to be around those trigger foods ahead of time.
- Take it easy on yourself. Nobody is perfect. If you give in to a carb craving, simply consider what you can do differently next time. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just like anything else, learning to navigate carb cravings takes practice.
Various techniques may help fight off carbs cravings. These include physical activity, staying hydrated, familiarizing yourself with trigger foods, and filling up on healthy fruits, vegetables, and proteins.
Carbs are your body’s primary source of energy.
Some carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are very healthy. Other carbs can be very processed and high in salt, sugar, and fat.
Early research on carbs does suggest that they might display addictive-like properties. They appear to stimulate certain parts of the brain and even influence the types and amounts of chemicals your brain releases.
However, more rigorous research in humans is needed to uncover exactly how these mechanisms in the brain are affected by carbs.
Some of the most addictive carbs appear to be highly processed junk foods like pizza, chips, cakes, and candies.
However, there are various techniques you can try to combat carb cravings. Consider testing out a few to learn what works best for you.