There are only 3 categories of carbohydrate: sugars, starch and fibers. Several different sugars are found in foods – namely glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, lactose and maltose. All starch, no matter what food it’s found in, is just long chains of glucose. Once starch is broken down in digestion, the glucose is released, and it behaves like any other sugar. Fibers are also classified as carbohydrates, but they don’t give us any calories. For counting calories, “counting carbs,” or managing carbohydrate cravings, we’re only talking about sugars and starch. So, as you read this, when you see the word sugar, it can mean sugar eaten as sugar, or sugar that comes from the breakdown of starch. They’re basically the same.
It’s About More Than Calories
Excess carbohydrate leads to many health problems besides overweight and obesity. Sugar feeds microorganisms (yeasts, molds, viruses, parasites, bacteria and mycoplasmas), contributing to acute and chronic infections. Many of these infections go undetected, yet they cause fatigue, brain fog and joint pain. Sugar feeds cancer cells as well.
Excessive sugar intake gradually wears out the mechanisms that control blood sugar. This leads to blood sugar volatility, irritability, low energy, insulin resistance and possibly diabetes.
Sugar is inherently inflammatory, contributing to inflammatory bowel conditions, coronary artery disease, and greater pain and tissue damage with arthritis or injury. Both cholesterol and triglyceride levels are elevated by excessive carbohydrate intake.
Fortunately, most of the ill effects of chronic overeating of carbohydrate can be reversed or well-managed by getting away from refined sugars and starches and practicing good portion control of natural sources of carbohydrate.
Carbs Can Be Addictive
Sugar is an addictive substance. Since starch is made of sugar, it can be addictive too. Some people can overeat sugar or starch (“carbs”) occasionally without developing a craving, just as many people can drink alcohol occasionally without becoming an alcoholic. Unfortunately, others can easily develop cravings, leading to a daily habit. As with any addiction, carbohydrate addiction can be challenging to overcome. People with low blood sugar, insulin resistance, diabetes or poor digestion tend to be especially vulnerable to carbohydrate cravings.
People who overeat carbohydrate often deny that they have cravings for excess carbohydrate. This is usually because they are satisfying their carbohydrate hunger every day and never reduce their intake enough to feel what they would call a craving. However, withdrawal from overeating carbohydrates is very real, as anyone who has managed kicking the habit will tell you. Whether you call it overeating, an addiction, a craving or a chronic hunger, the result is eating too much carbohydrate for what your body can handle.
Carbohydrate tolerance (the amount you can eat without having ill effects) varies from person to person. This is based mostly on diet history, digestive health, and genetics. Many of us have worn out our blood sugar control mechanisms with a history of eating too much carbohydrate and can no longer tolerate the amount we used to.
Natural vs. Refined
The term “refined carbohydrate” generally refers to a sugar or starch that has either been extracted from a whole food (such as sugar taken from sugar beets or corn starch taken from corn) or one from which the fiber and germ have been removed (such as whole wheat that’s refined and then turned into white flour). Foods that don’t fit neatly into either of these categories include raw honey vs. pasteurized honey and fruit juices taken from whole fruit. I consider pasteurized honey and agave to be refined sugars because the high heat denatures beneficial enzymes that help our bodies properly utilize that food. And of course, fruit juices are missing all or nearly all the fiber from the fruit. Here’s a breakdown of natural and refined sources of sugars and starches.
Foods Naturally High in Sugar Refined Sugars
whole fruits white sugar, cane or beet
pure fruit juices brown sugar
stevia leaf “raw” sugar
whole sugar cane stevia liquid or powder
whole sugar beets pasteurized honey
raw honey pasteurized agave
raw agave corn sugar
corn (a high-sugar grain) high fructose corn syrup
milk (milk sugar is lactose)
Foods Naturally High in Starch Refined Starches
all whole grains, including any grain from which the fiber and germ
wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, etc. are removed (e.g., white rice)
any flour made from whole grain any flour made from refined grain
all pasta made from whole grain flour all pasta made from refined grain flour
any bread or bread item made any bread or bread item made from
from whole grain flour refined flour
winter squashes corn starch, potato starch, etc.
beets, carrots, parsnips
turnips, rutabagas, jicama Be aware that many foods are high in
potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams both starch and sugar – including muffins,
legumes (all beans and peas) pastries, cookies, cakes and pies.
corn, green beans, green peas
A high percentage of wheat, corn and soybeans are now genetically modified, which means they are no longer truly natural foods. There is growing evidence that GMO foods cause a wide variety of negative health effects for a significant percentage of people, especially in terms of the reduced percentage of nutrients these plants can pull from the soil.
Know What the Label Is Telling You
There are a couple of odd things about how carbohydrate is counted on food labels.
First, the number of grams of “Total Carbohydrate” listed on the Nutrition Facts label of food packages includes the grams of all starches, sugars and fibers. Fiber is technically a carbohydrate, but it doesn’t provide any calories, so it shouldn’t be included when counting carbohydrates. To get the correct grams of carbohydrate for counting carbs (referred to as “net carbohydrate”), you need to subtract the grams of Fiber from the grams of Total Carbohydrate on the label! The grams of Fiber are listed separately beneath the Total Carbohydrate listing. If a slice of bread has 16 grams of Total Carbohydrate and 3 grams of Fiber, the actual amount of usable carbohydrate is 13 grams.
Secondly, the number of grams of “Sugars” listed separately under the Total Carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label includes natural sugars as well as refined. For example, in a cup of regular cherry yogurt, part of the sugar comes from the cherries, part of the sugar comes from the milk, and part of the sugar comes from added sweeteners such as sugar or corn syrup. These are all lumped together in the total grams of sugar per serving. There is talk of changing this in the future so that we can see how much sugar comes from natural sources and how much comes from refined sources, but this hasn’t happened yet.
Do your best to choose foods with fewer grams of Sugars on the label. You can sometimes make a fair guess of how much sugar comes from natural sources and how much from added sugars by looking at the ingredient list (usually found below or next to the Nutrition Facts label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So, for example, if sugar is the first ingredient, you know most of the sugar in the food comes from refined sugar.
Reduce Cravings with the Right Foods, Combinations and Portions
To keep carbohydrate hunger in check, eat a combination of carbohydrate, protein, fat and fiber at every meal and snack. Each of these four food components help protect you from carbohydrate hunger or cravings.
Getting some carbohydrate is important, because too little will cause cravings later. Too much is a problem, too, since this triggers a release of insulin and too much insulin can cause cravings for more carbohydrate. Manage the total amount of carbohydrate you eat at one time. Keep the serving sizes small to moderate. A general guideline for those who count carbs would be 30 – 50 grams per meal and 15 – 30 grams per snack, depending on height, weight, sex, and activity level.
Proteins such as flesh foods, eggs, nuts, seeds and cheeses help stabilize and sustain blood sugar levels, just like putting a log on a fire to keep it burning over time. This keeps us from getting too hungry too soon. Note that beans/legumes are a good source of protein, but unlike other high-protein foods, they also contain the same amount of carbohydrate as an equal portion of grain or pasta. The protein-carbohydrate balance is a good one, but be careful not to get too much additional carbohydrate, such as eating a lot of bread at the same meal.
Fats and fibers slow down the uptake of sugar into the blood. Fats do this by slowing down the emptying time of the stomach. Choose healthy fats like olive or coconut oil and healthy, high-fat foods such as raw nuts, avocados and grass-fed beef. Fibers do the job by providing bulk and thereby slowing digestion in the small bowel.
Allergies and Chemical Additives Can Lead to Cravings
Avoid any foods you know you’re allergic to or suspect you may be. Food allergens often cause hunger and cravings, both for the specific food and in general. They can also cause restlessness and anxiety, which undermine willpower. Wheat and dairy are the most common allergens that cause cravings for more of the same food and for extra carbohydrates. If you’re not sure you have allergies, try avoiding wheat/gluten, since it’s such a common allergen. American wheat has been over-hybridized, genetically modified and chemically treated, leading to an epidemic of wheat intolerance. Substitute gluten-free breads (try Udi’s Cinnamon Raisin or Millet-Chia, Gluteno’s Flaxseed Bread or Gluten-Free Prairie Bread) and cooked grains such as millet, rice and quinoa. See if your interest in sugars and refined starches decreases.
Avoid highly refined foods with long ingredient lists of unpronounceable names and artificial colorings. Food companies put chemicals in these foods specifically for causing us to crave more of them. This is a documented fact. Artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer either. The only non-caloric sweetener I can recommend is pure stevia with no other ingredients added. It’s still a refined product, but it’s the best we have other than stevia leaf itself. Note that Truvia is not pure stevia.
Be cautious about using too much of any sweetener, as you want to adjust your taste buds away from needing foods to be sweet. There’s growing evidence that sweet flavors can trigger responses in the body similar to those caused by actual ingestion of sugar.
Start with Eating Early and Often
Undereating during the first half to three-quarters of the day is a big cause of overeating and excessive carbohydrate intake from mid-afternoon through dinner and beyond. Do your best to get breakfast within an hour of getting up, sooner if you get up late. Then eat about every 2½ to 3 hours from breakfast to dinner. A common pattern is 3 meals plus 2 snacks halfway between meals. Or at least one mid-afternoon snack.
Later, as your blood sugar stabilizes, you may be able to eat less often, but going more than 4 hours between “feedings” can be a setup for carbohydrate craving and poor, spur-of-the-moment choices. The exception may be those who avoid all sugar and flour. They can often go 5-6 hours between meals without cravings or excessive hunger. Check out the Bright Line Eating system for support in achieving a no-sugar, no-flour diet. I highly recommend Dr. Thompson’s program.
Supplements Can Help Reduce Carbohydrate Hunger
Each of the following 3 supplements can help reduce carbohydrate hunger in different ways. People often get the most benefit by combining digestive enzymes with one or both of the other two. If you follow the dietary guidelines above and start 2 or 3 of these supplements, reduced carbohydrate hunger usually become apparent within 2-3 days.
1. Digestive enzymes reduce overall hunger
Incomplete digestion is a common contributor to excess hunger. Digestive enzymes help insure that your food is fully digested, leaving you feeling more satisfied and less hungry.
Purchase a regular “broad spectrum” digestive enzyme supplement. Lots of companies make these. A general recommendation is to take 1 pill (tablet or capsules) with breakfast, 2 with lunch and 2 with dinner. Take the first one in the first half of the meal, sometime after the first few bites of food, and the second one in the second half of the meal, sometime before the last few bites of the meal. You might also choose to take 1 with each snack, but this isn’t always necessary.
2. Chromium reduces carbohydrate hunger by improving insulin tolerance.
Chromium helps cells accept insulin and evens out the pace of sugar uptake by the cells. Those with blood sugar imbalances are often greatly helped by this. Chromium can lower blood sugar, which is great for diabetics. But if you have hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), pay attention to your level of carbohydrate hunger, as well as your energy, mood and mental clarity. If any of these worsen after starting chromium, your blood sugar may be running too low. If so, lower the dose to about half of recommended dosing.
Purchase 200 mcg. capsules, not 400 mcg. Get a GTF chromium if you can (Glucose Tolerance Factor), though this isn’t essential. Check the label and choose a form other than chromium picolinate, which can upset the stomach. Take 2/meal the first week. Then take
3-5/day, always getting at least 1/meal but adjusting down gradually from the 2/meal. As you adjust your dose downward, watch for any return of carbohydrate hunger. Increase your doses again if needed. Notice if you experience a stretch of time when you’re most likely to want extra carbohydrate. If so, get 2 capsules at the meal that precedes this time.
3. L-glutamine reduces carbohydrate hunger and nourishes the intestines.
L-glutamine is an amino acid that supports chemical pathways that reduce carbohydrate hunger. A side benefit of L-glutamine is that it nourishes the cells that line the bowel, helping to reduce the inflammation that may be there from overeating carbohydrate or from microorganisms such as yeast that may be overgrown because of feeding on excess sugar.
Purchase 500 mg. capsules. Take 2 at once (1000 mgs.) 3 times a day. Take these up to an hour before the meal at all 3 meals. It can be challenging to remember to do this, so if you forget, take them just before the meal.
Note: As with any supplement or medication, there may be individuals who experience negative side effects. Whenever starting a new supplement or medication, watch for any new or worsening symptoms, and adjust your dose or discontinue it as needed. Most stores will refund the purchase price if you react to a supplement, or even if it doesn’t have the intended effect.
What Works for You?
Different approaches to reducing carbohydrate intake work for different people. Be realistic about what changes you can make and how quickly. You may need to cut down gradually by first avoiding desserts, sweets and highly sweet foods (like the cherry yogurt mentioned above). Then, once you’re used to being off the sweet stuff, try avoiding all or nearly all added sugars and even excessive amounts of natural sugars such as from fruit. Even if you don’t go for zero tolerance but just significantly reduce your sugar intake, you’ll be doing something great for your health.
For others, “cold turkey” works better. This can work well for someone who likes very clear boundaries. If you’re going for zero intake of refined sugars, you’ll become a label detective and draw the line at any food that has any form of sugar in the ingredient list. (Remember, this doesn’t mean there will be no grams of “Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label, since that number includes natural sugars.) This has its rewards, since you’re likely to see carbohydrate cravings disappear much faster than if you cut back gradually.
Whichever approach you choose, supplements are likely to help you make the change more easily. They may be a temporary aid for a few weeks or months, or you may find you need them long term. If you discontinue them, be prepared to rely on them again in the future if you find yourself back in the habit of eating too much carbohydrate. Because overeating carbohydrate tends to trigger the desire for even more, this may happen from time to time.