What are carbohydrates?
Nutrients that are needed in bulk for survival of the human body are called macro nutrients. Carbohydrate is one such main macro nutrient human body needs.
In fact, of all the macro nutrients, carbohydrates may be considered as the most important source of energy for human body cells. Still, serving as a good source of energy isn’t their only function. When we think of carbohydrates, often the first types of foods that come to mind are refined carbohydrates like polished rice, food made of wheat flour devoid of natural fiber, e.g., biscuits, cakes, cookies, pastries, white bread, pasta, noodles etc.
It is important to note, many healthy, naturally occurring, relatively unprocessed or unprocessed foods are also carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain pulses, whole-grain cereals etc.
Carbohydrates and their role in optimal health have dominated discussions of the human diet for almost the 2nd half of the 20th century and the entire 21st century so far. Mainstream diet fads and recommendations have evolved over this period.
Scientists, food technologists, researchers continue to discover new information about how human body digests and responds to carbohydrates.
This write-up looks at contemporary scientific understanding on whether carbohydrates are addictive, and what that means for their role in the human diet.
Craving for Carbohydrates
People wonder sometimes, why it is difficult to resist eating junk food or ‘highly processed away-from-nature food-like substances’. Is it related to willpower, behavioral or psychological traits, or how human mind gets ‘pushed’ to decide in favor of eating such foods? Things common to such foods are, of course, salt and fat (especially trans-fats); however, such foods are heavily loaded with refined carbohydrates or refines sugars. Do these refined carbohydrates be as addictive as other habit-forming substances? Or is the concern totally unfounded?
New research suggests strong evidence that high-carbohydrate meals stimulate regions of the brain that are associated with cravings and rewards. To understand this, it is important to understand the concept of glycemic index of foods.
What is glycemic index of foods?
The glycemic index is a scale that ranks the number of carbohydrates in foods from zero to 100, indicating how quickly a food causes a person’s blood sugar to rise. That means not all carbohydrate foods are equal. Carbohydrates with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels.
The classifications for glycemic index include:
Individual food portion:
Low: 55 or less
Mid: 56 – 69
For the whole day the classifications are:
Low: 45 or less
(The figure of 45 comes from studies that suggest this average GI of 45 is associated with significant health benefits in people with existing diabetes and in reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes)
Now, coming back to the discussion on cravings for carbohydrates, the new research referred above, found that men with obesity or overweight displayed higher brain activity and greater reported hunger after eating a meal with high glycemic index compared with a meal with low glycemic index.
Carbohydrate addiction – what we should know
Some studies have gone so far as to suggest that refined carbohydrates 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. Researchers behind these studies found that, like alcohol, fructose promotes insulin resistance, abnormal fat levels in your blood, and liver inflammation.
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.
Insulin resistance and the host of symptoms it brings in, that are collectively called syndrome-X, increase risk of chronic lifestyle disorders like type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, thyroid malfunction, fatty liver, hormonal imbalance, and poly-cystic ovary syndrome in women. The related inflammatory responses can play havoc with optimal health. Repeated stimulation pathway depicted above, may ‘confuse’ the body on how much fat it must keep, contributing to overweight and obesity.
Foods with high glycemic index that actively encourage surge in blood sugar levels and also initiate insulin surge, appear to affect dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the human brain that sends messages between cells and influences the way humans feel pleasure, reward, and even motivation. Granting periodic access to sugar and refined carbohydrates may produce behavior that closely mimics the dependency often seen with habit-forming substances. It is important to note, several studies are still in progress and gradually more clarity is expected to evolve with time.
Is there way to deal with cravings for refined carbohydrates?
Even though research shows that carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, display some addictive properties, there are many techniques one can use to overcome cravings for carbohydrates and other junk foods.
One of the most powerful steps one can take to stop carbohydrates cravings is simply to plan for them ahead of time.
Having an action plan in mind for those moments when cravings hit may help one feel prepared and empowered to pass up carb-laden junk foods and make a healthier choice instead.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Start to fill the plate with protein: Begin planning for a meal with animal and vegetable sources of protein first. This may include eggs, meat, pulses like soybean, cottage cheese, paneer – these foods may assist in feeling fuller for a relatively long time.
- Exercise regularly: Higher physical activity levels might help suppress cravings by triggering the release of feel-good endorphins from the brain. Drink a lot of water: Frequent hydration may hold an important key here. Drinking water throughout the day may ward off cravings for carbohydrates.
- Include fiber-rich fruits and salads in daily diet: Fiber not only provides a feeling of fullness, it also reduces the overall glycemic index of a meal. Salads are a must as part of each meal in the day.
Carbohydrates are essential for human survival. It is one of the most important macro nutrients human beings consume. Type of carbohydrates we consume matters a lot. Carbohydrates that have low glycemic index, for example, fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are relatively healthier compared to carbohydrates that have high glycemic index such as refined wheat flour, refined sugar etc. Though further studies are in progress, and it may be early to conclusively pronounce, yet current knowledge points towards refined carbohydrates might display addictive-like properties just like observed in habit-forming substances including alcohol. There is evidence such carbohydrates may regulate brain chemistry. It may be beneficial to optimal health to avoid addictive refined carbohydrates and highly processed junk foods like chips, pizza, cookies, candies and cakes and candies.