Whether you're a sweet or salty person, there's one type of food that most people fall back on when cravings strike: carbs. Brownies. Chips. Cookies. A big loaf of bread ripped into crusty chunks and dredged in olive oil.
But what do carb cravings mean? And is there a healthy way to handle them?
"There could be underlying factors if you're craving carbohydrates," explains McKel Kooienga, R.D. and founder of Nutrition Stripped. "It could be you're not eating enough food in general, or not balancing meals with enough protein, healthy fats, and fiber to stabilize blood sugar. If you have an underlying health condition, that may impact blood sugars or mineral status that might impact cravings on that level."
Step one, then, to alleviate carb cravings, is making sure you're eating a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and protein—and that you're eating enough of all of that food. It's also a good idea to have a yearly physical with a health care provider to make sure there aren't any underlying health issues affecting your nutritional needs.
All clear and still craving carbs?
"Lots of people are looking for simple carbs when they're feeling low on energy or snacky," says Carlene Thomas, R.D. and founder of Oh Carlene. "So instead of settling for something you don't actually want, like a mediocre roll or subpar cookie, grab something snacky or intensely flavored. I love smoky-flavored almonds, which are crunchy and bold but balanced. Or if it's during dinner, I'll go for cauliflower pieces that are crisp roasted with Parmesan cheese for a burst of umami with red-pepper flake for spice."
Jessica Cording, R.D., mbg Collective member, and founder of Jessica Cording Nutrition, recommends trying to match the specific flavor or texture that you're craving but with a healthier alternative. "Generally speaking, a healthier carb option is one that will provide more fiber, important vitamins and minerals, and in some cases, protein," she says, while Kooienga recommends sticking with whole food carbohydrates like legumes, potatoes, grains, quinoa, fruits, and starchy vegetables.
If you're craving sweets, Cording recommends berries. "They offer up a lot of fiber (raspberries, for example, contain about 8 grams of fiber per cup!) as well as vitamin C and powerful antioxidant compounds like anthocyanins (the pigments that give red, purple, and blue plants that beautiful color)," she says.
For something heartier that can skew sweet (with some ghee and cinnamon) or savory (in more of a garlic fry form), Cording likes sweet potatoes. "One medium sweet potato (which provides about 20 grams of carbs per serving) provides 4 grams of fiber as well as vitamin A and vitamin C, antioxidant beta-carotene (which is also what gives it that gorgeous orange hue), and 13% of your daily potassium needs," she says.
Want pasta (who doesn't?)? "Beans and lentils are a great carb option because they provide a lot of fiber and protein and will digest more slowly," says Cording. "If you're in the mood for pasta, I love the bean- and lentil-based options on the market." She also recommends roasted chickpeas to clients when they're craving a crunchy snack. "A half-cup serving of chickpeas will provide about 6 grams each of protein and 4 grams of fiber," she says.
Finally, if nothing is hitting the spot, it's important to be aware that your craving could be more mental than physiological. "Most of the time, what we see in our practice is people are 'craving XYZ,' and it's not fully related to the actual food or macronutrient their physical body needs but rather coming from an emotional place," Kooienga says. If you think that your craving might be stemming from an emotional place, Kooienga recommends working with a licensed and credentialed health care provider. "A registered dietitian or psychologist can help support you in exploring root issues and ways to work through them," she says.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.