Carbohydrates, at least in America, have been getting a bad reputation. Blamed for a national epidemic of expanding waistlines, this macronutrient is under fire. And for those who can resist the bread aisle, low-carb diets remain an incredibly popular means by which to lose weight and sustain weight loss, villainizing carbs even further.

But there’s more to this dietary derelict than meets the eye. Like most foods, carbohydrates have a good side and a dark side. In order to determine how (and how much) to consume, it’s important to understand not only how carbs impact our bodies, but also why we like them so much — to the point that we often feel addicted to them.
Can you actually be addicted to carbs? How can you control your carb consumption for a healthy diet? Let’s dive into the science behind the carbohydrate.

Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient; a nutrient the body needs in large amounts to produce energy. Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates provide our bodies with the precious energy necessary to conduct our daily tasks. Carbs are also our main source of fuel. In fact, to meet our daily nutritional needs, American dietary guidelines suggest we get 45-65% of our calories from carbohydrates alone.

Carbohydrates exist naturally in many unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes. These carbs are a great source of clean energy for our bodies.

Unfortunately, numerous processed foods on grocery shelves contain carbohydrates that have been added in less pure forms, such as starches and refined sugars. These types of carbohydrates tend to rank higher on the Glycemic Index (GI), a scale that assigns a numerical score (1-100) to a food based on how drastically it causes a spike in blood sugar. Overly processed carbs that rank high on the Glycemic Index can wreak havoc on the way our bodies process food.

The Addictive Properties of Processed Carbs

It’s a Slippery Slope from Snacking to Overeating
Carbohydrates are not innately dangerous, but the foods we find them in are not so innocent. Carbs that are high on the Glycemic Index often come in the form of products such as chips, candies, and donuts. These foods, which are high in sugar and low in fiber, promote glucose spikes followed by fast crashes in our bodies, thereby increasing our cravings. The fluctuating cravings and crashes caused by spikes in blood sugar tend to encourage a cycle of overeating.

In other words, what you eat probably influences how much you eat. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, diet does indeed affect eating behavior, and the Glycemic Index could have a lot to do with it. This study measured 12 overweight or obese men in the 18-35 age range, and the effects of consuming two milkshakes: one with a high GI, and one with a low GI.

The higher GI meal decreased glucose in the blood, increased hunger, and stimulated areas of the brain associated with cravings and rewards. These changes affected the participants’ behavior at the next meal, suggesting that consuming carbs with a high GI can trigger the vicious cycle of overeating. Many easy, accessible snacks in the standard American diet today consist of highly processed carbohydrates that perpetuate this cycle.

Our Brains are Programmed to Want More, More, More

Even if carbohydrates themselves aren’t considered addictive, high-carb foods can trigger areas of the brain associated with addictive behaviors. For our ancestors, seeking out high-calorie and high-sugar foods was an important part of surviving during times of low food availability. Evolutionarily speaking, stocking up on energy whenever available was necessary — because food wasn’t available consistently or in large quantities. Our brains developed this way to help our species survive. But in today’s world of excess, this neural hardwiring works against us; fueling persistent overeating. Our own bodies trick us into preparing for a period of famine that never arrives.

A Canadian study led by Francesco Leri at the Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, displayed this natural tendency in action by allowing rats to self-administer foods with varying levels of high fructose corn syrup. The rats worked harder to acquire higher levels of sugar, and exhibited intake behavior associated with a pattern similar to rats exhibiting self-administered drug abuse, and binging behaviors.

The bottom line? You’re probably not addicted to carbs themselves, but if you eat a lot of foods with highly processed carbs, it can lead to addictive eating behavior — causing you to crave those sugary, high-carb treats and making it hard to stop after just one.

How Do I Manage My Carb Intake?

Understand Your Psychology

Knowing why we have a tendency to go back for that second slice of bread is half the battle. If you feel that when it comes to eating, the carbs control you (instead of the other way around), you’re probably not imagining it. Research supports the psychologically compelling nature of high-carb foods.

If you tend to crave sugary or carb-heavy foods, it helps to monitor your eating habits to identify the times of day or situations in which you crave these things most. Try planning your meals ahead of time so you can head off cravings with healthy snacks and meals before they get the best of you. This also allows you to better control portion sizes — for instance, plan to have one slice of bread as part of your well-balanced dinner, so you’re not left deciding in a moment of hunger to finish off the entire loaf.

Choose Your Foods Wisely

Avoid foods with high levels of refined sugar, which will cause those spikes in glucose that make you feel energized for a short burst and soon leave you craving another treat. Opt instead for whole grains, vegetables, and other unprocessed foods that can give you a healthy balance of good carbs. Find a strategy that works for you to moderate the foods you consume that contain highly processed carbs.


Regular exercise is an important part of any healthy diet — after all, the main purpose of carbohydrates is to give your body energy. If you consume far more macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) than your body burns as energy on a regular basis, those calories sitting idle in your body will gradually contribute to weight gain. Make physical activity a consistent part of your life, whether that’s through trips to the gym, running or hiking with a group, or getting involved in an active sport.

Addictive or Not, Carbs Should be Approached with Caution and Awareness

Did you know the obesity rate in Japan (3.5%) is ten times lower than America’s? Yet the Japanese diet features carbs such as rice, bread, and noodles, often pairing them with lean proteins and vegetables. It seems that in Japan, high-carb foods are not highly processed, and are less likely to be paired with sugars and fats. Carbohydrates are ingested in original or low-processed forms, paired with foods lower in fat, and accompanied by mostly pescatarian protein sources. In addition, the Japanese conduct a higher level of daily activity than Americans, helping to balance out their high carb intakes and expend that energy.

Scientists are still looking into the link between carbohydrates and addiction, and the story seems to be more complex than simply labeling all carbs as “bad for you.” What we do know is that carbohydrates are an important part of our daily caloric intake, and that the type of carbohydrates we ingest can affect the way our bodies process and use energy.

Indulging in foods high on the Glycemic Index regularly can lead to a cycle of symptoms similar to the withdrawals experienced during substance addiction, promoting a continued pattern of grabbing for those “bad carbs.” Low-processed, natural carbohydrate sources help our bodies process food and create energy without leading to glucose spikes and crashes. The impressively low obesity rate in Japan further supports that it’s not the carbs themselves that undermine your health, but the highly processed, sugary foods that contain those carbs; the amount you eat; and your level of physical activity.

Author's Bio: 

Katie Di Lauro is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California. Katie brings her 14 years in the wellness industry, as an individual and corporate wellness educator. Katie is truly passionate about wellness and helping her clients achieve their goals through education, motivation, and accountability.