There is a lot of noise out there about what you should and shouldn’t eat. Carbohydrates seem to consistently get thrown under the bus for being “unhealthy” or not necessary. Yet despite multiple sugar free cleanses and detoxes the cravings are still there and the 30 day challenges keep repeating. Below are 7 reasons, you may be having these cravings, especially if you’re a runner.
#1. Not enough carbs at meals and snacks
Glycogen (the storage form of glucose) is your body’s preferred source of energy to support the function of vital organs and tissues, i.e, your brain and muscles. If you’re active and like to push to higher intensities then your muscles need carbohydrate.
If your glycogen stores are low then by the end of the day it’s completely understandable that your desire and cravings for carbs is high. This is your intelligent body’s way of encouraging you to replace your energy stores so you can be just as active tomorrow.
So if you’re skipping the carbs or only having ½ the bun at dinner with your turkey burger start increasing your servings. Build a plate that has at least a third (more if you like) filled with whole grains, starchy vegetables, and/or fruit. Notice if the intensity of the craving shifts or diminishes by the end of the day once you’ve consistently added carbs back into your meals.
#2 Skipping your recovery snack
If you’re working out 5-6 days a week for >45 minutes and/or at high intensities you’re most certainly depleting your glycogen stores during training. Since blood is flowing and the muscles have been stimulated after exercise it’s a great time to replace those energy stores and help with repair of muscle that was damaged.
If you’re not recovering well you may have more cravings later as your body does what it can to get what it needs. You’ll further drive hunger and cravings if you’re also not eating enough carbs at meals mentioned in the last post.
To help improve your performance and feel at peace around bread, start planning a post workout snack or meal within 90 minutes of finishing your training. You want it to include a serving of carbs (~0.5g/kg body weight) and protein (~0.25-3g/kg body weight).
Here’s one of my go to recovery shakes: 1 c OJ + 1 C frozen blueberries + 1 c yogurt and blend.
#3 Not Fueling during workouts longer than 90 minutes.
Maybe you’re a cyclist riding 50-60 miles on the weekend, a triathlete with an hour swim followed by a 45 minute run, an avid hiker, or a climber doing a multi pitch climb.
What these activities have in common is most will be 90 minutes or more of sustained effort. Which means that by 90 minutes glycogen stores become depleted and we need to start ingesting them to replace that energy and maintain blood glucose.
If you’re not fueling during these sessions you may experience more hunger and cravings later. This is your body’s way of trying to replace the energy expended during that 3 hour bike ride. These cravings can be even worse if you’re not having carbs at pre/post workout snacks or skimping on them at meals leading up to longer training. See the last 2 posts to learn more.
So if you’ve been trying to train with just an electrolyte drink, consider starting to bring fuel with you, it’s backed by science! We have multiple studies showing the performance benefits of consuming carbohydrate during exercise. We also see pretty clearly in the research that performance declines when glycogen levels are low.
If you’re doing anything longer than 90 minutes, plan ahead and bring carb rich snacks and plan to have ~30-60g every hour of activity.
Personally I like Stinger waffles and Clif bloks on long runs, on bike rides and hikes I might bring baked and cubed potatoes, fig bars, Clif bars, or PB and J sandwich.
#4 Missing one or more macronutrients at dinner
Let’s talk about the satisfaction factor. This is often overlooked and straight up ignored by most diets but is an important piece of the eating experience. We’ve all had a really good meal, where everything was on point so once you put the fork down you’re happy, you’re satisfied.
You’ve probably also experienced the opposite, I recently did after ordering what sounded like great steak tacos. They looked good but there was absolutely no flavor, nothing, and as you can imagine very unsatisfying leaving me wanting more food.
You can feel physically full after a meal but underwhelmed by the flavors which can lead you back into the kitchen trying to find some closure. I had one client who felt like she couldn’t control her evening snacking, she ate what she thought was a healthy dinner, but still wanted cookies later. When she started paying attention to the actual satisfaction of her dinner she realized she needed to add some fat and carbs. She had an unquestioned food rule from years ago that lowfat was “healthy” and never questioned it.
Now she has less cravings and trips back into the kitchen because she’s making dinners she actually enjoys.
Most of the time, having the 3 macronutrients, carbs, protein, fat, at meals improves how satisfying it is because they bring different flavors and textures. They also provide the body with a nice balance of fuel and nutrients.
So start looking at your dinners or even lunch and breakfast, are you skimping or forgetting to add a macronutrient like carbs, fat or protein? Start experimenting with meals and see if there are any changes in your cravings later.
#5 You have a weight loss goal
If you’re trying to “maintain” your weight or get down to what you think should be your race weight, you’re going to have more cravings, especially for carbs.
There are a few reasons for this, one is your mental restriction around things like ice cream out of fear eating it will cause weight gain. In my next post I’ll talk more about what a restrictive food mindset is.
From a physiological standpoint when you’re intentionally trying to lose weight a caloric deficit has to occur. But if you’re reading this you’re likely a highly active individual who also needs fuel to support your activity.
It’s important for health and performance that you meet your energy availability needs (the amount of energy you need to consume to meet the amount you’re expending during training). If you’re body isn’t receiving the fuel it needs, it perceives that as a threat to your life and will try and help motivate you to seek out food. You may find yourself with more hunger, that you’re thinking about food a lot more, and like you can’t stop at one cookie.
This is all a normal response of an under fueled body, it’s not that you just don’t have discipline when it comes to food, it’s your body trying to tell you something’s wrong.
Take an honest look at your meals, snacks and the thoughts that come up about portion sizes. If you often think “that’s too much,” “I shouldn’t be hungry yet,” “I don’t need that snack” then you’re likely trying to manage your weight in some way through “portion control instead of listening to your body’s cues and its need for fuel.
When you start meeting your energy demands, put the focus on performance not weight, you’ll find cravings are less and your peace around carbs restored.
#6. You have a restrictive mindset around carbs.
A restrictive mindset or rules around carbs looks like “I can’t have carbs after 4:00pm” “white flour and refined sugar are bad” “ice cream is a cheat food.”
Or maybe you let yourself have some but the thought is more like “only 2 squares of chocolate is acceptable” “cookies are okay but in moderation”
A restrictive mindset focuses on scarcity, trying to control and limit the carbs you consume. But this kind of thinking doesn’t feel good, if it did people wouldn’t have repeat customers in their 30 day sugar detox.
When you try to avoid and control a food by labeling it as off limits you give it more power than it deserves, make it forbidden, and increase the novelty around it. All of this is the ONLY reason (assuming you’re not underfueling, mentioned in the previous posts) you feel out of control the second a brownie touches your lips.
As runners and active individuals we tend to pride ourselves for eating “healthier” than most and understanding nutrition. But when you still feel frustration, guilt, and shame for your lack of discipline around sweets it can only add to a more restrictive mindset.
There is another way! It starts with acknowledging what your current thoughts and rules around carbs look like. Then surrendering them and starting to create an abundant mindset where you see carbs as neutral, always available to you.
When you have full permission to have any food you want, anytime, in any amount, the choice to have it comes from a much different place. You can eat the cupcake, enjoy the flavors, then move on to think and do other things.
Contrary to popular belief, if you’re genuinely letting go of food rules, improving your relationship with food and body, you won’t spend the day eating just cupcakes because now you can. The reason you won’t, has nothing to do with the amount of cupcakes, it’s that you will likely be more in touch with your body, listening to what it needs and wants and honoring those cues.
#7 Ignoring your emotional needs
Let’s get one thing straight first, eating outside of hunger and purely for comfort is a normal part of being human. No need to feel guilt or worry that you turn to chocolate peanut butter cups on those particularly stressful or irritating days.
Where it gets tricky is when we continuously turn to food to ignore and numb an uncomfortable emotion vs addressing and processing it. Eating instead of acknowledging what’s going for us doesn’t solve the problem. Instead the next day when the emotion floats back up you’ll have to grab food again and often a bigger serving.
And if you also have a long list of food rules you not only have the original emotion of anger at a partner but guilt and regret for eating “an off limits” food.
When you start to feel the urge to go in to the kitchen, first check in to see if you are hungry, if so eat! If you feel confident it’s not a biological need for food then take 5-10 minutes of taking in deep breaths. This will bring some awareness and connection back to your body to see if you can name what you’re feeling. If this feels too out of reach or scary consider meeting with a therapist who can create a safe space to process emotions.
Consider what you actually need, sometimes grabbing food is the quickest way to feel better but doesn’t get your actual emotional needs met. If you can identify what it is you can also find ways to meet it. For example, maybe you’re feeling lonely, we’re in a strange time right now and many of us are feeling less connected. But knowing it’s a lack of connection means just brainstorming ways to rebuild that.
Learning the skills of intuitive eating will also make this process much easier because it ask that you’re eating decision be based on internal cues. The more in touch you are with your body the more you’ll know when comforting will serve you or if talking with a friend would be more effective.