Carbs: Why is cutting them so painful?

Whatever you think about the potential evils of carbohydrates, most people agree that they're tough to kick. Between cookie cravings, the lure of comforting pastas and the discovery that your fruit salad is a carb bonanza, it's no wonder many people throw up their hands in surrender at the offer of free muffins at the office.

Yet the anti-carb drumbeat grows ever louder, blaming carb-fueled, elevated blood sugar levels not just for ballooning waistlines but a slew of ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Why are carbs so hard to kick? Experts offer tips on how to break free from their grip.

Hurdle 1: They're physically addictive

While not everyone experiences carb cravings, there are physiological processes that get people hooked.

"High-carb foods stimulate the same reward centers as cocaine," said neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of "Grain Brain," which explores the link between carbs and dementia.

Furthermore, gluten and wheat-based products contain gluteomorphins, which stimulate the same brain chemicals that morphine does, Perlmutter said.

Dr. Eric Westman, associate professor of internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center and co-author of "The New Atkins for a New You," adds that sugar causes a neurochemical change that makes you want to eat more sugar.

Carbohydrates also increase serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for happy feelings, so we learn to eat carbs as medication for our moods, said Natasha Turner, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto and author of "The Carb Sensitivity Program: Discover Which Carbs Will Curb Your Cravings, Control Your Appetite and Banish Belly Fat."

Finally, people who cut carbs often experience withdrawal symptoms, such as sluggishness and headaches, as the body transitions from burning carbs for fuel to burning fat.

How to get over it

•Load up on high-quality fats that will make you feel full and help transition your body to burn fat as its energy source, Perlmutter said. He suggests eating avocados, coconut oil, grass-fed beef, olive oil, nuts, seeds and wild fish.

•Take fish oil, Vitamin D and probiotic supplements, which help with cravings and digestion, Turner said.

•Get a good night's sleep, ideally 71/2 to 9 hours, as sleep deprivation increases carb cravings, Turner said.

•To satisfy acute sugar cravings, try sugar-free gelatins or puddings, Westman said.

•Tough it out. After three or four days the cravings go away, because it was the carbs that were making you crave more carbs in the first place, Westman said.

Hurdle 2: They're everywhere

While most nutrition advocates caution against candy, sugary drinks and processed "white" carbs like those muffins at the office, there is debate about which of the many remaining carb-containing foods are healthful, and how much of them people should be eating.

Federal guidelines recommend that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories come from carbs, which for a person eating 2,000 calories is 225 to 325 grams daily, and whole grains and whole fruits are endorsed for their fiber and nutrients.

Perlmutter, meanwhile, cautions strongly against gluten, whole grains, fruit juice and some high-carb fruits like bananas. He recommends people get 60 to 80 grams of carbs daily from foods that have less of an impact on blood sugar, including leafy green vegetables (a cup of broccoli has 6 grams of carbs), small amounts of gluten-free grains like quinoa and small amounts of highly pigmented fruits, like berries.

How to get over it

•Learn the hierarchy of carbs. Breads, pastries, white pasta and sugary drinks (including fruit juice) have little nutritional value and should be the first to go, Turner said. But some people have sensitivities even to the remaining "good" carbs. Turner recommends people identify their personal sensitivities through an elimination diet of sorts. Start out getting carbs only from fruits and low-starch vegetables for a week. If you see the pounds coming off and your energy increase, then add in starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash and see how you feel. Next, swap out the starchy veggies for beans to see how they affect you. Finally, swap in whole grains. Turner advises eating four balanced meals daily with 20 to 30 grams of carbs per meal for women, and 30 to 40 grams for men.

•Start new habits. Ditch cereal for breakfast, and roll a cold cut around some cheese instead, Westman suggests.

•Tap into low-carb recipes. Westman recommends "Linda's Low Carb Menus and Recipes," at

Hurdle 3: Deprivation is un-American

Righteous eating can make you feel like a party pooper, particularly during the party-heavy holiday season, when it feels like your God-given right to enjoy a peppermint mocha.

How to get over it

•Rather than deny yourself a carb treat, just make sure to eat it alongside protein, to mitigate the rise in blood sugar, Turner said. For example, eat fruit with Greek yogurt. If you must have the brownie on the dessert table, also have a bite of the chicken skewer.

•Eat a low-carb snack before you go out so that you're not as hungry for the carb temptations, Turner said.

•Permit yourself to indulge once a week, Turner said.

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