Does COVID-19 cause carb cravings (or is it just me?)

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

I’ve heard it said that some people lose their appetite during stressful times. These people are not my relatives. Indeed, in our Ukrainian family tradition, we love food, and we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re upset, and we eat during all possible emotions in between.

So amid the stressful reality of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, stress eating in our family can mean only one thing: carbohydrate cravings.            .

No cravings for kale. Or carrots. Or celery sticks. As California dietitian Evelyn Tribole, author of Intuitive Eating, explains:

“You don’t want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you’d kill for a piece of bread.”

According to the World Health Organization, fear, anxiety and uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus itself have been co-occurring with imposed public health requirements like social distancing, along with worry over a scary economic future. This is a recipe for stress eating.

Back in 2012, I flew home to the West Coast on the weekend following my mother’s funeral, feeling like I’d been hit by a very large bus. I experienced surprising and relentless carb cravings all that week. I wanted (needed!) only hot cross buns, Island Farms coffee truffle ice cream, and mashed potatoes (with butter).

I come from a long line of carb cravers. And as we acknowledged in Mom’s obituary:

“Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of Mom’s famous home-baked Chelsea buns and an apple pie or two.”

Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. Her beautiful Culinate essay called Brisket in Bereavement helps to explain why women all over the world have gathered for centuries in churches, in mosques, in synagogues, in temples and in each others’ kitchens to cook for others after a tragedy besets their community.

But grief is no time for new recipes or foodie trends, Ellen reminds us. It is a time for the familiar, for the traditional, for what is easy to prepare and easy to digest.

After my own mother’s funeral, that meant homemade potato-and-cheddar-stuffed perogies (varenyky) with buttery sautéed onions and bacon, topped with mountains of sour cream. Yes, real sour cream, not that low-fat crap I’ve been buying ever since I survived a heart attack, the kind my mother would have sneered at.

Author and scientist Dr. Judith Wurtman and her husband, MIT professor of neuroscience Dr. Richard Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to how we feel. As she explains:

“Carb craving is part of daily life. It’s a real neurochemical phenomenon.

In the Wurtmans’ studies on the link between carbs and depression, they suggested that carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin, decreases which are marked by a decline in mood and concentration.(1)

And carbohydrates do seem to help carb cravers feel better within about 20 minutes, according to the Wurtmans. When we eat carbs, they explain, our bodies create more serotonin. Reaching for carbs may simply be an unconscious attempt to lift a depressed mood.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago even use the term self-medicating to describe carb cravers:(2)

“Carb cravers reliably chose to self-administer high carbohydrates over protein-rich balanced nutrients when asked to choose the snack that made them feel better. As predicted, the carbohydrate beverage engendered a significantly greater antidepressant effect than did the protein-rich beverage, and was unrelated to hunger.”

But all carbs are not created equal.

The type of carbohydrate we crave seems to be based upon the food’s glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak after consumption. The higher-glycemic index carbs (like sugar) are said to have a greater effect on serotonin than lower-glycemic index carbs (like oatmeal).

When we’re coping with severe stress, as we have all been for the past two months, simple carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising these blood sugar levels. And traumatic precipitating factors – like grief, divorce, family crisis or this unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic) – can set off a cascade of carb cravings.

The ironic problem with a simple carb overload is that what may make us feel temporarily better can set off a physiological chain reaction that wreaks havoc on the body. It taxes the adrenal glands, suppresses the immune system for hours after intake, and generally leaves a person feeling sluggish and off-kilter. And then there’s the sugar crash.

Stress eating like this is often a temporary craving misfire set off by a trigger event; in fact, some critics of the Wurtmans’ findings prefer to blame the event itself – not the drop in serotonin levels – for our cravings.

But what if the stressors continue over a long time, like self-isolation during the pandemic?

Here are some wise tips from Dr. Cortney Warren on curbing these cravings during the pandemic, including some questions to ask ourselves:

1. Become more aware of your feelings, and let yourself feel them away from food. (How are your feelings affecting you and your experience of life right now?)

2. Recognize your triggers for emotionally-based eating. (What circumstances make it hardest for you to control your unwanted eating behaviors?)

3. Make conscious choices about your eating, avoiding triggers when possible. (Is this something I am going to regret eating, or do I actively choose to eat this?)

4. Get social support while avoiding exposure to triggering material. (Who can I call today that will help me stay emotionally grounded? How can I help others in my life get through this?)

5. Start fresh, each moment of each day. (Without self-deprecating judgement, re-establish a pattern of eating –  acknowledging the difficult emotions you’re feeling now as well as encouraging deliberate eating behavior that feels healthy).

And yet, every once in a while, when the circumstances warrant, we could still dig up one of our mother’s favourite recipes and whip up some nice comforting carbs instead.

I think for tonight, it might just be Mom’s creamy rice pudding with her hot maple sauce.

Please. Stay safe. . .

An excerpt from this post was originally published here shortly after my mother’s death on February 21, 2012)
© 2020 Carolyn Thomas  www.myheartsisters.org

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My mom Joanie with her famous Easter paska
Joanie Zaruk with her famous Easter paska  – May 7, 1928-February 21, 2012
1. Wurtman R.J., Wurtman J.J.  “Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity and Depression.”  In: Filippini G.A., Costa C.V.L., Bertazzo A. (eds) “Recent Advances in Tryptophan Research. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology”, vol 398. Springer, Boston, MA
2. J. Corsica and B.J. Spring, “Carbohydrate craving: a double-blind, placebo-controlled test of the self-medication hypothesis.” Eating Behaviors vol. 9,4 (2008): 447-54.

Q: Do you have a favourite comfort-food carb?

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NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote much more about how heart patients manage health crises in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your favourite local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price). 

See also:

– More Heart Sisters articles about COVID-19 and heart patients

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28 thoughts on “Does COVID-19 cause carb cravings (or is it just me?)

    1. I love that thought too, Julia! I drafted the first part for my mother’s obituary, and my sister Bev added the “apple pie or two” for added effect! Mom had so many famous specialties, but her most impressive were the culinary basics – like making a perfectly flaky, light pie crust – that few cooks (including me) have ever mastered!
      Take care, stay safe… ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have carb cravings all the time but I do think this whole COVID thing has made it worse. As a type 2 diabetic now sitting around the house all day this is not good. My endocrinologist recently suggested I go on a no-carb diet and my reaction was, how can you DO that!? (My dietician agreed with me on that one!)

    For one thing, how would you get the fiber you need for regularity? I have a friend who was doing Keto for awhile and I just think that must be so unhealthy, especially as a heart patient (all that bacon?!), although she did lose weight on it.

    I think it’s hard for people my age (60s) to embrace low-carb diets when we grew up with the influence of the books in the 70s that encouraged eating more complimentary plant proteins in high-carb diets — like “Diet for a Small Planet” and books like that.

    Now plant based diets are considered healthy according to cardiologists. It’s finding a balance that’s hard for me. Some days I just don’t care and want comfort food or something sweet. And that’s been a lot worse since mid-March. Frozen fruit bars may be my latest go-to for that but what’s made it really hard is having my two grown sons home with us again — last night my younger son made two pies. Hard to resist that temptation.

    As for rice pudding, that was one of my favorites as a child, baked with Minute Rice. (My mom was not much of a cook!) Nowadays I cook either brown or white rice (rice is one of God’s BEST inventions, in my opinion!), and if I have leftovers and am having a craving I make Rice Pudding Cereal on top of the stove — the recipe is in “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book: Living the High-Carbohydrate Way” (there’s that book influence again) and you can find it online.

    I never measure anything when I make it, but here is the basic recipe — put the leftover rice in a saucepan and make a well in the middle. Scramble one or two eggs in the well depending on how much rice you are using, then stir in milk to just cover the rice. Add cinnamon and a handful of raisins to taste. Cook until hot and a little thick, stirring frequently (it will thicken a lot more as it cools). You can add sugar before cooking (Brody suggests only a Tablespoon for 3 cups of rice) but I usually just stir a spoonful into the bowl as though it were oatmeal. It’s plenty sweet that way thanks to the raisins, and I figure it’s a lot less sugar than if I baked a pan in the oven. If made with brown rice it has a kind of nutty flavor. Brown rice really satisfies my sugar cravings.

    Hope this helps someone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Meghan – I just had a flashback to lying on Kits Beach in Vancouver reading “Diet For a Small Planet” in 1972… That book had a profound impact on me at the time (and their Potato Latkes recipe is THE BEST!)

      Thanks for that brown rice pudding recipe. I’ve never made rice pudding on the stove, but will definitely try this out. I’ve always baked it in the oven, yet almost always been disappointed because it’s just not creamy (like that Dream Whip and Minute Rice version my mother made!) Jane Brody’s cookbook (subtitled “Living the High Carbohydrate Way” was published back in 1985 (can you even imagine such a book title now – when “carb” is a scary 4-letter word to all the keto and paleo people?)

      Your son makes pies? Two at a time?!?! I’m drooling….

      Take care, stay safe… ♥

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      1. Yes, he made 2 Nutella pies based on a recipe I have for peanut butter pie (using cream cheese and Cool Whip, speaking of unhealthy whipped toppings) . . . I feel like I’m confessing my sins here LOL! We’ve been eating a lot more junk food since they’ve been home with us. So bad!!!

        You should probably look up the actual recipe for the rice pudding to get the ingredients right. I generally follow a recipe the first time I make it and then modify it. I hope it comes out creamy enough for you!

        How funny that we both were influenced by the same cookbooks. Another one I loved in the 70s and my newlywed 80s days is the More With Less cookbook published by the Mennonites. I had this idea as a newlywed that I had to make everything from scratch so I was baking bread and making granola back then (hubby loved those days!). I’ve been through 2 copies of this cookbook but reading through it now seems so quaintly outdated (telling how many cents per pound a protein source is, for example), although the recipes are still good.

        Raised on Wonder Bread, I have been on a lifelong quest for a healthy diet and I keep getting closer but stress eating makes it so hard. Looking so forward to having our farm share again starting next week!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I love those old cookbooks. “More With Less” reminds me of a very popular old Canadian cookbook called “Food That Really Schmecks” by Edna Staebler. It’s a 1986 cookbook of Old Order Mennonite recipes from the Kitchener/Waterloo area of Ontario (historically, many German Mennonite families settled there). It’s just good old-fashioned home cooking! Full of comfort foods…

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  2. My generation was raised on carbs with the latest food pyramid of the time, so I crave carbs more than sweets. Nothing like a bag of doritos, or cheetos, bread, you name it – I love starch. I still make my mom’s unhealthy casserole recipes at times as a way to connect. A dietitian said to just google for a healthier recipe and you would still reconnect with those memories.

    What a fun topic Carolyn!

    I’m coming over right now for your rice pudding!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right, those food pyramids of the olden days were very carb-heavy (the entire base of the pyramid – called Rice/Pasta/Bread/Cereal – recommended 6-11 servings per day!) Strangely, neither Doritos or Cheetos were included however…

      Re making our traditional foods healthier: I think any attempts at substitution to my Mom’s own traditional creamy rice pudding with hot maple sauce recipe (see below – my response to “Curious”) would be a BIG improvement in nutrition!

      But there are limits: consider low-fat cheese, for example. Except for parmesan or feta (comparatively low-fat already), I have found that most low-fat cheeses are rubbery and disappointingly impossible at melting nicely… Far better to have a tiny amount of the real stuff rather than a big helping of the disgusting diet stuff.

      Thanks for your perspective – stay safe! ♥

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, totally agree that low fat cheese is not worth it at all! I have to have a few vices and real cheese is one of them.

        LOL, chips weren’t on the pyramid but I personalized that pyramid. That said, coming from a family of 5 kids, she had to stretch the meal for costs and our big appetites!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. We had five kids in my family, too – your observation about ‘stretching the meal’ reminded me of when my daughter was a newlywed and deciding what to serve the first time she and her new hubby hosted all of his hockey buddies to watch a big game in their new home. Larissa spent hours cooking and baking beautiful snacks for the guys. They all arrived, settled down in front of the TV, and wolfed down the platters of stuffed mushrooms and bacon/scallop rolls and everything she’d worked so hard on, as fast as she could bring out the platters – without anybody even looking at what they were eating!

          So the next time the guys came over to watch the game, she just brought out huge bags of Doritos. Which they also wolfed down… Sometimes, it’s just all about the BULK!

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  3. Carolyn,
    Loved reading you latest blog on cravings. Just yesterday I put a can of whipped cream to my mouth and pulled the trigger! Do you think I knew it was the wrong way to handle stress? Of course! Do you think I could stop myself? No Way!

    One way to handle this is to hide/lock away all the food until 1/2 hour before meal times (enough time to prepare a healthy meal). My biggest downfall is that I can’t walk by a bowl of nuts, plate of cookies, can of whipped cream without getting a huge urge to splurge, and the food is usually behind cupboard/fridge doors!

    So it has to be locked away and the key thrown away.

    Peter

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Peter! I had to laugh out loud at that vision of you with that irresistible can of whipped cream! I can relate!

      Your advice about hiding the food is a good one. Although similar advice backfired for me several years ago. I was whining to a friend one day about how I can’t seem to keep my yummy homebaked chocolate chip cookies in the house because I’ll just be so tempted to eat the whole batch. She suggest that I should keep them in a Ziploc bag in my FREEZER. That sounded like an awesome idea – right up until I discovered (during a weak moment where I couldn’t stop thinking of those cookies in that freezer calling my name!) that frozen chocolate chip cookies taste EVEN BETTER than the regular room-temperature ones….

      Throwing away the key – or just not putting it into the grocery cart in the first place! – seems a sensible option….

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on this dilemma!

      Take care, stay safe ♥

      Like

  4. Carbs have always been my drug of choice . . . usually laced with unrefined sugar.

    I’ve making rice pudding, searching for that perfect creamy recipe. So far the baked custard-type is my favorite. The only reason I’m rice obsessed is because we have been ordering groceries on-line and having them delivered.

    My husband orders a new bag of rice every time he puts an order in? and . . . ice cream melts if left on the doorstop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so funny, Judy-Judith – a new bag of rice with every grocery order!? No wonder you’re desperately trying to use it up for rice pudding. That’s a big load of rice pudding!

      I must tell you a secret about my mother’s famous creamy rice pudding with hot maple sauce, mentioned at the end of today’s post.

      My siblings and I remembered this special dessert fondly all of our lives, even though we’d never made it as adults in our own kitchens. It was one of those “Mom specialties”. So one day, I phoned Mom back in Ontario to get her secret recipe, so that we could all bake this traditional masterpiece for our own families. Knowing what a really great cook my mother was, we expected that it would be as finicky and as challenging to make as one of our other favourites, “Mom’s 7-layer Mocha Walnut Torte”.

      Imagine my shock when I this was the recipe she gave me:

      “Oh, that rice pudding? It’s so easy! You just get a box of Dream Whip (Dream Whip?!?!? We grew up on a fruit farm with a COW out in the barn! I just didn’t recall seeing a box of fake-whipped cream in our farm kitchen, ever!) and then you make up a batch of Minute Rice (Minute Rice?!?!?!? I sure didn’t remember ever seeing that either!)
      You mix those two together and put the pudding in the fridge until it’s very cold. Then just heat up some Aunt Jemima pancake syrup on the stove, and drizzle over the top of the icy cold pudding!” (Aunt Jemima?!?! Not even real Canadian maple syrup?!)

      THIS was her secret family recipe?!?!

      The thing is: I still remember this as absolutely the most delicious rice pudding, and the combination of the super creamy extra cold rice vs. the lovely warmth of the fake-maple sauce is truly sublime. It was the perfect comfort food…

      There’s a Mediterranean deli in my town that sells its own homemade rice pudding; it too is insanely creamy, much more so than my own baked custard/rice pudding recipe. It was my daughter’s only craving while pregnant with her Everly Rose, so I frequently stopped in to buy it for her. I’m guessing that there must be a Greek cookbook out there that shares that particular secret (and I do hope the secret is not Dream Whip and Minute Rice…)

      Good luck with the ongoing rice pudding experiments!

      Take care and stay safe! ♥

      Like

  5. The most important part of emotional or stress eating is to understand the process that is working within you, as your article describe. Observe your eating habits but do not get self-critical or judgemental. Allow yourself to be okay. No matter what you inevitably choose to eat.
    Stress plus Self-criticism just creates more stress and more cravings.
    When I was younger I was a huge emotional eater. Pints of ice cream, sugary cakes and snacks chocolate candy. I worked through my emotional issues and became more centered and had less cravings.

    For me when I am tired and can’t Physically do what I used to do is when I get nostalgic for my younger more energetic self. Then I look for creamy gushy things like cream of mushroom soup, cream of potato soup and white bread, mayo and tomatoes sandwhiches mmmmm!

    A big wake up call for me concerning sugar was once when I ate a huge piece of carrot cake with icing out at a restaurant and my vision became so blurry I could hardly drive home! It hammered home the effect of sugar on the blood vessels in my eyes….I’d much rather accept my energy limitations than go blind!
    Just like Corona Virus, Blood Sugar disorders like Diabetes are villains that often can’t be seen until the damage has occurred….The same with Heart Disease !
    We humans have an attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it” and by then it’s often too late.
    But as always, change must come from within… if we commit to learning and observing ourselves without judgement … and being open to the unseen. We will eventually make wise choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good advice, Jill: “Stress plus Self-criticism just creates more stress and more cravings”. I remember reading a survey once about the types of comfort foods most of us turn to during either times of stress or times of celebration – interesting mix of salty-crunchy preferences vs your “creamy-gushy” favourites! Remembering not to beat ourselves up over either category is the key…

      Take care, stay safe! ♥

      Like

      1. I often wonder if the “creamy fatty gushy” goes back to a sub-conscious desire for the easier times of being an infant.
        No responsibilities, just hang out, sleep and be fed…. you don’t even have to chew your food! LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Ice cream is my favorite comfort food, hands down. A year and a half ago I had surgery after an upsetting diagnosis. That winter I buried my sorrows in ice cream, memorable due to the 20 lbs I gained 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear ya, Jenn! I often wonder how eating 5 ounces of a treat can result in two pounds of weight gain! I’ve basically been on a diet since I was 13 years old (when, by the way, I was skin and bones but highly influenced by my Spanish-speaking international classmates from Mexico and Central America in our convent boarding school who were on crazy restrictive diets to lose weight for their lavish “quinceañera” parties back home). This yo-yo pattern means I have gained and lost the same 20 pounds over and over and over during the years, sometimes after upsetting events as you describe, and sometimes after a wonderful holiday spent celebrating happy events, and sometimes – like now! – when I’ve been baking up a storm (happy) because of the pandemic (upsetting). Yoiks….

      Take care, stay safe! ♥

      Like

      1. You were lucky if you only gained back and lost the same 20! I started dieting at 17 yrs old in college when I Too was not at all fat. Over 20 years, as each diet screwed with my metabolism I yo-yoed my way up to 240 lbs!

        I wrote a book about food, weight and body image back in 1997 called “The Ten Habits of Naturally Slim People”. Talked a lot about emotional eating, our parents “clean your plate club” and respecting nutrition without being a calorie or carb counting Nazi!!

        Yes, Moderation in all things and Peace,Love, Beauty & True Fullfillment have very little to do with the size of our bodies.

        Blessings!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, yes, that “clean your plate club”!

          I have many memories of sitting alone at the kitchen table in an empty kitchen (everybody else in the family having left the room long before) staring at a small pile of now-cold casserole of some type on my plate, that for whatever reason I had not finished up completely.

          Remember also the “starving children in China” who were going to bed hungry because they did not have the delicious food that we thoughtless children were willing to leave on my plate?!?!

          Like

  7. I didn’t know carb-eating suppresses your immune system. Something to take seriously, in these times especially. You learn something new every day, as MY dear mother used to say.

    Her best carbs were a perfect apple pie, shortbread cookies, and oatmeal squares. My inner voice is now saying STOP IT! BTW, I totally agree about the low fat sour cream – crap it is!

    Stay well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Deborah – a perfect applet pie? *Sigh….* That is something few of us can say we’ve mastered!

      Moderation in eating those apple pies is what counts, right?

      You stay well and safe, too. ♥

      Like

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