Afternoon Carb Cravings? Beat Them With These Tips

April 13, 2016

It's that time of day when some of us hit a wall, and carbs feel like the cure.

What is it about the late afternoon, around 3 or 4 pm, that changes many of us from rational, in control, efficient, and energetic into grumpy, irritable and exhausted — and the only cure seems to be carbohydrate rich foods – like sweet or starchy snacks.

Well, both the change in mood and food cravings could be due to the time of day and our bodies diminishing levels of serotonin. Serotonin helps balance mood and seems to become less active late in the afternoon; the combination of a mood and appetite change is a signal that serotonin activity may be dropping.

More on serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical involved in the communication between nerve cells, that's formed in the brain and can be found in the digestive tract, and in blood platelets. Serotonin's most well know effects include boosting mood and the feeling of satiety from food - as well as helping to promote sleep and relaxation.

So what are the signs of decreased serotonin levels? Grumpiness, irritability, impatience, fatigue, inability to focus, depression and anger - which are often accompanied by a craving for carbohydrates.

Are carbs really the cure? MIT researchers compared consuming carbohydrates and protein and the effects on mood. Protein was used because it actually prevents serotonin from being made and not surprisingly, no improvement in mood was found after subjects consumed protein. But on the contrary, and as expected, the carbohydrate drink left those that were feeling irritable, feeling great.

Serotonin is most easily made after consuming carbohydrates, but every person is different and some may experience a lift in mood after a carbohydrate-rich meal, while others may become sleepy. Simple carbohydrates, like candy and sweets (generally the foods everyone craves) have the greatest impact, but the effect will only last at maximum a couple of hours. Not to mention simple carbs are not the healthiest options. 

Complex carbohydrates like whole grains may increase serotonin levels, and to keep blood sugar levels in-check you want to include a balance of protein, complex carbs and healthy fats at every meal and snack in order to balance mood.

Fortunately, serotonin mood relief does not require eating a whole box of cookies or entire loaf of bread. As long as the snack contains about 30 grams of carbohydrate, no more than one to two grams of fat, and protein, serotonin can be produced within 20 to 30 minutes. Good afternoon options include: breakfast cereal eaten dry, ¾ cup of oatmeal, quinoa or brown rice with seasonings. 

Try to get ahead of the four o’clock slump by including protein at every meal with complex carbs and healthy fats - this will keep you feeling fuller and provide slow burning energy that will last longer than sugary snacks. Some examples include multigrain bread with peanut butter or hard cheese, or a portion of plain yogurt or cottage cheese. Eating this way, you may never run into the serotonin frenzy!