Could Your Carb Cravings be a Sign of Depression?

If you reach for the potato chips, pastries, cookies, candy or ice cream when you are feeling down, you're not alone. People tend to crave certain foods when they are feeling blue. Research shows that many people eat (or overeat) carbohydrates in an attempt to try and make themselves feel better--and there is a reason for it.

"Carb craving is part of daily life," says Judith Wurtman, PhD, a former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet.  She and her husband, MIT professor Richard J. Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to mood and depression.

The Wurtmans' studies have shown that eating carbohydrates can help someone feeling depressed feel better.

"That's because when you eat carbohydrates, you make more serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone that is also boosted when you are on an anti-depressant. It's our attempt to undo the depression," says Judith Wurtman.

Carb craving can be explained by the fact that when we eat carbohydrates, our body releases a short burst of serotonin--we feel good for a moment--but soon return to a low-serotonin state.  Then we crave more carbs to feel better again.

In their studies, the Wurtmans found that carb cravers reported being less depressed after eating high-carb snack foods, while non-carb cravers said they felt sleepy after eating them.

Since carbohydrates have been shown to stimulate serotonin production, many experts agree that eating the carbs is an attempt to self-medicate depression.

So does this mean that everyone who craves carbs is depressed?

The simple answer is, "No." Late-afternoon carb cravings are quite normal and don't necessarily signal depression, Wurtman says. "The reason we want to self-medicate with carbs late in the afternoon is not just that life is difficult and filled with frustration, but that it is a normal day-night cycle."

Edward Abramson, PhD, a psychologist and professor at California State University, Chico, says that another possibility is that carb craving may be just a habit, learned early on. For instance, a woman brought up to believe that anger is not an acceptable emotion may turn to eating treats such as cookies instead -- because that's what she did as a kid.

How Do You Know If Your Carb Cravings are a Sign of Depression?

Be honest with yourself about how deep your problems with carbohydrates go. Do you continually go to great lengths for carb-rich foods? If so, you may want to seek professional help. If your mood stays low and the carbs don't seem to be helping, contact your doctor for an appointment.

The following is a list of depression symptoms to further help you identify if you may be suffering from depression.

Symptoms of Depression

According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the main symptoms and signs of depression are the following:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and weight gain
  • restlessness, irritability
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Managing Your Carb Cravings

Whether your carb cravings are a sign of depression, or are otherwise normal carb cravings, there are ways to help manage these cravings.

Eat regularly. Skipping a meal is a physical stress on the body that can mess with your blood/sugar level and exacerbate depression. Eat when you are hungry, generally about every 3-4 hours.

Eat well-balanced meals. This means eat a balance of protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats. Limit or eliminate caffeine or alcohol. This will help stabilize your blood/sugar levels.

Don't completely deprive yourself. Find healthier substitutes for the carbohydrates that you are craving. For example, try eating a soy chocolate pudding instead of a large chocolate bar. Or eat a small portion of dessert instead of the whole cake.

Become aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you reach for the potato chips, cookies, pastries or ice cream, ask yourself why. Are you sad? Depressed? Bored? Do something you enjoy other than eating. Perhaps go for a walk or pamper yourself with a bubble bath or a good book. Chances are the craving will pass.

Exercise. This is a great way to feel better fast. Exercise stimulates endorphins --  which will help improve your mood. Exercise is used in the prevention and treatment of depression.

Drink a glass of water. Sometimes our body mistakes the feeling of dehydration for hunger. Drink a tall glass of H2O and check the results.

Don't beat yourself up. If you overdo on the carbohydrates, don't beat yourself up over it. Dust yourself off and keep using the above-mentioned tools.


Corsica, J.A., Spring, B.J. Carbohydrate Craving: A double-blind placebo-controlled test of the self-medication hypothesis.  Eating Behavior. 2008 Dec;9(4):447-54. Epub 2008 Aug 4.

Donehy, K. Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD. Craving Carbs: Is it Depression? May 21, 2009.

Wurtman, R.J., Wurtman, J.J. Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Clinical Research Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Obesity Research. 1995 Nov;3 Suppl 4:477S-480S

Wurtman, R.J. Scientific American, January 1989; vol 260:  pp 68-75.