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Curbing Carbs

How to curb the carb craving

I’ve been eating a high- fat, carb- restricted diet for almost 30 years, ever since I quit smoking and gained a tremendous amount of weight. That was the start of eating healthy foods and exercising. I find it’s easy for me to maintain a healthy weight when I eat this way. But even after three decades, the sensation of being on the edge of a slippery slope is ever present.
My biggest problem is the habit of eating a blueberry muffin every morning even though I have had a nice balanced breakfast. Also when you are invited out for dinner, how can you say no to desert? If you know me well, you will get cheese cake for desert if I am coming. Eating is not just the ingestion of food but the social atmosphere that surrounds a great meal with friends and family. The meal represents their love and their desire to make you happy so of course I eat the desert.
What I’ve realized is that eating a little of a tasty desert or a little pasta or bread fails to satisfy me. Rather, it ignites a fierce craving for more, to eat it all and then some. I find it easier to avoid sugar, grains and starches entirely, rather than try to eat them in moderation. The question is why.
To begin to answer that question requires understanding that researchers are generally divided not only on what causes obesity, but also why we have cravings and often fail to stay on diets.
The conventional thinking held by many researchers and clinicians is that obesity is caused by caloric excess. They call it an “energy balance” disorder, and the treatment is to consume less energy (fewer calories) and expend more. When we fail to maintain this regimen, we are accused of lacking self-discipline.
The minority position in this field—one that I hold—is that obesity is actually a hormonal disorder and the hormone that dominates this process is insulin. It directly links what we eat to the accumulation of excess fat and that, in turn is tied to the foods we crave and the hunger we experience. It’s been known since the 1960’s that insulin signals fat cells to accumulate fat, while telling the other cells in our body to burn carbohydrates for fuel. By this thinking, these carbohydrates are uniquely fattening.
Since insulin levels after meals are determined by the carbohydrates we eat—particularly easily digestible grains and starches, known as high glycemic index carbohydrates, as well as sugars such as sucrose and high fructose corn syrup—diets based on this approach specifically target these carbohydrates. If we don’t want to stay fat or get fatter, we don’t eat them.
This effect of insulin on fat and carbohydrate metabolism offers an explanation for why these same carbohydrates are typically the foods we crave most; why a little “slip” as addiction specialists would call it, could so easily lead to a binge.
Elevate insulin levels even a little, and the body switches over from burning fat to burning carbohydrates. The more insulin you release, the more you crave carbs. Once you’re exposed to a little carbohydrate and you get an insulin rise from it, that forces energy into fat cells and that deprives your other cells of the energy they would otherwise have utilized—in essence, starvation. So you compensate by getting hungry, particularly for more carbohydrate. High insulin drives carb-craving.
The result is that even a bite or a taste of carbohydrate-rich foods can stimulate insulin and create a hunger—a craving—for even more carbohydrates. Once people who are “carboholics” get their insulin level down, they become less carboholic. And if they go off the wagon and start eating carbs, they go right back to where they were before. I have watched this pattern in people for decades.
Sugar and sweets are a particular problem because of several physiological responses that may be unique to sugar. Sugar cravings appear to be mediated through the brain reward centre that is triggered by other addictive substances. Both sugar and addictive substances such as cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol stimulate the release of dopamine, producing an intensely pleasurable sensation.
I personally believe that a person can minimize carb cravings by eating lots of healthful fats instead. Fat is satiating—it keeps you full and takes away your hunger, and it’s the one macro-nutrient that does not stimulate insulin production. Eating fat-rich foods helps extinguish binge behaviour as opposed to high-carb foods which exacerbate it.
Whatever the mechanism involved, if the goal is to avoid the kind of slip that leads from a single forkful of rice to a doughnut binge or falling off your diet for good, then the same techniques that have helped drug addicts avoid relapses should also work in this scenario as well. “Getting clean and sober” is a phrase that belongs to sugar addiction as well as alcohol dependence.
The obvious strategy is to stay away from the trigger. Alcoholics who care about staying sober won’t get a job in a bar or may even avoid bars altogether. However, it’s almost impossible to avoid junk foods in the food environment around us, but we can certainly clean up our home environment and avoid situations where sugar and other treats are easily available.
Changing our social networks may be necessary as well—convincing our families and our friends to be invested in avoiding these foods, just as they would if we were trying to quit cigarettes or alcohol or a harder drug.
Another valuable technique is to learn to plan for and avoid situations that increase cravings. I usually start to get little hunger pains around 3 pm and I start to feel a little sluggish. Rather than eat something, I usually go for a short walk and within 30 minutes the cravings go away and I am good until supper. Even if you work in an office, try a fifteen minute break that involves a walk rather than a trip to the vending machine.
Ultimately, any successful diet is a long term commitment. We tend to think of diets as something we go on and off. And if we fall off, we think that diet failed. But if we buy into the logic of carb-restricted diets, it means acceptance of a lifetime of abstention.
When I quit smoking cigarettes I thought I was very successful but I replaced one addiction with another and gained over twenty pounds. I then had to apply the same principals to my carb-addiction in order to get rid of that weight. It was a very powerful addiction that had to be overcome, just like smoking. It is ingrained into the body and mind over years, and getting healthy requires the long pragmatic view. [print-link]