Dr. David Ludwig
Feb 11, 2016 · 4 min read

Take Charge of Food Cravings — no “White Knuckles” Necessary

Most of us have overeaten at one time or another, only to regret it later. Who hasn’t felt uncomfortably full after Thanksgiving dinner?

But why do so many people feel out of control around food so often? Why do so many of us cave to food cravings and over indulge or even binge, only to be left with overwhelming guilt that we’ve broken yet another diet or healthy eating resolution? We’re left feeling uncomfortable, wondering why we didn’t have more will power or couldn’t stay strong in the face of temptation.

But what if I told you that this kind of disordered eating isn’t your fault? That you — and your will power — are not to blame, and the solution can be found in our biology? Let me explain.

Habitual overeating is commonly treated as a psychological problem of poor impulse control. For this reason, treatment typically involves behavioral therapy, with the goal to avoid triggering situations, reduce exposure to “danger foods” and develop alternative coping strategies. How many times have you read a diet book and come away with the message that you need exert will power and be more disciplined to get results? Yet despite its popularity, this approach usually fails, because it disregards the biological drivers of food cravings.

Consider Addison’s disease, a form of severe adrenal gland failure that can strike adolescents and young adults. In this disease, the adrenal glands lose the ability to make aldosterone, a hormone that helps the kidney hold on to sodium. Although Addison’s can be effectively treated by hormone replacement therapy, the diagnosis is often initially missed, and the body can become dangerously deficient in sodium. If this happens, the brain responds in a logical way — increasing craving for salt, in an attempt to compensate for the ongoing urinary loss. Now picture a teenager with undiagnosed Addison’s who begins to experience uncontrollable urges to eat chips, pretzels and other salty foods. The parents, alarmed by this change in eating behavior, might consult a psychologist. The psychologist might suggest counseling to explore the emotional roots for these unusual cravings. But no amount of therapy will work, because the problem is biological in origin — too much salt loss in the urine. Similarly, psychological approaches to binge eating will have limited effectiveness, if the underlying drivers of hunger and weight gain remain unaddressed. It’s impossible to know whether a behavioral problem like disordered eating has a psychological (or even psychiatric) origin, until the biological contributors have been treated.

As we explore in my book Always Hungry?, excessive insulin levels provoked by highly processed carbohydrates cause fat cells to suck up and store too many calories, leaving too few calories for the rest of the body. When the blood stream runs low on calories, the brain triggers an alarm system, leading to hunger and cravings. We specifically crave highly processed carbohydrates — chips, cookies, crackers, candy, cake and the like — for one simple reason. They make us feel better in a few minutes. The problem is, they make us feel worse for hours afterward, setting up the next addictive cycle. In a sense, highly processed carbohydrates are akin to drugs of abuse, whose fast absorption rates increase addictiveness. For example, unprocessed coca leaf (which takes a while to chew and digest) has a long record of safe use in South America for altitude sickness and other purposes. Serious physical and psychological addiction results when the active ingredient, cocaine, is refined and concentrated for rapid action.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you’ve just had an upsetting argument with your spouse. You can’t reach your best friend to talk about it, and wind up in the kitchen, seeking comfort from food. Now suppose you could find only these four items, each with about 400 calories:

  • Bread — 5 slices (highly processed carbohydrate)
  • Berries — 6 cups (unprocessed carbohydrates)
  • Butter — ½ stick, or about 12 teaspoons (fat)
  • Beef jerky –5, 1-ounce portions (protein)

Which could you eat the quickest? Which would you be able to eat without your body telling you it’s had enough, through feelings of fullness, discomfort, or even nausea? Which would leave you feeling hungry again, the soonest? Which would most likely provoke a binge? You probably chose bread as the answer to each of these questions. It’s much harder to binge on the other items, and if you did, you’d probably feel disinclined to do so again anytime soon.

Of course, some people suffer from serious eating disorders, like bulimia, that may require specialized psychiatric help. And even the highest quality food can’t fill emotional emptiness. Psychological counseling can play an important role in helping address life’s challenges and promote positive behavior change.

But highly processed carbohydrates set the stage for a binge, no matter our psychological health. Eliminate them and food-related behavioral problems may resolve spontaneously. With most whole foods, your body will tell you in no uncertain terms when it’s had enough.

What’s the best way to take charge of your food cravings? Eliminate them through the right diet — and that’s the purpose of the Always Hungry? diet program.

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