The pernicious satisfaction of eating carbohydrates

A tale of two addictions in parallel. How do you tell the difference between hunger and cravings?

Philip Marais

I never found it difficult to accept that carbohydrates and sugar are addictive substances. In fact, I do not recall ever having a conversation where someone disagreed with me about that.

What I have discovered, however, is how incredibly sinister carbohydrate addiction really is, and how well the experience of addiction can be hidden in plain sight, behind the emotions of “want” and “like” and “love”!

Boscheballen, a specialty from Den Bosch in the Netherlands

The experience of food addiction

When I am strict on my diet, both in terms of carbohydrates & fats, and total calorie intake, I generally achieve incredible results. My lean muscle mass increases, my body fat drops sharply and my endurance approaches infinity.

When I relax and allow my appetite to guide my eating habits, I subtly slip off the wagon.

What appears clear to me now, more than it ever has, is what I have misunderstood about addiction was not the facts of addiction, but the emotional experience of addiction.

Addiction is not simply craving or “need”. That is the simple part because it can be rather obvious, like sweats on a school day.

More than physical cravings, addiction is the stories you tell yourself to make it okay to betray your own goals.

Addiction is the rationalisations that allow you the self-forgiveness you require when you have given in to your cravings.

Addiction is the redemption you seek in the gym after the disappointment of another weekend, where you absolutely crucified your diet.

Addiction is the voice that makes it okay to have just one cheat, only once, after weeks and months of being faithful to your diet. The first step on a slippery slope that ultimately leads to wheels coming off in spectacular fashion.

Addiction is believing the lies your appetite is selling.

The emotion of sugar and carbohydrate addiction

Sugar and carbohydrate addiction is well established in both animals and humans. The psychology of sugar addiction is frighteningly similar to the behaviour exhibited in cases of substance-use disorders.

Particularly illuminating are the following excerpts from the full List of emotional characteristics of substance-use disorders, in the picture below (from this article).

  • The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.
  • Craving or a strong desire or urge to use a specific substance.
  • The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.
From the Fith edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual’s proposed criteria for substance-use disorder.

It has become clear to me now, that (food) addiction is not something that can be conveyed to you by someone else. My reflections on quitting smoking allowed me to realise that the emotion of addiction manifests in all the assumptions that you don’t know you are making.

Addictions in parallel

I quit smoking 10 years ago. Giving up cigarettes was one of the more challenging outcomes I have ever managed to discipline my self into. Apart from a four-carton-relapse in December of 2010, it appears I have escaped the addiction for good.

In my quest to investigate addiction more deeply, I decided to read a book called Allen Carr’s EASY WAY TO Stop Smoking.

Thousands, if not millions of people, have claimed to read the book, and at the end of the book, escaped nicotine addiction for good.

I remember what it was like to quit smoking, and by far the hardest part was to imagine a life without cigarettes, to imagine all the occasions that were still to come, where I would not be allowed to smoke.

The anticipation of foregoing future the cigarettes for which I did not even have a craving yet, caused me immense anxiety! It was often the reason I would not even try to quit in the first place!

One of my biggest personal psychological breakthroughs came when I found a way to relax about these future cigarettes that I was so petrified of giving up. I would tell myself, that I don’t have to worry about that future cigarette now. I can worry about not smoking that cigarette, then. Right now, all I had to do, was not smoke today’s cigarette. That was all.

Another of my biggest emotional victories came when I realised that in order to quit smoking, I didn’t have to do anything. Quitting was about not doing something. If I did absolutely nothing for long enough, I would eventually be a non-smoker.

The battles I fought with my own mind, discovering how my mind was trying to trick me into a narrative where it was okay to smoke, and resisting those internal temptations to give in, is such a magnificent personal victory, I have actually thought about putting it on my resume as a personality trait. “Quit smoking — 2009-current.”

How is it possible for a book to achieve this for its readers?

The secret of EASYWAY

I obsessed over this book after reading it. It was not a particularly enjoyable read, but for the life of me, I could not understand why the book was so successful. I re-read sections of it, read several reviews and yet it still didn’t make sense.

Then, after about 2 weeks of obsessing, I discovered why it worked.

EASYWAY To Stop Smoking does nothing magical. It merely illuminates the pernicious, hidden parts of the addiction, the parts that aren’t obvious.

It is a journey of discovering that your “love” of smoking, the incredible enjoyment you get, the immense satisfaction, are all false emotions that are authored by the addiction, and they are not inherent properties of the cigarette.

Its success lies in the dissociation between the fear of quitting and the physical experience of quitting. Allen Carr takes a reader on a journey to manage the fear of quitting, and just like that, quitting becomes easy.

What does this have to do with carbohydrates and sugar?

Some of the most common thoughts that went through my mind when I started thinking about giving up carbohydrates forever, caused me significant anxiety.

  • I want to be able to have a special treat on a special occasion! Friday night pizza with my wife, Christmas lunch with my family, birthday cake on my birthday.
  • I am afraid that I won’t be able to enjoy social occasions anymore because I will not be able to eat along.
  • But I genuinely LOVE pizza!
  • I don’t WANT TO give up fruit!

These are all emotions I experienced when I gave up carbohydrates. Almost a verbatim internal narrative to when I gave up cigarettes. Every false emotion existed purely as a consequence of addiction. Now in hindsight, it appears more obvious to me than it did then.

Any thoughts about not doing something, that causes anxiety, to me, signals a huge red flag. The big red flag of addiction.

Satisfaction vs satiation

Eating for satisfaction is not the same as eating for satiation. The difference is very complex, especially when you start exploring the idea of giving up carbohydrates.

The best way I can think of explaining it is by way of a personal anecdote.

When I start slipping off the diet wagon, there is this particular treat, that I lose all self-control with.

Carb clever muesli from Woolworths, with double cream yogurt. If served in a reasonable portion, it contains about 15–20g carbohydrate, which is a violation I can live with, every once in a while.

I always tell myself that I will have one serving and that would be it. It is always after dinner, when I am satiated, and I don’t feel like having any more steak or vegetables or salad.

I have never had only a reasonable serving.

Every time I allow myself this treat, I would eat it until my stomach hurts, until I feel physically ill.

When eventually I have finished all of it, I would still want something, I would still crave something! It smells of, tastes of, looks like the sugary rush that I crave, but it only serves about 80g of low GI carbs. It is not enough to give me what I am after.

It does not satisfy.

This is where I am most at risk for falling off the wagon. The need to find satisfaction!

Emotional eating is about satisfaction, not hunger

The problem with food addiction is that the cravings present as hunger and at the beginning of my low carb journey, especially, I found it impossible to distinguish between cravings and hunger.

Emotional distress is when most smokers fall off the wagon, and incidentally when most dieters fall off the wagon too.

My breakthrough came when I discovered that is my addiction to carbohydrates that made me seek comfort in food when I was stressed.

It is the addiction to carbohydrates that led me to seek satisfaction in food when I was enjoying an occasion!

It is the addiction to carbohydrates that led me to seek additional satisfaction in food when I had had a few drinks and my inhibitions were challenged. The drinks don’t make me crave carbohydrates, they just make me susceptible to that calling of the carbohydrates, which incidentally is caused, by the memory of the previous satisfaction, provided exclusively by carbohydrates and nothing else.

The difference between hunger and cravings

I found a picture a while ago that really captured the difference well, but since I can find neither the picture nor the reference, shall do my best to paraphrase from the resource and include my own experience.

  • Cravings come on suddenly and feels urgent and can pass if you let it. Hunger comes on gradually, you feel relaxed and eating can be postponed.
  • Cravings generally manifest as “a want” for something specific, generally not on your green list. Hunger can be satiated with nutrient-dense foods from your green list and when you are done, you feel satisfied.
  • A response to a craving is generally impulsive and food consumption poorly managed whereas when eating in response to hunger, you have (more) control over when you want to stop.
  • Satisfying a craving is usually associated with some form of guilt, or bargaining (I will do double in the gym tomorrow) or rationalisation (I did double in the gym today). Eating in response to hunger leaves you feeling in control of your appetite.
  • Cravings make you feel as though your appetite is out of control and it causes anxiety, whereas hunger makes you feel like you have absolute control over when you are going to eat, if at all, and how much.

My current strategy for dealing with emotional food needs

I started this a while ago, but I really decided to make a concerted effort this week to see what kind of response I get. I am going complete carnivore, meat and eggs only, even over the weekend, where generally I relax a bit a eat some leafy greens and cheese.

I find that cheese offers some of that satisfaction that I sometimes seek, or at least alleviates the “want” for something even though I know I am not hungry.

So this is what I have been doing the last few weeks, and will continue to do over the weekend.

  1. I keep a container of beef in the fridge, minced beef or sliced stewing beef. About 2–3kg worth.
  2. When I get hungry, I try to postpone eating a little, this can easily be accommodated for between 1 and 6 hours.
  3. When I eat, I cook a substantial portion, 300–500g worth, with salt and pepper, perhaps some duck fat or butter to cook with.
  4. I eat it slowly and consume water whilst I eat, and coffee after.
  5. When I am still feeling unsatiated after my meal, which sometimes happens, I tell myself that if I am still hungry in a bit, I will cook and eat again.
  6. When later I am still hungry, I don’t bargain and think about 100g extra, or maybe 150g. No, I evaluate my hunger against another full portion of 300–500g of beef. If I feel that I am hungry enough to justify another 300–500g, or more, then I will cook once again and have more. This will ensure that I don’t starve myself, or go hungry, and it also serves the purpose of checking whether I am merely peckish, or if I am still hungry.

I have already learned that the post-dinner pangs I get, have nothing to do with hunger, but they are a naughty emotional “want” that I still occasionally experience. With every passing week, I find it easier not to respond to such hunger pangs. I feel more relaxed and the cravings become a fleeting emotion, rather than an obsession.

These days, I spend most of the day in a state of non-hunger, in fact, I often forget about food. Sometimes when I eat too little, and I am still hungry afterward, I get busy with work or reading, and I forget about food, sometimes after as little as 700kcal for the day.

My ambition is to one day be one of those people who have to remind themselves to eat more, for fear of losing weight. I want to be one of those people, who when they don’t concentrate, they lose weight, rather than gain it.

I don’t know where I will end up with the carnivore lifestyle, but I have started to get comfortable with the idea that it may be meat & egg as a staple from here on forward!

Philip Marais

Written by

Cell-Biologist-turned-software-engineer. Stats / Product / Nutrition-obsessed. On a mission to bring the power of health(care) to the consumer.

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