by Dr Jen Unwin
Be honest. If you are finding it hard to change your diet? Might you actually be a “sugar addict”? Do you struggle to just have one biscuit? Do you crave sugar and find it difficult to cut down, despite wanting to and knowing it is harming you? It can be a real battle to give up something you love even if you know it is doing you harm. Sugar is very addictive, so cutting down is hard. You have two main ways to tackle this. Some people are better slowly cutting down sugar and carbs and swapping foods for low-sugar/lower carb options: bread for oatcakes, cereal for yogurt, fruit and nuts, etc. Some people will never manage this graduated approach (a bit like a person with an alcohol addiction can never just have one drink).
The solution in that case may be “cold turkey”. Pick a day and give up sugar and carbs. Make sure you plan and also be prepared for a tough few days at the start. Believe me, after a week or so you will feel amazing. Have plenty of water and a little extra salt to avoid headaches and fatigue.
A number of people have significant lifelong struggles with overeating sugary and carb-heavy foods, particularly if they are combined with fat, toast and butter, pizza, crisps, doughnuts and chocolate, for example. Sugar and fat do not occur naturally together in real foods and the combination has powerful effects on our brain chemistry. The food industry relies on us finding it hard to moderate our consumption of such hyperpalatable foods. Also, sugar is available everywhere in our environment (at home, work, in garages, cinemas, even fitness centres and hospital waiting areas, and, of course, in restaurants and supermarkets).
We certainly didn’t evolve to cope with this daily onslaught. Not everyone is truly addicted to sugar, but a proportion of people are. It is likely that genetics, childhood experiences and emotional factors all play a strong role. Most people struggle to cut down on sugar and carbs, but in some ways doing so is even more important for those of us with an addictive relationship to food. You wouldn’t advise an alcoholic to drink in moderation.
Here are some signs that your relationship to carbheavy foods may be addictive in nature:
(1) Eating more than you intended and finding it hard to stop eating certain foods.
(2) Wanting to cut down on certain foods but being unable to.
(3) Spending a lot of time thinking about and obtaining certain foods.
(4) Strong cravings and urges to eat certain foods.
(5) Continuing to overeat even if it is causing strain in relationships.
(6) Giving up important social events, hobbies or job opportunities because of weight/overeating.
(7) Eating certain foods over and over again even when you know they are doing you harm physically and/or psychologically.
(8) Needing more and more of certain foods to get the same effect.
(10) Experiencing “withdrawal” symptoms when you abstain from carbs/sugar that are relieved by consumption.
If you recognize these patterns in yourself, then a low-carb diet may help you to escape the addiction trap. We have found that people who gave up carbohydrate in their diet were, in time, freed from cravings. However, if you think there may be addtional emotional issues underlying your use of food for mental comfort, then consider a 12-step programme such as Overeaters Anonymous, or find a psychologist who specializes in eating issues or consult your own doctor for advice.
How can food be addictive? There are a number of mechanisms that have been suggested. The first is the hyperpalatability of manufactured foods combining sugar, fat and salt that can hijack our appetites. Eat real, wholefoods and avoid processed foods in packets. Second, when we eat sugar or carbs insulin is released. In the presence of insulin, an amino acid, tryptophan, can more easily cross into the brain where it helps to produce and be made into serotonin, the major feel-good hormone regulating mood. However, over time, if this process is repeated, tryptophan and hence serotonin will be depleted, leading to low mood and anxiety. A third mechanism is that sugary foods stimulate the reward centre in the brain, releasing dopamine, which is linked to reward and motivation. This means we are likely to repeat behaviours that lead to its release. Over time, the repeated consumption of sugar reduces the dopamine receptors in the brain.
Hence, we feel the need for increased consumption to get the same results and sometimes withdrawal from other activities. Once we understand how carbohydrate can hijack our brain chemistry, we can decide to maximize serotonin and dopamine in other ways to support kicking sugar out for good. There are ways to boost serotonin naturally, for example by taking regular exercise (especially outdoors, as daylight is also important) and eating foods rich in tryptophan (turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, beef, salmon, tuna, nuts – all low carb!). In terms of increasing dopamine, the advice is to eat plenty of beef, eggs and turkey, which contain tyrosine that the body converts into dopamine. Iron, vitamin B6, niacin and folate are needed to produce dopamine and these too are found in meat. Regular and goodquality sleep may help balance dopamine levels, and there is some evidence that meditation can also raise levels naturally. Sunlight is important in regulating dopamine, explaining the winter blues.
Modern life has not only led to a rise in metabolic diseases but also in mental health problems. The answers don’t lie in more tablets but in lifestyles that redress some of the imbalances. Nutrition is an important bedrock of good health.
Link nutrition with exercise, quality sleep and good social relationships and you will be unstoppable!