Compulsive Eating, or Too Much Carbohydrate?

Three Ways a Low-Carb Diet Can Help Food Cravings

Donut in Drawer
Hiding the food we're eating can be a sign of compulsive eating. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In my young adulthood in the late 1970s and '80s, there was quite a boom in books about compulsive eating and how to cope with it. It seemed like everyone I knew was reading these books, attending seminars, and going to 12-step groups trying to deal with this issue, and I was one of them. Why did we keep losing weight, only to start eating again and gain it back, often ending up heavier than ever?

There must be something going on that made us sabotage ourselves time and time again. Self-hatred? A hidden need to stay fat? A pathological emotional attachment to food? I sat in support groups for years, attempting to untangle my problems. I tried every approach I could think of, including behavior therapy. Hope sprang eternal, but nothing worked for long. And of course, we always blamed ourselves - after all, who else could be at fault?

So often these days, people have a very painful relationship with food. We get messages all the time about how bad it is to be heavy, but we are tortured by the constant push-pull of food and eating. This engenders much self-hate and even broken relationships. My heart goes out to people who are in this situation, as I know very well what it feels like.

Let me be clear that I have no doubt that eating behaviors can become entangled with emotional issues, and that people develop very real eating disorders that require professional help.

However, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we assume that if we are overweight we have emotional issues that we are covering with food.

It turns out there are at least three reasons for "compulsive eating" that have nothing to do with psychological disorders.

1. Too Much Carbohydrate

In the mid-1990s, after a couple of decades on the diet roller coaster, I tried my first low-carb diet.

It was like a magic wand had been waved over my head! What the heck??? It turned out that for me, there WAS a total cure for compulsive eating. My problem had not been emotional at all -- my problem was simply "too much carbohydrate". The change was so dramatic I remember saying to a friend, "this is downright EERIE!"

The single most common thing that people tell me that they love about low-carb eating is that they finally, finally, "feel normal around food." It usually happens by the end of the first week - at most within two weeks. Suddenly, the nagging food cravings diminish. We are hungry, we eat, and then we don't think about food again for hours when we get hungry again. For those of us who have been dealing with constant thoughts and impulses around food, this is absolutely a life-changing experience.

In retrospect, I can't help wondering whether the boom in books about compulsive eating and seminars around compulsive eating (Geneen Roth, Judy Wardell, and others) in the 1970s and '80s was at least partially a direct result of the promotion of low-fat/high-carb diets which began during that time. But there was another trend around that time that probably contributed to the problem:

2. Processed Foods Make Us Want to Eat

There was a real rise a few decades ago, not only in the promotion of carbohydrates as healthful but in access to foods high in processed refined carbohydrates. Not only do these foods wreck havoc on blood sugar, these foods (they are often but not always snack foods) have been engineered to make us want to eat more of them. This is an actual science, and food companies have been taking full advantage of this relatively new knowledge.

For someone who has been eating a lot of boxes of cereal, bags of snack foods, or baked goods such as muffins, donuts, and desserts, any diet which reduces these foods can reduce food cravings.

That diet could be low-carb, whole foods, paleo, LCHF, or any other diet that seriously cuts down on such foods.

Emotional Eating Can Start with Hormones in Our Brains

As I have pointed out, emotional eating patterns can be triggered by appetite hormones - in other words, "emotional eating" may be simply one of the methods our bodies use to get us to eat. It feels emotional, but it's really just part of our appetite system, and we know that a low-carb diet can have a positive influence on these hormones. Though the research I discussed was looking at responses following weight loss, it also makes sense that people who have insulin resistance (and thus have trouble accessing their fat stores for energy) could have similar brain patterns. Since it's known that a reduction in carbohydrates in the diet can improve insulin resistance, a lower-carb diet could affect this system in more than one way.

As I said before, I don't think all compulsive eating can be cured by a change in diet. I just wonder how much of the struggle over food could be relieved simply by a general carbohydrate reduction, or at least a reduction in refined carbohydrates and other processed foods. Wouldn't that be pretty darned wonderful?

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