How to Overcome Food Addiction, Compulsive Overeating and Bulimia with Simple Changes in Your Diet and Lifestyle
Whether we are talking about how to overcome food addiction, compulsive overeating, bulimia or anorexia, you may be surprised to learn that there is really a very simple solution - change the foods that you eat.
There are two common denominators in all eating disorders, which are, impairment of the endocrine system and depleted or imbalanced neurotransmitters in the brain, both of which originate primarily in the diet.
As anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction to food or binging knows, the primary foods that one becomes addicted to are sugar and carbohydrates. In End Your Addiction Now, Dr. Charles Gant explains, that this is because sugar and carbohydrates are addictive by nature, because that is the role they play in evolution. It is the way they are designed by nature in order to reproduce their species.
Plants produce addictive substances (sugar and starch) so that animals will eat them. In other words, the purpose of carbohydrates (sugar and starch) is to entice insects and animals to eat the plant that is incapable of moving by itself so that they can carry their seeds from one place to another. Some plant species cannot grow unless they pass through the gastrointestinal tract of an animal. So, essentially, the animal functions as a honeybee pollinating the plants during the summer season. (And remember we are just another animal.)
At one time in our evolution, we humans participated in this activity and it gave us a benefit as well; it enabled us to store fat for the winter. Our biochemistry would literally compel us to eat carbohydrates only during the summer months, so that we could store fat and survive through the winter. At this time, food was not available to us year round as it is now and we had long periods of famine. For most of the year, our body would run on fat and our diet was comprised of meat, fish, eggs and any nuts and seeds we were able to store.
However, during this time period, our ancestors were not eating things like whole wheat, corn, sugar, flour and potatoes, their carbohydrates were provided in the form of whole fruit, low-starch vegetables, nuts and seeds. And, they were only eating carbohydrates seasonally; they did not have access to Supermarkets that are stalked with aisle after aisle of sweets and junk food.
When the Agriculture Revolution came along, this delivered carbohydrates with a higher level of sugar and a chemical composition that our bodies were not genetically designed to process. Plus, they were lower in nutrients and now accessible all year round. We now have bodies that are still almost genetically identical to our ancestors, but we are forcing them to run on a diet that is completely unnatural for us.
It was this unintended about-face change in diet that has led to impairment in our endocrine system and brain chemistry, which has resulted in the very long list of degenerative health conditions we see so commonly in our society today like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, violence and more. People are no longer eating the nutrients that are absolutely essential for good mental and physical health, which are fat and protein.
When you eat sugar, or starches of any kind, this causes the body's glucose levels to rise rapidly. Your pancreas then releases insulin to tell your glucose receptors to open up to bring your glucose levels back down. Glucose is then used immediately for energy if required, or it is stored in the muscle or liver as glycogen to be used as energy at a later date. Any excess is then stored as fat in the cell for long-term use. It is sugar and starch that gets stored as fat, not fat. Thus, why much of the population is overweight; they have remomved the wrong foods from their diet.
If one is eating sugar and starch in excess, then this process goes on endlessly. After a while, there is too much fat in storage, so the glucose receptors refuse to open up and store anymore. This is known as insulin resistance. The pancreas then releases even a higher level of insulin to try and get the glucose receptors to open up and bring down the glucose levels, but the glucose receptors refuse. If this cycle continues, then eventually the glucose receptors will stop responding to insulin entirely, and glucose will never make it into the cell. Therefore, you will develop cravings for more carbohydrates, because the body is essentially starving for glucose. Even though the bloodstream is flooded with sugar, it is not available to the cell.
Furthermore, this ancient metabolic process has hardwired the body to crave carbohydrates when insulin rises. It thinks that is time to store fat, so cravings for carbohydrates will develop so you will eat more of them and store more fat. Each time a carbohydrate is consumed, it will trigger an insulin response and the insulin will trigger the cravings. Additionally, when insulin removes the glucose from your bloodstream too quickly, this too results in cravings for more carbs and sugar, as none will be available for the brain and it will send out the message that you should eat something that will provide an instant infusion of glucose.
The exact same process happens with another hormone called leptin. You can think of leptin as your satiation hormone. It is released to tell you that have eaten enough and are full and it works together with another hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin tells you when you are hungry. So ghrelin will be released to stimulate hunger and then leptin is released to tell you that you are full. When insulin rises, leptin is decreased and ghrelin is increased, which means your appetite will increase. If insulin levels continue to be high, then eventually leptin will become resistant as well, and it doesn't turn off your appetite. Additionally, fructose (found in table sugar, high fructose sugar, honey and fruit) will also suppress leptin and increase ghrelin, resulting in an increase of hunger and overeating. However, fruit is attached to fiber, so its impact is slightly less severe than straight fructose, but consumption must be limited. It's also important to note that fructose is metabolized to fat much quicker than any other form of sugar.
Glucose is essential for the brain and body to function, as almost all our tissue survives on glucose. However, you do not need to eat carbohydrates to acquire glucose. Most of your glucose can be acquired through protein and fat, through a process called gluconeogenesis, where protein and a byproduct of fat called glycerol are converted into glucose. Furthermore, once your body starts burning fat for energy instead of carbs, there will be a byproduct called ketones that can be used for energy instead of glucose for many of your cells, including the brain. This is actually the way the body is supposed to run (fat, ketones and an occasional boost with glucose). The only reason carbohydrates became a primary food source was because it was found that foods like whole grains, potatoes, legumes etc., last longer in storage and could be disseminated more widely and easily throughout the population, and because they enable the food industry to reap great profits. Carbohydrates are completely non-essential in the diet. We need low-starch vegetables and low-sugar fruit for their minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, not their carbohydrates.
This includes complex carbohydrates like whole wheat, brown rice, oats, corn, barley, potatoes, and any other starchy food. All carbohydrates have the same impact on the endocrine system; it does not matter whether they are refined or complex. Complex carbohydrate takes a little longer than a refined one to be processed, but ultimately, all carbohydrates break down into sugar and prompt an insulin response and overstimulate neurotransmitters in the brain, both of which result in cravings for sugar and/or carbs.
The consumption of sugar and carbohydrates also causes excessive levels of neurotransmitters in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and GABA to be released all at once, which is what produces the pleasant and euphoric sugar "high." When neurotransmitters are overstimulated for an extended period of time, the brain becomes confused and thinks it has too many, so it will reduce production and then more sugar and carbs are needed to produce the high. This is known as tolerance, and if this cycle continues, it eventually results in depletion and then dependence upon sugar and carbs to perform the duties of the impaired neurotransmitters. This is the exact same process that causes addiction to drugs and alcohol.
When depletion occurs, then a variety of symptoms appear like, low self-esteem, self-hatred, disgust, distorted perception of self, guilt, worry, depression and anxiety. All symptoms commonly experienced in people with food addiction, compulsive overeating or an eating disorder of any kind. On the other hand, neurotransmitter depletion may already be present for other reasons before the eating disorder and is the driving force behind the development of the compulsion.
Neurotransmitters are formed from amino acids and a variety of co-factors like B6, folic acid and iron, and you need sufficient levels of fat for transmission. If your diet is not sufficient in these nutrients, then you will not be producing neurotransmitters adequately and cravings for addictive substances will ensue. Thus, why Dr. Charles Gant tells us in End Your Addiction Now, that the root cause of sugar and carb addiction is a deficiency in protein and fat.
Since sugar and carbohydrates will temporarily increase the neurotransmitter levels, then cravings for them develop in an attempt to bring neurotransmitter levels back up. However, since the sugar and carbs also cause depletion, then eating them only perpetuates the problem further.
If you are addicted to fatty foods, then that probably means there is a fatty acid or endorphin/dopamine deficiency and/or adrenal insufficiency. In the case of bulimia, it's important to be aware that not only does the binging perpetuate the insulin and neurotransmitter cycle, but when one purges, it sets off an alarm that something is wrong in the body and this sets off the stress response system. Anytime the stress response system is activated then there is an insulin response, and endorphins and other neurotransmitters are released in high numbers to deal with the stress, so the purging is just another unconscious attempt to increase neurotransmitter levels.
It may seem that anorexia does not fit into this model since the individual is starving themselves, but here's how it does. Most young girls and women are overly concerned with their weight and figure and therefore are avoiding the foods that they need for good mental and physical health, like animal protein and fat, and are eating a diet high in sugar and junk food instead. This results in neurotransmitter depletion and the inevitable symptoms of distorted self-image, hatred and disgust towards their own bodies, as well as depression, anxiety, mood swings etc., and they feel a need to starve themselves to improve their body. However, the more they starve themselves the more nutrient deficient they become and the more self-hatred they will feel. It becomes a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.
Furthermore, when one deprives themselves of food, this too sets off an alarm that something is wrong with the body, and the stress response system and insulin spike, and the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that temporarily makes one feel better. Anorexia and bulimia are, in a sense, an addiction. It becomes a compulsive behavior partly due to the insulin spike and partly due to an unconscious attempt to increase neurotransmitter levels. If the endocrine system and brain chemistry are restored to balance through proper diet and nutritional supplements, then the anorexic behaviors will cease as well.
Carbohydrates = Sugar
Sugar = Insulin and Neurotransmitter Sure and then Depletion
Insulin and Neurotransmitter Surge or Depletion = Cravings for Sugar and Carbohydrates
Trigger Food = Insulin and Neurotransmitter Spike
So, the primary goal in how to overcome food addiction, compulsive overeating, bulimia and anorexia is to keep your insulin levels from spiking and your neurotransmitters in balance, and that is accomplished simply by returning to your native diet that you are genetically designed to eat in the first place. Those foods include: red meat of all kinds, poultry, fish, eggs, low-starch vegetables, and small amounts of nuts, seeds and low-sugar fruit; if you are not dairy intolerant then butter and ghee may be used as well. Get rid of all the grains and starches.
However, it's important to be aware that excess sugar and carbohydrates are toxic to the liver, just like alcohol. So, just like alcohol addiction, there is a detox period when one is coming off of carbohydrates and sugars, and you are probably going to experience a similar type of withdrawal. This withdrawal can be just as serious and debilitating as withdrawal from alcohol or hard drugs. It takes at least a couple of weeks for the endocrine system to switch back to running on fat and protein. When that is achieved, then cravings for carbs and sugar will subside.
Furthermore, during that time, when nutrients and neurotransmitters are depleted, this can lead to cravings for carbs that sabotage your efforts of staying on the diet. So, there are a variety of nutritional supplements that are often used to help replenish depleted nutrients and restore balance to brain chemistry a little faster, such as amino acids, a multi-mineral, essential fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants. It can take several months to several years for the endocrine system to heal completely, depending on how compliant you are with the diet, how severe the damage is, and how many other contributing factors you have going on.
There are other factors that affect insulin and neurotransmitters. For example, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, chronic stress and exposure to environmental toxins all cause the liver to release glycogen into the blood stream; increasing glucose levels and prompting the release of insulin, and deplete neurotransmitter levels, which results in cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. Therefore each of these need to be avoided as well.
Other issues that may come into play with food addiction, compulsive overeating, bulimia, and anorexia include adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, childhood abuse, and dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system. Food allergies or food sensitivity is another very important issue to consider, because in the advanced stage of allergy, the individual craves the food that they are allergic to, which often results in uncontrollable binges.
Additionally, it is crucial to exercise regularly, because exercise optimizes your insulin and leptin receptor sensitivity, thereby helping to normalize levels of glucose, insulin and leptin. However, the way that you exercise is absolutely crucial. Exercise that is too intense and prolonged, like traditional cardio, marathon running, or working out in the gym for an hour, are actually counterproductive, because they are experienced as extreme stress, which as we learned previously means it will prompt an insulin response, fat storage and the drainage of neurotransmitters. It will also increase your appetite and cravings for carbs and sugar. Exercise should be frequent, but mild, gentle and in short duration.
As a recovered food addict, binger and compulsive overeater myself, I can share with you that when I made the changes in diet that I have discussed on this page, that my cravings and loss of control over my eating behaviors completely disappeared. You can find a more comprehensive plan to help you overcome your food addiction in my book, Break Your Sugar Addiction Toady or contact me for a phone consultation, if you prefer a more personal touch and/or need additional support.
Gant, Charles, M.D. Webinar, Endocrine Stress #1. July 8, 2010. www.cegant.com/webinars
———. Webinar, Endocrine (Adrenal) Stress #2. July 15, 2010.
———. Webinar, Endocrine Stress, Carbopathy July 2010.
Gant, Charles, M.D., and Greg Lewis, M.D. End Your Addiction Now: A Proven Nutritional Supplement Program That Can Set You Free. Square One Publishers, 2010.
Ross, Julia, The Diet Cure: The 8 Step Program to Rebalance Your Body Chemistry and End Food Cravings, Weight Gain, and Mood Swings, Naturally. Penquin Books, 2012
Mathews-Larson, Joan, Depression-Free, Naturally: 7 Weeks to Eliminating Anxiety, Despair, Fatigue, and Anger from Your Life. Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001.
Mercola, Joseph, Dr., Fructose Affects Your Brain Very Differently than Glucose
Mercola, Joseph, Dr., Fructose Spurs Overeating