Understanding and Overcoming Food Addictions
Have you ever had that experience of being at the grocery checkout eyeing the candy bars and fighting the urge to buy one? Or how about that feeling after dinner that you just must have something sweet? Have you ever had the experience, as I have, of devouring a brownie while thinking about the next one? Did you ever just have to have ice cream this very minute and drive to the store at whatever hour to satisfy that craving? These feelings are often impossible to resist.
I have been there! I know what it is like to crave refined carbohydrates. Most people who have such cravings want refined sugar and wheat such as bread, cookies, factory-processed boxed cereals, candy, cakes, brownies, doughnuts, and bagels, as well as ice cream. These are the very foods that cause weight gain. Many people would like to lose weight and some actually know how to do it—no thanks to our industry-dictated government food pyramid, and in fact, in spite of it! Science writer Gary Taubes, in his new book, How We Get Fat, tells us that science has known for decades that insulin is what drives fat into cells. To lose weight we need to eliminate those foods that elevate insulin— the sweet and starchy ones. But many find it impossible to do so, due to their compelling food cravings.
I no longer struggle with cravings for sweets and starches. The candy bars at the grocery checkout look too sweet. I am not attracted to pastries or ice cream. I enjoy a dessert occasionally, but I’m satisfied with a small portion and no longer have that feeling after each meal that I need something sweet. I love the freedom from my former cravings. I now control the food I eat; it no longer controls me.
What follows are the facts I have learned about food cravings and what I did to emancipate myself from them.
THE BRAIN CONNECTION
According to Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, and my personal experience as well, cravings can be caused by many things and they come from our brain. Brain chemicals regulate thoughts and obsessions about food. I remember going to the refrigerator with an attack of what I call “refrigeratoritis.” That’s when you open the refrigerator and stare into it thinking about what you want to eat, even though you are not really hungry. Your brain is just telling you that you need something now, and you can’t resist the impulse. It’s as though someone else has taken control.
I remember one particular instance when my daughter and I were dining in a local restaurant and had agreed that we would share the special chocolate cake for dessert. We looked forward to this, but when we ordered it we were told that they were out of the cake we were dreaming about. I was devastated! In fact, I was shocked at how upset I was that I would be deprived of this delicious treat.
I had learned about amino acids from Julia Ross when she spoke at a Weston A. Price Foundation Conference. She described the way amino acids can affect cravings and moods, so the next day I took an amino acid called DLPA (a form of phenylalanine) that works as an appetite suppressant when you need a “numbing treat.” The effect was immediate! For several days I took the supplement and no longer craved any foods. I had the most wonderful feeling of joy and freedom. I could now eat what I should when I was truly hungry, instead of when something in my brain told me I had to. I had an amazing amount of energy. This feeling did not last, but it did prove to me that the brain was the culprit and set me on a journey to learn more.
MOOD AND AMINO ACIDS
First you need to know about proteins and amino acids, which are the building blocks that make up proteins. The central nervous system cannot function without amino acids, which act as neurotransmitters or as precursors to the neurotransmitters. They are necessary for the brain to receive and send messages. All the amino acids must be present together or something may go wrong with the transmission of the message. If there is a protein shortage due to a diet deficiency or the inability to digest proteins, disorders can arise. These may be cravings, ADD, anxiety, depression or many other mental disorders.
Julia Ross writes in her book, The Mood Cure, that if you are low in amino acids or if they are not functioning properly in your body, you can crave foods. She states that if you are low in the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is needed to produce serotonin, our natural Prozac, you may have afternoon cravings for carbohydrates, alcohol or drugs. If you are low in endorphins, our natural chocolate or heroin, you may crave comforting or numbing treats or “love” certain foods, drugs or alcohol. The amino acid DLPA will often eliminate comfort-food cravings, at least for a while.
GLUTEN AND THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION
Some grains (wheat, rye, barley and spelt) contain a protein called gluten, which is very difficult to digest. Foods made from gluten grains are comfort foods and many people crave them. They can actually become addictive. James Braly, MD, in his book, Dangerous Grains, says that part of this comfort comes from our inability to digest fully some parts of the grain. Undigested partial proteins, or peptides, found in gluten cereals have morphine-like properties, becoming potent drugs once they enter the blood stream. Many people develop cravings due to the pleasant feelings these cause.
BAD BACTERIA, PARASITES AND CANDIDA OVERGROWTH
You may have heard the aphorism, “Disease begins in the colon.” When a person eats factory-made refined foods, which are difficult to digest, he develops an overgrowth of yeasts, fungi and bad bacteria, which proliferate because of these lifeless foods. In addition, if you have taken antibiotics, you have probably killed a lot of the good bacteria whose job is to keep levels of all bacteria in balance. These good bacteria assist with digestion and absorption of nutrients in living foods. By contrast, the unfriendly (to us) bacteria want a continuous supply of starchy carbohydrates and sugar to eat via these dead, factory foods, and they let you know by causing your food cravings.
In addition, you may find you have parasites. The job of parasites is to clean up rotten food and bad bacteria in the intestines. Parasites love sugar as a steady diet, too. When you kill them your cravings may temporarily get worse, as they seem to scream for sugar.
Candida overgrowth can cause very strong sugar and bread cravings. Yeasts and candida live on sugar and seem to urge you to feed them all the time. “A craving for sweet and starchy foods is typical for all people with abnormal bodily flora,” says Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, “particularly with candida overgrowth.” Further, if you have taken birth control pills, which change your body pH, or if you eat a lot of sugar, you are encouraging abnormal growth of yeast in your body. Doctors are now discovering a link between heavy metals and candida overgrowth.
HEAVY METALS AND CHEMICALS
Metals can be a root cause of cravings and of serious health problems. We can accumulate metals from vaccinations, mercury fillings in our teeth, pesticides, foods that are not organic, air pollutants, and many other sources. They can be passed on to our children in utero. “Unfortunately, just having toxins in the body makes them harder to get rid of because they drain energy, even at the cellular level,” says Kenneth Bock, M.D. who treats autistic children.
Just when I had absolutely no cravings (I didn’t even think about sweets anymore) I began to detoxify metals. My doctor’s report had shown mercury, arsenic and high copper, so I was taking homeopathic drops to detoxify. But detoxification brought the carbohydrate cravings right back. At midday and after dinner I started searching the house for candy, looking for those leftover chocolates from Christmas gifts. I really wanted what Julia Ross calls numbing treats, something to satisfy myself. My health practitioner explained that the metals, as they are flushed out, disrupt functions in the body, including neurotransmitters in the brain. Chemicals can do this as well. I took some individual amino acids, which provided some relief from cravings, and also supplemented with probiotics to improve digestion and detoxification.
LOW-SATURATED FAT DIET
If you are eating a lowfat diet, you may still feel hungry after a meal. As stated in Eat Fat Lose Fat, by Sally Fallon Morell and Mary Enig, PhD, our bodies need saturated fats for function of nerves, brain, hormones, immune system and metabolism. Also, saturated fats create satiation. In other words, they make us feel full and satisfied. By feeding your body the healthy fats it needs—fats found in butter, cream, nuts, meats and eggs—your body produces a hormone in the stomach that signals you have eaten enough.
Dr. Tom Cowan writes in his book, The Fourfold Path to Healing, that “Our brain is specifically designed to sense the fat content of our food and to tell us to stop eating when the proper amount of fat has been ingested. When the need for fats and the nutrients they contain is satisfied, we stop eating. The body’s requirement for fats is so great, and the appetite that spurs the body to obtain those fats is so strong, that binge eating is likely to occur if fats are omitted from regular meals.”
LOW B VITAMIN LEVELS
As I stated earlier, if you have been eating refined foods, especially grains that are not traditionally prepared by soaking or fermenting, you may have undigested waste in the intestinal tract. You may have too many hostile bacteria and not enough beneficial bacteria. This can make it difficult for your intestines to make B vitamins. Julia Ross explains that the brain must have B6 to make serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. Serotonin makes you feel happy, contented and satisfied.
Are you deficient in brain nutrition due to low-calorie dieting? Julia Ross calls this situation “dieter’s malnutrition” and says it can be an underlying cause of food cravings. When our body assimilates vital nutrients well, it requires less food to satisfy its basic nutrient needs, and a lasting feeling of satiety is effectively achieved. If we don’t assimilate nutrients well or don’t eat nutrient-dense food, our body will be constantly asking for more food, because it needs nutrients to survive. As Dr. Cowan explains, modern processed food is high in calories and low in nutrients. It satisfies the appetite only momentarily because the body continues to send signals to the brain that it needs more nourishment. The “appestat” never receives the signal to turn off.
SUGAR HABIT, LOW BLOOD SUGAR
Just eating a lot of sugar can cause you to want more of the same. In a presentation at the 2010 Weston A. Price Foundation conference, Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT, explained that if you eat a lot of sugar and starch (which turns to sugar), your body and brain become metabolically adapted to burning glucose for fuel, instead of burning fat for fuel. She says, “You are going to crave carbohydrates if you are adapted to being dependent on glucose as your primary source of fuel. . . . Sugar is going to look good to you and you are going to crave it. Some people can’t even get to noon without a snack, without going half crazy.”
For example, if you eat sugary breakfast cereals you will often become hungry an hour later and want to eat more sugar. You may feel like you are going to crash without it. Processed carbohydrates get absorbed very quickly, producing an unnaturally rapid increase in blood glucose. A rapid increase in blood glucose puts your body in a state of shock, prompting it to pump out lots of insulin very quickly. As a result of overproduction of insulin, soon you have very low blood glucose again. (Insulin is what puts on weight too.) A fluctuating blood sugar level can trigger food cravings, migraines, mood swings, weak spells, drowsiness and much more. I was with a friend while she experienced a blood sugar crash. She felt faint and that she absolutely had to eat a cookie to survive.
It has been said that chemicals are sometimes added to processed food by manufacturers in order to cause cravings in the unwitting public. Paul Stitt, who worked for breakfast food companies and wrote Fighting the Food Giants, relates how this is frequently perpetrated. Employees were often asked to taste the cereals. The cereals they ate the most of were considered the best and were marketed the most. And some cookies, he says, have addictive ingredients added so you won’t eat just one.
Paula Bass, PhD, in Fairfax, Virginia, agrees that food additives affect the brain. As a psychologist, she looks carefully at diet with each client, and sometimes a diet change is all it takes to resolve the problem. “If you are eating junk foods that contain dyes, preservatives and other chemicals, you can damage the manufacture of your brain neurotransmitters,” she explained at a recent talk I attended. “Nutrient-dense whole foods are necessary for our brain neurotransmitters to be produced and function properly,” she commented.
Recent research finds that toxins in foods and other chemicals in the environment do more than just cause cravings—they also alter our hormones and our own innate slimming mechanism. Paula Baillie-Hamilton, MD, PhD, focuses on organochlorines, such as pesticides. In her book, Toxic Overload, she reveals studies showing that the higher the level of these chemicals in the body, the greater the body weight will be.
Researchers are discovering that microwaves, power lines, computers and cell phones all create electro-magnetic pollution that makes people sick and tired—and fat. The effects can cause fat retention, fatigue, insomnia, depression, hormone disruption and more, according to Sherrill Sellman, ND. They disrupt vital cellto- cell communication that underlies all of the body’s functions, including maintaining energy and natural slimming mechanisms like detoxifying, balancing blood sugar and regulating appetite, according to Dr. Sellman. You can read more by going to www.whatwomenmustknow.com. You can also purchase tiny chips to place on electronic devices to protect yourself at www.mybiopro.com/highesthealth.
It has long been known that if we are allergic to something, we may crave that very food. A craving for wheat can mean you are allergic to wheat, one of the most common food allergens. The reason this happens, says Nora Gedgaudas, is that when a food allergy causes stress, your body produces endorphins, which comfort you and make you feel good. Unfortunately you perpetuate exposure to the irritant because you want more of the compensatory good feelings.
STRESSED ENDOCRINE SYSTEM/ HORMONES
Bruce Rind, MD, who specializes in adrenal and thyroid health, claims that weakened adrenals can cause cravings for sweets, grains, salt or any combination of these. If you have eaten a lowfat diet for a lengthy amount of time, or have poor fat metabolism, you may not be getting enough cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for the health of the endocrine system, which of course includes the adrenals and thyroid gland.
Another cause of poor adrenal function can be toxins like mercury. Janet Lang, DC, an expert in women’s hormones, agrees that toxins and poor diet disrupt hormones. She states that imbalanced hormones frequently cause cravings and has developed a treatment protocol for this condition.
RETURN TO HEALTH
Although it takes diligence, attention to detail, and time, overcoming food cravings and restoring gut health and mental equilibrium can be done! My five crucial points for remedying food cravings are outlined in the sidebar on page 48. Let me reassure you that detoxifying and changing your diet are worth the effort. Not only will you be free of your cravings, but you will digest and absorb nutrients better, grow healthier, feel happier, and prevent illness in the future.
Remedies for Cravings
1. Prepare your grains: Do we need to eliminate grains to be healthy? Sally Fallon Morell explains in her article “Be Kind to Your Grains” that we do not need to give up our grains, but we do need to prepare them properly. Ancient cultures fermented, soaked and sprouted grains before consumption. Today we are fortunate because we can find genuine sourdough breads and whole grain breads that are made from soaked and sprouted flours. They are usually in the frozen section of our health food store. Because the gluten is broken down or predigested it is less likely to cause cravings and the breads are more nutritious. (But read labels to make sure that gluten is not added after the sprouting or sourdough process!) If you have strong cravings for grains, however, it may be wise to eliminate them entirely, recommends Nora Gedgaudas. I find that once cravings are gone, one is usually able to slowly add back to the diet some properly prepared grains. If you are still trying to lose weight, you should continue to limit grain consumption.
2. Take probiotic supplements and eat probiotic fermented foods: Homemade sauerkraut and pickles are good probiotic foods, consumed by healthy people the world over for centuries. These foods will increase the numbers of friendly bacteria to improve digestion, assimilation and detoxification. They help keep in check the bad bacteria that can cause cravings. I suggest you start supplementing slowly with probiotics. This is because when you add these good bacteria they will cause the bad bacteria to die, and you will very likely have some die-off symptoms. These could include cravings.
3. Eat plenty of good satur ate d fats : Be sure you are getting plenty of these fats in your diet because they will make you feel good, full, and satisfied.
4. Clean out the kitchen and pantry! Get rid of all the processed and sugar-laden foods. Remove any grain products that are not traditionally prepared and any products with dyes and additives. Keep only foods that are real and whole. If you are trying to lose weight, eat only low-sugar, low-starch foods. Eat lots of non–starchy vegetables, meats, fish, nuts,and raw dairy. Raw dairy contains the enzymes needed to digest it.
5. Detoxify: Find a practitioner who can test you to determine if you have heavy metals, chemicals, parasites, candida, yeast, fungi or bad bacteria, all of which can cause food cravings. Since I was burdened with several of these, I detoxified using homeopathy, nutritional supplements, and TBM (Total Body Modification) energy treatments. I took Natren probiotics to aid in detoxification and replenish the good bacteria. I recommend you purchase a very good water filter to aid hydration of cells. Foods like parsley and cilantro can help with detoxification, too. You must be very careful not to detoxify too rapidly or you will put your body out of balance and experience many unpleasant symptoms. I took cod liver oil, which contains vitamins A and D to protect my cells, once I had detoxified enough to be able to metabolize fats well. I recommend you find someone who is experienced in AK (Applied Kinesiology or muscle testing). A good practitioner will make sure you support the organs of detoxification, especially the liver and kidneys. You can so easily overdo detoxification and harm yourself. When you have symptoms, it is often difficult to tell whether they are from the toxins, low levels of probiotics, or from the detox process. I worked with a TBM practitioner who could always figure out my problem and remedy it. Another tool to identify your toxins is the Asyra energy scan, available at www.myhealthbuilders.net, in Annandale, Virginia.
1. Campbell-McBride, Natasha, M.D. Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Dyspraxia, Autism, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, and Schizophrenia. Cambridge: Medinform Publishing, 2004
2. Gershon, Michael D., M.D. The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998
3. Ross, Julia, M.A. The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-Being. New York: The Penguin Group, 2002.
4. Braly, James, M.D. and Ron Hoggan, M.A. Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health. New York: The Penguin Group, 2002
5. Smith, Melissa Diane. Going Against the Grain: How Reducing and Avoiding Grains Can Revitalize Your Health. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2002
6. Cowan, Thomas S., M.D. The Fourfold Path to Healing: Working with the Laws of Nutrition, Therapeutics, Movement, and Meditation in the Art of Medicine. Washington D.C: New Trends Publishing, 2004
7. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, D.C.: New Trends Publishing, 1999
8. Watson, Alan L. Cereal Killer: The Unintended Consequences of the Low Fat Diet. Minneapolis: Diet Heart Publishing, 2008
9. Paula Bass, PhD, presentation, Weston A. Price Chapter Meeting, Alexandria, VA, 2010
10. Stitt, Paul A. Fighting the Food Giants, Manitowoc, WI, Natural Press, 1980
11. Nora Gedgaudas, presentation, Weston A. Price Conference, 2010, Baltimore, MD,“Taming the Carb Craving Monster.”
12. Courtney, John, Standard Process Clinical Reference Guide, p 36, Lactic Acid Yeast
13. Bock, Kenneth, M.D. Healing the New Childhood Epidemics, Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies. New York: Ballantine Books 2008
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2011.