Written by: Kevin Cann
Ever found it hard to cut those sweets out of your diet? In my practice this typically tends to be one of the biggest hurdles in achieving optimal wellness. We have all seen our population’s obesity rate rise continuously as well as the prevalence of disease. Eating healthier is not always as easy as having willpower and studies have shown this.
One such study was conducted at the Scripps Research Institute in March of 2010. This study ultimately proved that the same mechanisms that are responsible for drug addiction are also responsible for us craving certain types of foods. A group of rats were fed a high calorie, high-fat diet that would mimic our meals available at fast-food restaurants. These rats would go through electric shock treatment to their feet as well as extreme cold temperatures just to get the high calorie, high-fat foods (Kenny and Johnson, 2010). This is a typical sign of addictive behavior. What causes this to happen?
We are wired to eat foods that taste good and also make us feel good. The two systems responsible for that in our bodies are the homeostatic system and the hedonic system. Our homeostatic system is the system that uses leptin as a major player in weight control. Leptin signals the brain on how much body fat to store. This is a survival mechanism in our bodies. The problem with this mechanism is it can be changed. This is where leptin resistance comes into play.
The more adipose tissue we have the more leptin gets released. This leads to our leptin receptors becoming desensitized and more leptin being needed for the same response. The need for the increased amount of leptin changes our homeostatic system to carry more excess adipose tissue. This is classic leptin resistance. If this problem is not addressed we will continue to get more and more obese. This is one reason why losing weight can be extremely difficult for some and yo-yo diets are ineffective.
The hedonic system is the system in our body that allows us to enjoy certain things. One of these things that can actually elicit a response in our hedonic system are certain foods, especially ones that are sweet and/or salty. Major companies understand this and hire scientists to develop foods that will elicit a response from our rewards system. The hedonic and homeostatic systems can work together against us in the attempt to lose weight. The homeostatic system wants to maintain a higher body fat and the hedonic system are constantly craving foods that are bad for us. This is why taking out foods completely and being strict for a time frame is extremely important. If these foods with high rewards are added back in before we have reset our homeostatic system then it can derail the progress we have made up to that point.
It doesn’t stop there. When we eat certain foods there is a release of dopamine. Dopamine is also released when we do certain drugs and drink alcohol. It is a big player in addictive behavior. When released, dopamine makes us feel good. However, there lies a problem. The more dopamine that gets released the more the receptors will desensitize, much like in the situation with leptin. This causes a need for more dopamine to be released to get the same good feeling as before. This ultimately leads to increased overeating.
Another chemical that is released when we eat certain foods are opioids. The opioid agonists are responsible for making us want more of the foods that taste good to us. Opioid antagonists are what are given to help curb addiction in drug addicts. The problem with that medication is it takes the “good” feeling out of everything.
Certain foods will also elicit a response from cannabinoid receptors. This is the same response that occurs when someone smokes pot and gets the “munchies.” It stimulates our response for cravings. The combination of these three leads to severe addiction to food. One study actually showed that oral administration of an antagonist opioid and a cannabinoid receptor inverse agent led to decreased eating in obese mice (Chen, 2003). This proves that there is some response in these neurotransmitters.
Understanding that you may have a carb addiction is the first step in the direction of remedying the problem. If you are just starting out on the paleo diet and are thinking that one cookie will not hurt you, it definitely can. Would you give a recovering alcoholic “just one” drink? I would hope not. Changing this addiction can be different for everyone. One thing I like to recommend is to create a list of why you’re doing the paleo diet. It may read like this:
- Help with symptoms
- Lose weight
- Feel better
- Set an example for my kids
Every time the cravings come up, take a breath and recite your list out loud. It tends to help people stay focused on their long term goals. It also helps to switch negative thinking to positive thinking and it is great because you can take this practice everywhere with you and use it without anyone noticing.
Deep breathing exercises may be another means of suppressing the addiction. Studies have linked chronic opioid use with sleep apnea. A study done in 2006 tested two groups of 60 patients on breathing patterns during sleep. One group was given opioids and the other was not. The opioid group had a 50% larger apnea-hypopnea index (Walker, 2006). More research would be needed to draw a definite conclusion from this study, but it does raise a few ideas. For one, taking “bad” foods out of our diets will decrease the chance of us getting sleep apnea. The other is much more theoretical.
Breathing has been used as a means of stress management for thousands of years. Studies have shown it to be effective in lowering tension by decreasing heart rate as well as reducing arousal (Lee, 1999). Practicing breathing techniques used during meditation and other relaxation practices, yoga breathing, and chest breathing which is most commonly used in the reduction of stress, can all help relax our minds of the arousal that comes when we think of certain foods. It may also be able to help alleviate some threat of developing sleep apnea. The previous study mentioned showed a correlation between respiration and opioid use, so maybe breathing exercises can help alleviate some of the addiction.
Meditation is another means that has been successful in treating addiction. In a study performed on recovering alcoholics, meditation was used in an 8 week program that used class study days and at home meditation. On class days 94.5% of participants remained alcohol free. 47% remained abstinent through the whole program and 47% reported one heavy drinking day or more. In a survey the anxiety, depression, and stress of the participants decreased as well (Zgierska, 2008). 47% is a pretty strong success rate and this could be worth a serious try if you are suffering from carb addiction.
The first step of this whole process is understanding that you are addicted to foods. Foods have a strong neurological tie to us and food companies understand this. They hire scientists to make recipes that elicit the greatest response from our neurotransmitters. This along with the easy access to these foods makes addiction a real problem. Once that problem is identified and the foods are removed it will be a tough journey. Finding a method whether it is making lists, breathing techniques, or meditation is important. Also, having the support of family and friends can be key to one’s success.
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.