Low Carbohydrates Lead to Big Cravings

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I sat around the table at a restaurant with several other parents. Sometimes when I go out, I like to pose as an insurance agent so that I can really have a break from my work, but this group knew that I was a nutritionist. My colleagues in nutrition often commiserate about being stalked in the grocery store. Someone even followed one of my dietitian friends around a buffet table, saying that she was going to take exactly what my friend was putting on her plate (as if we nutritionists somehow have the answers to what all bodies should have to eat at any given moment!). Well, all eyes were on me at the restaurant as I ordered the seasonal root vegetable stew and enjoyed a homemade roll. Every other person at the table ordered a salad with some sort of meat and didn’t touch the bread. I saw more than one person look longingly at my plate and felt sad for them.

I remembered the time, early in my career, when everyone was so afraid of the fat in foods. I’m dating myself when I talk about Snackwells Cookies, where the fat (and taste) was taken out and replaced by more sugar. Those cookies would probably not sell today because, collectively, we are more afraid of carbohydrates than fats this decade. I have an old handout from the 90s about the reasons why fat is essential in the diet; it sits in my file cabinet like a relic of nutritional history. Today, the number one food component that my clients are avoiding is carbohydrate.

While I’m delighted that we are not starving our brains of fats any more, I’m equally disturbed by the elimination of yet another macronutrient. Macronutrients in foods include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water. These differ from food’s micronutrients -- the vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals -- that we hear about so frequently as having health-giving properties. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats contain calories, units of energy that are the true fuel that our body can use for everything that it does. If macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) are our gasoline, then micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are the spark plugs -- important to make sure the engine runs smoothly, but not the major fuel source.

The body needs a certain amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in order to function optimally, and there is some debate as to just how much we need of each. In my experience -- and I have 15+ years of nutrition counseling behind this -- taking in too much or too little of any food component causes problems. Too little fat makes us preoccupied with food and contributes to reproductive system decline. Too little protein makes us tired, weak, and hungry constantly. And, because this is a post about carbohydrate avoidance, I’m going to spend a little more time on this one...

When a client comes to me and complains about intermittent binge eating or over-eating at night, there is often an emotional or stress-related trigger. But, along with this, there is frequently a diet that is too low in carbohydrates. The cravings for high-sugar, high-starch foods (the cookies and chips and other baked goods) that accompany the compulsive eating are often encouraged by the fact that the client is not eating enough grain-based foods during the day. This is particularly easy to do with  low-carb, gluten-free eating trends today, as restaurants are trying to accommodate consumers’ desires to eat less carbohydrates.

"Aren’t we eating too many carbs, though?" many clients ask. It’s not good to eat up the whole bread basket before eating a meal, right? Of course. Moderation, while not a very sexy term in the nutritional lexicon, is always advised with any eating. In fact, if one tunes in and eats mindfully, moderation is what will keep coming up. The public health message that we need to decrease our carbohydrate intake comes from the fact that, in America, our muffins are gigantic, our intake of sugary soda is excessive, and the super-sizing of everything from ice cream cones to sandwiches is significant. Over the last several decades, typical portion sizes of high-carbohydrate foods have increased, and this makes it increasingly hard to eat moderately and trust our instincts. Large portions becoming commonplace has made it hard for us to decide when we are full and have had enough to eat.

That said, restricting carbohydrates is NOT the answer! One of the members of my Non-diet Book Club said this morning, “Any time there is a suggestion of deprivation, I go crazy.” As many weight-loss-diet veterans will agree, taking away foods creates a state of deprivation, which often leads to cravings and overeating of the “bad” foods. This is particularly the case when someone greatly decreases their carbohydrate foods -- especially grain products, like rice, whole grains (oats, quinoa, millet, etc.) breads, cereals, and pastas. In fact, I find that when someone eats less of these foods per day than their body needs, they often crave sugar, the simplest form of carbohydrate.

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So how much carbohydrate does one need to eat in a day? That depends a lot on your body size, activity level, metabolism, and the overall composition of your diet. If you are really lost here, seek out a registered dietitian to give you a reality check around how much carbohydrate and grain-based food is typical and minimal. Ultimately, you have at your disposal the ability to modulate your food intake quite well, if you are willing to slow down and listen to your body. Young children do it quite easily. My daughters’ guinea pigs do it well. But somewhere along the lines, we learn not to trust ourselves. We learn that someone else -- some expert or diet book author or nutritional guru -- knows better about what we need to eat. We choose what to eat from influences outside our bodies versus the knowledge that we have within. Again, if you feel really out of touch with your internal cues around food choices, as well as hunger and fullness, a registered dietitian/nutritional therapist, particularly one who has a specialty in disordered eating, may be able to steer you back to the path of intuitive eating.

Carbohydrates also supply glycogen to muscles. Carbs help active bodies recover from physical exertion, so it is particularly problematic for active people and athletes to eat too little carbohydrates. Fortunately, I find that most active people find themselves picking or binge-eating to make up for a diet low in carbohydrate -- and preoccupied with hunger. The body hates to be starved of major nutrients.

This cycle of restricting carbs (whether it’s intentional or not) and then overeating or binge-eating as a rebound is certainly distressing, and it can often be avoided if enough carbohydrate is eaten in the first place. I’m not minimizing the use of food for soothing, comforting, or other emotional coping, but there is often a nutritional reason for the compulsive eating along with the emotional ones.

To find out if you might be eating too little carbohydrates, check in with yourself. Does this sound like you...?

  • You find yourself binging or compulsively eating high-starch or sugar foods, particularly in the evening.

 

  • You feel weak, tired, and have less energy for physical activity than you used to.

 

  • You find that it’s harder to physically exert yourself two days in a row, as if your muscles take longer to recover than they used to.

 

  • You have cravings for sugar or sweet-grainy foods (like cookies, muffins, breads) that don’t just show up as part of pre-menstrual syndrome.

 

  • You find yourself drooling over your neighbors’ plate of pasta or root-vegetable stew and unable to enjoy your own more moderately-carb dish. (There’s nothing wrong with your lower-carb dish, by the way.  If you were eating enough carbs regularly, then you might not feel so deprived and just enjoy it.)

While the above conditions could be caused by other lifestyle or nutritional factors, these are the things that I find many of my clients complaining about when they are eating too little carbohydrate, particularly grain/starch-based foods like rice, potatoes, and grains.

Julia Child was a famous chef who lived here in Cambridge, Massachusetts for much of her life and lived to be 92.  Anyone who encountered her or watched her very popular cooking show would not deny that she celebrated the pleasures of food. She said, "Because of the media hype and woefully inadequate information, too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.”

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Life is too short to spend it afraid of noodles!  One of my great joys in this work is seeing clients find joy and peace in eating again, no matter what their individual path is to do so. “Bon Appetit!”

From Binge Eating to Balance

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My client Jessica* walked into her session saying that she imagined herself lying face down on the rug in my office pounding her fists. I told her that she was certainly welcome to embody her feelings. Although she chose not to hit the floor, she did cry more forcefully than usual this session.

Jessica has been feeling very frustrated with her eating. She has been eating lots of things that she considers “non-food,” like cheez-its. She has been preparing and cooking food that she considers healthy, but then she chooses not to eat it while at work, going out to get other “less healthy” takeout food. The other day she ended up eating a whole pizza.

Her tears came with feelings of hopelessness: “I am not strong enough to do what I need to do to take care of my health, and I’m going to kill myself with my bad habits” (something like this). I tried to reframe this for her. Could she observe her eating habits less judgmentally, so that she has more room to problem-solve?

For example, Monday came and she was exhausted from all the housecleaning she did over the weekend. Instead of beating herself up and saying that she can’t get her eating right, she could say with curiosity (instead of criticism): “Hmmm…? I am really exhausted today after the weekend, which is supposed to be a rest from work. This doesn’t seem to be working for me. I know I “treated myself” to that food partly because I wanted to take care of myself in some way or soothe myself because I was exhausted. Maybe I need more help, or to lower my standards about cleaning on the weekend, or something else...”

Jessica’s work in high-tech is stressful and demanding -- and the standard in this industry is perfection-or-you-may-lose-your-job --  so this contributed to her negative self-talk, too. She ate something that didn't feel “right” for her to eat. In her own view, she’d failed at taking care of herself, even though she had really just been doing her best to cope. Binge-eating may have consequences that don’t feel so good, but it’s a very effective coping strategy that many of us use when we want soothing. We also often use food when we want to get out of our heads and into our bodies to experience some sensory pleasure for awhile.

Jessica wants to eat a vegan, plant-based, no-unnatural-oils, very low-fat diet, but she can’t seem to do it. We discussed the way that eating food that tastes good is important to her. However, this “clean” way of eating ends up feeling like a diet, and it doesn’t leave her fully satisfied. When she feels deprived, she rebels and seeks out highly-palatable, filling foods. The cycle starts again when she feels guilty about eating in an “un-clean” way and she goes back to her “virtuous” eating. The overeating and regaining control and overeating cycle continues...

I suggested that when Jessica is faced with a craving or desire for cheese, she think about a way that she can honor her craving for cheese and still create a healthy meal with it. Instead of being black and white (she either won’t eat cheese at all or she will eat a whole cheese pizza), she could have a sandwich with hummus and tomatoes and melted cheese. Yummy and healthful. The part of her that is rigidly clinging to the strict vegan plan will not see this as healthy, but it is still a better choice for her body than the large cheese pizza that ends up not making her feel very well afterwards. This was an example that made sense to my client. She thought she could try this concept of listening to -- instead of denying -- her cravings and working with them to find a balanced food choice. (This is not to say, by the way, that pizza is not a viable option, too. For Jessica, however, this was not the kind of meal that she really wanted to eat in the middle of her work day.) 

I suspect that she will struggle with finding this balance, as the grey is always more of a challenge for Jessica than the black and white. I also suspect that while her work and home life is very stressful and she’s not getting enough sleep, it is hard for her to take care of herself with food and find this balance. She also admits that she uses her struggles around food as a way to avoid harder things and to feel like she has some control over her life. I love the way she called her binge-eating  "lubrication" (something that helps her through tough times), but acknowledged that it has "grit" in it (consequences that make it less helpful to her body, mind, and spirit).

Since the session where she wanted to pound her fists into my floor, Jessica has been gradually embracing the “middle road” in her eating. She is not eating in the most virtuous way that she has always wanted to eat, but she tried it for decades and it didn’t work. She is letting it go. As a result, she is not doing as much binge eating -- particularly when she is being mindful and present and slows down enough to make her self-care a priority. It’s been quite a journey, and I am honored to be a supportive witness to her growth and determination as she improves her relationship with food.

So... how do you find balance in your eating so that you eat in a healthful way that doesn’t deprive you of the sensory pleasure of eating...? (Please share your Comments below.)

* Client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.