So, you’re in the middle of the Holiday season, also known as the ‘carb-fest’ that occurs during the November and December Holiday season. I’ve seen carbs “swallow up” many unsuspecting victims, and before they knew it, it was Valentine’s Day, and they’ve gained back pounds and inches that they had lost the year before:
“I lost 40 pounds before Thanksgiving and then regained it all by the beginning of January.”
“I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Grandma’s cake or sweet potato pie!”
“I didn’t want to go to the Obesity Medicine doctor for help because I was ashamed that I regained the weight.”
“I didn’t want to go to the Obesity Medicine doctor for help because I thought he would be disappointed in me.”
I learned from a colleague of mine in the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, Alan Rader, to explain that it’s may be okay to take a “Holli-DAY” from your low carb lifestyle, but that it is important to NOT let the “Holli-DAY” turn into a “Holi-WEEK,” and then into a “Holli-MONTH!” The holli-month represents the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
So, you may want to try giving yourself permission to eat carbohydrates, then get right back to your lifestyle the next day. HOWEVER, if you have a tendency toward carbohydrate addiction, then you may want to rethink this idea of “giving yourself” permission to eat carbs. Here’s why:
Carbohydrate Addiction Treatment
Some people are addicted to carbohydrates–or more specifically, addicted to sugar. But because starches are easily digested to sugar inside your body, you may be addicted to starches (potatoes, bread, fruit, rice, etc.).
Addiction to a substance is defined by craving that substance when you no longer have it, and the presence of a withdrawal syndrome when you no longer have the substance. The carbohydrate withdrawal syndrome may be as mild as headache or irritability, or as severe as fatigue and muscle cramping like the “flu.”
In animal laboratory experiments, the first study that I noticed was in a rat model.
When the animals ate or drank sugar, the area of the brain that is involved in the ‘feeling of reward’ lights up. But recently there have been studies in humans, including one by my colleague Joe McClernon at Duke. He conducted a study in which he showed people different pictures of food and then put them in the rapid brain scanner to see which areas of the brain were stimulated by which foods. Even just the sight of foods made demonstrable changes in the brain, and it was the sugar and carbohydrate, not the fatty foods, that stimulated the brain most powerfully.
A recent paper stated “Available evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs… Overall, this research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.”
For me, a typical American child who grew up with sugary cereal and mounds of Halloween candy, it took me 10 years to get rid of the last vestige of uncontrolled refined sugar at a holiday: jelly beans at Easter.
Why do “Carbs Make You Hungry?”
One way to remember this phenomenon is to consider the bear getting ready for hibernation. In the Fall, the bear shifts to eating berries to “stock up” before the wintertime food deprivation, and the berries make the bear eat more berries until the winter comes.
I think the same effect is seen in people. Sugary foods make you want to eat more sugary foods. The problem is, in people today, the cruel twist of fate is that the ‘wintertime food deprivation’ never comes. So we just keep storing the extra sugar calories as fat, and our waistlines grow. (That is, if you are eating carbohydrates!)
How do you manage carbohydrate withdrawal?
Most people manage the sugar cravings with sweet things, just not things sweetened with sugar. Any of the non-sugar sweeteners are okay for a short time. If the cravings are very strong or prolonged, some practitioners use glutamine supplements to treat sugar cravings.
So, if you are a carbohydrate addict, or have a tendency toward carbohydrate addiction, then the idea of having ‘just a taste’ is NOT going to be a good idea.
It would be similar to telling a smoker who has just recently quit smoking that “it’s okay to just have a puff on a cigarette.” For those of you who have never smoked—this is NOT a good idea. Most people who try “just a puff” go back to smoking the full pack a day or amount that they smoked before.
If you still aren’t sure about carbohydrate addiction, watch the lecture that Jackie Eberstein gave on the 2012 Low Carb Cruise. It is quite compelling.
Some Low Carb Tips from Dr. Eric Westman
- Eat more fat. Fat makes you feel full and puts you in charge. Have a piece of cheese, or meat before you go to the Holiday buffet.
- Know that carbs (sugar and starch) make you hungry.
- Have “just a taste” – “Just a taste” is usually enough. If you are faced with wedding cake, desserts, carb-filled side dishes that you want to try, or you cannot refuse (for social reasons), 5 grams of carbohydrate in the entire bloodstream is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbohydrates in a teaspoon of sugar.
- Have sugar-free sweet things – Until the ‘sweet tooth’ subsides, have sugar-free jello or sugar-free jello pudding at the ready.
- Lustig RH. The toxic truth about sugar. Nature 2012;482:27-29.
- Ventura T, Santander J, Torres R, Contreras AM. Neurobiologic basis of craving for carbohydrates. Nutrition 2013.
- Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2013;16:434-439.
- Gearhardt A, Roberts M, Ashe M. If sugar is addictive…What does it mean for the law? The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 2013;41:46-49.