What You Need to Know
My Carb Addiction Started Early – and so did other problems
I started seeing a shrink when I was eleven. I also already had an unhealthy relationship with sugar. At Girl Scout meetings, I always went back to grab more cookies before I’d finished the first handful. I was afraid they’d run out. (Note: I am now eighteen months away from Social Security and they’re still making Oreos. That scarcity mentality was weird.) I was the “weird kid” – super-bright, unmotivated, compulsively talkative, overweight. My social skills were, shall we say, lacking. All of this inspired my parents to turn to a psychologist.
Weight Watchers By 11-Years-Old
My mom and I joined Weight Watchers that same year. It’s worth noting that the original program was generous with lean protein but limited carbs quite sharply – for the youth program, a few slices of bread a day, with no alternatives such as rice, potatoes, or pasta; and one-half cup of higher carb vegetables per day; non-starchy vegetables were unlimited. It was the common wisdom of the time that if you wanted to lose weight, you gave up potatoes, spaghetti, bread, and sweets.
I did lose weight on that plan, but at that age the notion of a permanent change in eating habits wasn’t within my grasp.
Then Came the Atkins DietWhen I was thirteen, Dr. Atkin’s Diet Revolution first hit the market. I tried it. It worked. But as soon as I got through the Induction phase and could add five grams of carbohydrate per day, I “spent” those carbs on a chocolate-covered ice cream bar that had exactly that count. My early Atkins phase lasted maybe four or five weeks; I spent much of that time perfecting saccharine-sweetened chocolate whipped cream.
My Carb Addiction Leads to a Life of Crime
Like so many addictions, my sugar jones led me to theft. By fourteen, I was lifting fives and tens out of my mother’s wallet to support my sugar habit. (This was the early 1970s; that was a lot of money.) Most days, on the way home from school I would buy a half-pound Mr. Goodbar and a half-pound Hershey’s with Almonds. In school, I would go through five or six rolls of wild cherry Lifesavers or most of a bag of lemon drops or a box of Caramel Nips during classes – sugar in my mouth all the time. At lunch, I would eat three to five desserts in the school cafeteria.
Thursdays I had church choir practice. The walk to church took me past the bakery where I would buy a bunch of those big chocolate chip cookies – you know, the ones that are about four inches in diameter. Usually I’d get three or four; my record was seven. Sometimes I’d substitute a couple-few chocolate eclairs. There was another bakery around the corner from our church that made the most wonderful, huge, apple turnovers with puff pastry crusts; I could put one of those down on top of the cookies. (If you’re wondering, my crime spree came to a screeching halt when Mom busted me, but not before I’d stolen hundreds of dollars.)
I was seeing a different shrink by that time, but I was still the Problem Child* and a classic underachiever. (I have a stack of elementary school report cards my mother saved. They all say the same thing: “Dana’s such a bright girl, if only she could pay attention.”)
At… I’m going to say fifteen, but I’m not certain, my parents took me to an MD/hypnotherapist (please note that this was not against my will, nor unkindly done). He hypnotized me, then told me to avoid carbohydrates.
Are you sensing a theme here?
By then, I was picking up other addictions
I drank can after can of Tab (Diet Coke’s predecessor) or glasses of iced tea made from Lipton diet iced tea mix; I also started smoking – again, paid for with stolen money. But sugar was the seminal addiction; my sophomore year I started my days with anywhere from two to four chocolate donuts in the student lounge, washed down with a few cups of vending machine cocoa. Since I was “watching my weight,” I’d have a chocolate milk shake for lunch instead of real food.
My most vivid memory of that year is wandering the halls, mumbling “I’m so tired! I’m sooo tired!” Dead on my feet at fifteen – from energy food.
The Carb Addiction Continues
The fall I turned sixteen, I went to boarding school in Duchess County, New York (once again not against my will – I made that choice). Looking back, going away to school may have helped. We were five miles from the nearest town; that limited the availability of sugar. Still, on town trips I’d buy Scooter Pies and the like. It helped academically, too.
Then my family moved from the East Coast to the Midwest, very definitely against my will. It was traumatic, and I wound up with another shrink. I managed to pull up my grades enough that I got into a good private college – where I could have all the soft-serve ice cream I wanted in the dining hall, complete with chocolate syrup, then a hand-scooped milk shake later at the student center. I also was up to a pack and a half of cigarettes per day and smoking a truly remarkable quantity of marijuana. Unsurprisingly, I flunked out freshman year.
But I had a boyfriend there; he was going to be spending that summer studying at UCLA. I learned that I could stay in the dorm there for $500 for the summer, room and board. Even in 1978, that was a heckuva deal. I went home, got a job, saved up $500, and got back to California in time to move into the dorm with my boyfriend.
The Revelation: Sugar and Mental Health are Linked
And this is where the Road to Damascus moment happened. My boyfriend was legally blind. His mother took him from specialist to specialist, hoping one would have something to say other than, “Yeah, he has macular degeneration.” For some reason, one of them gave him a book called Psychodietetics (Cheraskin and Ringsdorf, now sadly out of print) about the psychiatric effects of nutrition. My boyfriend didn’t read it; he had enough reading for classes. But I read it. In it was a list of… (gets up and checks her copy) forty-eight symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia – low blood sugar due to the body overreacting to too much sugar – most of which people would assume were caused by emotional problems. I had forty of them.
The dime dropped. I decided to give up sugar and white flour for two weeks – after all, my diet history told me I could “be good” for two weeks.
That was forty-four years ago.
Within three days it was as if I had gone from living in black and white to living in color – my energy, mood, and mental clarity soared. I had set my foot on a road from which I would never and will never turn back – though there was a major detour. More about that in a bit.
The Wisdom of Classic Nutrition Writers
- Eat plenty of protein, especially animal protein
- Eat vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds
- Eat no white sugar or white flour
- And if you have trouble with your weight go easy even on the unrefined carbs
I did this. I lost weight effortlessly, though by this point the combination of smoking and walking up and down California hills had gotten me down to a reasonable size. I did eat carbs – brown rice, whole grain bread, honey, and the like – but not in an addicted fashion.
Further, I felt so much better that the old sugary junk didn’t look good to me anymore. I associated it with feeling tired and depressed. And I liked the food I was eating.
About two years in, I was in a corner bodega in Chicago and saw one of those racks of snack cakes you see everywhere – Ho-Hos, Hostess cupcakes, Twinkies, that stuff. They had always been a favorite of mine during the sugar-addicted days, so I decided to see what I thought now. I bought something chocolate and creme-filled. I took one bite. The rest hit the trash can outside the store. I wish I remembered who originally said this, because I’ve quoted it so often: it was like running into an old friend and realizing you no longer have anything in common.
After three years of self-identifying as a “health food freak,” I quit smoking with little trouble – I had simply gone from thinking of myself as the sort of person who would smoke to thinking of myself as the sort of person who wouldn’t. My heavy cannabis habit backed way off. I worked in a health food store, and later went to massage school. I felt great!
And then the detour. Oh, the detour.
In the 1980s, the demonization of fat began.
And it wasn’t just the idea that saturated fat would cause heart disease, it was the oh-so-logical sounding idea that cutting dietary fat would lead to losing body fat. What were we to eat in place of fat? Why, carbs, of course! Healthy Whole Grains! Pasta salad with fat-free mayonnaise, baked potatoes with “Butter Buds” fake butter-flavored stuff, fat-free (and sugar-full) frozen yogurt, etc. In the latter years of the 1980s, we were promised blooming good health, abundant energy, weight loss without hunger, yada-yada, if we just replaced all that evil fatty stuff with carbs.
It was like telling an alcoholic that their healthiest dinner is a six-pack and a shot. I wanted to believe.
I was still eating “good” carbs – whole grain breads and cereals, baked potatoes stuffed with California Mix (broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots) and fat-free “cheese” (ugh!). I made vats of whole wheat macaroni salad with plenty of veggies and just one can of water-packed tuna, dressed with low fat mayonnaise. I made awesome bean soups I ate with whole grain rye toast. My favorite summer supper was air-popped popcorn and sliced fresh tomatoes.
Because I was walking a great deal, my weight was not too bad. But my energy! I had the most awful energy crashes. I was working as a massage therapist; do you know how hard it is to muscle through a severe blood sugar crash while doing deep tissue massage? I was in my late twenties to early thirties; I should have been exploding with energy. Sometimes I was – until boom! I wasn’t.
And I was hungry. All. The. Time.
I would eat two bowls of Cheerios with skim milk for breakfast – Low fat! Whole grain! High fiber! By ninety minutes later I could have eaten the damned carpet, I was so hungry. The food addiction – the carb addiction** – was back. I can remember a night in the early ‘90s when I had just had a full, “healthy” dinner: skinless chicken and both broccoli and brown rice with Butter Buds. I told myself that I would not eat anything else for at least half an hour after dinner. It was hard. I was watching the clock. I had a stomach full of food and my body was telling me it was starving.
And it wasn’t all good stuff. I fell prey to some of the low-fat processed foods – Healthy Choice Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Hershey’s Syrup, “Now, as always, a fat-free food.” (A real advertising tag line.)
Trying to Lose Weight for My Wedding Backfires
In the fall of 1994 I decided I wanted to lose weight for my wedding in the spring, so I went even lower fat – I particularly recall a casserole I made with sliced potatoes, one turkey smoked sausage, and a sauce made of low-fat cottage cheese. I joined a local gym and started doing five step aerobics classes a week.
I didn’t lose an ounce. Indeed, I whole-grain-and-beaned my way up to 200 pounds at 5’2”. I went to my wedding a size 18, and by the end of that summer I was up to a 20. (I never gave in and bought clothes that size, but I was getting that too-much-sausage-in-the-skin look.) The energy swings were wicked. And for the first time in my life, I had high blood pressure. Here I was doing everything officialdom told me should make me slim, healthy, and vibrant, and I was getting fatter and sicker by the day. It scared me.
Obesity is a carbohydrate intolerance disorder
Cue another Road to Damascus moment: that summer, I picked up a 1950s nutrition book at a used book sale. I read it, of course. One sentence jumped out at me:
Obesity has nothing to do with how much you eat; it is, instead, a carbohydrate intolerance disorder.
Bingo. I remembered all the weight loss wisdom of my youth. I thought, “Nothing else is working; what have I got to lose?” (Except the weight, of course.) I had already started cooking for a Labor Day party, so I determined that the day after that would be the day I went low carb. It was. I celebrate my Lowcarbiversary on the Tuesday after Labor Day every year.
Read Labor Day Cookout with Dana Carpender
For the last glorious holiday weekend of the summer, a cookout seems mandatory. So call up some friends, throw some (light) beer in the cooler, fire up the barbecue, and let's make an end-of-summer feast that will be filling and memorable without any nutritional regrets. Includes her Low-Carb Salmon Recipe
It was a replay of the summer of ’78. Within three days, my clothes were loose, my energy was back, and my mood was on a long-playing high. I have been low carb – in various forms; more about that in a future article – ever since.
* I told That Nice Boy I Married that while my mom was great, she had made me feel like the Problem Child. He snorted and said, “You think?!” When I was finally diagnosed with ADD at the age of fifty-two, my whole life suddenly made sense – and I desperately wished I could tell my mother, “See? I wasn’t trying to be a total pain in the butt.”
**I am convinced that there is very little “food addiction,” just carb addiction.
More Articles About Carbohydrate Addiction at CarbSmart.com
- My Carbohydrate Addiction by Dr. Joe Leonardi
- The New Science of Sugar Addiction by Nicole M. Avena
- My name is Amber and I’m a Carboholic by Amber Allen-Sauer
- Once A Food Addict, Always A Food Addict or Can You Fix It With Low-Carb? by Kathleen Lunson
- The Birth Of A Carb Addict – Beating the Dirty Cereal Bowl Blues by Sonya Tilley
- Delilah’s Mirror Episode 18: Carbohydrate Addiction is Like Hotel California by Elizabeth Senzee
More Low Carb Recipes & Articles by Dana Carpender