Carbs and sugar have been described as being as addictive as heroin. Some very revealing research sheds some light on the real reason you can’t stop eating and wellness coach Jason Gootman breaks it down for us.
Do you ever struggle with eating too much? With not being able to stop when you’re full? With eating junk food you don’t want to eat? Do you feel you know how to eat, but you just can’t get yourself to do it consistently? Do you lose control and binge? Do you ever feel out of control with food?
One major reason for this sense of lack of control with food is eating a nutrient-sparse diet, a diet low in micronutrients and often low in the macronutrients protein and fat as well. Let’s acknowledge that. You’re never going to feel full eating donuts or even their healthy-looking cousins like granola bars. When you eat a largely processed-food diet, you will always be hungry and you won’t be able to refrain from more junk food or stop eating when you’re full. It’s a viscous cycle. With the personalized Goot’s Diets that I provide my clients with, we address this and my clients begin nourishing themselves with whole, natural real food. My clients experience profound changes in their satiety response and cravings. Their natural rhythms of eating when they’re hungry, stopping when they’re full, and craving various whole, natural, real foods are restored. Eating is fun again and anything feeling like a battle to win control fades away.
Nutrient-dense diets are a huge part of the solution for most people, but not always all of the solution for all people. Some people still have an inability to stop eating when they’re full and they still crave various junk foods, particularly highly refined foods. Something’s going on. They know better. Many are highly intelligent. Many are truly dedicated to taking good care of themselves. But they still can’t control themselves. It’s like they’re addicted to overeating, eating poorly, or both.
It’s become very popular recently to talk about food, particularly carbohydrate-rich and sugar-rich foods and food products as being “as addictive as heroin”. There are even numerous scientific studies supporting this notion.
So what do we need to do? Do we need a war on carbs? A war on sugar? Do we need to eradicate these demons? I don’t think that’s the best approach or certainly not all that needs to be done. The life’s work of psychologist Bruce Alexander, PhD, sheds a great deal of light on addiction and provides us with some ideas for compelling solutions that have the added benefit of improving your life, the lives of your family and friends, and the world as a whole in many other ways besides helping to free you from your eating addictions.
A great deal of Dr. Alexander’s findings about addiction occurred in an interesting place he called Rat Park. To summarize the experiments of Rat Park:
- Prior to Rat Park, addiction studies on rats were done on rats living in small cages. Each rat lived in a small cage and could not see or touch any other rats. In these studies, rats were given the ability to drink from two water bottles, one with water, the other with drugs like heroin or cocaine. In most of these studies, most of the rats kept going for the drugs and did so repeatedly until they died. The conclusion was simple: These drugs are highly addictive and deadly.
- Dr. Alexander wanted to expand on these studies to see if he could learn more about addiction. He found it interesting that the rats in previous studies really had no options other than to drink water and take drugs. So he built Rat Park in his lab. Rat Park was simply a large cage with great rat food and toys like colored balls. Rat Park was filled with several rats, both males and females. The rats had room to run around, the ability to play, plenty of nourishing food, and unlimited access to one another.
- In Rat Park, the rats also had access to two water bottles, one filled with water, and one filled with drugs, just like in the previous addiction studies.
- In Rat Park, all of the rats tried the drugs since they did not know what was in the water bottles. But they only consumed about a quarter of the drugs that the rats in previous studies consumed and none of them died.
Interesting, right? Rats with plenty of access to food, friends, mates, space to run around, and an overall “good life” were much less likely to exhibit signs of addiction. They tried the drugs, but did not become addicted to them like the rats from previous studies that were living in solitary confinement. To read much more about these experiments, I recommend the books Globalization of Addiction by Bruce Alexander, PhD, and Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari as well as their websites.
As a wellness coach, coaching people on exercise, nutrition, and holistic wellness, I have a lot of people coming to me telling me how they’re addicted to carbs and to sugar. They want to stop eating, but sometimes they just can’t. Most come to me looking for my help, but also feeling like they already know what to do. They simply need to cut out the carbs and sugar. And if they try harder, one more time, this time they’ll do it. Using what we can see is possible from the Rat Park experiments, is it possible there are other factors that lead to addiction besides the substance of addiction. Is it possible that living an overall “good life” could reduce one’s addictive tendencies related to food? If a great social life can affect addiction to heroin and cocaine, could a great social life have a similar effect with addiction to sticky buns too?
What are those sticky buns really giving you? You say you don’t want to eat them, but you can’t stop yourself. What is it about them that makes them literally irresistible? The simple, straightforward answer is that sticky buns, and food products and food of all kinds, stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains. This is, of course, because food keeps us alive and well.
We’ve evolved in ways that doing the things that ensure our survival feels good. Eating is one activity that that ensures our survival. Social connections of all kinds also elevate the levels of pleasure chemicals in our brains. Our relationships with our life partners, our friends, and others all make us feel good. When we are socially disconnected, we experience low levels of these pleasure chemicals and we naturally seek to boost them.
It appears the drugs functioned as a replacement for social contact for the rats in the addiction studies. If this is the case with heroin and cocaine, it certainly could be the case for food, carbs, and sugar. What if a hug, a really connected conversation, a pat on the back, laughing with your friends, a weekend with your siblings is what you really need and that bagel or ice cream is simply a poor substitute? A quick fix?
If we take in this view of addiction, it really changes how we think about our relationships with food and overeating in particular. It means we don’t need more willpower, it means we need more friends. Or perhaps more connected, more intimate relationships in general.
What if it is true? It could be a great solution. What if it isn’t true? Could better relationships enhance your life, enhance, the lives of your family and friends, and make the world a better place? Even if it doesn’t nip that sticky-bun addiction in the bud, it seems like a good way to go to me.
This article originally appeared at IThiveEachDay.com
About Jason Gootman
Jason Gootman is a wellness coach and leads the I THRIVE movement and community where fellow THRIVERS nourish themselves with movement, food, and a wellness lifestyle.
Photo credit: Flickr/Jocelyn & Cathy