Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hi, My Name Is Scott and I'm a Carbohydrate Addict

It has taken me years to understand—and admit—that I am addicted to carbohydrates.

All foods are broken down into three basic nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Most foods consist of at least some of all three nutrients. Of course, the balance of the three differs. An apple, for example, is mostly carbohydrate, but it also contains a small amount of fat and protein. Regular peanut butter, on the other hand, is about two-thirds fat, two-ninths carbohydrate, and one-ninth protein.

"Eating fat makes you fat," I read years ago. Heeding that commentary, I spent years eating a very low fat diet. For a long time my diet consisted mostly of complex carbohydrates. I eschewed refined carbohydrates, which have been long touted as bad for you

While all carbohydrates are ultimately broken down and metabolized as simple sugar, the higher the complexity of the carb, the longer the metabolism process takes. A longer metabolism time reduces blood sugar spikes. Excess carbs in the system from these spikes not only cause moodiness, they are quickly and easily converted to stored fat.

Knowing that there are "good" and "bad" carbs, it should have made sense that the relative healthiness of fats and proteins is also on a sliding scale. That understanding came over time.

Eventually my diet morphed to where I focused on eating a balanced set of nutrients at each meal—a moderate amount of protein, carbs, and fats. I tried to eat high quality nutrients. But even when I was doing this, I struggled to maintain optimal weight.

I also struggled with cravings and binge eating. What I craved most was carbohydrates. When I would take a dietary 'vacation' for a meal or two, I would go crazy eating all of the treats I had been denying myself.

It was only after going on a low-carb diet that I began to lose those cravings. It was only as these cravings began to subside that I realized how addicted I have been to carbohydrates throughout my life. My addiction cycles matched those of people addicted to other substances and behaviors.

Joshua Yelon has notes that "Sugar makes your brain release beta endorphin, a chemical with effects like Valium." Rats in tests used sugars and opiates interchangeably. Like smoking, carb infusions relieve stress. But carbs also lend to fat storage.

Not everyone responds to carbohydrates as strongly as has been my case. Our body's management of substances is strongly tied to both psychology and physiology. Given that no two of us are exactly alike in these ways, no two of us respond precisely the same to any substance. For that reason, there is no effective one-size-fits-all diet.

I don't know what will work for you. But I have discovered that significantly reducing carbs—both complex and refined—in my diet helps me feel better and more readily enables me to manage my weight and body composition.

Like all recovering addicts, I still crave the treats that I deny myself. But the cravings aren't as strong as they used to be. On rare occasions when I sample some of these foods, I find that they aren't nearly as satisfactory as they once were.

Quite honestly, that's psychologically frustrating. I have very deep-seated memories of how I felt when I ate these foods. Now when I indulge, I get nowhere near the physical or psychological pleasure that I once did. Sometimes it seems like a violation of my memories.

I have found that having strong goals helps me maintain a defense against the yearnings for carbohydrate-rich foods that I suspect will be with me in one degree or another throughout my life. Is my current diet the apex of my journey of dietary self discovery? I doubt it. Given my track record, my understanding and practices will likely continue to evolve.

Let the journey continue.

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