Conquering Carb Compulsions

By Thomas Barclay

Do cookies, cake, and other carb-heavy goodies sing a sweet song
in your ear? Learn how to resist their seductive pull and get your
carb cravings under control.

January 2005

New Year’s resolutions come in all shapes and sizes, and some are easier to follow through on than others. Perhaps the hardest resolution to keep is one that involves controlling a craving, especially a craving for high-carbohydrate foods. What makes falling off the resolution wagon even worse is the guilt that follows.

How can you alleviate both the guilt and the compulsion? By gaining some insight into why your brain makes you susceptible to overindulgences and how a few lifestyle changes can keep your carb cravings—and your weight—from getting out of hand.

Research has established that our brains are vulnerable to food addiction just as readily as they are to drug addiction. Magnetic resonance images (MRI) of brains show that when food cravers think about food and the drug addicted think about drugs, the same brain areas sparkle.

“This is consistent with the idea that cravings of all kinds, whether for food, drugs or designer shoes, have common [brain and body] mechanisms,” says Marcia Levin Pelchat, PhD, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Center in Pennsylvania.

While a vivid imagination can make your life more interesting, the research at Monell shows it can make your food cravings harder to resist. During a craving, you can’t help but imagine how the food tastes and feels in your mouth. The combination of imagination and memory of your past experience with that food creates an obsession for it.

As Dr. Pelchat puts it, “During a craving we have a sensory memory or template for the food that will satisfy the craving. The food we eat has to match that template for the craving to be satisfied. It’s as if our brain is saying, ‘It has to be chocolate ice cream, lemon pie just won’t do.’” She adds, “Cravings are also like habits. We often reach for a craved food without thinking of it.”

Craving Images

Other research indicates that cravings are influenced not only by the presence of food but also by images or messages about eating. It’s bad enough that the food in the house is irresistibly tempting, let along being barraged by luscious images of gooey desserts. If you want to dodge your craving for something like donuts, you not only shouldn’t buy those fried goodies, you should watch less commercial television.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory recently used an x-ray technique called positron emission tomography to look at the brain circuits that are activated by drug addiction and food cravings. Their pictures show that the mere display of food, along with a mild smell and taste of it (they dabbed tiny amounts of food on people’s tongues), lights up brain circuits. The reason: When your mind is obsessing over a favorite food, metabolism in the right orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls pleasure and motivation, gets a jump start.

“These results could explain the deleterious effects of constant exposure to food stimuli, such as advertising, candy machines, food channels and food displays in stores,” says Gene-Jack Wang, MD, the study’s lead author. “The high sensitivity of this brain region to food stimuli, coupled with the huge number and variety of these stimuli in the environment, likely contributes to the epidemic of obesity in this country.”

Anti-Craving Strategies

Experiments at Florida State University have found that you can rein in your food urges by changing your diet and getting more exercise. Some anti-craving rules are:

• Eat less sugary foods. Sweets seem to set off cravings more frequently than other items. The Florida State scientists found that animals are more likely to overeat when their diet contains more sugar.

• If you’re a woman, make a particular effort to avoid the sweet stuff; research shows that women are more likely to totally pig out than sweet-eating men.

• Exercise slows overeating, although this works better if you’re a guy (do you get the impression the carb deck is stacked against women?). Exercise may fight off cravings because the nervous-system chemicals (neurotransmitters) released by activity compete for the same pleasure areas of the brain that are affected by the euphoria of drugs, sex or sweet food.

• Eat less sugary foods. Yes, we said that before, but this is important enough to repeat. Aside from increasing your vulnerability to overeating, scientists have found that sugary foods can make you less likely to exercise and more likely to remain couchbound.

If you’ve gotten stuck on the diet-binge-diet treadmill, changing the way you behave is just as important as changing the way you eat.

Stress Eating

Chronic stress can increase the likelihood that you’ll give into uncontrollable binges by altering the hormone balance in your body. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have found that chronic stress stimulates signals from your hypothalamus—a part of the brain that helps keep your body on an even keel—to your adrenal glands, which floods your body with cortisol (the stress hormone) if the pressure doesn’t let up.

Your brain has learned that it can slow the constant stimulatory exposure to this stress hormone by partaking in pleasurable activities like wolfing down chocolate chip cookies or superduper-sizing a cheeseburger. As overeating proceeds, the researchers believe, the replenished fat around your middle releases metabolic signals that slow down your stress response. That makes you feel better, at least for a while.

Scientists who are examining this stress response also believe that chronic stress results in more serious health problems than transitory stress. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic your stress level peaks and gradually diminishes. However, if you commute in heavy traffic every day and then work at a job that’s frustrating and demeaning, your stress hormonal system becomes chronically excited. The long-term result: Weight gain, depression and even a gradual loss of brain tissue.

“Our studies suggest that comfort food applies the brakes on a key element of chronic stress,” says study co-author Norman Pecoraro, PhD. It may also explain, he adds, why people experiencing stress, anxiety or depression often seek solace in such foods.

In evolutionary terms, notes Dr. Pecoraro, the drive to eat comfort foods offers a competitive advantage. Animals live in an eat-or-be-eaten world. To make it through constant stress, eating high-energy food may improve the odds of survival: The release of cortisol puts the brain on high alert and helps an organism defeat potential threats. In places where people suffer through wars, epidemics and food shortages, seeking out high-energy foods is also necessary for survival.

But that advantage fizzles out in a world where stress isn’t a life-or-death matter. “If, after the near-miss on the freeway, you get into work and almost lose your job during an argument with your boss, and have a fight at home that night—and these types of events are relentless—you’re going to have chronically elevated adrenal hormones [that is, chronic stress],” he says. Under those circumstances, donuts may act as an emergency brake that stops the discomfort of stress.

Of course, there are healthier ways to treat chronic stress than a dozen donut holes. These include exercise, yoga and meditation, which also foster the chemicals that activate the pleasure centers of the brain.

“In the short term, if you’re chronically stressed it might be worth eating and sleeping a little more to calm down, perhaps at the expense of gaining a few pounds,” says Dr. Pecoraro. “But seeking a long-term solution in comfort foods—rather than fixing the source of the stress or your relationship to the source of the stress—is going to be bad for you.”

So the next time you’re tempted to eat a whole box of cookies, turn off the tube, calm down with some yoga and take a walk afterwards. You’ll feel the power of carb conquest!

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