Random thought on sugar, carb & wheat "junkies"

We've all heard the stories of the alcoholic downing cough medicine, vanilla extract, mouthwashes or even other alcohols in desperation when a palatable/usual source of the ethanol they are addicted to is not around.

So I've often wondered why the "carbaholic", sugar addict, wheat addict, etc. doesn't do the same.  Addiction is often blamed for binge behavior and overeating certain foods.  They're addictive and worse yet, we have to eat. The addict must abstain completely, you would't offer alcohol to an alcoholic after all.  Etc. etc.

But I've been in desperate situations in my binge disordered life where there's been nothing binge-worthy in the house but lots of raw materials.  If it's just the carbs I so desired or were addicted to, or wheat proteins, why did I get in the car and drive however far to find a "fix" rather than eating flour from the bag?  Or mixing it with diet soda or something.  Sounds gross?  Sure, but so would some of the conconctions I once binged on in a pinch.  My point being, if one is addicted, wouldn't you want the most concentrated quick fix?  Why eat all the "fillers"?  Most hard core alcoholics I've known don't drink beer, they tend towards hard liquor with small amounts of mixer.   Same would go for sugar.  If it is the drug, why not just eat it as straight as possible rather than mix it with other stuff?

This is what leads me to seriously question the whole addiction angle of foods and the obesity epidemic.  If it were just the starch or the sugar or the bioactive veggie protein, an addict would seek out the most concentrated source.  After all, any study I've ever seen implicating foods in addiction involve large doses.  Surely if it is purely physical, our bodies would crave the concentrated source, palatability be damned.  Straight booze, especially cheap stuff, tastes pretty horrible, but if someone is jonesing for a drink and they can afford the "nip", they're not mixing it with something first.  So, if carbs and sugar etc. are as addictive as heroine (as I've seen many describe them), why don't addicts just get their fix from the plain stuff, at least in a pinch?


Mirrorball said…
I understand that we are addicted to the taste of certain foods and combinations more than to specific ingredients (sugar, flour etc) or nutrients after food is digested. Alcohol stimulates the brain directly, which is why it doesn't matter how you get it, but addictive foods must act through taste buds to produce a lot of pleasure.
arus said…
arent we addicted to energy dense foods in a kind of way?

stuff that gives you the ability to consume huge amounts of calories in a short time frame seem to be more addictive.

the farther you step into the realm of broccoli the less the addictive behavior becomes.
arus said…
mh cant be true. otherwise i would see me gorging on a pund of butter.

rather the combination carbs+fat

pasta alone...not so exciting.

butter alone...not so exciting
Nigel Kinbrum said…
Don't forget the power of advertising. If it didn't work, the US wouldn't be spending $100,000,000,000's a year on it. Supermarket layouts influence buying patterns. Special offers encourage over-buying to get better value for money (e.g. Super-sizing junk meals).

Banning advertising for obesogenic foods wouldn't affect people who can eat whatever they want without any problems.

Should candy & sugary drinks be treated like tobacco and the sale of it banned to minors?
R. K. said…
An interesting question. A few others have cruised near this territory . . . Todd Becker's explorations at his Getting Stronger blog about Deconditioning and Flavor Control Diets . . . Seth Roberts conclusions about flavor . . . David Kessler's views in the End of Overeating where he argues the food industry traps us by easily-masticated-food and multiple layers of salt, sugar, and fat.

My guess? The gut flora. Some of us have been colonized by the 'bad guys' who require the wrong kinds of foods, and that it takes a long time, with uncertain protocols, to evict them, and encourage the growth of the 'good guys'. Prebiotics and probiotics are probably part of the protocol.
Rob Sacks said…
That's an excellent question. I can't answer it but I'll propose a possible explanation.

I suggest that the body has an odor-based system for recognizing food constituents, and that this system works with some constituents but not others. Therefore nutrients fall into two categories.

Constituents in the first category (e.g. alcohol) can be detected in whole food by odor. With this first class of nutrient, the brain will crave any food that smells like (or fools the recognition system into thinking it smells like) the desired constituent.

But perhaps this odor recognition system doesn't work with the second category of nutrients. Sugar, for example, doesn't have much of a smell. Therefore I propose that with the second category, the brain has to learn by experience (by digestion) which constituents are contained in a particular whole food before it can crave that food.

Here's an experiment to partly test the idea. A person who normally eats lots of carbs (who is not keto-adapted) drinks water mixed with sugar on several occasions over several days and then stops eating carbs for three days. I propose that this person would crave sugar water.
Sanjeev said…
> mixed with sugar on several occasions over
> several days and then stops eating carbs
> for three days. I propose that this person
> would crave sugar water

Seth Roberts did this - switched his flavour-free drink from olive oil to watered fructose and changed to other drinks several times.

He consistently reported appetite suppression, and I don't recall that he ever reported cravings for the old flavour free food when he switched to a new one.

My experience with flavour free cottage cheese (a bland cottage cheese to begin with, watered down for fast ingestion and imbibed nose clipped) was similar. I experienced no cravings for it after stopping it.
Rob Sacks said…
Sanjeev wrote:

> He consistently reported appetite
> suppression, and I don't recall that
> he ever reported cravings for the
> old flavour free food when he switched
> to a new one.

I didn't say craving is caused by switching.

What I proposed in my previous post is that craving for sugar water will occur when (1) a non-keto-adapted person who (2) drinks sugar water repeatedly over a period of time (3) stops eating carbs for several days.

(1) and (3) create the craving.

(2) focuses the craving on a particular food.
CarbSane said…
WOW! Didn't expect to see all these new "faces" from this post. Kewl! Welcome Mirrorball, arus, R.K. and Rob. Thanks for reading and contributing :)

I tend towards the belief that food addictions are more psychological than physiological because although we can see neurotransmitter differences, etc., whatever it is in the foods we implicate is either not directly psychoactive or not present in any sufficient quantity to have an effect.

As MB and arus point out, we tend to be addicted to smells/tastes and those foods happen to be the mix of carbs and fats and flavors that appeal to us? I've seen some research on neuropeptides released from our tastebuds and perhaps some from fat some from carb associated flavors or something in them? In nature we would never get that mix (aside from milk which would not be a natural food for any adult mammal).

As arus pointed out, it can't even just be the energy density otherwise Seth Roberts Shangri La diet would not work, we'd all be guzzling olive oil! I could not binge on plain rice, but add butter and salt (or soy sauce) and it would have done in a pinch. (Here's an insight into my former binge eating ... the urge to binge preceded sight/smell/taste of the "trigger" foods.)

One problem I have with the point RK brought up about food manufacturers is that I don't really buy into the idea that they manipulate foods to "trap us". More that pre-prepared foods just don't usually taste as good as the fresh thing made of the same ingredients. Thus all the flavor enhancers, perhaps more needed when artificial flavors are being enhanced? When I was a kid Mom always baked from scratch. I never understood why salt was added to make a sweet cake. But anyone who's tried to make an LC cake knows that the sugar in regular ones serves more of a purpose than just to sweeten. It just seems for prepped foods they are constantly tweaking to get the best taste/texture so people will buy it, and that means fat, salt, sugar.

RK, I would be interested if there is anything to the gut flora thing. I've seen lots of non-scholarly websites linking candida, for example, to sugar cravings, but I've yet to come across anything where this has been assessed in a clinical context. (e.g. did the person really have a candida overgrowth?) If you're aware of anything of that nature please to let me know!

I guess my own experiences make me not such a big fan of the word "addiction" where food is concerned. It has this finality about it like it can't be overcome or it's an inate illness of sorts. Why can I now eat anything in small amounts without ending up face down in the plate? Why can I now really just have a couple of potato chips or Doritos or whatever even though I'm all alone in the house with an entire bag whereas in the past, when I wouldn't keep the stuff around to avoid temptation, I found myself driving to the store to get the stuff and often finishing the bag on the ride home! I suppose the self-reflections/answers to those questions are a topic for the personal blog, but bottom line I don't believe ANY food, per se, is the problem.

Rob I really do believe many of the carb cravings folks report the first days of VLC are for stuff they can't have. But perhaps I'll try your experiment some time (ugh though, plain sugar water?) just to see.

I'm having a fun visual here of Sanjeev with a clothespin on his nose eating watery cottage cheese. Oy! I like plain CC by the way. It made LF dieting tolerable when I did that!
MM said…

I've been giving this some thought so I'm late to the party as usual. :) I think in order for something to qualify as a food addiction, the brain needs to consider the item in question to be food. It's true no one binges on pure sugar, fat or protein. (Although I suddenly remember an anecdote in GCBC about a lady that binged on laundry starch. Yes, here it is in the Prologue -- page xiv in the hardbound edition. So... go figure.) Anyway, I was going to agree that flavor seems to be really important in telling the brain that this thing sitting in front of you is actually food. I think sugar + flavor seems to be a particularly powerful combo. I can think of several almost pure sugar + flavor foods that people binge on like soda-pop, cotton candy, Starburst, Skittles, gummy bears (well, gummy anything). In a pinch I used to mix powdered sugar and lemon juice to make "frosting" and eat that. I honestly can't think of any pure fat + flavor combos that people binge on. Maybe butter? And no one seems to binge on pure protein + flavor.

The other question was why you used to have trouble with binging and no longer do. I have to say I'm experiencing the same thing. My guess here (at least for me) has to do with making sure I'm getting plenty of animal protein in my diet. I used to be kind of an on again/off again vegan, and during the vegan phases my sugar cravings were pretty bad. Why would an inadequate protein diet cause that? Or was it even that in the first place? I don't know. It's just a guess.
Sanjeev said…
> I'm having a fun visual here of Sanjeev with a
> clothespin on his nose eating watery cottage
> cheese

I have the muscle control to close off the sinuses, so never needed the clothespin.

Most of the cottage cheese I found had a distinctive taste, so couldn't be used with Seth's diet. A lot of it was creamed too (not really low fat).
R. K. said…
I've been musing on the gut flora issue for several years now. (There are those who suspect pesticides and plastics and other man-made chemical whatnot in the environment, but I can't do anything about those chemical issues, so some big drug company is going to have to figure out how to solve those problems).

The convincer for me about gut flora came with the stories about fecal transplants. Ugly subject, compelling evidence. Here's one place to start: http://coolinginflammation.blogspot.com/search/label/fecal%20transplant

In my case, I don't want to go to the extremes of a fecal transplant, since I'm only about 20 pounds overweight. What I'm doing is transitioning to a paleo diet for its general health benefits, adding in various things such as small daily uses of turmeric and cinnamon, and increasing my use of prebiotics and probiotics. It's interesting how some groups of prebiotics cause no intestinal distress (the resistant starches, for example), yet others cause some gas. Does that mean I need to build up the colonies of happy gut guys who love to eat those kinds of prebiotics? And if so, how do they get in there in the first place (since I know I have experienced conditions that could have destroyed a good gut flora mix).

It's my current investigation direction. I respect the work of Seth Roberts, Todd Becker, and David Kessler . . . it's just that I suspect my problem is gut bacteria. And for those with cravings . . . my guess is that some abnormal strain of gut bugs is banging on the hunger signaling systems . . . they need to be starved out and the good guys need to be encouraged to breed and grow.
CarbSane said…
MM, you do have a point there about not binging on pure protein or pure fat with flavor. Not sure why the former, except that pure protein is fairly flavorless and you will get physically sick overconsuming protein. I don't know about binging, but I could go to town on prime rib or steak with a nice thick rim of broiled fat so protein+fat+flavor.

Fat is just not very palatable on its own for most people, it needs a vehicle. But tales of polishing off large bags of macadamias abound in LC circles and those are mostly fat & fiber. I mentioned that rice would do in a pinch in my binging days with a TON of butter. I wouldn't eat plain rice, nor would I binge on plain butter. This is why I'm highly skeptical that it's anything about carbs per se that is "addictive". If I would binge on buttered rice but not either alone, why is it the carb and not the fat that gets blamed? Most binge foods are a combo.

As to why I don't binge these days, I don't think it is one thing. Protein is definitely key, and I do credit Atkins with convincing me that fat wasn't fattening and I could lose weight w/o calorie counting, regimented eating or feeling hungry. That first time I counted every carb though, I was as obsessed as I used to be with calories, and when I strayed off, it didn't seem worth it to restrict carbs at all. I believed that if I was in ketosis, good. If not, I was undoing the magic so might as well enjoy the carbs the rest of that day. So on came the two highest hills on my weight rollercoaster. I've come to view yo yo dieting as bulimia on a longer timescale. By somehow convincing myself to let go of the "diet mentality" it was like flicking a switch in my brain before I had even lost a pound or had one VLC day under my belt. The ad libitum aspect of LC fit well with this, plus knowing I dropped weight fast eating that way. By doing VLC I also didn't bother counting carbs. It's pretty difficult to get much over 20g if you eat real low carb foods. Also LC is not a "meal plan" type "diet". Following those sorts of diets just never lasted that long because that's not how I eat, regardless of the types of food, and I would think about food all day long. The unstructured nature of LC fits like a glove for me. There was something about planning the "cheats" that really worked to not go overboard on them.

Protein is definitely key for me doing the ad libitum thing. If I make sure I get that in, the rest seems to take care of itself pretty well. But it's not perfect. It's working well to maintain my losses, but I do want to lose a bit more.
CarbSane said…
@R.K.: My sense is that this gut flora thing is one of the latest avenues of "wishful thinking". In your link I think Ayers stretches things a bit unless he's aware of some studies I'm not: that being that the lean/obese fecal transplants were done in mice which are hindgut fermenters. I've come across a few other things on this topic and will be posting those.

Gut flora and certain diseases, yes, but this is due to acquiring a pathogenic bacteria that may crowd out innate ones. It's hard and possibly impossible to change this through diet. The pre and probiotic industries are big business these days but how much these things really help seems questionable. Ayers and others say it is pretty difficult to alter microflora composition with diet. Where obesity is concerned I don't see a sustainable energy balance explanation which seems to be what some are trying to make.
CarbSane said…
Just had a thought on the angle of sweets. Yesterday I had a mini-Reese's peanut butter cup and could barely eat the whole thing (should have just thrown it out I suppose) it was too darned sweet! Long term low carbing definitely heightens one's sense of sweet. Apples taste like candy to me. But this got me thinking how sugar might be "addictive" because as we eat it, we need more and more to get the same sweet sensation. I recall in my Equal days that I would build up a bit of a tolerance it and while one pkt would sweeten a pkt of oatmeal early on, eventually it would take 3 pkts.

Maybe this is why I can have a single Lindor truffle or small slice of cake/pie, etc. and be satisfied. I get my sweet "fix". But perhaps it's also a reason why LC'ers who consume a lot of AS or LC sweeteners tend to stall and struggle. Maybe they're eating more of what goes along with those things in search of their sweet fix. Just a thought.
R. K. said…
I believe fecal transplants have been performed successfully on humans . . . see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fecal_bacteriotherapy .

Returning to the topic of binges; my last one was due to a bag of Cheetos in the pantry, which had been purchased along with some Fritos because of a college student in the house during break. Turns out nobody else liked the Cheetos, so the bag sat there for a week, and I kept eyeing it. Finally, one evening about 9pm, which is when the munchies hit for me, I figured I'd have a small amount. And I was successful. Ate a small bowl, left the kitchen, went to watch a DVD. 45 minutes later I was back for another bowl. Then a few minutes later for the whole bag. Which I couldn't stop eating.

In my situation, a few specific manufactured foods are binge foods, and although I can 'stop' after the first bite, I cannot stop the subsequent binge 45 to 60 minutes later. So I wonder if this is the same for all people, and why there would be that kind of delay?

Just wondering . . .
MM said…

OMG, I take it all back. I still have a sugar addiction. I have a little more control, but not much. My well-meaning, but clearly not thinking parents bought me a box of turtles for Christmas. They are almost, but not entirely sugar. Anyway, Boxing Day morning I wasn't feeling too great (this could be the crux of the problem). Sort of a "Christmas hangover" -- not really because I drank too much, but just recovering from too much activity and too much food. I thought I'd have a turtle (idiot!). I ate one and the level of pleasure I got from it was nearly sexual (sorry if TMI). And then I ate another and another and after 4 finally told my husband to take them away. In the bad old days I would have eaten the whole box. So, at least I had enough control to hand over the box this time. How depressing. I just can't have that stuff in the house.
MM said…
Hmm, well looking at the turtle label and I see that it is close to 50/50 fat to sugar by calories. I saw the 25g sugar and thought, "Holy crap that's a lot!" I blew past the 12g fat. Maybe I'm being reductionist in my thinking but it seems to me the sugar element is what makes them so addicting. However, maybe it is sugar+fat combos I really need to be careful of.
Anonymous said…
>And no one seems to binge on pure protein + flavor.

Lean beef jerky is mostly protein mixed with flavor (salt, pepper, MSG, garlic, onions, smoke flavor, etc) and yes, people will binge on it. The final calorie count from the jerky alone isn't that large. However, the huge protein intake typically leads to a craving for some balance with carbs and fat. So binging on jerky is typically followed by binging on potato chips or ice cream. My experience at least.

I checked for beef jerky at nutritiondata.self.com and they say it has a lot of fat. But you can also get versions with minimal fat.
Anonymous said…
"...I honestly can't think of any pure fat + flavor combos that people binge on..."

I can eat an entire pound of bacon all by myself

and then there's liver pate- especially a nice home made pate - sure, I put it on a bread or a cracker, but any food vehicle would do -or- I could eat the stuff with a spoon, no problem
Blue Wren said…
well I reckon I've worked through my 'addiction'... turns out it was hunger. I've re-introduced carbs into my diet simultaneously lowering my maddening high fat consumption, turns out carbs are far more satiating than fat. I'm so glad you exist - so many of your articles have given me a much clearer and educated perspective of the whole paleo sham!