Curbing physiological drivers of binge eating with a paleo diet

I’ve recently posted some articles about binge eating and diet to various databases around the web.   I know that there are millions of complicated psychological reasons to binge eat, but I also know that at the very least these problems are exacerbated by poor diet. I have historically spent a lot of time on binge eating support forums, and today it breaks my heart that so many people don’t know how improving their diets can help them along the path to stability.  Amazingly (or not, depending on your perspective), eating a paleo-type diet helps mitigate the physiological problems that make us binge.  I discuss the most important steps to take below. Based on increasing satiety and decreasing feelings of deprivation, these steps, I’ve found, are both scientifically and anecdotally sound.

How to minimize the need to binge with diet, step 1: Eliminate fructose.

Where can I find fructose, you ask?  Fructose is everywhere.  Fructose is found most ubiquitously in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is one of, if not the, primary ingredient in most soft drinks, fruit juices, candies, and sweets you will ever come across.  Fructose also comprises half of any table sugar (sucrose) that you consume, which is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose.   It is also the primary sugar found in fruits.

Yes, I am saying that you should eliminate fruit.  Something we need to keep in mind about fruit is that humans have been selectively breeding fruits for sweetness for many thousands of years.  Throughout most of human history, fruits tasted much less like candy than they do today, and were probably much less problematic for the functioning of human brain chemistry and adrenal systems.

So.  Why eliminate fructose?

Because fructose fucks with leptin levels.  Leptin is a hormone that researchers are currently learning a lot about, as it has been shown that rats with adequate leptin levels and adequate leptin sensitivity eat “normal” portions and stop eating when they are full, but if leptin is absent, or if the rat’s hypothalamus is leptin insensitive, eating is relentlessly uncontrolled.  Your brain, if it fails to recognize leptin signals, makes you feel like eating all of the time, even if you are not hungry.

Fructose messes with leptin levels first by directly inducing that hypothalamic insensitivity I just mentioned.  Ouch.  Second, high fructose intake spikes blood triglycerides, which prevent leptin from passing through the blood-brain barrier and into the hypothalamus.  This paper covers the whole milieu extensively.

Before I began eating a paleo diet, my diet was, I kid you not, 70 percent fruit.  I thought about food incessantly. Today, still, when I eat a grape or two, suddenly I’ve eaten 200 before I’ve even realized my hand is in the bag.  Afterward, I want and need more food.  Fructose is a viscous appetite generator, and if you find that eating fructose makes you feel hungrier rather than satisfied, it’s probably best to pull it out of your diet and see what it’s absence does for your mood.

How to minimize the need to binge with diet, step 2: Eliminate carbohydrates.

Yikes.  Really?  Yes.  The reasons behind this are twofold:

1)  Grains — a main source of carbohydrate — contain opioids, which are related to opiates, and which stimulate an addictive serotonin response in your brain.  Ever wonder why you love bread so much?  This is it.  Before paleo, bread was my crack, and I’m barely even being hyperbolic. Grains make you crave even more grains, above and beyond what your appetite demands.

2) Carbohydrate consumption elevates blood sugar levels. This is how it goes down: when you eat a carbohydrate (glucose) it circulates in your bloodstream as blood glucose. This feels fine, even if it’s toxic. In the meantime, your pancreas secretes insulin into your bloodstream to get the sugar out of your blood as quickly as possible. Your pancreas does a good job, and your blood sugar crashes. This does not feel good. Blood sugar lows makes us feel hungry and lethargic, sometimes as quickly as minutes after we’ve eaten. To fix this, we eat more, often in the form of sugar. Ever feel hungry after eating Chinese food? Tired after eating cake? Relentlessly caught in a cycle of energy ups and downs throughout the day, which you may or may not try to fix with eating more sugar? If you eliminate carbohydrates from your diet, you will achieve stable blood sugar levels. You will stop experiencing those nasty blood sugar lows. And you will feel the need to eat less often.

When I was in high school, I began falling down from time to time. Very randomly. My doctor told me that this was because I had low blood sugar, so I should drink some orange juice. But if I drank orange juice, two hours later I’d fall down again. This same fucked up logic is why conventional nutritionists recommend you eat small meals throughout the day. “Keep your blood sugar stable.” Whatever. Fuck off. If you want stable blood sugar, stop eating foods that make it fluctuate so wildly.

How to minimize the urge to binge with diet, step 3: Eliminate diet drinks and artificial sweeteners.

Scientists have long been a little confused by why “zero-calorie” foods such as Coke Zero don’t help people lose weight. The most popular hypotheses here are that a) insulin responses are triggered first by taste, and only later by food being broken down in your stomach, such that your body is in some ways registering your actions as “eating sugar” even if in fact you are not, and b) that sweet foods do nothing but perpetuate cravings for sweet foods. If you need to binge on something, a pack of gum is a fairly safe alternative. But if you want to eliminate cravings for sweet foods, artificial sweeteners count, and they have to go.

How to minimize the urge to binge with diet, step 4: Eat moderate protein and loads of fat.

Calorie for calorie, fat and protein are far and away more satisfying than carbohydrates. They keep you feeling fuller longer. Plus, if you eat primarily fat and protein, you won’t experience the blood sugar fluctuations that keep compelling you back to the fridge.

How to minimize the urge to binge with diet, step 5: Eat fewer, larger meals

Eating often, as mentioned above, tends to keep blood glucose levels elevated. You will improve your insulin sensitivity (your ability to clear blood glucose out of your system) if you eat meals instead of snacks. Don’t graze! We are humans, not gazelles. This one is a huge challenge for me, but keeping busy and making sure I eat enough fat seems to do the trick. Check out this awesome Leangains post on meal frequency myths.

Finally, check out this new and incredibly thorough post by Emily Deans on appetite and the brain.


I want to finish this post by saying first that I know other physiological mechanisms are at work. And also that as-yet-undiscovered physiological responses are probably at work, too. This isn’t the whole picture. But it’s a big part of it. And it can take you a long way.

That said, it can take you a long way, but it can’t take you the whole way. Habits and stresses absolutely need to be dealt with, too. Every time I get in a fight with a certain family member of mine, my face is in the fridge before I realize I’ve been walking towards the kitchen in the first place. Take care of your body, and take care of your soul. The rest will fall in line with time.  Promise.

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02 2011

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  1. 1


  2. 2

    I was seeking a post like this. Thanks a lot.

  3. Rainbow #

    Hi pepper! So glad I found your website :) Thanks for the nice posts. I will definitely keep coming back to read!

  4. Adrienne #

    This re-iterates what I have found to be true, and these steps are the direction I have been headed in. I have a terrible time controlling my eating, and find it vastly exacerbated by carbohydrates. I did a Whole30 which finished earlier this month, and find that while that really, really helped, I still had a problem with nuts. Cashews were the worst, and sure enough, they had the most carbohydrates. Almonds and almond butter were also difficult to step away from.
    But when I eat “clean”–mostly paleo but with butter and some dairy–I can stop eating much easier. My normal method of addressing binge eating is by not having triggers in the house, because if they are there, I will eat them until they are gone. I get a little piece of chocolate every night, and it only works because my husband hides the bag or bar. I realized that my weight management has consisted entirely of shopping habits and lucky genes.
    Eating less frequently is totally in line with what I’ve already been thinking. Scary as hell, of course (what if I get _hungry_?), but with enough protein and fat, I don’t get as hungry. And I’d like to really work on my insulin sensitivity.

    • pepper #

      I used to always fear being deprived. The thing is, though, that once I went paleo, deprivation went away. It took time– the psychological conditioning is strong– but eventually I stopped anticipating getting an opportunity (an excuse?) to eat all the time. Now, I’m excited when I get to go a long time without eating food.

  5. 6

    My god. Please come live in my house and remind me of all this all the time. My family is a whole PILE of emotional disordered eaters, and I’m desperately trying to break the curse so I don’t pass it on to my daughter and am doing so poorly.

    Thank you for this. I’m printing this out and going to study it as a battle plan.

    • pepper #

      Anytime, Shay. Send me an email if you want to talk or brainstorm in more detail.

  6. Michelle #

    Just found your blog and I could not be any more excited. I let food control my day and trying to break it is hard but slowly it is working. I have been following a strict Paleo diet now for 4 weeks (finally cutting out dairy and legumes) and I find that I have not had the urge to binge eat yet. However I am more aware of when I eat and make sure I am not multi-tasking during meal times. I make it a point to put my plate together in the kitchen and then go to the table sit down and eat. I think this step alone is helping me. Not eating while studying or watching t.v. has made it easier to feel when I am satisfied.
    Please don’t stop writing!! You are so honest and open it is very refreshing and more helpful than you might realize!! Thank you Thank you!!

  7. 9

    Enjoyed looking into this. Keep it up!

  8. nadia #

    thank you so much for your wonderful website
    i love reading it.. thanks again – its so great to find blogs like yours. I agree totally with what you write and am doing my best to stick to the paleo diet. its changing my life in so many ways..
    I will be visiting your site very often!


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