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.Tweet