Aroint thee, carbs!
September 1, 2011 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Will switching to low-carb help quell my emotional eating issues?

I love sugar and simple carbs and eating in general. Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around food—Xmas cookies, chilling out in front of the TV while eating an entire bag of cinnamon candies, pizza on Friday nights, etc. This has not been a terrible problem for me in the past due to my habit of working out like a crazy person. But now I’m 35, and it’s starting to catch up with me. I’m constantly getting injured while working out, my teeth and gums are in bad shape. I still have freakin’ acne, for chrissake! This past winter, I managed to pack on 10 pounds over the course of about 3 months due to inhaling food constantly. It was actually a little frightening how out of control I felt around food.

Since then, I haven’t been able to lose the weight, and I’m dreading a similar scenario this winter when my yearly SAD sets in. I’ve tried all sorts of things to reduce my food intake—counting calories, the No-S Diet, the No Flour No Sugar diet, Eat to Live, trying to focus on what I can eat rather than what I shouldn't. These things usually last all of two or three days before an evil little voice convinces me that there’s no way this is sustainable and I should just give in and try to just watch what I eat like a normal person. But somehow, I never manage to do this. I would really like to lose those 10 pounds and stop thinking about food all the damn time, and I really don’t want to add another 10 pounds this winter.

I’ve read before that low carb diets shut down that constant little whisper that causes people to get out of control around food. It sounds too good to be true, and that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to stick with anything for longer than 3 days to find out. I’m also afraid of the whole “making certain foods off limits only leads to binging.” Does that turn out to be not the case with low carb?

In short, I’d love to hear experiences of those who found that low carb helped stop emotional eating and carb binging, or at least made it easier to resist. Thanks!
posted by indognito to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, it does work for some people. I've heard people with a medical background even claim that the whole "carb rush" thing where the ups and downs of blood sugar creates cravings for more carbs is real. But in any case, what I think happens is that as you eliminate a lot of carbohydrates from your diet, you learn to eat more simply and realize that your meals contain a lot of "filler" that you actually don't need.

Don't think of cutting down on carbs as something that will "lead to binging." Think about it in terms of "breaking a habit." What you're doing is breaking the habit of eating lots of sugary and starchy food.
posted by deanc at 8:02 AM on September 1, 2011

I can't speak to low-carb, but this book, Breaking Out of Food Jail, basically cured my terrible emotional eating problems and preoccupations. (Some people on Amazon say her previous book is even better, but I haven't read that one.) Basically, she explains really well how dieting has made us all fat. Read it and do all the suggestions, even though it will seem impossible at first! I lost a ton of weight in the medium to long term, and I can honestly say I never use food as an emotional crutch anymore.
posted by caoimhe at 8:03 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would check out Tim Ferriss's slow carb diet. It's the only diet of any type that I can stick to easily.

If you still feel hungry/tired after a meal like this, it's usually a good indication that you're not getting enough calories. That's what gets people on the Atkin's style no carb diet. They're not taking care to replace those calories provided by carbs with something else. Simply eat more beans.

If you've got in-depth ("Can I eat X?") questions, the 4 Hour People forum has been a lifesaver for me.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 8:09 AM on September 1, 2011

It definitely helps me (although the first week or two is a bitch.) I'm really bad about eating when I'm bored or stressed, but if I don't have the carb rollercoaster going, it's much less compelling.

That said, I still need to be aware of it and deal with it on an emotional level - low-carb doesn't totally fix it. But it's the best solution I've found so far.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:12 AM on September 1, 2011

Best answer: Yes, for me low(er) carb pretty much leaves me happy, energetic, and not hungry for a whole day, and blissfully disinterested in the sweet aisle in the supermarket. Heck, I even quit baking my own whole grain bread and didn't whine. In contrast, any type of starvation diet will keep you in constant agony and regret. I'd say give it a try!
posted by Namlit at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

It definitely helps me, with one caveat - it took about six weeks before I stopped feeling hungry.
posted by bq at 8:17 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what I remember about my own experiences with low carb diets, I would think it would make your problem worse.

Sure, I lost more than 60 pounds, but I was hungry all the time. I went to bed hungry, I woke up hungry, I'd finish a meal and be hungry. That and a newly found obsession with bacon. Mmmmm, Bacon.

That being said, I don't think your problem is with the particular food you're eating, it seems to me that you have an unhealthy relationship with food in general. Fad diets are rarely a good technique to solve dietary and nutritional issues.
posted by Sphinx at 8:17 AM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think one of the ways it helps is just by making those foods you love forbidden. The choice is only between eating them and not eating them, not between eating a lot if them or eating a reasonable amount. In other words, it boils many decisions down to one decision, which promotes a kind of focus.
posted by OmieWise at 8:18 AM on September 1, 2011

It does for me. Carbs are one of my favorite drugs. Obviously being off carbs yourself doesn't negate the existence of french fries dispensed to you without ever getting out of your car, but after some time away from daily consumption you definitely lose the vicious circle of binge - blood sugar crash - binge.

Not having that sort of food in the house - because it isn't part of my daily routine - also means it's a lot harder to mindlessly binge. You have to leave the house. (This is why I primarily bring breakfast and lunch to work, so I don't often go out and have more difficult options.)

After a few weeks off junk carbs, too, the cheap crap really does start to taste like cheap crap. Packaged goods, especially, start to taste mostly of the industrial oils they use.

Note: Atkins isn't a no-carb diet, it's low carb. Slow carb had to add beans and a cheat day to not be a direct copy. Beans, no beans, it's a choice one can make depending on how they make you feel (and also the kind of beans, obviously, which is why Ferriss advises sticking to black beans or lentils).
posted by Lyn Never at 8:19 AM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

It did for me, quite dramatically.
posted by supermedusa at 8:20 AM on September 1, 2011

Oh, and don't blame yourself for "being out of control"! What deanc mentions:

I've heard people with a medical background even claim that the whole "carb rush" thing where the ups and downs of blood sugar creates cravings for more carbs is real.

It is real. If you stuff yourself with sugars, flour and, yes, beans, a little depending on your personal type of metabolism, the rush-for-more thing is likely to become a chemical reality inside your body. NOT a matter of a weak character AT ALL.
posted by Namlit at 8:24 AM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you can do it, it should help. But I found that I have an emotional attachment to carbs.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:30 AM on September 1, 2011

My sister is doing a pretty strict no-carb diet and has lost 60 pounds so far. That's the good news. The bad news is that her Facebook page is full of whining about how much she's craving pizza, bread, etc. And she is frequently hungry.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:32 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, in my personal experience it helps a LOT. But the first weeks will be hell, as others mentioned (think of it as a detox period almost). But then your blood sugar will stabilize, your mood will lift and you'll be amazed how long you can go without hunger pangs. I'm almost a different person on a low carb diet than off one. You'll also rediscover how sweet things really are that were somewhat tasteless before. I highly recommend it and am trying to get back on track right now myself. That's the one caveat -- if you go off for a cheat day, it can be hard to get back into the swing of things. So a cheat meal or a cheat day tends to be more significant than to someone who's on a straight low calorie diet. But I faaaaar prefer it to the constant hunger of counting one's calories, and I'm convinced it's healthier too. Your body needs that fat and protein!
posted by peacheater at 8:34 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're hungry, EAT MORE. Seriously. If you are cutting carbs, do that for a while without counting calories at all. I mean, I bitch occasionally that I can't have pizza (I'm also really, really gluten-sensitive) but it's because I like the taste, not that I'm actually hungry.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:37 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes. We read Good Calories, Bad Calories and got sufficiently freaked out that we switched from a pretty wholesome - but carb-centered - diet to a moderately low-carb one (we still eat beans and some dark chocolate). After a week or two, we find that we don't really get hungry that often as long as we're eating enough fat. The fat is key. If you don't get enough fat, you feel like you're On A Diet. If you get enough fat, you're just not hungry, and the donut holds little power over you. I think that when low-carb diets feel restrictive and fail, it's because the person is being abstemious and trying to restrict their fat intake. Don't do it! Slather some butter on that asparagus.

Several months later, I no longer get the morose wandering around the house looking for snacks thing (which used to result in eating carbs and sweets.)

I now kind of think that what I used to think of as "emotional eating" was actually the insulin rollercoaster. And I'm now very skeptical of this idea you are constantly bombarded with, that we should all eat "in moderation" and that eating too much is a matter of you sucking and having a bad personality. I don't buy it. I think it's your particular body's response to carbs, and the insulin rush that follows.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:44 AM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Going low-carb several years ago helped me lose a few pounds, but did nothing to help my emotional eating. At one point, it devolved into a weird binge-fast cycle that didn't remotely resemble a low-carb diet, or any reasonable diet at all. Therapy helped. So did finding activities that kept me too busy to eat out of boredom.

If there's a strong emotional or mental component to someone's eating habits, I recommend against specific diets with strict rules or forbidding entire categories of foods. In addition to creating a sort of forbidden-fruit effect where you end up wanting the snacky stuff more, it will make you think more about food, not less, since you have to be extra-careful about meal planning. (For example, if you go out to dinner with friends and you're on a low-carb diet, you have to scan the menu thoroughly for the two or three items that you can eat, and then worry about whether there's sugar in the sauce, etc., while your friends are sitting next to you eating all the free bread that you can't have, and you can't help but look on enviously. Bleah.)

Of course, it definitely works for some people, and it is absolutely possible to be physically addicted to carbs, and pretty much everyone can benefit from cutting back on white flour and refined sugar. But it might not shut down that little voice in your head. That voice can be shut down, but in some cases it's better to address the emotional part of your eating rather than the things you eat.

Try it, and have patience, but forgive yourself if it backfires or doesn't stick.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

agree with nomad; I have been eating like a pig on a vacation cruise and I've lost 7 lbs over the last 2 weeks. I don't even know what a calorie is, but I've been ruthless with myself about carbs. Losing weight feels better than any snack, it sounds trite but it's true.

(actually, I do know what a calorie is.)
posted by flowerofhighrank at 8:52 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't ever think cutting a whole category of food out of the diet is a healthy approach for an emotional eater. Deprivation leads to craving leads to bingeing leads to more pounds gained than lost leads to guilt/shame leads to next diet leads to deprivation leads to craving leads to bingeing leads to more pounds gained than lost leads to.... see where I'm going with this?

It's the deprivation mindset that is insidious with any diet. Diets do not work, study after study has proven this - 95% of all diets fail (person regains all weight lost). If you tried something that had a 95% failure rate and it didn't work for you, would you consider yourself a failure? Or the method itself? We consider ourselves the failure when a diet doesn't work or we gain the weight back. Why doesn't dieting itself get the blame?

My advice? Stop the dieting madness. Reject the diet mentality. Learn how to soothe/cope without food. I highly, highly, highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating. Read some of the reviews, see what you think.

Personally, it has changed my life, and I am losing weight effortlessly. I no longer am feeding my emotions and I have control once again over food, not the other way around. It's been revolutionary for me. I can't even express how much I believe in this method of getting back to the basic signals our body sends us, and trusting our bodies in relation to food and cravings. Whatever you decide I wish you the best of luck.
posted by Falwless at 9:05 AM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have been thinking about this a little bit lately - I feel like carbs are easy. As in easy to find, store, and eat. So if I cut way back on the carbs, I eliminate a lot of areas of opportunity to eat things impulsively.

I have never been more miserable with dieting than I have been when I'm consciously doing Atkins or low carb in general. It's like a constant obsession with what is and isn;t okay to eat, and good god the carbs are everywhere. I am most happy with stopping the harsh rules and observing some mindful eating - stop and reflect on what you're eating and why, and ask if this is what you really want to be doing. Maybe it is, and if so carry on. If not, redirect and give yourself something that really satisfies your boredom or sadness or whatever. It's not easy but it's not really painful either. You won't always make the perfect choice, but you give yourself a chance.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:07 AM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a lot of these answers suggest, it can be really really hard to isolate carbohydrate addiction from emotional eating. In the end, I think it's whatever mindset works in an individual's situation. If you think there's a connection, it's worth exploring.

There's a fair amount of research that indicates small changes in habit are easier to sustain than drastic ones. Low carb "induction" phases have always made me a raging beast. Changing one meal at a time did not. Whatever works.

Also, since you asked: Now that I've been at the (mostly) denial for a while, binging is a different experience for me. I hit the "oh god, this is gross" stage a LOT faster. Donuts still look pretty good, but remembering that one leads to five which immediately leads to feeling physically bad is enough to keep me from eating them. Also, there's plenty of stuff I can eat instead that will NOT make me feel like crap.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:00 AM on September 1, 2011

There's a fair amount of research that indicates small changes in habit are easier to sustain than drastic ones

Well here's the deal: if you're actually allowing yourself to make that pan full of scaloppine, sauteed in butter, with a white wine - sage - cream sauce, and to eat it, including the sauce, but without a heap of fried potatoes, or half a baguette on the side, you're doing two things: you're actually using a completely traditional no-nonsense recipe, and you're also cutting the majority of carbs. I would totally consider that a small change of habits (okay okay, I ate scaloppine with cream sauce before, however with the potatoes). Meaning, yes, somehow your mileage may vary, but it should not at all become a problem, because, man, the treats you can give yourself, ALL THE TIME. I mean, we're frying organic white cabbage in goose fat here...

Bonus feature: you will know when you've had enough. Instantly. Ever tried that with Pizza? Lost battle...
posted by Namlit at 10:50 AM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Cutting out carbs, especially grains and sugar, will absolutely help break your binging cycle. I'd suggest picking up Gary Taubes Why We Get Fat to get a better understanding of the very real reasons why consuming carbs causes you (and many, many other people) to lose control of your eating.
posted by platinum at 11:24 AM on September 1, 2011

Best answer: Staying away from starchy carbs and refined sugar definitely turns off the craving switch in my brain. There are some foods I can't eat 'safely' - for example, I could not in a million years eat just one slice of toast. If I have one slice of toast, I'll end up having eight slices, one after the other, so the only way I can avoid eating eight slices is to not eat the first one, so I don't get the craving.

I try to stay away from most starchy carbs - bread, rice, potato, pasta - but I do eat oats and if I ever have rice it's usually brown. I've definitely noticed a difference in my well-being, and I find I don't get the mood swings I would get if I was bingeing on carbs.

Getting through that first week or ten days is hell - it's a detox, ridding your body of something which it craves yet which is bad for it. I find that if I can get through a week or so of total carb deprivaiton, I can go for months eating heallthily. Then I find I can have the occasional portion of french fries or egg fried rice, and it's okay. But bread is the killer for me. I have to steer clear of it, or I'll just eat all the bread in the basket and ask the waiter for MOAR!

Find out what your trigger food is (you probably already know what you reach for first) and eliminate it from your diet completely.

Good luck. This is hard. Detoxing from harmful food is much harder than people think. Unlike drugs, gambling or alcohol, you can't abstain from food completely - you still need to eat.

As for dealing with the emotional side of eating, I had to go to Overeaters Anonymous to learn why I kept 'eating my feelings'. I'd strongly recommend OA or some kind of counselling to find out what emotional hole you're trying to fill with food.
posted by essexjan at 11:37 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Low-carb diets are a MeFi fave and while they seem to work very well for some people they're not always successful. I was very skeptical but curious enough to try it (disclaimer: I only wanted to lose about 3 - 4 lbs and I've never had problems with weight or food in general). I'm also a carb-burning machine, and if I don't have a certain amount of starch with each meal I don't feel satisfied. Fat and protein just don't do it for me.

I did indeed lose the weight over 3 weeks, but I hated it. I was hungry ALL THE TIME, no matter how much I ate. Weirdly, there were even times when my stomach felt uncomfortably full and I was still hungry. So the whole "appetite hack" thing didn't work at all for me. The weight loss was no faster than my usual approach, which is to eat my normal fare but less of everything and just deal with feeling hungry. Also all that meat and cheese were a lot more expensive than my usual carb-heavy style, so I declared it a bust for me personally.

Sadly, the only way for some of us to lose weight reasonably quickly (about a pound a week) is to just feel a little hungry for the duration. No tricksy way around it for us obligate carbovores. For an interesting view on eating behavior and an approach to more gradual weight loss, check out Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. The book is interesting and dryly hilarious, and I see he has some dieting programs on his site but I don't know anything about them.
posted by Quietgal at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Omiewise: I think one of the ways it helps is just by making those foods you love forbidden. The choice is only between eating them and not eating them, not between eating a lot if them or eating a reasonable amount. In other words, it boils many decisions down to one decision, which promotes a kind of focus.

This is it, in a nutshell, for me. I've got a mean sweet tooth, to the point that I don't just want a piece of chocolate, nor even a whole chocolate bar, I want multiple chocolate bars. And not even the fancy dark stuff, I love standard mars bars and reese cups and all that. I don't have a good handle on eating sweet things in moderation. I can go light on breads and potatoes and pasta, but sugary treats are my achilles heel. No/low carb gave me the rigidity that I needed, it eliminated the slippery slope that my mind lived on. Previously, I would constantly think that if I can eat a small piece of cake, I can have one more forkful, and maybe a whole 'nother piece. And now that I've eaten two pieces of cake I may as well have a chocolate bar and then suck some whipped cream out of the can. If you're not allowing yourself any, then your choice is so simple. Either you abstain, or you're letting yourself down. Putting things in those terms made eating healthier much easier for me to achieve. I would give myself some cheat days, one or two per month. Personally, I never found that the actual cravings really went away, I was just able to ignore them better. Your mileage, of course, will vary.
posted by dnesan at 4:47 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I really appreciate your answers. The arguments for not denying oneself a particular food category, are pretty compelling. Still, I think I will wonder until I try it about whether a low carb diet might remove some of that relentless craving for pizza and cookies and what-have-you. Or at least prop up my so-called willpower. OmieWise, you make a good point about reducing many small decisions throughout the day down to one decision. In the end, I’m usually better at abstaining from something altogether than trying to mete myself out reasonable sized portions. (Of course, one might argue that I’m not particularly good at abstaining, either.)

I think I will make a go of it, and if I notice myself going haywire then I’ll back off. Thanks again everyone for your advice!
posted by indognito at 6:59 PM on September 1, 2011

Going ultra-low-carb does remove the relentless craving because carbs taste like shit when you're in ketosis.

High fat, low carb, medium protein is the name of the game for food satisfaction. Eat when you're hungry and as much as you like - it's hard to eat too much when it's so filling.

The key to smooth the transition process to get off carbs is to get enough salt - it's crazy how much salt is contained in processed foods, but you'll get a terrible headache if you don't supplement. Bacon and string cheese are very handy snacks.

A really quick way to get off carbs is to fast the evening before then do high-intensity cardio (or HIIT) upon waking the next morning to exhaust the glucose stored in your muscles.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:46 AM on September 2, 2011

If I'm being 100% honest, I try as hard as I can to eat strictly Paleo Diet style low-carb, but the WANTWANTWANT for sugar that is generally tied to emotions for me doesn't actually go away. I have to consciously decide to make better nutritional choices because it means I'm taking care of myself. The issue I have with sweets is that I feel like I need them to feel comforted, and also to feel like I'm "taking care of myself" by giving myself a treat, so I can say I'll be moderate about it but in the end I want to just eat all the things, rather than be moderate. Taking care of myself emotionally, in ways that don't involve food or overexercise, is the only way to get at those things.
posted by so_gracefully at 3:26 AM on September 2, 2011

« Older Popcorn Duck   |   Finding a small business bookkeeper? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.