I’m sure, like me, when you tell people you are on the Atkins diet – after telling them the foods you no longer eat (or want to eat for that matter) – they shake their heads in disbelief and mutter something about ‘everything in moderation’. It’s a favorite line from dietitians and health professionals everywhere too. You’d be forgiven for thinking that something terrible might happen if you don’t reintroduce sweets, pizza, bread or fizzy drinks as soon as possible. So is this good advice? Is it a bad idea to completely eliminate some foods?
In his book, Wheat Belly, Dr William Davis talks about some very interesting studies that shows a link between wheat and addiction. See his article Wheat is an Opiate for more information on this. He points out that we are not just talking about an addiction in the sense that you feel you can’t live without pizza or cake or biscuits – it is actual addiction. Some people can be addicted to wheat containing products in the same way that people can be addicted to cigarettes or drugs.
According to a study done on rats in the NIH, when wheat is digested and broken down into wheat polypeptides it turns out that they have the unusual ability to cross the blood brain barrier. Once there, these wheat polypeptides actually bind to the same receptors in the brain that opiate drugs (like heroin or morphine) bind to! Also it turns out that this effect is blocked by administrating the drug naloxone. This is a drug that is given to herion addicts when they are brought into hospital to bring them down from a high.
In another study carried out at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of South Carolina, when wheat eaters were given a dose of naloxone, they ate 400 calories less that day. The logical conclusion to this would be that removing the wheat means you eat less calories. This is certainly the case in many trials of low carb diets – people following the Atkins diet automatically reduce the amount they eat overall. A big part of this could be due to the fact that they have eliminated wheat, which it appears, is an appetite stimulant. I think many people can identify with this – you could eat half a packet of biscuits or several slices of cake but still be hungry an hour (or 10 minutes!) later.
For some people that stop eating wheat, they experience what can only be called withdrawal effects – fatigue, mental fog, irritability. Again this sounds very much like addiction. However the good news is that after a few weeks these symptoms disappear and people report greater clarity of mind than ever before, better concentration, increased energy. I remember one of our customers in particular telling me that she felt like a mental fog had lifted soon after starting Atkins. I don’t know about you, but I find it very disturbing that any food (and particularly one that health authorities tell us we should eat plenty of) can mess with our brains in this way.
From this we can see that wheat is addictive, it can cause withdrawal symptoms when you stop eating it and it stimulates your appetite. In a similar vein, there has been research done on sugar addiction that shows that it too is addictive. I think lots of people can identify with that one too – foods like ice cream, sweets and fizzy drinks come to mind. So given the addictive nature of these high carb foods, does the advice to eat them in moderation make sense? Well maybe for some people it’s ok. If you are one of those people that can eat two biscuits or a few squares of chocolate and leave it at that, then it’s probably okay. If you are the person that then finishes the packet of biscuits, the entire bar of chocolate and then proceeds to binge on more high carb foods then it’s terrible advice. It’s like telling an alcoholic to ‘just have one’ or a smoker that the occasional cigarette is fine. Again people are different and some people can have a cigarette once a while and it doesn’t lead to a 20-a-day habit but for someone truly addicted, it’s a very bad idea. That person would probably tell you that complete abstinence is far easier.
However, for people that are addicted to high carb foods and I imagine that that is many people – to one degree or another – the mantra from health authorities and dietitians to eat “everything in moderation” is terrible advice. I believe the person that follows is doomed to failure and will end up in a vicious cycle of craving high carb wheat and sugar filled foods, binging on them, trying to resist while continuing to eat ‘moderate’ amounts of them, then craving them etc. They will just fail to get control over their cravings and as a result will be victims to ill health.
Lets say you are someone that is not addicted to high carb foods and they do not cause you to over-eat, does it mean that you should eat unhealthy foods sometimes in order to follow the “Eat everything in moderation” advice? Of course not. It’s obviously better not to drink Coca Cola at all than have it sometimes. If you are this person, it probably won’t do much harm to have these foods from time to time but it certainly is not going to improve your health! Your body doesn’t have a requirement for junk food! I’ve seen nutritionists advise that “No food is harmful if consumed in moderation” too. While the foods may not actually harm us (although I’d be doubtful about this in the case of most junk food), they certainly do not contribute to our health. I think we are setting the bar pretty low if we are striving to eat food that doesn’t actively make us ill rather than trying to eat for optimal health.
I would also question the definition of ‘occasional’ as used when advising how often we can eat unhealthy food – the following is from a post on healthier pizza tips from SafeFood whose remit is to provide information on healthy eating in Ireland:
“Sharing a 12 inch pizza is a reasonable portion size and pizzas should be eaten as an ‘occasional’ food in moderation, maybe once a week or less frequently.”
Once a week doesn’t sound like occasionally to me! Likewise on their page on foods high in fat, sugar and salt they do say that there is no recommended servings for these foods – thankfully. But then they go on to say, that we should limit these foods to 1 serving a day maximum and ideally not everyday. Still sounds like a lot to me.. To be clear, the types of foods they are talking about are: 1 fun sized chocolate coated bar, 1 bag of lower fat crisps, 1 small cup cake (without icing) or one plain mini muffin, ½ a can of sugary drink, 1 chocolate biscuit.
The good news is that with Atkins, you eliminate these high carb junk foods and with this your cravings disappear too. I didn’t believe it myself before starting it – I didn’t see how I could live without eating toast for example, or cereal. (If the idea of not eating certain foods is too hard I’d advice to just try it for three weeks and then decide whether to continue or not.) The amazing thing is that, within a few short weeks any cravings for these foods had completely disappeared. Food just becomes food – not something that you obsess about or crave constantly – this alone can transform peoples lives. If this sounds like you stop enjoying it, nothing could be further from the truth – you get to eat a diverse range of satiating and delicious foods. Perfect for foodies or gourmands! And you lose weight and gain health at the same time. What’s not to love!