If your New Year’s resolution included a strict weight-loss diet, you may be in trouble. Not only are most regimens hard to follow, but they rarely address the reasons for overeating: stress, depression, and low-fiber and nutrient-empty refined foods. Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that women who felt sad were more likely to eat too many carbohydrates.
Troubled by sudden, seemingly desperate cravings for food? Think back to when hunger hit; it’s most likely an unpleasant moment. “Urges to eat are amazingly strong,” says holistic psychologist Denise Lamothe, PsyD, HHD, “and we can easily feel overpowered by them.”
“You don’t have to be an addict to have cravings,” says Carolyn Reuben, LAc, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction Solutions. “Even I—a nutrition author and addiction program executive—devoured a pint of coffee ice cream recently while anxiously facing a deadline.”
“It’s about feeling out of balance and disconnected,” Dr. Lamothe explains. “It’s also about what’s going on in our bodies on a cellular level and about how tired . . . we feel.” Messages about ourselves we’ve had since childhood, what our hormones are up to, the quality of our relationships, and even our environment can contribute to addictive eating.
“Let’s face it. We’re living in a sea of chemicals, assaulted each day by poisons in our air, water, food, and homes,” says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS. Unfortunately, little research exists on the more than 80,000 industrial chemicals, additives, and preservatives to which we may be exposed. “Between 1930 and 2000, the number of synthetic chemicals in use skyrocketed,” she says, “and so did the number of overweight adults in the United States.”
Dietary trends play a role too. “The increase in carbohydrate consumption over the past 25 years has led to an increase in [Americans’] insulin levels,” says Barry Sears, PhD. Not only does this make us fatter, but we’re also becoming hungrier due to the combined impact of increased insulin on decreasing blood sugar levels and higher levels of toxic fat that stimulate hunger signals in the brain.
Enjoy a Natural Diet
The best way to control blood sugar and lower fat is to eat plenty of colorful, nonstarchy vegetables (broccoli, green beans, spinach) and a limited amount of fruit (apples, berries) while significantly cutting back on grains and starches. “You also have to balance the reduced glycemic load with the appropriate amount of protein at each meal,” Dr. Sears adds.
Protein (deep-sea fish, poultry, fermented soy) helps stabilize blood sugar and reduces hunger. How much do you need at each meal to feel satisfied—and not overeat? A serving of protein the size and thickness of the palm of your hand (approximately three ounces) is ideal for women, but men need a bit more—about four ounces, he says.
Enjoy healthy fats. “By making monounsaturated fat the primary fat source in the diet, you can indirectly affect a group of brain hormones that promotes hunger,” says Dr. Sears. Replace inexpensive supermarket oils with extra-virgin olive oil, for example.
“When you can, buy organic,” adds Dr. Gittleman, to lower your body’s toxic load. “The extra cost is absolutely justified by the benefits to your health, beauty, and ability to stay slim.” Organic food often tastes sweeter and more flavorful, plus it may have more nutrients than conventionally grown food. “As a result, you fill up more quickly,” she adds.
While a number of nutrients support weight loss, several are specific to addictive eating. “GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid] and six other supplements can help eliminate feelings that drive us to self-medicate,” says Reuben. To stop cravings, she recommends the following:
tryptophan (widely available as 5HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan) to improvesleep and relieve depression and obsessing over food by increasing theneurotransmitter serotonin
tyrosine to energize and focus the mind
GABA to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation
glutamine to stabilize blood sugar and decrease cravings
DL-phenylalanine to ease emotional pain
multivitamin/mineral to assist the above amino acids in producing important neurotransmitters
fish oil to fight depression and increase cellular rejuvenation.
Working with a holistic practitioner who looks at the whole person can be an excellent way to discover individual nutritional support and the amount of specific supplements you need. A homeopath or naturopath, for example, might recommend minute amounts of Ignatia for someone who’s supersensitive and uses food to feel better. Homeopathic Pulsatilla may benefit someone who craves sweets and consumes sugary foods when sad, while Staphysagria is advised for individuals who use sweets to help repress anger. Others find Bach Flower Remedies, which Dr. Lamothe says “work to strengthen the life force and remove energy blockages,” and the flower essence formula Rescue Remedy helpful.
Make time to play and tune into your own body. Stretch, move, and rediscover your own flexibility: T’ai chi and yoga are terrific in this regard. Nia combines dance, upper body work, and stretching in a vigorous workout. Bicycling, jogging, sports, swimming, and walking are other options—as long as you enjoy them.
“About 10 years ago, I ran faithfully every morning,” says Dr. Lamothe. “Sunrise was my favorite time. I would watch the colors as the sun poked itself up into the sky, and I would chatter with the early morning squirrels. This was my time (my kids were still sound asleep in bed), and I loved the feelings I had as I jumped over puddles and kicked little stones along my path.”
The fun stopped, however, when she decided to enter a marathon. “I no longer gave myself the option of slowing down or walking.” Instead, she pushed harder and harder. “Some people thrive on the thrills of training and competition,” she explains, but if you don’t, you can still relieve anxiety and stress, help your body detoxify, and curb your cravings by enjoying whatever activity appeals most to you.
“The code for any craving is stored like a computer program in your brain,” says Paul McKenna, PhD. Thinking about the food you’re feeling hungry for while tapping on certain acupuncture points can relieve the craving, for example. Cognitive-behavioral techniques are also useful.
“Overeating helps to keep us numb,” explains Dr. Lamothe, “and giving ourselves the time and space we deserve to reflect on our emotions and dreams can be difficult for many of us.” Addictive eating and overworking are easy ways to lose ourselves. The more focused we are on outward appearance and seeking outside approval, the harder it becomes to journey within and rediscover our true selves, she adds.
“One way to start is just to notice your breath and to sit quietly for a few minutes each day [while] paying attention to your breathing and to any feelings or thoughts that may arise. . . . Going inside to attend to yourself and your needs is an essential step in the process of letting go of any addiction,” she says.