Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Carb Cravings - Type 1, 2, and 3.

This is a discussion about some distinctions that I think are helpful when discussing carb cravings on paleo, and how to address them.

First of all, I'd like to mention that a paleo diet doesn't necessarily need to be ultra low in carbohydrates, but it is definitely low in refined- and "neolithic"- carbs. Candy, cake, grains, and legumes must go!

Secondly, from a health effect point of view, the difference between a moderate carb paleo diet and lower carb paleo diet is that the former prevents and cures the metabolic syndrome and numerous related diseases, while the lower carb variant does all of this plus helps you burn your subcutaneous body fat to a larger degree.

Now with this out of the way let's look at three common categories of carb cravings.

Type 1 - Energy dependence.

This type is about running out of fuel for the brain because one's body simply hasn't yet adapted to burning fat effectively. This is likely unavoidable for most people transitioning from the USDA-diet to proper eating during at least the first six weeks.

Symptoms: Light-headedness, irritation, fatigue, blurry vision, headache. In other words, the classic symptoms of low blood sugar: "hypoglycemia".

Panic cure (e.g., behind the wheel): dextrose tablet.

General short term cure: A few pieces of dark chocolate, a small serving of fruit. Nuts may also work for some. The principle is to get a little pick-me-up to a comfortable baseline without causing a dramatic sugar-shock. (We don't want shocks, because those cause the body to think that more of the same will be coming and thus it may resist normalizing its hormonal regulation.)

Long term cure: Continue to eat paleo. Eventually the need for carbs will be zero to moderate from an energy standpoint (special cases, such as endurance athletes, aside). Include fruits and veggies for the micro-nutrients in them, not because your brain stops without sugar. Though also allow for the observation that some people function better on a slightly higher carb diet. (Experiment!)

Type 2 - Chemical addiction.

This is about an addiction to carbs' secondary effects on brain chemistry, particularly their triggering of a temporary surge in the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, as well as cravings for addictive compounds (for example opioid peptides) that are found inside some carby foods (for example wheat).

Most USDA-eating individuals probably suffer from a bit of both type 1 and type 2 cravings, but, fortunately, a paleo diet (including supplementation with omega 3 oil, and vitamin D) also inherently addresses both types.

As stated above, type 1 is primarily an issue of one's body's fuel preference, and goes away over time as one's metabolism adapts to fat utilization.

Type 2, on the other hand, is primarily a neurotransmitter issue, and a bit more tricky (chemical addictions tend to be), but is typically addressed by the paleo diet's serotonin promoting properties (specifically, for example, the presence of serotonin precursors in meat, and omega 3's and vitamin D's beneficial impact on serotonin production and utilization).

One should, in fact, expect a better general mood after some time on the serotonin boosting paleo diet versus a USDA type diet which only produces brief surges in serotonin followed by slumps. (If this doesn't happen for you, check out Nora Gedgaudas' blog post for some troubleshooting hints.)

As a short term fix (slightly mimicking the boom-bust effect of carbs on serotonin), I think that coffee might do the job for some.

Type 3 - Psychological addiction.

When intermingled with type 1 and type 2, psychological addiction seems to be a very problematic aspect for a lot of people. The thought of Mom's savory fudge, newly baked scones at Hotel Claridges in London, Pedro's heavenly burritos, etc can trigger formidable cravings.

Unfortunately, I don't have that much to say about how to deal with this aspect, which seems to be more problematic than anything else for some, but wasn't an issue in my own case.

So far, I think that Rick Kiessig's recommendation in regard to retraining oneself represents the best shot at this issue:

"… to find something that I liked as well as carbs, that was an acceptable Paleo food, but that had also been considered relatively taboo previously. In my case, that ended up being cream, in several different forms (plain, mixed with a little milk, mixed with baking cocoa, whipped, etc). If I had a carb craving, I trained myself to have a cup of cream instead."

We will hopefully have posts in the future that deal further with the psychological issues related to switching to a new way of eating.

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