MICHAEL NOONAN

Struggling to lose weight? You might be addicted to junk food

Posted April 11, 2013, at 11:31 a.m.
Dr. Michael Noonan
Dr. Michael Noonan

The more calories you consume, the more weight you will gain, right? So says the modern weight-control theory, which is based on the idea that weight loss is a simple mathematical formula of consuming fewer calories than you use up.

I have seen calculations showing that if you eat a small snack every day that exceeds your caloric expense for that day, you could gain several pounds in a year, based on the few extra calories in that snack. Our current low-fat diets are based on this theory, as, gram for gram, fats are the most calorie-dense foods we eat.

The problem is, it isn’t working. Americans now consume dozens of low-fat products, from milk to cereals to pizza, and yet we are gaining weight at an astonishing rate. It is estimated that fully three-quarters of Americans are overweight. (Technically, 33 percent of adults are overweight; statistics separate overweight adults from obese adults. The 75 percent is the sum of overweight, obese, and extremely obese adults.) And we are gaining weight fast.

Everybody knows we need to be more active and exercise more. But there is tremendous disagreement — and confusion — when it comes to what is a healthy, weight-regulating diet. There is evidence that diet is the main driver for our national weight problem.

From a wellness perspective, weight control is not nearly as simple as calories in, weight on. Our weight is regulated primarily by hormones that are strongly influenced by the foods we eat. The biggest culprit for putting on weight? Insulin. This hormone is known primarily for lowering blood sugar after a meal heavy in carbs. But it does so by storing many of the extra calories as fat. It also stops the body’s use of fat as a fuel. So if you are exercising to try to lose weight, but have high insulin levels from a recent carb-based meal, the insulin will prevent your body from accessing the fat stores.

Even more important than weight regulation for many people are appetite and cravings control. Many of my patients who are trying to improve their diets complain not so much about being hungry as craving sweets and carb-rich foods such as doughnuts, pastries and soda. The problem is that carbs are literally addictive for some people, especially highly refined carbs like sugar and white flour products.

Dr. David Kessler, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” also implicates foods high in salt and processed fats as being addictive. Healthy fats are not addictive, but processed ones are, especially trans fats.

Dr. Kessler reviewed a study in which rats that were offered high-fat, sugary foods showed signs of addiction, almost equal to that of cocaine. The lead author of the study, Dr. Paul Kenny, commented, “In the study, the animals completely lost control over their eating behavior, the primary hallmark of addiction. They continued to overeat even when they anticipated receiving electric shocks, highlighting just how motivated they were to consume the palatable food.” When the “junk foods” were removed and healthy options were offered, many of the rats simply refused to eat. (Does this sound like a 6-year-old having a sugar tantrum?)

Studies have shown sugar to have potent effects on brain chemistry, affecting the opioid and dopamine receptors that are associated with mood and addiction. Sugar is a short-term analgesic, which means it actually relieves pain. Some researchers go so far as to call it a drug.

Based on this information, I do not recommend most patients use the “eat all foods in moderation” idea. If a food is addictive, the only way to avoid “setting off” the addiction is to avoid that food completely. I recommend patients stick to the basic rules of nutrition I was taught 30 years ago in chiropractic school: Eat only whole, intact foods; avoid the more processed “foods” containing sugars and high-fructose corn syrup; white flour products; and soda. It can be a difficult transition — these foods are everywhere, especially during the holidays. So many patients do well in improving their diets and notice great health gains, only to find that after a piece of birthday cake they end up on a “junk food” binge for two weeks.

The best weapon I can give my patients against overeating and obesity is knowledge; the facts about hormones and weight regulation and the problems with low-fat diets, but mostly the addictive nature of refined carbs. People who have a hard time quitting carbs are not weak willed — the problem is the foods themselves. They are literally addictive, and food manufacturers are doing everything they can to keep them that way.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.

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