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HEALTH CONCERN? BioHealth Health Concerns

Food Addiction and Eating Disorders

Contributing Author: Kalish, Daniel D.C.

Daniel KalishFor two decades Daniel Kalish, D.C. has successfully treated patients with hormone imbalances, food cravings, fatigue, depression, digestive distress, and many other health complaints. Dr. Kalish founded The Natural Path Clinic California, where he led a staff of physicians, nutritionists, chiropractors, psychotherapists, physical therapists, personal trainers, massage therapists and acupuncturists for more than ten years. He currently maintains an active international phone consultation practice with patients and trains physicians in natural medicine. He has designed health programs for countless professional athletes including the world’s top skateboarders, hockey players, elite runners, tri-athletes, golfers, tennis players and world-class weight lifters. Download his ebook Your Guide to Healthy Hormones.

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Food plays an important role in hormone balance. Yet the problem extends far beyond sensitivity to certain foods. Food addiction and eating disorders are nearly epidemic among American women — and are wreaking havoc with their hormones.

Food cravings and compulsive overeating are complex issues with many causes. Food is an emotional issue for many American women, who may overeat to escape from stress, in search of comfort, or for other reasons unrelated to physical nourishment. The problem is often intensified during menopause when the mood swings triggered by rapid hormonal change send many women to the refrigerator for solace. This only intensifies hormone imbalances, creating a vicious cycle in which women crave the very things that worsen their symptoms.

While it is important to deal with the emotional issues surrounding food addiction, understanding its physical components also can help eliminate some of the triggers of eating too many of the wrong foods.

Blood Sugar Instability
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is common among food addicts. Drops in blood sugar cause the body to release cortisol, which works to restore and maintain blood sugar levels by converting stored glycogen and fat to glucose. Low blood sugar levels can trigger dizziness, weakness, shaking muscles, rapid heartbeat, anxiety and even panic. Hypoglycemics typically turn to sugar to assuage these feelings, but eating sweets or refined flours causes blood glucose concentration to rise too high. The pancreas overreacts, secreting excess insulin, and the blood glucose level again falls too low or too fast, triggering another sugar craving. Thus we see another mechanism for food addiction.

The sugar-laden diets fed to American children lead them to grow into sugar-addicted adults. There has been a staggering 600 percent increase in sugar consumption in the United States in the last 50 years. And even people that do not become hypoglycemic can create nutritional imbalances by consuming too much sugar.

Over consumption of sugar has many consequences. People who load up on these empty calories tend to do so at the expense of nutritious foods, resulting in nutritional deficiencies and, in extreme cases, malnutrition — a surprisingly prevalent problem in this land of plenty. As previously discussed, nutritional imbalances can lead to, or intensify, hormone imbalances. Moreover, when the adrenal glands are assaulted by sugar, the immune system is compromised, resulting in an inability to ward off infection or disease.

Sugar also has a strong effect on mood in many people, creating a sort of high that quickly sinks to a low. Since sugar is associated with “good mood,” people rush to consume more sugar, much the way a drug addict needs another fix to come back from a low once the drug’s effects have worn off. This chronic dependence is much like drug addiction, with similarly serious consequences.

Food Cravings and Dependence
Foods contain chemicals that affect our moods and behaviors. Eating the wrong foods, or an unbalanced diet, promotes unhealthy food cravings and dependence. Unfortunately, sugar and refined flour (which has much the same effect as sugar and can trigger gluten reactions) are the foods people tend to become addicted to, rather than vegetables and chicken.

The foods we crave are often the foods that are the worst for us. People with food allergies — biochemical sensitivity to certain foods — tend to crave the very foods that are harming them. The common belief that we crave what our bodies need does not hold true when our body systems are imbalanced. People with imbalances no longer know what they need, and instead crave what gives them temporary satisfaction, even though these indulgences are usually followed by unpleasant physical symptoms or anxiety, depression, or lethargy. Instead of taking these symptoms as a sign that a food is bad for us, we recall mainly how good it initially made us feel, and so we seek more of it. The only way the body can recover from food allergies is by eliminating the foods that trigger symptoms in the first place.

Emotional Factors
As difficult as eliminating a favorite food from your diet can be, it is even harder to separate your eating from your emotions. Many people turn to food when under stress or feeling anxious or depressed. Just as women nurture their children with food, they tend to associate eating with self-nurturing. “Comfort foods” are usually among the worst and most addictive dietary offenders, as they are loaded with sugar, fat, calories, and largely devoid of nutrients. Cookies are invariably chosen over carrots, and the bigger the box, the longer the comfort will last (followed, of course, by feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and depression as the resulting weight gain leads to a lower sense of self-worth).

The great paradox of American society is that while the media promotes the pleasures of unhealthful, high-calorie foods, it does so with improbably svelte models. Women are particularly prone to the conflict generated by these warring images/ because they are still judged largely on their physical appearance. They struggle with diets that deprive them of satisfaction and are doomed to failure, then punish themselves when they fail to live up to their unrealistic goals. These conditions become more acute during menopause, an emotional time when hormones fluctuate and women are more likely to seek solace in food as they witness physical signs of aging that are nowhere to be seen in the ideal models that assault us on billboards and in the media.

Weight gain is common during menopause for a number of reasons, including the widespread use of synthetic hormone replacement. Synthetic hormones promotes growth (they are used to fatten cows), and one of their frequent side effects is packing on excess pounds. Many women on HRT feel unable to lose weight despite sincere effort, leading to feelings of despair and depression — and overeating as a salve.

The Diet Trap
Most American women have struggled with dieting at some point in their lives, and for many it is a lifelong battle. For most people, diets mean deprivation, and feeling deprived of foods they love leads them to crave those foods even more. Furthermore, most diets are imbalanced and built around myths. Just as there is no magic pill to restore hormonal balance, there is no magic formula for losing and keeping off unwanted pounds – and the treatments that promise such results often end up, like synthetic hormones, to have severe health consequences.

One popular diet myth is that fats are bad for you. The fact is that the body needs a certain amount of fat to function properly. Every cell wall is lined with a fat membrane that needs to be maintained. All steroid hormones, including bioidentical estrogen and progesterone, have a molecular structure based on fats, and essential fats are needed for good metabolism. Besides, as anyone who has followed a very low-fat diet can attest, it’s hard to feel satisfied when fats are eliminated. Fats slow the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and lead to a feeling of contentment at the end of a meal, so you aren’t left thinking about the next meal an hour later. But it’s crucial to understand the difference between good and bad fats. Good fats occur naturally in organic, grass-fed meats, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil, unroasted (raw) nuts and seeds, and unpasteurized (raw) dairy products. Bad fats are artificially created, like the hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated “trans” fats found in most processed and convenience foods.

Despite popular belief, eating fat is vitally important to our health. Fats create the building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. If you are fat deficient you will crave sweets. However, not all fats are beneficial, in fact, some should be avoided. Below is a quick-reference list that will help you choose your fats wisely and healthfully.

Good Fats – Choose these first

Butter – Especially raw
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Coconut oil
Animal Fats
Nut Butters
Seeds, Nuts
Flax Seed Oil – Do not heat

Acceptable Fats

Peanut Oil
Sesame Oil
Safflower Oil
Corn Oil
Sunflower Oil
Soybean Oil
Cottonseed Oil

Bad Fats – Avoid These

Canola Oil
Hydrogenated fats
Polyunsaturated fats
Anything labeled “low fat”

Another myth is that the fewer the calories per day, the better. The average person needs about 1,500 calories a day to function well. When fewer calories are consumed, the body goes into starvation mode. Metabolism slows down, so the few calories that are consumed are stored as body fat rather than being burned, which defeats the whole purpose of dieting. Many people are fooled by the initial rapid weight loss of a semi-starvation diet, which is mostly fluid loss, and become frustrated when the pounds don’t keep dropping off. Real weight loss occurs slowly. On a very low-calorie diet, you lose water and muscle mass (which is counterproductive, since muscle is needed to burn calories), and your metabolism slows down. This explains why 98 percent of dieters regain all the weight they lose, plus a bonus of about ten pounds within five years. The yo-yo effect also helps to sustain a $40 billion U.S. diet industry — money spent mostly in futility and ending in hormone imbalance and a damaged metabolism.

Any diet that severely limits variety is also bound to fail. While it may seem to work initially, such a regimen is almost impossible to sustain. Boredom and dissatisfaction set in, and cravings eventually win out. Such diets also tend to lack certain nutrients and may leave the dieter feeling tired or prone to headaches, digestive problems, or serious illnesses over time.

Just as the only way to balance the hormones is by keeping the various body systems in balance, the only way to maintain a healthy weight is through a balanced diet and exercise once the three body systems are working well. However, what is balanced for one person may not work well for another. This is where biochemical individuality comes into play.

Metabolic Typing
When I see a new patient, I use food allergy testing to craft the best diet to help balance her hormones. In addition I use a method called Metabolic Typing. Metabolic typing assumes that each person has a unique set of psychological and physiological factors that determine which “good foods” are, in fact, good for us as individuals.  This assessment is based on such factors such as how we respond to food, our cravings and preferences, as well as body shape and fat distribution.

The premise of metabolic typing is that the effect of a particular food or diet depends on your genetic makeup. Eskimos, for example, lived virtually free of heart disease for many years on a diet high in fat and protein, whereas certain African tribes thrive on high-fiber, plant-based diets with far less protein and fat. Most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The concept goes back at least 5,000 years to the East Indian system of medicine know as Ayurveda. In Ayurvedic medicine, a patient’s metabolic type is addressed before focusing on his or her symptoms or disease. Modern-day metabolic typing combines this wisdom with scientific understanding of physiological, biochemical, and psychological indicators to define his or her metabolic type.

One of the core principles of metabolic typing is that any nutrient or food can have completely different biochemical influences on different metabolic types. The same food that has a stimulating effect on someone of one type may act as a sedative on someone of a different type. The implication is that illnesses can be caused or exacerbated over time by eating the wrong foods or balance of foods.

In addition to genetic predisposition, environment also influences metabolism. Through excessive intake of carbohydrates, sugars, and damaged fats over the last few generations we have significantly damaged the three body systems, and we find more and more people in the United States today with unreliable basic physiological mechanisms. Poor nutrient levels in soils, the shift toward processed, nutrient-deficient, easy-to-prepare foods, and the addition of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics to our food supply have only worsened the problem.

Over my many years of working with patients, I have seen very few new patients with normal functioning of the three primary body systems. As we have seen, when any one of these systems is not working well, we lose the ability to utilize the biochemicals in our food properly, and cannot live up to our genetic potential until the damage is repaired. If the hormonal system is damaged, we cannot burn body fat properly, and the hormones we do produce will direct the body to store fat. If the digestive system is not functioning well, we cannot absorb the nutrients required to run our metabolism and repair cells, tissues, and organs. If the detoxification system is impaired, we cannot get rid of toxins and will have a buildup of harmful substances in the tissues, leading to a greater need for the nutrients that help us eliminate waste products.

All told, these factors lead to excessive body fat and decreased levels of the nutrients required for healthy cellular metabolism. Until these systems are restored to normal, we cannot expect a normal response to a healthful diet. Much of what patients experience in the first months of treatment revolves around repair of the three body systems. Once this foundation is established, the body can make full use of the right diet right for its own unique metabolic needs.

Women and Eating Disorders
Just as women are far more prone to food addiction than men, they have a much higher incidence of eating disorders. An estimated 7 million American women suffer from two common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia, compared with approximately a million men. It is not exactly clear when a preoccupation with food crosses over into an eating disorder, as these include a broad spectrum of behavioral disturbances from extreme dieting to uncontrolled overeating. Any degree of eating disorder can wreak havoc on the female hormones.

Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia means “lack of appetite,” but the disease anorexia nervosa is willed self-starvation. It affects about 1 percent of female adolescents and can continue well into adulthood if left untreated.

Studies have shown that more than half of teenage girls in the United States either are dieting or think they should be. They are unhappy with their bodies for failing to live up to an unrealistic ideal, and sometimes take dieting too far. Food becomes a metaphor for power; a way to try to control their internal chaos, when dieting is, in fact, taking control of their lives. Anorexics are terrified of gaining weight and obsessed with food and weight loss. They can become seriously underweight and malnourished, and in some cases starve themselves to death. They often limit their diets to what they consider “safe” foods, resulting in nutritional imbalance. When their weight drops below a certain level, the female hormones are affected and they stop menstruating. Anorexia is often accompanied by a disturbed body image and depression. Some anorexics develop the related disorder of bulimia.

Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by purging in order to control weight. While anorexia is far more common among adolescents, bulimics are often adults who may swing back and forth between periods of dieting and binge eating. Each time a woman gains and then loses a significant amount of weight, her hormonal system is damaged.

Bulimia, like anorexia, centers around the issue of control. Bulimics feel out of control while they are eating compulsively, then attempt to counteract the loss by vomiting, abusing laxatives, or over-exercising. Unlike anorexia, bulimia is a hidden disease, because bulimics are often normal weight. Internally, however, they have caused severe damage to their bodies. The binge-purge cycle puts a strain on organs and perpetuates a hormonal imbalance, while overuse of laxatives causes a chemical imbalance that can be fatal.

Binge-Eating Disorder
Binge eating without purging has only recently been identified as an eating disorder. Binge eaters, like bulimics, feel out of control during their bouts of compulsive overeating, but they give in to being overweight rather than purging or abusing laxatives. Most people who suffer from weight problems have periods of compulsive overeating.

Binge eaters often overeat in secret, claiming that they can’t seem to take off weight. Typically they have a history of diet failure, guilt and shame of their overeating, and depression. Binge eating is considered the most common eating disorder, affecting about a quarter of all Americans. It can lead to obesity and thus potentially fatal illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Obese women are at increased risk of developing cancer of the breast, cervix, uterus, and ovaries, and by age 60 almost one-third of them will have developed gall bladder disease. 

The Alcohol Connection
My work with patients has revealed a connection between alcoholism, food addiction, and eating disorders. Many alcoholics have food-related problems. A 2002 study published in Health magazine revealed that about 72 percent of alcoholic women under the age of 25 had an eating disorder. Bulimic women in particular often have alcohol (and sometimes drug) problems. Even in the absence of a dual addiction, women with eating disorders frequently have alcoholism in their families.

While the food-alcohol connection isn’t well understood, these addictions share certain similarities. Both alcohol and food are addictive chemical substances that can trap people who have addictive personalities. Both alcoholism and eating disorders lead to compulsive and secretive behavior, including denial of the problem. Women in particular find addiction to be shameful; men can be “happy drunks” or “hearty eaters,” whereas overconsumption among women is seldom found appealing. So women tend to hide their problem and may fail to get the help they need.

One significant difference between food and alcohol addiction is that abstinence is not possible for food addicts. They may be able to avoid eating certain foods, but they always must control what they eat and how much. This is a lifelong struggle for many people.

Alcohol and food addiction are most successfully treated with a similar approach. Overeaters Anonymous is a twelve-step program based on the successful model of Alcoholics Anonymous, which treats addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing. Both are powerful, self-run support groups that offer members the assurance that they are not alone with their problem — and that others have succeeded in their quest to regain control of their lives. I have found the best choice for many people with food addiction is a combination of the natural therapies used to correct the three body systems and the spiritual and emotional support provided by twelve-step programs, therapists, and counselors.

Finding Help
The problems that exacerbate female hormone imbalances, while complex, are all treatable. Stress, depression, pain and hidden inflammation, food sensitivities and addiction, and the many other factors that contribute to (and sometimes are caused by) these imbalances can all be improved, if not eliminated.