Read an Excerpt
THE DIET CURE
Julia Ross, pioneering author and clinician, has been directing innovative counseling programs in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1980. She is the executive director of Recovery Systems, a clinic that treats people from all over the world for overeating and mood problems, using an integrative program that emphasizes nutrient therapy and biochemical rebalancing. Julia trains health practitioners throughout the United States and abroad. Her work has been featured on many radio and television programs and in Psychology Today, Health, Vogue, and other magazines. The author of a second best seller, The Mood Cure, she lives in Marin County, California. Learn more about Julia’s work at dietcure.com, moodcure.com, and recoverysystemsclinic.com.
The 8-Step Program to Rebalance Your Body Chemistry and End Food Cravings, Weight Gain, and Mood Swings—Naturally
JULIA ROSS, M.A.
Frances Lillian Ross
and to the women and men whose struggles have inspired us to find a better way
Forty years ago, after I had completed my education at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and at the outset of my medical career, a foolish optimism gripped my profession. It was generally held that to improve the nation’s health, all we had to do was make the existing health care more widely available.
It soon became painfully evident that more health care did not always lead to more health. In fact, the rapid advances of medical science seemed to be increasingly overpowered by the well-marketed culture of unhealthy consumption.
By the early 1980s, this alarming trend found many doctors seeking new ways to heal harmful habits. Twenty years ago, through my private practice and my work as a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association, I was fortunate enough to become involved with the incredibly effective work of Julia Ross. Most of the patients with overeating and weight problems whom I sent to her clinic received major benefit. Eventually, I was so impressed that I signed on as their backup physician.
I am delighted that her unique approach, now in an updated edition, will be even more accessible. May it help guide you in your efforts toward greater health and well-being.
AUTHOR’S CAUTIONARY NOTE
If you have a known or suspected medical condition, are taking medication of any kind, or have specific health concerns, you should consult a qualified health care provider before following any of the suggestions in this book. Supplement and pharmaceutical dosages are meant to be guidelines only, and dosage and results will vary according to the specific needs of each individual. The dietary guidelines, too, need to be tailored to each individual. Because this book cannot respond to individuals’ needs and circumstances, as we do in our clinic, you should ask for a qualified health care professional to help you assess and apply The Diet Cure. Although we did our best to provide sound and useful information, we cannot and do not promise results to a reader. Neither the publisher nor the author is engaged in rendering professional advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures, and suggestions contained in this book are not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician. All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. Neither the author nor the publisher shall be liable or responsible for any loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestion in this book.
AUTHOR’S PREFACE TO THE REVISED EDITION
The first edition of The Diet Cure was published in 1999. It has been a marvel from the start:
The minute the book proposal hit the publishing houses, I began to get calls at my clinic from editors and publishers asking for personal help. When I came to New York, more publishers wanted to meet with me than with any other author my seasoned NYC agent had ever represented. Then there was a bidding frenzy. Why? Because the word was all over Manhattan that a truly new approach to the “weight problem” had arrived—the first since Atkins in 1972.
After publication, grateful readers’ reviews began to flood in. Out of dozens of similar postings, this is my favorite: “The chocolate cravings are gone! The ice cream cravings are gone! Refined carbs are not a part of my life anymore and I don’t miss them. 6 weeks on The Diet Cure and I am down at least a size in clothing and I feel better than I ever have (EVER).” And twelve years later, they keep on coming.
The Diet Cure keeps on selling—in both the United States and abroad. Take France, where, although obesity is relatively new, Parisian food writer Julien Tort had been struggling with it since childhood. One day, exploring American weight loss methods on the Internet, he discovered low-carb dieting. (This is big news in France, if you can imagine.) He went on Atkins and lost weight easily. He was thrilled. Until his willpower ran out and he reverted to pasta and bread. Back on the Internet he found The Diet Cure. Since then, he’s lost seventy pounds, translated the book, and arranged its 2011 French publication.
Many people buy multiple copies of The Diet Cure to give to friends and family. While I was at a spa celebrating a recent birthday, the masseuse started talking about a book she said had saved her life. She’d had cancer and had been treated, but could not stick to the cancer-recovery diet because her sugar cravings were so strong. (Sugar is the favorite food of cancer cells.) “Now,” she said, “I’m four years sugar-free and six years cancer-free.” When, intrigued, I asked her the name of the book’s author, and then told her my name, the room became a screaming love fest, and she told me that she’d given away fifty copies of The Diet Cure as gifts.
More than ever before we need this gift: freedom from the unprecedented, diet-related plagues of the twenty-first century. The Diet Cure came out just before the first stunning reports of the obesity epidemic among adults, and then children, were released. Since then, this phenomenon has escalated to the point that even infant obesity has become a significant problem. The incidence of heart disease, kidney failure, and increased cancer risk has also skyrocketed, along with type 2 diabetes among both adults and children.
Why did things suddenly go so wrong? Because weight- and blood-sugar-destabilizing foods are much more plentiful in our diets now, and they are much harder to resist. Thanks to new research worldwide, and to former FDA chief David Kessler’s 2010 exposé, we now know that the food industry’s efforts to make its products more “palatable” have succeeded beyond even its wildest dreams. We’re now officially a nation of food addicts, beyond the help of willpower or any diet. Our only hope is to locate a manual for dismantling that addiction. The Diet Cure is that manual.
So why a new edition? Since the book was first published, our clinic has worked with more than two thousand newly diagnosed overeaters. In the process, we have developed even better methods of correcting the biochemical imbalances that propel us into food addiction. My publisher and I agreed that it was time to send out a new lifeline—an even stronger edition of The Diet Cure that would include all of the clinical advances we’ve made and the research backing them up. To accomplish this, I have updated and streamlined almost half of the book—extreme measures for extreme times.
A few examples:
We’ve learned more about how to correct deficits in our brain’s appetite chemistry, in our ability to handle stress, and in our sex hormone balance—three well-established triggers of the compulsion to overeat.
One of the most potent methods for eliminating afternoon, evening, and winter food cravings has only recently become available in the United States. We have it for you.
We know better how to test for and treat low thyroid function to improve metabolism and calorie burning.
With diabetes now epidemic, we’ve found solid clinical research confirming our experience that saturated fat is safe, healthful, and the best blood sugar regulator of all.
The Master Eating Plan has been completely reorganized and updated and includes a vital reevaluation of the facts on red meat, cholesterol, and vegetarianism.
There are new nutrient supplement protocols, new lab tests, new books and CDs to recommend, new ways to find effective holistic practitioners, and more.
To all of you who have already read The Diet Cure: Trust me when I urge you to invest in this new edition. I’ve seen your dog-eared copies at my lectures and that many of you have even color-indexed them. But I promise that you will find treasures in the material I’ve added. (And I’m a better writer now, too!)
I wish you a successful escape from our twenty-first-century dietary disaster. Everything you’ll need is packed and ready for you here in the new Diet Cure.
My best wishes to all of you!
8 Steps to the Diet Cure
This is not going to be like any diet book you have ever read. I won’t mention calories except to forbid you to eat too few! I won’t tell you to tune in to your “real” appetite because I know that if you could have you would have long ago. I won’t tell you to discipline yourself because I know that your weight and eating habits are not the result of laziness, gluttony, or weak willpower.
You are trapped inside a body that is malfunctioning, and that body needs help. Years of dieting, psychotherapy, and the best pep talks about fitness can’t help much when what you really need is a biochemical overhaul.
The clients who come to my clinic have already tried psychotherapy. If they haven’t, or if they need more counseling, we provide it. We educate them about their health and encourage them to accept the body that their genes have programmed for them. But when that body is a wreck, psychological and educational approaches just aren’t enough. Fortunately, we have now learned how to identify and repair the underlying physical imbalances that have been neglected for so long.
We used to think that dieting was the cure. Many of us still hope that the next diet will really “do it.” But more of us have learned that dieting leaves us in worse shape than before we ever started. Our health, energy, mood, and weight have all deteriorated because of dieting. And yet we can’t quit. We know no other escape from the weight gain that followed our last diet! We need to be cured of dieting. We need to find an entirely new way to deal with our weight problems.
And we have. You’re about to learn it.
I discovered the Diet Cure while I was desperately looking for a cure for alcohol and drug addiction. At that time I was the director of a large treatment complex in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ohlhoff Outpatient Programs. We provided intensive counseling for addicted adults and adolescents and their families in three counties. In 1986, I began hearing that certain nutritional supplements could stop addicts’ cravings for alcohol and even for cocaine. I asked my staff nutritionist to research and then to start offering these nutrients. They dramatically reduced our clients’ drug and alcohol cravings within a week. Much to our surprise, they also cured the insatiable cravings for sweets and the thirty-pound weight gain that our clients typically suffered in early recovery.*
In 1988, I opened my own outpatient treatment program. Staffed with nutritionists and counselors, the Recovery Systems Clinic, in Mill Valley, California, is five minutes north of San Francisco. Initially, my clients at Recovery Systems were food addicts and others concerned about serious eating disorders and weight problems. Compulsive overeating and bulimia were their most common complaints. Some anorexics came to us, too, as well as people without any eating disorders, but with weight gain that was intractable. If these sound like tough problems, you’re wrong. We rarely failed to help even our most severely impaired clients because we had the secret weapon. We tried the same nutrients with them that I had used with my drug- and alcohol-addicted clients. They were even more effective for eliminating food cravings and had the delightful side effect of eliminating mood swings, too.
As the word spread, we began to get many clients who did not have full-blown eating disorders but were looking for an escape from yo-yo dieting, low energy, moodiness, and a tendency to eat too much bread and ice cream. You can imagine how easy it was for us to help them, having already discovered nutrients that were powerful enough to “cure” the cravings and mood problems of bulimics and drug addicts. These miracle nutrients are called amino acids.
Amino acids are the key to the Diet Cure. They are stronger than willpower and more effective and safer than any appetite-suppressing drugs. Available in every health food store in America, these isolated protein fragments are the super-nutrients that your brain uses to make its most powerful pleasure chemicals: serotonin (our natural Prozac), catecholamines (our natural cocaine), endorphins (naturally stronger than heroin), and GABA (naturally more relaxing than Xanax). A brain that is fully stocked with these natural mood enhancers simply has no need for a sugar high.
What’s more, you don’t have to wait weeks or months to see changes: my clinic’s clients consistently report that within twenty-four hours of taking amino acids, their food cravings disappear. Like them, you will no longer need to diet because you will have stopped overeating—naturally. These benefits soon become permanent. After three to twelve months you won’t need the amino acids and other corrective supplements anymore. Instead, you will be permanently freed from cravings and easily able to follow the Diet Cure’s satisfying eating suggestions for life.
THE EIGHT STEPS
At Recovery Systems, we have discovered specific steps to overcoming each of the eight physical, bodily handicaps that can lead directly to food cravings, overeating, and unnecessary weight gain.
Step One: Correcting BRAIN CHEMISTRY IMBALANCES to eradicate the negative feelings, like anxiety and depression, behind your “emotional” eating.
Step Two: Ending the LOW-CALORIE DIETING that inevitably leads to problems with mood, energy, overeating, and weight.
Step Three: Balancing UNSTABLE BLOOD SUGAR to eliminate the cravings for sweets and starches that propel us toward diabetes and adrenal exhaustion.
Step Four: Repairing LOW THYROID FUNCTION, a common cause of unnecessary weight gain and the fatigue that makes exercise impossible.
Step Five: Overcoming ADDICTIONS TO FOODS YOU’RE ALLERGIC TO and associated symptoms such as bloating, headache, constipation, and asthma.
Step Six: Calming HORMONAL HAVOC, which can induce food cravings and other distress, particularly during PMS and menopause.
Step Seven: Eradicating YEAST OVERGROWTH, which causes bloating and powerful cravings for sweets and starches.
Step Eight: Fixing FATTY ACID DEFICIENCY, the leading cause of cravings for rich, fatty foods.
Most of these imbalances, if they continue, can result in serious health problems. Whether you must take one, two, or all eight of these steps, you will be able to overcome your biochemical handicaps. You do not have to accept them. This book is a repair manual: It will help you to find and fix the physical malfunctions that have caused your particular eating, mood, or weight problem. Then you will drive away in your refurbished body and crave, binge, starve, and obsess no more.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
By using the techniques recommended in this book, you will be able to stop cravings and start to feel better in a matter of days, or even hours! The first step is to fill out the Quick Symptom Questionnaire, which follows this introduction. It will reveal which of the imbalances you probably have. Each of the eight biochemical imbalances has a chapter in Part I devoted to helping you recognize its symptoms. In Part II, you will find eight chapters that give you specific information on the steps needed to correct each of the imbalances discussed in Part I, including exactly which easy-to-find supplements and foods to use.
Once you have diagnosed your particular imbalances and know what steps you need to take to correct each one, turn to Part III. There you’ll find many ways to make your Diet Cure easy, including a master supplement scheduler, menus and recipes, a food-mood log, and help in finding a holistic health professional, if you need one. The last chapter will take you through your first twelve weeks and set you on the road to a permanent cure.
It will take you a few weeks to study this book and design your supplement and food plan. But as soon as you start to follow your plan, you will see and feel the effects. Within twenty-four hours your mood and food problems should be notably improved, if not completely eliminated. Within three to twelve months you will be able to eliminate all but a few supplements for good.
You’ll soon be used to eating for health and pleasure, neither starving nor bingeing, and enjoying permanent freedom from weight gain. As your body responds to special supplements and activating foods, you will become energized, craving-free, and a regular, happy exerciser. You will watch your body acquire its real, ideal shape and weight at a nice, steady pace.
One of our clients, Kate, had all eight imbalances. Her story illustrates how these imbalances can intertwine and how she was able to successfully address them all.
A creamy-skinned blonde who wrote children’s books, Kate had suffered from chronic childhood earaches caused by an allergy to dairy products. As a result, she was given many courses of antibiotics, which created an intestinal yeast overgrowth, causing her to bloat, overeat sweets, and gain weight. Her mother put her on a diet when she was 8 years old.
Kate’s energy had never been robust, but it dropped even lower, and she began to gain more weight after she started her period. This was partly the result of a low thyroid problem she had inherited from her mother and maternal grandmother. There was diabetes in the family as well, and Kate’s inherited tendency toward unbalanced blood sugar was intensified by her early overeating of sweets. Consuming sweets also contributed to her severe PMS: before her periods, Kate’s food cravings were at their worst. By age 15 she had become a perpetual yo-yo dieter, gaining more weight and eating more after every diet. As the child of an alcoholic father, she had inherited mood problems, which she soothed by eating. Her Swedish father had also passed on his genetic need for special fats—so Kate craved rich, fatty foods as well as sweets and starches.
What happened to Kate, who had every imbalance that we address in The Diet Cure? Just one week after starting on the targeted supplements and foods, she lost interest in her Reese’s peanut butter cups and her pasta Alfredo. Her PMS and yeast overgrowth were gone in three months. By that time her thyroid had been tested and treated, raising her energy and allowing her to exercise moderately four times a week. Because she was actually enjoying healthy food, and plenty of it, she did not feel deprived without her sweets, and it was easy for her to continue with her improved diet permanently. She lost forty-five pounds in the first year, stayed there for six months, and then lost the last thirty pounds in nine months. She said that she even enjoyed her six-month plateau, because she had never been able to keep weight off in the thirty years she had been dieting.
If, like Kate, you have multiple imbalances to overcome, you will be taking many supplements for several months. However, because they work so quickly and are needed only temporarily, you will be able to tolerate them. After all, you have probably done much harder things—like eat nothing but hard-boiled eggs for months! And this time your efforts will go toward building, not stripping, your health. Remember this: a healthy, balanced body cannot have chronic mood and weight problems.
* For more on addiction, see The Mood Cure (Penguin Books, 2003).
The Quick Symptom Questionnaire
My goal in this book is to stop your food cravings, address your eating and weight problems, and eliminate your mood swings and negative obsessions about your body. But first we have to determine what is causing these problems.
Our clinic asks clients to fill out an extensive symptom questionnaire so that we can isolate the causes of their problems. The questionnaire here is similar to the one we administer at Recovery Systems. Its eight sections will help you to identify your particular physical imbalances. Circle the number next to any symptom that applies to you, and follow the directions at the end of each section to calculate your score. If you are uncertain whether you might have a particular imbalance, please turn to the more complete symptom lists found in the corresponding chapters.
1. Is it your brain’s depleted appetite-and-mood-chemistry?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 10, please turn to chapters one and nine.
2. Are you suffering because of low-calorie dieting?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 12, please turn to chapters two and ten.
3. Are you struggling with blood sugar instability or high stress?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 10, please turn to chapters three and eleven.
4. Do you have unrecognized low thyroid function?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 15, please turn to chapters four and twelve.
5. Are you addicted to foods you are actually allergic to?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 12, please turn to chapters five and thirteen.
6. Are your hormones unbalanced?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 6, please turn to chapters six and fourteen.
Note: Some men experience “male menopause” as a result of hormonal imbalance. Men, please see the box on page 84 if you are experiencing weight gain and emotional stress.
7. Do you have yeast overgrowth triggered by antibiotics, cortisone, or birth control pills?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 12, please turn to chapters seven and fifteen.
8. Do you have fatty acid deficiency?
Total Score __________ If your score is over 12, please turn to chapters eight and sixteen.
After you have finished tallying your symptoms in the questionnaire and reading the corresponding chapters, you will create your own Master Plan for the Diet Cure. This plan will include supplements, foods, and special support. When your Diet Cure Master Plan is completed, you will be ready to launch into week one, Detox Week.
If you have any questions about your scores, check the more detailed symptoms lists within the first eight chapters. Even if you have only a few key symptoms in a section, they may well indicate an imbalance that you should explore.
If you have so many high scores that you feel overwhelmed, just concentrate on your top-scoring imbalance. Go right to the corresponding action chapters in Part II. Seeing quick progress in that area will encourage you to move on to the next-highest-scoring imbalance. It will get much easier as you go along.
Depleted Brain Chemistry
The Real Story Behind “Emotional” Eating
Almost everyone who has ever come into my office has felt like a failure. “I just don’t seem to have the willpower to stay on a diet anymore,” or “I can never stick to the maintenance part of the plan.” Mostly, this is because they crave sweets or starchy carbs and can’t do without them for long. They start with “just a little” and end up eating a lot more than they feel they should. Often their spouses or other family members criticize them, saying, “Why don’t you just try harder?” or “If you’d just limit yourself to one…,” which only serves to make them feel even worse about themselves. “I guess they’re right,” they say, “I just don’t have enough self-discipline.” Yet oddly, these same people are usually doing well in every other aspect of their lives. They are effective at work, they keep the bills paid and the checkbook balanced, they organize their children’s lives beautifully. They mastermind professional projects while keeping their households and personal lives functioning. They are actually models of willpower.
We point this out. We remind them that they have lost weight—dozens, sometimes hundreds of times. Truly, there is nothing harder than dieting. Most of those critical spouses and family members could never stand the course of even one diet.
So if it’s not lack of willpower, what is wrong with you? Are you an emotional basket case who can’t get by without comfort food? If you had more strength, could you power through your problems without overeating? Should you feel ashamed of yourself for needing emotional sustenance from food? No! I hope to help you understand why you are using food as self-medication. It’s not because you are weak willed; it’s because you’re low in certain brain chemicals. You don’t have enough of the brain chemicals that should naturally be making you feel emotionally strong and complete.
These brain chemicals are thousands of times stronger than street drugs such as heroin. And your body has to have them. If not, it sends out a command that is stronger than anyone’s willpower: “Find a druglike food to briefly substitute for our brain’s missing comfort chemicals. We cannot function without them!” Your depression, tension, irritability, anxiety, and cravings are all symptoms of a brain that is deficient in the mood-enhancing and pleasure-promoting chemicals called neurotransmitters.
WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR NATURAL MOOD AND APPETITE REGULATORS?
Something has interfered with your neurotransmitters’ production. What is it? It’s obviously not too unusual, or there wouldn’t be so many people using food to feel better, or taking antidepressants for depression relief. Actually, there are several common problems that can result in your feel-good brain chemicals becoming depleted, and none of them are your fault!1
You may have inherited deficiencies. We are learning more all the time about the genes that determine our moods and other personality traits. Some genes program our brains to produce certain amounts of mood-enhancing chemicals. But some of us inherited genes that undersupply some of these vital mood chemicals. That is why some of us are not emotionally well balanced and why the same emotional traits seem to run in families. If your mother always seemed to be on edge, and had a secret stash of chocolate for herself, it should come as no surprise that you, too, need foods such as candy or cookies to calm yourself. Parents who have low supplies of naturally stimulating and sedating brain chemicals often produce depressed or anxious children who use food, alcohol, or drugs as substitutes for the brain chemicals they desperately need.
Prolonged stress “uses up” your natural sedatives, stimulants, and pain relievers. This is particularly true if you have inherited marginal amounts to begin with. The emergency stores of precious brain chemicals can get used up if you continually need to use them to calm yourself. Eventually your brain can’t keep up with the demand. That’s why you start to “help” your brain by eating foods that have druglike effects on it.
Regular use of druglike foods such as refined sugars and flours and regular use of alcohol or drugs (including some medicines) can inhibit the production of any of your brain’s natural pleasure chemicals. All of these substances can plug into your brain and actually fill up the empty places, called receptors, where your natural brain drugs—the neurotransmitters—should be plugging in. Your brain senses that the receptors are already full, so it further reduces the amounts of neurotransmitters that it produces. As the amounts of these natural brain chemicals drop (remember, they can be thousands of times stronger than the hardest street drugs), more and more alcohol, drugs, or druglike foods are needed to fill newly emptied brain slots. This vicious cycle ends when these substances you ingest are unable to fill the bill any longer. Now your brain’s natural mood resources, never fully functional, are more depleted than they ever were, and you still crave your mood-enhancing drugs—whether it’s sugar or alcohol and cocaine.
You may be eating too little protein. In fact, you almost certainly are if you’ve been dieting or avoiding fatty foods, many of which are high in protein, too. Your brain relies on protein—the only food source of amino acids—to make all of its mood-enhancing chemicals. If you are not getting enough protein, you won’t be able to manufacture those crucial chemicals. A little later in this chapter and in chapter eighteen, you’ll learn about complete and incomplete proteins, and what is “enough” protein for you. Simply put, eating the equivalent of three eggs, a chicken breast, or a fish or tofu steak at every meal should get you enough protein to keep your brain in good repair.
EATING FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS
At Recovery Systems, we treat people who use food to remedy a variety of negative emotional states. Here are the stories of some typical clients.
Monica ate for comfort. She needed a treat to get through the day. A pastry in the morning, chocolate in the afternoon, and a rich dessert after dinner made her life worth living, especially on bad days.
Sharon ate at night to get to sleep. She couldn’t fall asleep by ten or eleven o’clock, even on nights when she was not upset. Being upset made it worse. But a few bowls of cold cereal with milk and sugar would unravel her tension pretty reliably and help her fall asleep.
Paul ate because he was depressed. He ate more in the wintertime and during his lonely nights. Bread, pasta, and late-night bowls of ice cream were his antidepressants.
Brenda ate because she needed an energy boost. She needed sweets first thing in the morning to get her going and throughout the rest of the day to keep her going, especially during her afternoon energy dip at work.
Dinah ate to numb her painful memories. She had been sexually assaulted often as a child, and food had become her ally, something she could always count on to soothe her and literally kill the pain.
Brandon ate when he was angry. He stuffed himself with candy bars to keep from losing his temper, or after he’d finally exploded inappropriately, again.
Andrea “got high” by starving. When she ate, it not only made her feel fat and bloated, but she lost her elevated mood.
Our counselors found that with clients like these, no amount of therapy seemed to stop this “emotional” eating. I wondered if there could possibly be a physiological cause for this intractable behavior. Eventually, I would find my answer, but it would come from an unexpected source.
THE TOP CAUSE OF EMOTIONAL EATING
In the early 1980s, I became the director of a large San Francisco addiction treatment program. Our clients were very serious about getting sober, and we gave them the most intensive treatment available anywhere. Yet they could not stop using. Eighty to ninety percent relapse rates or worse were standard then, and still are, in the alcohol- and drug-addiction treatment field. Take the much-admired U.S. drug court program. A national study of seventy-six drug courts found a 10 percent success rate.2 Contrast that with a Sacramento, California, drug court program designed along Diet Cure lines, which has an 83 to 87 percent success rate according to two different studies and saved its county $20 million in its first ten years.3
As I studied the heartbreaking relapses, I began to see a pattern. Our clients had stopped drinking, but they had quickly developed a heavy addiction to sweets. Sugar and alcohol are highly refined, simple substances that are instantly absorbed, not needing digestion (complex carbs, like whole grains, need time to be digested). Both sugar and alcohol instantly (and temporarily) raise levels of several potent mood chemicals in the brain. This high would be followed by a low, of course. So, just as when they were using alcohol, our sugar-bingeing clients were often moody, unstable, and full of cravings. Since alcohol usually works even faster than sugar does, at some point, caught in a particularly low mood, they would break down and have a drink. One drink would become a full-blown relapse.
I began hiring nutritionists to help solve this disturbing relapse problem. They suggested to our clients that they quit eating sweetened foods, foods made from refined (white) flour, and caffeine, and that they eat more whole grains and vegetables. Unfortunately, these nutritional efforts didn’t pay off. For reasons that we understood only later, our clients just couldn’t stop eating the sweets and starches that eventually led them back to alcohol. For six years we struggled with finding a solution. Then, in 1986, we found one.
The solution came from Dr. Joan Mathews Larson, the director of a nutritionally oriented alcoholism-treatment center in Minneapolis. This brilliant pioneer, the author of Seven Weeks to Sobriety, introduced me to a technique that was quickly eliminating her alcoholic clients’ cravings and raising her center’s long-term success rate from 20 percent to 80 percent! The technique, based on the exciting research of neuroscientist Kenneth Blum, Ph.D., involved the use of specific amino acids that could rapidly feed the addicted brain exactly the type of protein that it needed to naturally fill up its empty neurotransmitter sites. This amino acid therapy revolutionized the work at our clinic, too, dramatically raising our success rates with alcohol- and drug-addicted clients. But our most spectacular successes were with our food-addicted clients: more than 90 percent of the compulsive overeaters we have treated with amino acid therapy have been freed from their food cravings within twenty-four hours.
USING AMINO ACIDS TO END FOOD ADDICTION
When psychological help does not clear up emotional eating, we need to look at the five brain chemicals that regulate our appetites and moods. They are:
1. Glucose; adequate levels keep our blood supplies stable (that means fewer cravings and less moodiness)
2. Endorphins, our natural comfort chemicals
3. Serotonin, our natural antidepressant and sleep promoter
4. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), our natural tranquilizer
5. Catecholamines, our natural energizers and mental focusers
If we have enough of all five, our emotions are stable. When they are depleted or out of balance, what we call “pseudo-emotions” can result. These false moods can be every bit as distressing as those triggered by abuse, loss, or trauma. They can drive us to relentless overeating.
For some of us, certain foods, particularly ones that are sweet and starchy, can have a druglike effect, altering our brains’ mood chemistry and fooling us into a false calm or a temporary energy surge. We can eventually become dependent on these druglike foods for continued mood lifts. The more we use them, the more depleted our natural mood-enhancing chemistry becomes. Substituting amino acid supplements for these drug foods can have immediate and dramatic effects.
Toni, a 26-year-old Native American, was referred to our clinic because she was exhausted, profoundly depressed, anxious, and suffering lifelong trauma from the physical and emotional violence of her family.
Toni drank alcohol and ate sweets to cope. She went regularly to her scheduled counseling sessions but was unable to rouse herself to communicate with her counselor. She had volunteered to come to Recovery Systems, hoping that a new approach would help. Toni had already been through three long-term treatment programs for alcohol addiction. Clearly, she was motivated to solve her problem.
When we saw Toni’s condition, the nutritionist and I conferred and decided to give her amino acids on the spot. I asked her to tell me one thing: What was the worst thing she was experiencing at that moment? She said, “I’m soooo tired.” Her slumped body and still, dull eyes confirmed this.
Our goal? To treat her lack of energy and depression by raising her levels of catecholamines, the body’s natural energizers. We gave her our smallest dose—500 milligrams of L-tyrosine. While we waited and hoped for an effect, I spoke about how and why amino acids can be helpful.
After about ten minutes, Toni said, “I’m not tired anymore.”
“Great!” I said. And then I asked my next question: “What is the worst thing you are experiencing, now that your energy is better?”
She answered by bending over and grasping herself around the stomach. “I’m really uptight.”
We then gave Toni the smallest dose of GABA—100 milligrams—
a natural Valium-like chemical. We suspected that this supplement would help relieve her tension and allow her to relax—and it did. She stretched her legs out in front of her and then stood up, got a glass of water, and went to the bathroom. While she was gone, her counselor came in and happened to tell me that Toni was in a lot of emotional pain because of the chronic alcoholic violence in her family. When her family members drank alcohol, they all became different people, vicious and cruel. And they had never been able to stay away from alcohol.
When Toni returned, I asked her, “Can we give you something to help you endure the emotional pain that you are in?” She said yes, so I gave her a supplement containing 300 milligrams DL-phenylalanine (DLPA) and 150 milligrams L-glutamine. (DLPA is the amino acid used to alleviate emotional pain by raising endorphin levels. Glutamine balances mood by leveling out blood sugar.)
In ten minutes I asked Toni how she was feeling, and she smiled and said, “Just right.”
I was incredulous. How could these small amounts really be helping her? Our European-American clients usually need two to four times as much of each type of amino acid to get such dramatic effects.
I asked if she would like any more of any of the aminos I had already given her for energy, relaxation, mood and pain relief. Her answer: “Just right,” and a shake of her head.
By this time Toni’s eyes were sparkling. Weeks later her counselor reported that by continuing with the amino acids she had first used in our office, Toni was actually talking for the first time in their counseling sessions, was being praised at work, was being noticed for the first time by men, and was staying sober and sugar-free without effort.
MOOD FOODS: HOW AMINO ACIDS FEED YOUR BRAIN
The four key neurotransmitters are made of amino acids. There are at least twenty-two amino acids contained in high-protein foods such as fish, eggs, chicken, and beef, including the nine amino acids that are considered essential for humans. Other foods, such as grains and beans, have fewer aminos, so they need to be carefully combined to provide complete protein (for example, rice and beans, or corn and nuts). Even then these foods contain much less protein, and the carb content is much higher.
If you are eating three meals a day, each meal including plenty of protein (most people with eating and weight problems are doing neither), your positive moods and freedom from cravings can be maintained. But most people need to kick-start the brain’s repair job, using certain key amino acids. This will allow you to actually enjoy eating protein and vegetables instead of cookies and ice cream. After a few months, you will be getting all the aminos you need from your food alone and won’t need to take amino acids as supplements any longer.
Amino Acids Help Post-Optifasters4
In a study published in October 1997, University of North Texas researcher Kenneth Blum and colleagues monitored two groups of dieters for two years after they had completed a medically monitored fast. The fasters had used the product Optifast, a powdered nutritional drink containing various vitamins and minerals, which dieters use to replace one, two, or even three meals a day. In Dr. Blum’s study, 247 Optifast graduates were divided into two equal groups. One group took the amino acids listed in this chapter. The other group took no amino acids. As we know from Oprah Winfrey’s highly publicized experience with Optifast and from the 1992 Senate investigation of Optifast and Nutrisystem, a quick regain of weight after a liquid fast is to be expected in more than 90 percent of cases. However, this did not happen to Dr. Blum’s amino-acid-taking group.
At the end of two years, the amino-acid takers showed:
a twofold decrease in percent overweight for both males and females;
a 70 percent decrease in cravings for females and a 63 percent decrease for males;
a 66 percent decrease in binge eating for females and a
41 percent decrease for males;
the experimental group regained only 14.7 percent of the weight they had lost during fasting, while the control group regained 41.7 percent of their lost weight.
Restoring depleted brain chemistry sounds like a big job—but it isn’t. Three of the four key neurotransmitters are made from just a single amino acid each! Because biochemists isolate these key amino acids and extract them from special yeasts, you can easily add the specific ones that may be deficient. These “free form” amino acids are instantly bioavailable (in other words, they are predigested), unlike protein powders from soy or milk, which are harder to absorb. Hundreds of research studies at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere have confirmed the effectiveness of using just a few of these targeted amino acid precursors to increase the key neurotransmitters, thereby eliminating depression, anxiety, and cravings for food, and even alcohol, and drugs. You can find out more about aminos and behavior in my book The Mood Cure.
STOPPING CARBOHYDRATE CRAVINGS CAUSED BY BLOOD SUGAR DROPS
It may sound impossible, but you might be able to stop your food cravings almost instantly with just one amino acid supplement. Any absence of fuel for your brain’s functions is perceived correctly by your body as a code-red emergency. Powerful biochemical messages then order you to immediately eat refined carbohydrates to quickly refuel your brain. There are only two fuels that the brain can readily use:
1. Glucose, which is blood sugar made instantly from sweets or starches (fats and protein can also be broken down to make glucose slowly and steadily)
2. Glutamine, an amino acid protein made from foods (and available as a supplement carried in all health food stores)
Glutamine reaches the starving brain within minutes and can often immediately put a stop to even the most powerful sweet and starch cravings. The brain is fueled by glutamine when glucose levels drop too low. Don’t be intimidated by the strong effects of supplementation. Glutamine is a natural food substance; in fact, it’s the most abundant amino acid in our bodies. It serves many critical purposes: stabilizing our mental functioning, keeping us calm yet alert, and promoting good digestion.5
DO YOU USE CARBS AND CAFFEINE FOR ENERGY AND FOCUS?
When your brain is adequately fueled with its backup supplies of glutamine, you are ready to rebuild your four key neurotransmitters, starting with the catecholamines, your natural caffeine. Without these natural brain stimulants, you can be slowed down and have a hard time concentrating. You’re less animated and enthusiastic. Your physical as well as your mental energy can drop without adequate catecholamines. The amino acid that provides this jet fuel is the nutritional powerhouse L-tyrosine, which produces the four catecholamines—L-dopa, dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine—and it goes to work in minutes.
DO YOU EAT WHEN STRESSED?
The next key mood-enhancing chemical is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), our natural Valium. GABA acts like a sponge, soaking up excess adrenaline and other by-products of stress and leaving us relaxed. It can drain the tension and stiffness right out of knotted muscles. GABA can even smooth out seizure activity in the brain. Think what it can do for garden-variety stress and uptightness and the urge to eat when stressed (which more than 60 percent of us do).
How Effective Are L-tyrosine and GABA?
A young couple came into my office for help with a big problem. She had discovered that her husband was using speed (methamphetamine) on a daily basis. Her father had just died of alcoholism, and she had come home from the funeral to discover her husband with his drugs laid out on the kitchen table. She was distraught and furious (she had always been tense and edgy, anyway) and stuffing herself with candy. She told him he had three days to assemble a recovery plan or move out. He threw his drugs away and made an appointment to see me. He had started to use speed on the road as a performer when his energy had started to sag years before. Over the years, he found himself always tired unless he was on speed. He’d been secretly using it daily for years. When he got to me, he had used no speed in two days, and he was exhausted, trying hard to stay awake and craving sugar.
As they sat together, the husband was slumped dejectedly back into his chair, and his wife was ramrod straight on the edge of hers. I left to consult briefly with our nutritionist and came back with 1,000 milligrams of L-tyrosine for the husband and 100 milligrams of GABA for his wife. Within twenty minutes, the wife was sitting back, relaxed and smiling, while her husband was straight-backed and alert. Correcting their brain chemistries helped enormously in getting their marriage back on track: He left the next day for an inpatient treatment program; she went home with her GABA. Now, fifteen years later, he has not used drugs since. He is back on stage and his energy is fine without drugs, largely because of the L-tyrosine that he used for six months to rebuild his own brain energy system. His wife relaxes with her GABA whenever she needs to. Neither overeats.
LOW ENDORPHINS: WHEN FOOD IS COMFORT
For many people, overeating helps compensate for a depletion of our powerful natural pain relievers, the endorphins. Life’s pain can be unendurable without adequate amounts of these buffer chemicals. Some of us (for example, those of us from alcoholic families) may be born with too little natural pain tolerance. We are overly sensitive to emotional (and sometimes physical) pain. We cry easily. Like our alcoholic parents, we need something to help us endure our daily lives, which seem so painful. Others of us use up too much endorphin through chronic pain, trauma, or stress. We just run out, especially if we were born short on endorphins to begin with. When our comfort chemicals run low, we turn to comfort foods.
If you need food as a reward and a treat, or to numb your feelings, your natural pleasure enhancers, the pain-killing endorphins, are probably in short supply. Foods that elevate your endorphin activity can easily become addictive. If you “love” certain foods, those foods are firing a temporary surge of endorphins—the “love” chemicals that are thousands of times stronger than heroin. Endorphins can do more than kill pain; they provide the sensation of pleasure, too. Sex releases a surge of endorphins. Euphoria, joy, the “runner’s high”—these are all feelings produced by endorphins. Some people have so much natural endorphin that they smile all the time and get great pleasure from everyday life. Of course, we all endure suffering and loss. But with enough endorphins, we can bounce back.
For anorexics and bulimics, the trauma of starving and vomiting can trigger an addictive endorphin high, because trauma of any kind can set off an automatic burst of soothing endorphins. You may know of people who felt no pain for hours after a terrible physical injury. Runners don’t get their big endorphin high until they have run past “the wall of pain.” At that point, they have run too far!6
LOW SEROTONIN: WHEN YOU USE CARBS FOR ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, OR INSOMNIA
This can be the easiest deficiency of all to develop. Very few foods are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which is the only nutrient that the body can use to make serotonin. According to a 1997 study in the UK’s top medical journal, The Lancet, tryptophan is one of the first nutrients to be depleted by weight loss dieting. If, in addition to dieting, you inherited low serotonin levels or experience a lot of stress, your levels can fall low enough to set off regular carb cravings in the afternoon and evenings to soothe worry, depression, fear, anger, insomnia, and more.
Restoring your serotonin levels can be a life-or-death matter: Suicides and violent crimes are closely associated with deficiencies of serotonin. The sometimes-fatal obsessions and self-hate of bulimics and anorexics are clearly linked to inadequate or disturbed serotonin function as well.7
Obsessive fears and phobias are common among people with low serotonin levels. Do you have any obsessions that might be caused by low serotonin? The men and women I have worked with who report obsessive behavior tend to be “neatniks” and suffer from negative obsessing about their physical appearance. As we all know, anorexics are driven to obsessively control their food intake.
It may be a difficult adjustment for you to begin to view symptoms such as perfectionism, fear, and low self-esteem as biochemical problems and not just psychological ones. But the success of antidepressants like Prozac has already alerted us to the biochemical nature of many symptoms that don’t respond to psychological help alone.
Drugs like Prozac are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), because they keep whatever serotonin we have active. But they do not actually provide additional serotonin. For this reason, most people using SSRIs often continue to have some low-serotonin symptoms. Before there were SSRIs, the pharmaceutical compound L-tryptophan was commonly used to increase serotonin levels. For more than twenty years, psychiatrists and health food stores enthusiastically recommended it for relieving depression and food cravings and normalizing sleep without side effects. Many people found that their symptoms were eliminated permanently after only a few months of L-tryptophan use.
In 1989, a single bad batch of L-tryptophan, which killed several people and made many more very sick, prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ask for a voluntary ban on U.S. sales. One Japanese company, Showa Denko, had produced this contaminated batch. Showa Denko has never made tryptophan again. Despite evidence that no other manufacturer has ever made a problem batch, until 2005 the FDA recommended that L-tryptophan not be sold as a supplement. (Interestingly, it has made no effort to stop the sale of infant formula, most of which contains added L-tryptophan.)8
With L-tryptophan unavailable, drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa have become our primary tools for combating the crippling symptoms of low serotonin. Unfortunately, these drugs provide only temporary and incomplete benefits, and often have uncomfortable or dangerous side effects, including weight gain and diabetes. Fortunately, in 1998 a different version of tryptophan called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) became available over the counter. The positive effects of 5-HTP on appetite and weight loss have since been documented.9
In 2005, L-tryptophan, which converts into 5-HTP as well as other important biochemicals like niacin, was made available again, with FDA approval, online and in stores. Both forms work beautifully to stop afternoon, evening, and winter carb cravings. They both help tremendously with insomnia. Since insomnia is closely correlated with weight gain (and many other problems), this is an important added benefit. Note: tryptophan is often best when insomnia is a particularly serious problem.
Whatever mood-enhancing brain chemicals may be in short supply can be replenished quickly, easily, and safely. Chapter nine will provide instructions on how to create an amino supplement plan individualized for your unique brain chemistry needs.
For much more on this fascinating subject, see my second book, The Mood Cure.
Malnutrition Due to Low-Calorie Dieting
The Number Two Cause of Overeating, Weight Gain, Bulimia, and Anorexia
Have you ever dieted? Do you skip meals for any reason? Do you try to eat fewer than 2,100 calories a day? Of course you do; you’re a twenty-first-century American trapped in a weight gain spiral. Dieting seems the obvious solution.…Too bad it’s only made things worse.
In fact, America really is on a killer diet. Although low-calorie dieting has demonstrated no long-term success rate (and despite low-calorie dieting, the majority of Americans are now overweight for the first time in history), the lure of dieting continues to be irresistible. We are dieting more frequently, more radically, and at younger ages every year. In 1964, a Harris poll found that 15 percent of adults were dieting. By 1992, 70 percent of women and 50 percent of men were dieters, as were 80 percent of seventh-grade girls.1 The result: an unprecedented epidemic of overweight, obesity, and diabetes.
Food restriction has since become an established fact of dietary life for most Americans. In the twenty-first century, though, a new kind of dieting has evolved: Although many dieters still take stabs at formal programs such as Weight Watchers or South Beach, most tend to create their own weight loss regimens. In the process, the distinction between dieting and healthy eating is becoming ever more confused. For instance, we have normalized skipping meals (especially breakfast); we substitute coffee, diet soda, iced tea, and energy drinks for real food; we favor low-fat and low-cal products; and we snack instead of eating complete meals.
The Failure of Low-Calorie Dieting
The results of a 12-month study of four popular diets: All had 50–60 percent drop-out rates, and those who continued achieved an average weight loss of only 5.5 pounds in twelve months.2
A government review of 55 studies found no sustained weight loss at all after 12 months.3
Two-thirds of dieters soon regain more weight than they ever lose.4
The more weight initially lost, the greater the rebound weight gain.5
As you’ll see in this chapter, any style of low-calorie dieting guarantees weight increase over time and contributes significantly to the general decline in physical and mental health that we are facing now in the United States, and that you, personally, are probably experiencing.
THE CALORIE CONTROVERSY
Unfortunately, low-calorie dieting just adds up to starvation. Your body can’t tell the difference between Jenny Craig’s packaged meals and concentration-camp fare. It’s a startling comparison to make, but the consequences of depriving yourself of food are always the same, whether the deprivation is voluntary or not.
If you have been a serious dieter, your average daily caloric intake has frequently dropped below the amount provided at the Nazi concentration camp at Treblinka: 900 per day. When I give this figure to female high school and college students, they gasp. They think of 900 calories as generous and regard 2,500 calories per day as “gross.” You may agree with them. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards indicate that 2,500 calories is the minimum amount of calories an adolescent or adult woman needs to get the minimum amounts of life-sustaining nutrients such as iron. Men need at least 2,800 calories a day. But it’s not just the calories we need; eating 2,500 to 2,800 calories of junk food won’t protect us from malnutrition, either. We need plenty of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and fats, as well as healthy carbohydrates, for our bodies to function properly.
Frankly, uniform caloric recommendations don’t seem to exist. Even the Nutrition Desk Reference (NDR), a hefty, 672-page tome, offers no comment on calories at all. It uses a phrase that’s found everywhere: “If the daily caloric intake is 2,000…” You’ll notice that the serving sizes on almost all packaged foods are based on the mysterious 2,000-calorie number.
Fortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) has solved our problem through its experience with worldwide emergency food shortages. It has established that starvation begins at fewer than 2,100 calories per day. The organization uses this calculation as a basis for determining its guidelines for emergency food aid: 2,300 calories for women and 2,500 for men.
There are two things that nutrition experts all agree on:
1. Junk-food calories are hazardous. Sugar, white flour, and junk fats, while high in calories, are health hazards that offer nutritional depletion instead of nourishment. Unfortunately, they account for most of our calories, yet they do nothing to supply the essential food and nutrients our bodies need. Obviously, junk foods are the worst promoters of unneeded weight gain.
2. U.S. women don’t eat enough food. On any given day, half eat fewer than 1,500 calories. That makes our average intake less than 1,800 calories per day.6 All sources agree: this is not enough food to keep our calorie furnace going. The more food you eat, the faster you burn calories (unless you have a thyroid impairment or you overeat). Are you skipping meals, cutting calories whenever you can, and eating too much fast food? It’s that easy to move into malnutrition. Like so many of us, you are probably too rushed to prepare fresh, whole foods—which, as you will learn in chapters eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, is crucial and not as difficult as you may think. Fast and packaged foods you choose for convenience contain few nutrients. Most of the essential vitamins and minerals you need have been destroyed in processing (such as the refining of sugar or flour) and are not adequately supplied by the few synthetic nutrients that may have been added back in.
We all need nutrient-rich calories. They do not typically add unneeded weight, even if we eat lots of them. Please, try to stop counting calories and fat grams. If you follow your individualized Diet Cure program and eat foods that make you feel strong and energetic, you’ll be doing fine; you will lose unneeded pounds and settle into your body’s own ideal weight. Chapter eighteen will give you the details of how to get the best calories; how many calories just doesn’t seem to matter much. Our clinic has almost never had a problem with clients eating too many calories (only too few), as long as the calories were high quality. The truth is that low-calorie dieting not only doesn’t work; it’s actually surprisingly dangerous. This chapter will explain how it may have harmed you. Chapter ten will tell you what you can do about it.
A FEW OF THE HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF LOW-CALORIE DIETING
Gallstones caused by liquid fasting and diets under 800 calories a day; 25 percent of very-low-calorie dieters must have their gallbladders removed
Increased risk of developing diabetes
Bone loss at hip and spine7
Thyroid suppression (slowed metabolism, fatigue)
Decreased sexual interest
Loss of muscle and exercise capacity8
Increased depression and anxiety
Mental dullness (lower scores on intelligence tests)
Stroke, caused by diet pills
Binge eating and bulimia
Anorexia (20 percent death rate)
Decreased life expectancy
Dieters and Drugs
Dieters know that hunger pangs can be powerful, and rather than listen to their bodies’ cries for more food they often pacify themselves with drugs that will silence those pleas. Some of these drugs seem relatively benign at first; however, dieters can become more and more dependent on them. For years, dieters have recognized the power of cigarettes in squelching hunger. The vast majority of fashion models smoke, and cigarettes are often packaged for women with subtle messages about being “long” and “slim.” Many people have come to rely on caffeine, either in coffee, colas, or over-the-counter diet pills. Amphetamines can be an alluring appetite suppressant as well.
Then, too, sometimes people indulge in drugs to alter their moods and perceptions, to loosen up and feel better about themselves, or for an energy pickup (a need you’ll experience quite often if you aren’t eating right). Often they think that since their use is “casual,” they don’t have to worry about the physical toll these drugs are taking on them, much less the possibility of addiction. I truly hope that if you are using any of these drugs, you are not yet addicted to them. Ask yourself the following:
Am I drinking more caffeine—either as coffee or in diet sodas—or more alcohol to satisfy my need for more food?
Have I ever used harder drugs to stifle hunger pangs?
Am I using drugs, such as Phentermine, Dexatrim, or stronger stimulants to stay thin?
If you answer yes to any of these, you’re skating on thin ice. I can’t tell you when the ice will crack beneath you, but I can tell you that you’ll need to get help escaping from the danger zone of addiction once you’ve entered it. It will be important to find therapeutic support in the form of counseling and twelve-step programs. You should also read chapters one and nine on brain chemistry, since brain chemistry imbalances are responsible for cravings for street (and pharmaceutical) drugs. And read my second book, The Mood Cure (Penguin Books, 2003), which gives detailed information on effectively using nutrition to escape addiction.
THE LEGACY OF THE 1970S: THE DIETING AND JUNK-FOOD GENERATIONS GROW UP MALNOURISHED
The malnourishment of the typical American female started with the baby boomers, who grew up after World War II. With plenty of food available, and with access to vitamin-fortified grains and milk and iodine-enriched salt, they grew up with no fear of malnutrition and its related diseases. They didn’t worry about pellagra (caused by vitamin B3/niacin deficiency) or beriberi (caused by B1/thiamine deficiency), which were real threats to previous generations, killing and crippling millions worldwide. Perhaps as a result, the boomers easily fell for the Twiggy look, popularized by the famous emaciated model who appeared in the magazines of the early 1960s. The thin, boyish look for women was suddenly in, while natural womanly curves and body fat were out. Starving—low-calorie dieting—was now sophisticated and glamorous. By the seventies, dieting had become an entrenched (and immensely profitable) enterprise. Since then, on any given day, more than half the adult and adolescent females in the United States can be found restricting their caloric intake. Men have latched onto the dieting craze, too, especially young men and gay men.
Dieting is particularly dangerous because it radically diminishes what we now know are marginal nutrient resources. USDA household food consumption surveys in 1965 showed that three basic nutrients were seriously deficient in American food: vitamins A, C, and B6. By 1990, adequate amounts of thirteen basic nutrients had been lost to the typical American diet: vitamins A, C, B6, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid; and the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, and chromium!9
Diseases of malnutrition that haven’t been seen in generations are starting to crop up again. Scurvy, a severe vitamin C deficiency marked by a rash and bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes, is normally seen only in countries in which starvation is common. But in 1993, a 14-year-old girl in Detroit was diagnosed with full-blown scurvy. It wasn’t that she wasn’t eating; it was that she had junk-food malnutrition. Though high in calories, her entire diet consisted of burgers, shakes, fries, candy, and soda pop.
British expert Mervat Nasser documents the effects of U.S.-style fast food in Egypt, the UK and elsewhere in her book Culture and Weight Consciousness. Poor-quality, highly addictive food appears to be causing weight increases and diabetes worldwide. This is followed by dieting, which leads to perpetual weight struggles and eating disorders.10
CHILDREN AND TEENS BEGIN DIETING IN LARGE NUMBERS
I am particularly concerned about people who dieted as children. A 1981 report on levels of twelve basic nutrients found that dieting girls 15 to 18 years old were seriously deficient in eleven of them! Why? Largely because since the 1960s, young girls have become regular dieters. Like so many of them, did you begin to diet because you were terrified by the weight gain that is normal in puberty? Prepubescent girls’ bodies are only 10 to 15 percent fatter than boys’, but they are genetically programmed to eventually develop twice as much fatty tissue in their breasts, hips, thighs, and stomachs. As your body grew natural and healthy curves in your teens, did you start dieting as a way of life? Did dieting become totally confused with normal eating for you, as it has for most American girls, and for perhaps most American adults as well?
The fact is that when children and teens diet, their fat cells double in size and increase in number. Their already naturally escalated fat production can double, sending them off on a lifetime of unnecessary dieting.
As the first baby boomers’ children, born in the 1960s, reached puberty in the 1970s, a bizarre and tragic consequence of dieting became apparent. A new wave of eating disorders, directly linked to low-calorie dieting, was building toward what has become an epidemic in the 1990s. A significant 1991 study identifying the risk factors for developing an eating disorder found that a history of dieting and being born after 1960 topped the list.11
Skipping meals, food restricting, low-calorie dieting, fasting, excessive exercise, and diet pill use have become the norm among American females of all ages. It is not a big step from these “casual” dieting practices to bulimia and anorexia. More and more girls, women, and, increasingly, men are crossing this line every day.
ANOREXIA AND BULIMIA: THE DIRECT CONSEQUENCES OF NUTRIENT RESTRICTION
Has deliberately skipping meals evolved into occasional all-day fasting and eventually become compulsive fasting—or anorexia? You may have found how easily you can get rid of the food consumed during a “pig-out” by vomiting or taking diet pills or laxatives. The use of these purging methods can become more frequent as bulimia and addiction to diet pills and laxatives take over.
The high school and college girls who come to my lectures report that 60 to 80 percent of all the girls at their schools binge, purge, and starve on a regular basis. It is discussed openly; there is no real stigma left. In fact, many girls want to be anorexic. They are disappointed if they can’t throw up and become bulimic. In a 1995 University of Michigan study, 86 percent of the 557 incoming freshmen women were dieters. Three percent were bulimic. Within six months, an additional 19 percent of the dieters had become bulimic. In total, 22 percent of freshmen girls were bulimic within six months of entering college. Although this study ended at six months, we can assume a continued increase in bulimia and the emergence of anorexia among these dieting students over time. In fact, dieters are eight times more likely than non-dieters to develop eating disorders, according to the head of psychiatry at Tufts University and eating disorder expert L. K. George Hsu, MD.12
Puberty and adolescence are especially dangerous times for undereating, because the body is still growing. During this critical period, rapidly developing bodies already require at least 2,500 high-quality calories per day, yet many girls at this age, if not most, try to limit themselves to fewer than 1,000 calories a day, and often those are junk-food calories. This starvation dieting can quickly develop into compulsive eating, bulimia, and anorexia. In fact, two 14-year-old anorexic girls came to the Recovery Systems Clinic recently. Their eating disorders had started after their very first diets.
As with anorexia, bulimia is rooted in the dieting mentality. Miranda’s story is a sadly typical one. A 24-year-old beauty with a well-proportioned and muscular body, Miranda found herself close to the upper weight limit for her height. (Muscle is heavier than fat.) She had never dieted in her life, but when she went to flight attendant training school, she noticed that most of the other trainees were regular dieters. At the school, which served fast food, she did not get her usual nutritious food or her usual exercise. She found herself gaining a little weight. Concerned that she might go over the weight limit, she began skipping meals. Soon her starving had turned to bingeing and vomiting. By the time she left the training, only two months later, she had developed unbearable sweet cravings and was bingeing and purging at least once a day. Even back home on her exercise program and healthy diet, she could not shake the cravings. Her bulimia progressed. Miranda came to our clinic at age 27, obsessed and miserable, bingeing and purging three to five times per day. I’m happy to say that through using the supplements outlined in chapter ten and following the Diet Cure plan, many bulimic women like Miranda have been able to return to their original weight and health.
Why is it so easy to become a bulimic? One reason is that both bingeing and vomiting can trigger waves of potent brain chemicals, the endorphins. The release of these natural heroin-like brain chemicals helps establish the powerful compulsions that bulimics are helpless to fight. When we develop false ideas about what we “should” weigh and begin dieting, we open ourselves up to the possibility of developing an eating disorder, just as Miranda did.
A growing number of women—and men—are forced by the dieting mentality into the danger zone of anorexia. They have literally lost their appetites as well as weight. No longer protected by healthy rebound food cravings, they never get to the point where they “just have to have a steak.” When low-calorie dieting becomes a way of life, so does the descent through the levels of starvation.
A few months into her first-ever diet, 14-year-old Courtney developed most of the symptoms of full-blown anorexia. She was chronically sick with colds and flu, lost her period, and was too weak to exercise. She quit going out with her friends and just stayed at home. She developed radical mood swings that included irritability, hysteria, and insomnia. Soon it became easy for her to starve; an apple could last her all day.
Courtney’s symptoms are classic signs of malnutrition. In the concentration camps, the starving prisoners made tiny amounts of food last all day, too. How do the starving survive? How do anorexics endure working out for hours each day in the gym, like the Nazis’ slave laborers?
Most of the anorexics whom I have worked with actually get high on starvation. Anorexia triggers the same kind of powerful high that opiates like heroin trigger in drug users. How do we know? When anorexics are given drugs that prevent opiates from affecting them, they go into sudden withdrawal, just as heroin users do. Their highs are cut off. It turns out that anorexic starvation, like bulimic vomiting and bingeing, is a traumatic experience that can stimulate a deep survival mechanism: The release of endorphins, the powerful, natural druglike chemicals that allow us to experience pleasure. They also kill pain and ease stress. If your body has become addicted to these natural opiates and you resume normal healthy eating, you will miss the endorphin highs. Like laboratory monkeys who pull the lever that gives them heroin in preference to food or drink until they die, an anorexic will ferociously defend her refusal to eat for powerful biochemical reasons. Bulimics binge and refuse to keep food down with a similar ferocity, and for the same reasons. This obsessive behavior is actually caused by nutritional deficiencies—which, thankfully, we now know how to address.
HOW VITAMIN AND MINERAL DEFICIENCIES CAN LEAD TO ANOREXIA
Let’s take just two vitamin and mineral deficiencies commonly caused by low-calorie dieting and trace their course as they trigger the symptoms of eating disorders.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine). Easily depleted by undereating, this is one of the nutrients that your body cannot make itself, so you must get B1 from foods, primarily the whole foods that chronic dieters and people with eating disorders rarely eat enough of: beans, whole grains, seeds, meats, and vegetables.
Common Early Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency
Loss of appetite
Lack of well-being
At some point in your dieting, your B1 levels may have dropped into the danger zone. You were still the same person, but one day you had just enough B1, the next day you didn’t, and the symptoms of anorexia began to erupt, like sores do on the skin of people with vitamin C deficiency. Anorexia actually just means “loss of appetite.” When a condition such as vitamin B1 deficiency kills your appetite, you eat less, particularly if you are dieting to begin with. Suddenly, dieting becomes easy. You aren’t fighting a normal appetite anymore. You lost it when you lost too much vitamin B1 from dieting. We literally are what we don’t eat. You can’t control what is lost in a diet. It isn’t just your body fat that is lost; it’s your muscle and bone, and brain tissue, too. Anorexics have empty spaces that show up on brain scans where they have literally lost brain weight.
Zinc. This mineral is hard to find in foods, even when we are not dieting. Red meat, egg yolk, and sunflower seeds are high in zinc. But these are fatty foods, and red meat has a bad name, so they are not likely to be included in dieters’ meals. According to eating disorders specialist and nutrition researcher Alex Schauss, Ph.D., study results from Stanford University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of California, Davis, agreed that most anorexics and many overeaters and bulimics were zinc deficient.13 The influential mineral zinc is the second most abundant trace element in the body. A classic symptom of zinc deficiency is loss of normal appetite. Without enough zinc, the body can register only extreme sweetness, saltiness, or spiciness as having any taste. Simple, healthy food becomes unappetizing. In anorexics, little or no appetite remains at all. Other common zinc-deficiency symptoms are apathy, lethargy, retarded growth, and interrupted sexual development. One five-year study, reported by Dr. Schauss, showed an astounding 85 percent recovery rate for anorexia in patients given zinc supplementation. It concluded: “The zinc supplementation resulted in weight gain, better body function and improved outlook.”14 At Recovery Systems we, too, have had success using zinc (along with other nutrients) to help stop the cravings of overeaters and bulimics as well as the appetite loss of anorexics. Clients report that junk foods actually begin to be repellent, sweets are “too sweet,” and vegetables and other formerly “boring” foods taste much better once they have taken enough zinc.
It’s especially important for teens to get enough zinc. During puberty, reproductive development is at its height. Zinc is crucial for reproductive function as well as appetite, immune function, and mental clarity. If dieting reduces the supply of zinc and other minerals at this nutrient-demanding growth stage, not only can appetite disappear but eventually a girl’s menstruation may taper off, along with her mental function, as an eating disorder sets in. In boys and men, zinc is a key ingredient in sperm and protects against prostate problems as well as weak immunity.
Fortunately, these deficiencies are easily addressed with supplements and foods. In chapter ten you will find specific nutritional suggestions to help you if you are anorexic or bulimic.
IS THERE AN IDEAL WEIGHT?
Finding the ideal weight is a dilemma for most women—and increasing numbers of men—in this country and abroad. It’s heartbreaking that so many people are caught in this terrible bind: On the one hand, the food industry urges us to eat unhealthy, addictive foods that make it impossible for us to stay at our optimal, genetically programmed weights. On the other hand, the diet and fashion industries and the media torture us with images of bodies that most people really should not have, that can be created only by starving or “carving.”
There are as many ideal weights as there are people. You may have heard of the three body types known as ectomorph (thin), mesomorph (medium, muscular build), and endomorph (stocky). In India, these same three types have been recognized for six thousand years and are called pitta, vata, and kaffa. Many studies warn us that it is actually more dangerous to have a low weight for your body type than a heavier weight. In his book Big Fat Lies, exercise physiology professor Glenn A. Gaesser makes it clear that fitness (that is, good health status) has little or nothing to do with low weight. Weight loss, for any reason, raises the rate of premature death by 240 percent, according to fifteen studies cited by Gaesser.
As you try to answer the weight question for yourself, keep in mind that the obesity epidemic has resulted in an unprecedented mass distortion of our ancient genetic weight programming. Prior to the 1970s, when our weight began to fluctuate and gradually excalate, the average healthy woman worldwide was 5′4″ tall, weighed 145 pounds, and had almost 29 percent body fat. (The average man had 11 percent body fat at age 20 and 25 percent at age 60.)
Weight and body mass index charts never were an accurate gauge of healthy body weight; the numbers on these charts have been yo-yoing for years as various groups fought over what is “normal” weight. For example, if you were a 5′5″ woman, according to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company chart of 1959, depending on your frame (measured at your elbow) you could be between 111 and 143 pounds and be considered healthy. In 1983, those numbers were bumped up—now you could weigh between 117 and 155. Then again, in the 1990s, the USDA said that the healthy weight range for a 5′5″ woman is 114 to 150, depending not on your frame but on your age. Meanwhile, the task force of the National Institutes of Health said that, based on body mass, a 5′5″ woman is overweight if she’s above 144 pounds, though until last year its figures said you could have weighed as much as 156.