Addictive, Pervasive, and Seductive

I got this question from a reader and thought it so important that I’m posting the response here rather than bury it in an old post.

Your question:

what concerns me is so many people write in saying they’re doing induction again (and again and again) because even though they love low carb and lost weight, they went off the diet and gained all the weight back. i’m quite interested in low carb but if it works so well why does everyone go off it?

Is a damn good one – I wonder why it hasn’t been asked before.

My answer is that carbs are addictive, pervasive, and seductive. They mess with your blood sugar and can give you a high, they surround us in our homes, offices, and on every street corner, and they taste good.

You can live quite nicely on Atkins – you can eat a wide variety of foods and not be hungry – yet still lose weight. But it takes eternal vigilance to avoid an addictive substance that is in most processed foods, and is offered up by well-meaning friends a dozen times a day.

You end up having to commit to a lifestyle that makes you different than others. I’ve heard my office is having a beer and pizza day in the near future – I won’t be having either. Will this make me look like I’m not participating because of some issue that I have with the company? While it’s not the case, it might be the perception. Someone brings in donuts – can’t have them. A birthday party? You hear: “you’ve GOT to have a piece of cake.”

Do you want to lose weight on Atkins and keep it off? Then you have to be that person who asks if there’s any carbs in the salad dressing at a restaurant – see the server look confused and run back to the kitchen. Will they come back with the right answer? Who knows? Order diet soda. Do they fill the glass with diet or the real stuff? Can’t be sure, so I order seltzer or stick with water. Going to a dinner party? You might have to inquire to the host if there will be something to eat that’s low carb – if you don’t explain this you risk going hungry, offending the host because you don’t eat, or giving in, eating the carbs, and potentially backsliding into a high-carb lifestyle.

If you are the type that likes to ‘fit in’ – you won’t. It’s a great diet for iconoclasts and nonconformists who don’t care about this sort of thing or like to be different, but you’ll stand out in a crowd.

Like hardcore vegetarians, severe diabetics, and other people with very exacting dietary restrictions, you will be that ‘pain in the ass’ at the restaurant table.

The people here have decided that it’s worth the effort, even when they periodically backslide.

10 thoughts on “Addictive, Pervasive, and Seductive

  1. Wow, thanks lcc, I needed that. Sometimes, it’s tough here on Mars……but worth it…most of the time.

  2. LCC hit the nail on the proverbial head with this one, and I can’t help but take a few hammer whacks at it myself:

    I’m always somewhat embarrassed when I say I’m “back on Atkins.” If Atkins is so great, why did it fail me? Answer: IT didn’t fail me, I failed IT. As mentioned in the post, carbs are EVERYwhere. There are two times that I know from experience are the most difficult to stay the low carb course: at the beginning, and once you’ve reached your goal.

    At the start of doing low carb, there are adjustments to go through, physical, mental, and behavioral. If you can make it through that period, you’re likely going to succeed in losing weight and getting healthier as long as you’re following the plan. A couple of weeks into induction, a person (an inductee?) should have lost just about all physical craving for carbs, similar to how a smoker off cigarettes for two weeks is no longer under the influence of the addictive characteristics of nicotine and can settle in to battling their behavioral cues to smoke.

    There are just as many behavioral and social cues to eat as there are to smoke, maybe even more. The birthday cake is a good example: “Just once, come on, what can one little piece hurt, and then you can go back on your silly diet.” (Pizza is easier to deal with because you can scrape all the good stuff off the crust and eat it with a fork. The worst offender here is the inevitably sugar-laden sauce, and if you’re careful, most of that can stay with the crust.) But if a person is losing weight by eating low carb and is not hungry or suffering social anguish, he or she is probably gaining a certain amount of personal strength of conviction that serves to make publicly avoiding carbs enjoyable. One does not have to feel they are a pariah, even if they are sometimes a ‘pain in the ass’ under certain circumstances.

    The other terrible period where many of us backslide is during long-term maintenance. We may become complacent, even smug about our triumph. Eventually, perhaps we go to a nice restaurant for dinner and have a small piece of bread, or a half of a potato, or a small dessert, and nothing bad happens the next day, the low carb world doesn’t end. Like teenagers, we may start to feel we are invincible (in a nutritional sense). We stop weighing ourselves. We eat more carb-laden ‘treats’ in the mistaken belief that they ‘don’t affect’ us anymore, as if our bodies had been trained to convert them into air. We forget the science, we deny the truth, and we wind up repeating history. It is a human foible.

    But, like a smoker who quits and then starts up again, one does not have to accept that the process is a failure and should be given up. One gets back on the horse, or the bike, or the wagon, and tries again. Each time tried, rather than an indication of failure, is a reaffirmation of the process. People don’t keep trying to do something that doesn’t work or in which they can’t have faith. Belief that what you are attempting to do is in your best interest is a powerful motivator to keep doing it, even if you can’t do it ‘perfectly.’ ‘Practice makes perfect’ goes the axiom, and the more you do something, the better you get at it. So it is with the low carb lifestyle.

    Don’t be discouraged if you have fallen from low carb grace, so to speak. We live in a world where flour and sugar have wrongly become king and queen, and fat has been cast as the evil dragon. But in this fairy tale, we are the ones who must slay the royal family and rescue the poor beast who is actually the true heir to the throne. Draw your sword!

  3. This is a poignant question to ask right now, as I am in my third week of “re-induction” and have reflected on it recently. I asked myself “what, did I get tired of feeling thin and attractive? Did I tire of feeling clear headed, motivated and full of energy?” No, of course not. But, after my husband and I reached our goals (in ’99-’00), we got complacent. A big part of the problem was that we were very young and had little money and I had little cooking skills (and he had fewer). This was back in 2001 when I finished graduate school. We moved across several states, I started a new career and was working constantly that first year. My husband does not have an adventurous palate, and was content with the the “meat, salad, hot vegetable” formula for dinner. I, on the other hand, was so sick of that every day I often chose not to eat at all. In fact, I was so busy working, and so resentful of my husband’s disdain for my kitchen experiments, that I stopped cooking dinner all together. We didn’t have much money to spend on experimentation, spices, exotic cheeses, etc. anyway and I didn’t have the cooking experience to ensure success to make it worth it, nor the time to learn. So, slowly but surely, quick and cheap meals like spaghetti, burritos, potatoes, made their way back into our lives. At then end of 2002 I became pregnant (on purpose πŸ˜‰ ) and for the first few months was so nauseous all the time, all I could force down was macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. The smell of cooking meat sent me to the bathroom on my knees! By the second trimester I was craving carbs like an addict, and hey, I was pregnant, so I gave in. Besides, pregnancy is no time to be “dieting” anyway, right? After the baby was born, I nursed for several months, also not a time to be “dieting”. The weight gain had been tolerable for both of us, so we continued on our path to complete destruction. In 2005 we had another child and I nursed again for several months. In 2006 I committed to loosing the weight I had put on over the last several years. I started to watch calories (instead of carbs) and exercise 3-4 days per week (but following no specific “diet” plan and not being very consistent with the exercise, I freely admit). Over the next 2 years, I put on another 15 pounds. Which brings us to today. My husband decided he was going back on Atkins in January, without me. When I saw him starting to lose weight, I thought, “I am being stubborn and stupid” and in February I joined him.
    How will it be different this time? Well, look at the time line. We’ve had almost 10 years to get used each other, 10 years worth of cooking experience, more money, a lot more wisdom about the whole nutritional science behind the low-carb way of eating, and the pain of watching ourselves get fat. In the last two weeks, I have made so many wonderful meals — chicken curry, chili relleno casserole, pork chili verde, — because I have the skills now and the confidence to tell my dear husband that if he doesn’t like it, he can cook himself a steak and make a salad, but *this* is what I’m having for dinner. And he’s fine with that (though, he hasn’t done it yet πŸ˜‰ .

  4. Just to add to the “addictive” thread: insulin is one of the primary hormones of the parasympathetic endocrine system. The parasympathetic endocrine system tends to oppose the effects of the sympathetic endocrine system, many of whose hormones (like cortisol) are related to stress.

    These two systems operate like a teeter-totter: when one goes up, it tends to push the other one down. So a big shot of refined carbohydrates will crank up your insulin and depress stress hormones. In other words, it makes you feel good, at least temporarily (think about it: “comfort foods” are almost all high-carb). The problem is that there’s no free lunch. The teeter-totter inevitably swings back the other way, and indeed you may wind up with more stress hormones than you started with, because high insulin hammers the energy nutrients out of your blood. To the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates a lot of hormones, particularly the sympathetic endocrine system), this looks like starvation, which not surprisingly elicits a stress response, which makes you crave more carbs. Every swing on this hormonal seesaw stores some more fat.

    So one of the key things I’ve found is the necessity to relieve stress by avenues other than eating “comfort foods” (I’ve found that low carb versions, while tasty, aren’t nearly as “comforting”). This is more effective in the long term anyway, since the idea is to keep your hormones balanced and in check. You want the hormonal teeter-totter to achieve balance again, not be swinging wildly back and forth.

  5. I think the comparison to smoking is apt. I quit smoking and carbs at around the same time, and I noticed that the only time I ever felt the urge to smoke was when I’d “cheated” with something carby and junky (not veggies or anything – starches)

    Even after 2 years, I somehow started smoking again and have been relapsed for 3 months. Starchy carbs are the same for me – I can easily slip off the wagon, though I can keep it in check and not let it go on longer than a day or two. Still, each time (like with smoking) I feel crappy and wonder why I bothered.

  6. I am back on induction, infact I just completed day three. Yeah. I feel good. I am counting carbs and counting calories. Oh, I mentioned I was doing induction again… In 2001 I lost 30lbs in 4 weeks of being on Atkins, I know, it was fast, but I really felt good and had never tried to diet before. The weight just melted off. Literally. I haven’t followed any phase of atkins since or any other diet and slowly 10 pounds have creaped back on in the past seven years. Moreso, I really wanted to start this up again because I was getting to were I was Cranky (yes, with a capital C) when I wasn’t eating carbs. Only 3 days into it and the only symptom I have is a little light headedness and oh, I am always hungry. I am eating salads and meats and eggs and cheeses (staying under 20 carbs) but I am so hungry. I even eat cups of raw green spinach at a time. And yes, I drink lots of water. I am even eating something every 2 hours just to combat the hunger. I was wondering if because I have a slight muscular build on a small frame (5’2) if that is what is causing me to be hungry. I am taking in 1300-1400 calories a day. Should I be taking in more? My current weight (when I started was 130.) I am slighly concerned about taking in more protein, because I heard that woman shouldn’t take in more than their weight in protein grams, because it is bad for our bodies. Any truth to this and any suggestions? Thanks, Olivia

  7. Olivia, no it is not true. It’s amazing what people will do to their bodies because they “heard” it was true. I personally would not want to take in *less* than my body weight in grams of protein per day. Especially if you want to lose fat instead of muscle mass. You need to do weight-bearing exercise and eat enough protein to be able to maintain your lean muscle while losing fat. And you’re not eating enough. You need to eat 1500 calories per day, minimum, with 20 grams of net carbs (not “staying under 20”) and you need to eat at least 12-15 of those net carbs from vegetables. If you’re hungry, eat something with fat. The reason you feel hungry after cups of spinach is that there was no fat or protein accompanying it to slow the transit time of the food in your gut. Fat and protein are slower to digest than carbs, which is why your appetite diminishes when you eat reduced carbs at this level. If you’re hungry, it says to me you’re not eating enough fat and protein. Try for 1/2 an avocado per day, dress your veggies with olive oil and/or mayonnaise, and have some cheese with your snacks. Generally, counting carbs AND calories doesn’t work. If you up your caloric intake to at least 1500 and you’re getting 60% of your calories from fat, 25-30% from protein and the rest from nutrient-packed (not empty junk) carbs, and you still haven’t lost weight OR INCHES in a month, then you can revisit what you’re eating to see what might be triggering your hunger and stalling your weight loss. Could be artificial sweetners? Caffeine? Lack of sleep? Calories still too low?

    Good luck! I’ve lost 10% body fat since December, so if you just give it patience and persistence it can be done!

  8. Wow, you’re very well educated on this! In fact, LCC, you’re the whole inspiration for me starting a blog. I am learning so much from your posts! Especially nice, since I ordered my new Atkin’s book to be delivered, apparently, via slow boat from China. Sigh…

    1. I’m humbled, really, to think that someone would be inspired by all this. I see that you are an eloquent writer yourself, and I’m enjoying your posts. Keep it up – and I’ve printed out your quiche recipe, which I’m going to make a bit later.

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