Taming the Hunger Beast

edition 5This the unedited version of my ‘cravings’ article from Edition 5 of

The Australian Vegan Magazine

You can order your back copy here.

A few years ago, my weight crept up to an unfamiliar size 16, after a series of injuries reduced my physical activity. It wasn’t so much the way I looked that annoyed me, it was the way I felt: heavy and unfit, with rolls of fat restricting my freedom of movement. Exasperated, I joined a gym, for the first time in my life, and found exercises that worked around my injury. The first month was great. The weight dropped off beautifully and I was given the dubious distinction of being the “biggest loser” of the month.

Unfortunately, the over-emphasis on weight-loss (as opposed to fitness) messed with my head. I became obsessed with food, feeling constantly hungry, simply because eating for weight-loss had become the mantra. I wasn’t hungry because I was hungry, I was hungry because food had suddenly become a black-market no-go zone. What a horrible way to live! Needless to say, I quit the gym, found my own ways to exercise away from all the ‘lose weight, eat-less’ hype, and quickly repaired my relationship with food.

I have always loved eating, and I didn’t want that to change. Prior to my unpleasant few months in the gym, I’d never dieted, or counted calories, but in taking charge of my own health when it came to food, I did have to acknowledge a slight tendency to over-eat at times. “You eat when you are thirsty”, my husband told me. “Drink water first and if you are still hungry 10 minutes later, eat.” Good advice. It worked! I combined his sage wisdom with a little piece of inspiration garnered while listening to a radio interview with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the opera singer: make friends with hunger. I learned to feel comfortable with an empty stomach rather than rushing to fill it. And instead of shovelling food in automatically because it tasted good, I slowed down and listened carefully for those first little hints of fullness. There’s a sweet moment of satisfaction, a tiny whisper that gets louder when you honour it, where you could easily keep eating but stopping right then and there in that moment is perfect. Honing in on that whisper helped me find satisfaction more readily in other parts of my life and this in turn curbed my tendency to overeat.

I also knew there were some food choices that weren’t helping my waist line. First, I removed bread from my diet because it contains yeast and wheat, which I am sensitive to. I can’t easily digest them and they don’t make me feel good. Instead of glowing skin and easy breathing, I get eczema and asthma. Instead of a happy bowel I end up with a loose stool and a crampy tummy. We all have foods we don’t digest so well, some of us more than others, and this can mess with our ability to maintain a healthy weight. Besides avoiding bread for sensitivity reasons, I also removed it because it’s a lazy food! I find it too easy to reach for and spread with something fattening, so I tend to over-eat it, which takes up tummy space that could be filled with the biodiversity of whole-plant foods. Luckily, I’m not much interested in pasta and pastry, which are two other lazy foods that can take up valuable eating space when over-used.

Reducing my over-reliance on bread has improved the diversity and quality of my diet in general. I’ve since learned that this is a ‘nutrient-density’ approach to eating. Advocates of the nutrient density approach believe that good health is based on getting the greatest nutrient diversity and richness possible in the fewest number of calories. This is much the way I was raised, by hippie-parents in the seventies who used wholefoods rather than the few-fangled “processed”, “fast” and “packaged” foods that were becoming all too conveniently available to the masses at subsidised prices.

My parents weren’t fans of the burgeoning plastic-food movement and preferred the simplicity and authenticity of vegetables grown in their own garden. The 70’s hippy movement adored the less-plastic, exotic, and spiritual East, so Indian food (very hot, vegetarian Indian food) became an early favourite in my toddler years, full of the healing spices that I would one day learn so much about as an herbalist. My mother has just given me the cauliflower curry recipe my father was famous for making, along with the wooden mortar and pestle he used to grind the spices for the curry, and I can’t wait to make it myself!

I’m on bush-retreat at the moment and am using the time to learn how to cook with Indian spices and make my own yeast-free breads from wholegrain flours such as spelt. Making dampers and flat breads like Indian chapatti’s is lots of fun, while being labour intensive enough to place a natural halter on my tendency to overeat them! With bread having taken a back seat over the past few years, the new favourite wholegrain in our house is brown rice which is very nourishing for the bowel and full of B vitamins, and fibre. The paleo movement has used some dubious arguments to tarnish the good name of wholegrains like brown rice, arguments which don’t stack up when you consider the diets of the world’s longest living people are rich in grains. Wholegrains aren’t as nutrient dense as many fruits and vegetables, but they make up for this with their affordability and fibre content. Fibre fills us up, giving us a sense of fullness and satisfaction without being fattening.

What is fibre? It’s plant roughage: the chewy part of a whole plant food (usually the skin) and it’s usually the first thing that is removed when a food is refined or processed. People get confused and think all fats and sugars (“carbs”) are bad for them, but the fats and sugars in plant-based whole-foods are healthy because they are in natural forms offset by a smorgasbord of other plant-based nutrients that keep them balanced, such as fibre. When a food is ‘refined’, the fibre is mostly or completely removed, and it’s these fibreless forms of concentrated sugar and oil that damage our health and contribute to cravings and over-eating. Good examples of refined carbohydrates are table sugar, white rice and white flour products such as white pasta, pastry, biscuits, cakes etc. Examples of refined fats are cooking oils and margarines. The fibre in wholefoods prevents overconsumption of fats and sugars because the fibre makes us feel full before we can eat too much. Researchers have found that you can cut your calorie intake by 10% just by adding an extra 14 grams of fibre each day!

One of my favourite clinic resources is Breaking the Food Seduction, by Neal Bernard, the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM is a global organisation based in America who educates health professionals and the public about the health benefits of a plant based diet. Dr Bernard says we can manage hunger and avoid cravings by choosing foods that are fibre-rich… especially at breakfast time. You might, in a quest to lose weight, be tempted to skip breakfast altogether, but this will just make you over-eat throughout the rest of the day. A classic example of the oft-repeated research affirming the value of fibre-rich wholefoods for breakfast, is a study done by the Boston Children’s hospital. Feed teenage boys instant oats for breakfast, and they snack during the day. Feed them regular whole oats, and they snack 35% less. The fibre in instant oats is still present, but it’s chopped up so finely that it digests too quickly, making blood sugar rise too fast and drop just as quickly. By comparison, the intact fibre in whole oats holds blood sugar steady and keeps hunger at bay.

Vegans have a natural advantage when it comes to keeping blood sugar stable, because they don’t consume animal products, which stimulate a strong release of insulin. “In fact”, says Dr Bernard, “beef and cheese cause a bigger insulin release than pasta, and fish produces a bigger insulin release than popcorn.” When researchers compare high-fibre plant-based breakfasts with bacon and egg breakfasts, volunteers eating the plant-based breakfast snack 75% less through the day, consuming almost 1000 fewer calories. Animal products don’t contain any fibre at all, and fibre, as Dr Greger explains in his book How Not to Die, is pretty important stuff. A high-fibre intake “appears to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon and breast, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and premature death in general.” So what are the best sources of fibre? Beans, vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, in that order. Legumes are fibre superstars, and this, along with their high protein content, makes them the ideal choice for a hearty, blood-sugar stabilizing breakfast.

Another Dr Bernard tip is to not starve yourself, a wisdom I have always instinctively honoured! Besides the blood-sugar swings and consequent binges that occur when we skip meals or eat miniscule proportions, not eating enough calories reduces the amount of leptin in your blood. Leptin is an appetite-taming hormone, and dieting always derails leptin. To ensure you have enough leptin to keep appetite under control, you must eat enough. Leptin can be further boosted by eating a low-fat diet, which has the added bonus of keeping your blood-sugar stable and improving your insulin sensitivity. If you are a woman, eating a low-fat diet will reduce the likelihood of premenstrual food cravings. Too much fat raises estrogen levels, making the sudden pre-menstrual drop in estrogen so extreme that it triggers over-eating and binging on refined, fibreless foods like chocolate.

In Breaking the Food Seduction, Dr Bernard explains the connection between food and the brain’s pleasure centre, which is essential for survival. The brain’s main pleasure-producing chemical is dopamine, which records a memory of where pleasure comes from, driving us to seek these things (or experiences) over and over again. In the distant past, says Bernard, our pleasure centre “helped us remember the difference between luscious, sweet fruits and immature ones, and between plump, fatty nuts and others that had become shrivelled and dried.” This was helpful because calories were harder to come by, but in modern times, copious quantities of sugar and fat are everywhere.

Many of the processed foods that people think of as “carbohydrates”, contain at least as much fat as carbohydrate, with food manufacturers having quickly discovered that the 50:50 carb-fat combination is far more addictive than either alone. These refined junk foods stimulate the same part of the brain that responds to heroin, and when we use these foods habitually, the brain adjusts and expects the stimulation to continue in order to feel normal. Moods that “go up artificially,” says Dr Bernard, “inevitably come back down, ending up lower than where they started.” And the opiates that are released in your brain when you consume these foods don’t just make you feel good, they have a powerful stimulating effect on appetite.

Researchers have discovered that opiate-blocking drugs, which are used to block the effect of drugs like heroin on the brain, to make foods like chocolate, refined sugar, meat, and cheese, lose their appeal. University of Michigan researchers gave volunteers an opiate blocker called naxolone, and the volunteer’s snacking on chocolate lollies and biscuits fell from 50% to 90%. “The more enticing the food,” says Dr Bernard, “the more naxolone blocks the binge.” But please don’t go thinking naxolone is the answer to a bingeing problem: all drugs have side effects and naxolone can seriously damage the liver. The point is, food can be addictive, but rather than swapping food drugs for prescribed drugs, there are healthy ways to break the vicious cycle.

When I adjusted my diet for weight loss, I began avoiding refined sugar, and with the help of my secret weapon: raw cakes made from dates, nuts, and seeds, it only took a week for the sugar cravings (or ‘crazings’ ie ‘crazy grazings’) to go away. I learned how to make these cakes when reading Emily von Euw’s incredible book, Rawsome Vegan Baking. Cravings always disappear when an addictive food is removed from your diet for a while, because your taste buds only have a three-week long memory. Studies have shown that it generally takes three weeks for your taste buds to change and learn a whole new set of preferences. For those considering the transition to a vegan diet, the thought of giving up meat and cheese can seem unbearable, but once you’ve been vegan for a while, these foods definitely lose their appeal. To some extent, they are acquired tastes that can be un-acquired! And it certainly helps when you understand the addictive nature of these foods.

Meat is addictive not just because of the opiate release it triggers, but because of the strong insulin response it brings about. Dr Bernard says there appears to be a link between insulin and addiction. Researchers have been intrigued by the odd case of insulin patients surreptitiously upping their insulin doses and evidence that insulin function is altered in opiate addicts. The addiction to cow’s milk can be even more potent than that of meat. Cow’s milk contains a protein called casein that breaks apart during digestion to produce a broad range of opiates called casomorphins, one of which has about one-tenth the pain-killing potency of morphine. These mother’s milk opiates have a calming effect on the infant that helps encourage feeding while strengthening the mother-child bond. And these opiates are particularly concentrated in cheese. Vegans eventually lose their cravings for dairy and meat, but they are still exposed to other foods that that trigger the release of opiates in the brain, like refined sugar, refined fats, chocolate, and gluten. And when you think about it, many of the most addictive plant-based junk-foods contain all four.

Lastly, don’t forget the value of exercise, good stress-management and rest. It often surprises people that the answer to good health comes back, time and time again, to the same old basics: plant-based wholefoods, sunlight, fresh air, clean water, happy community, love, exercise, connection with nature and rest. It might sound too simple, but most people are looking for faster, easier and more exotic-sounding fixes than this.

The reality is, something as simple (and demanding) as exercise can block appetite swings, reset your mood, and help you sleep properly, which strengthens you against cravings. As Bernard says, exercise “demagnetises your refrigerator” and dramatically increases your insulin sensitivity. And what about stress? Most of us have a tendency to underestimate the power of emotions on physical health but boredom, anger, sadness and worry are classic and powerful triggers for over-eating and the consumption of unhealthy, addictive foods. As always, good health blossoms and blooms when we keep things simple and take a holistic “bigger-picture” approach.


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