I have a confession to make… I am addicted to carbs, particularly grains. I love them. Whether it is a physical addiction or psychological, I find it almost impossible to remove processed grains from my diet. I would die a happy man eating pizza and pasta into an early grave. Like any addiction, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem.
It’s a constant battle for me trying to cut these unhealthy carbs out of my life. For a while, I’ll be good and maintain a low carb diet, filled with proteins, good fats, and plenty of veggies. Then I agree to order pizza for dinner and before I know it I’ve put myself in a food coma.
So this got me to thinking, am I just weak-willed, or are carbs actually addictive.
Do I experience any withdrawal symptoms (unpleasant physical reactions that accompany the process of removing an addictive drug from one’s system)?
I believe I crave more carbs after eating carbs. I get “hangry,” meaning I become angry/irritable when I’m hungry. I even develop headaches when I get too hungry. So are these symptoms of hunger or a byproduct of grain addiction?
Another indicator that carbs might be addictive is how people react to the idea of a carb free/low-carb diet. I’ve seen some of the nicest people in the world freak out at the mention of going carb-free. The idea of not having this broad selection of unhealthy comfort foods sends people into a panic.
I’m not looking at if grains are bad for you, but whether they are addicting.
Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple wrote an article on this exact topic. While Sisson doesn’t eat grains and is on a low carb diet, he admits there is not enough solid evidence to say wheat has an addictive effect on humans. So was he right? Is there enough evidence of grain addiction?
Proteins in wheat (and other foods) contain opioids called exorphins (exogenous morphine). Opioids are narcotic and can be very addictive. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the opioids in wheat work as a narcotic on humans. The effects of gluten exorphins have not been studied in humans, but one study found it changed neurological transmitters in rats.
Gluten-free and low-carb diets have been hot topics in the press for years now. Normally the discussion revolves around the dangers of these foods, not the addictive properties. However, Detail Magazine published an article back in 2011 saying that carbs are as addictive as cocaine. Check this out:
The answer is that fast-burning carbohydrates—just like cocaine—give you a rush. As with blow, this rush can lead to cravings in your brain and intrusive thoughts when you go too long without a fix. But unlike cocaine, this stuff does more than rewire your neurological system. It will short-circuit your body. Your metabolism normally stockpiles energy so you can use it as fuel later. A diet flush with carbohydrates will reprogram your metabolism, locking your food away as unburnable fat. When you get hungry again you won’t crave anything but more of the same food that started you down the path to dependency. Think of this stuff as more than a drug—it’s like a metabolic parasite, taking over your body and feeding itself.
We know that making it onto the Internet, into a magazine, or on TV doesn’t make something true. So where is the evidence?
Grain Addiction: The Evidence
Neurologist and author of Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter, discussed the damaging effects grains have on our brain in his book. Perlmutter has extensively examined the effects of grain on the deterioration of the brain. While the book doesn’t directly say “carbs are addictive,” it does say that when you eat carbs you will crave more carbs.
Sayer Ji is a researcher, author, and lecturer, and is an advisory board member of the National Health Federation. He is also the author of The Dark Side of Wheat. This book classifies wheat as an addictive narcotic and has been a popular reference guide in the gluten-free movement. Check out this interview where Ji explains why grain addiction is a real problem.
CBC’s The Fifth Estate recently looked at the war on wheat. This episode investigates the claims made by William Davis, MD in his book Wheat Belly.
There are many claims made by both sides on the topic of wheat. One side claims that wheat, specifically wheat proteins gluten and gliadin work as chemicals we get hooked to like heroine, causing food addiction. The other side says that wheat has no addictive properties.
CBC asked Dr. Joe Schwarcz, a chemist at McGill University if wheat is addictive. He said he hasn’t seen any evidence and the opioid peptides that are claimed to cause grain addiction are also found in spinach and dairy. Schwarcz says these peptides do not have any physically addictive reaction. According to Schwarcz the only study that has found a neurological effect from these proteins was conducted on rats in 1979. He says that people love eating grains because they love them, not as a response to a physical addiction.
The 1979 study is one of the main points of reference for evidence of grain addiction. The study indeed found that isolated gluten and casein had a similar effect on the mouse brains as morphine. While this may be a clue, it does not prove the existence of grain addiction in humans.
An important point made in this video is that anecdotes are not science. You can probably find hundreds of thousands of anecdotes about how cutting grains from someone’s life changed it for the better. Maybe they lost weight, maybe they feel better, or can think more clearly. But at the end of the day, these are just stories and can’t be credited as science. That doesn’t mean it didn’t improve their health, it just means it wasn’t scientifically proven to improve their health.
Scripps Research Institute found evidence of “reward” food (food that we treat as a special treat) to be addictive in obese rats. The 2010 study found that certain foods cause addictive like cravings (at least in rats). The addiction wasn’t to one particular food, but a more general umbrella of foods that taste good and give us pleasure. So maybe carbs aren’t addicting to everyone, just to people who already have a preference for them?
Science has failed us because we are still missing pieces to this puzzle. New evidence is found daily and the story continues to change. We may not have scientific proof that grains, and carbs in general, have an addictive effect on the body, but that doesn’t definitively mean they aren’t addictive. For now, we must conclude that there is not enough evidence to scientifically claim that grains are addictive.
Even if grains are not addictive, are they actually good for you? Do you need them? With the obesity rate rising all the time there is a clear problem with the standard American diet. If you can maintain a healthy diet without grains in your diet, and you feel better because of it, why not go for it? After all, it’s Your Food. Your Terms.