Monthly Archives: August 2014

Might Candy Now Be the Answer to Alcohol Dependence?

Australians now reserve two months of the year when they stop drinking and donate the money they might have spent on alcohol to charities. February and July are designated abstinence months and, according to reports in the Australian papers, the effect is by and large positive. Charities get sizable contributions and the temporary non-drinkers, according to self-reports, find themselves able to go to a gym on Sunday mornings or for a run rather than nursing a hangover. The one negative effect of giving up alcohol, according to a friend who is a health writer in Melbourne, seems to be a craving for sugary non-alcoholic drinks and sweet snacks.

The link between a decrease in alcohol intake and increase in carbohydrate intake is familiar to those who have gone through alcohol withdrawal. Sweet carbohydrates such as doughnuts are served at AA meetings, and stories of intense sugar cravings among the newly abstinent are common. It is assumed that the reason for this carbohydrate craving is the need to replace the carbs in alcohol with those in sweet and starchy foods like pastries, chips or crackers. But most alcohol contains very little or no carbohydrate unless it has been added to make an intensely sweet drink like Sacramental wine or as syrup or sweetened fruit juice in a mixed drink. (Distilled alcohol contains no carbohydrates; beer and wine have between 2 and 4 grams per drink.) You would have to drink gallons of beer to equal the amount of sugar in a doughnut or cookie. So why do people crave carbohydrates as they go through withdrawal?

The answer may reside in how alcohol and carbohydrates affect mood.

Both alcohol and carbohydrates have the ability to change mood. Both are sought to quell anxiety and other emotionally painful moods such as depression. They may work by different mechanisms in the brain, and each presents its own set of side effects (although no one yet has been charged with a DUIC (driving under the influence of carbohydrates). And the calming effects of both are time limited. When they wear off, more cookies or cocktails may be consumed to renew the sought-after mood elevation.

High protein, low-carbohydrate diets prevent the synthesis of serotonin, the mood calming brain chemical that alleviates depression and anxiety. Interestingly, such diets have been associated with greater alcohol intake than those offering more carbohydrate and less protein. According to a review in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol by O. A. Forsander published several years ago, high-carbohydrate diets were associated with a significantly lower alcohol intake than diets with a high-protein, low-carbohydrate content. Might people seek alcohol to relieve emotional distress if their diets prevent serotonin synthesis?

The answer to this question requires further research. But it may explain why some people who can no longer rely on alcohol to ameliorate their moods seek carbohydrates.

It makes sense.

If some drinkers are self-medicating with alcohol to feel better, when it is no longer available they are left with nothing to help their emotional distress. Sugar and other carbohydrates eaten in very small amounts (25 grams) are sufficient to increase serotonin, and take the edge off painful moods. Unfortunately, the effect lasts only about three hours and when it wears off the cravings and the bad moods may return. Thus, the consumption of more sweet carbohydrates repeats.

The solution may be for people in the early stages of withdrawal to imitate the eating patterns of people who successfully cope with weeks of depression, anger, lethargy and social withdrawal during the late fall and winter. These people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder have a chronic need to consume sugary foods but if they eat whole grain, complex carbohydrates instead, they will experience the same relief that they get eating gumdrops and chocolate bars. Moreover, since the starchy carbohydrates are digested more slowly than sugary carbohydrates, their good moods may last even longer.

So no to candy but yes to rice, whole-grain bread, oatmeal, potatoes, pasta, polenta and low-fat granola. Obviously eating carbohydrates is only one of the many strategies necessary to support people in their quest for sobriety. But the calm, focused mood brought about by nature’s own tranquilizer, carbohydrates, may help in the recovery process.

Obsessed with Counting Calories? There’s an App for That!

It had to happen. Once digital electronic calorie tracking became available on the smartphone, uncounted numbers of diet-obsessed women began fixating over how many calories they were putting into their bodies every day. Of course, the Apps did not generate the calorie-counting obsession; rather it allowed the already compulsive mind to note and record the caloric value of every morsel of food swallowed. These Apps remove the guesswork from figuring out how many calories three Cheerios or a sprig of parsley contain. And none of this information has to be written down since it is all on the App.

The very many Apps available to inform the eater about his minute-to-minute calorie intake and to record it for eternity, if necessary, are useful for the diet newbie, the dieter in denial, and the dieter who is not losing weight. Presumably keeping a daily record of calories consumed, and perhaps calories expended, through physical activity will make losing weight less haphazard and more scientific and controllable. One can’t pretend or hope that a recently consumed snack has fewer calories than it actually contains, or excuse lack of weight loss to the phases of the moon or bad karma. No longer is it necessary to pore over a thick book of calorie counts to work out a meal plan that meets the diet plan’s calorie allowance, or add up at the end of the day how many calories you have consumed. The App will do all that for you and perhaps motivate you to use up 400 or 500 calories through exercise so you can indulge in a treat and still lose weight.

Unfortunately not everyone uses these calorie-counting Apps for healthy dieting. The down side of these Apps is that they reinforce compulsive dieting, and its unfortunate outcome of anorexia. Just a brief scan of personal anecdotes from self-described compulsive calorie counters sadly confirms how hard it is for some people, often women, to eat when they see how many calories they are consuming. Like a miser who cannot bring himself to spend money even when he needs to, the compulsive calorie counter has a hard time consuming calories, even when such behavior may jeopardize his/her health. If the goal is to become as thin as possible, then doing so requires eating as little as possible. So it is easy to see how individuals with this mindset can have their App tell them what foods contain the least amount of calories, i.e. a leaf of iceberg lettuce versus one leaf of spinach, or one radish versus one half of a cucumber.

One wonders whether compulsive calorie counters recognize that calorie intake keeps us alive? The non-intake of calories is called starvation, and its outcome is always the same, which is not good. Without calories coming in, the body has no way of obtaining the energy to carry out the functions that keep us alive. We are not plants that are able to convert the energy of light from the sun into chemical energy necessary for growth. Moreover, unlike plants that make their own food (remember photosynthesis?), we also must eat because our bodies require nutrients that we are unable to synthesize ourselves.

Thankfully in this country we are not vulnerable to the many diseases brought on by an inadequate intake of these essential nutrients, since we have available so many foods that provide them. But it wasn’t so long ago that people were dying from scurvy caused by lack of vitamin C, developed the malformed bones of rickets due to lack of vitamin D, or experienced nerve or cardiac disorders due to the absence of vitamin B1.

So, to be truly useful in keeping us healthy (as well as thinner), Apps should be designed to advise the user to make food choices according to nutrient content. Why not have an App suggest eating spinach or kale rather than cucumbers or iceberg lettuce as the former are much denser in nutrients? Why not build an App that suggests to the user that she is not getting enough calcium and should start eating some low-fat dairy products? Or what about an App that alerts the user that, according to her weekly food record, insufficient protein and fiber has been consumed? Designed to capture and motivate the user to alter food choices, such Apps can improve nutrient intake – or at least tell the user to call her mother and ask her what to eat.