Low-quality carbs (sugar, white bread, and other high-glycemic foods)—just like cocaine—give you a rush. And just like drugs, carbs can lead to cravings in your brain and intrusive thoughts when you go too long without a fix. Carb addiction is real people. But unlike cocaine, carbs don’t just rewire your neurological system. They can actually re-program and damage your metabolism. 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.
I’ve talked about how these low-quality (dirty) carbs will make you fat before. But what I didn’t talk about was the carb addiction that comes with them. This is both a mental and a physical addiction, and your brain and body will both react poorly when you remove this low-quality energy source from your diet.
As mentioned above, the neurological response is very similar to the withdrawals that a cocaine addict experiences as they try to come clean. You crave the next hit. Until you get it, you think about it; you need it. You see a candy bar or a cinnamon roll and you can hardly contain yourself.
What does carb addiction feel like?
The physical response is worse, it even has a nickname—the low carb flu. There’s a lot of science behind why it happens (which you can read about here if you want)—but the net of it is that if you remove these low-quality carbs from your diet, you’re going to feel like complete crap for a few days to a few weeks. Here are some of the symptoms:
- Upset stomach
- Lack of mental clarity (brain fog)
- Mood swings
Many people start a new diet where they eliminate these dirty carbs completely (which is exactly the right thing to do) and realize they feel like absolute crap. They make the mistake of believing their body is trying to tell them that their new diet isn’t healthy. (Because, you know, when a cocaine addict experiences withdrawals, it must be because their body needs the cocaine, right?)
The most important thing you need to know is that it doesn’t last very long. This is a detox experience, and it sucks. But you have to get through it if you’re going to have any shot at a healthy future. It’s worth it.
Can you do anything about it?
You can minimize the effects by supplementing with electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium). I recommend 2 of these in the morning, and add two more in the evening if that’s not enough. They are basic electrolyte pills and contain all of the things I just mentioned. Good stuff!
Some people also report that eating things high in probiotics helps. (e.g. l0w-carb yogurt). The science around this is pretty new, but there is some (limited) evidence that it can help.
Important note: If you feel terrible… It might not be low carb flu
A lot of people start a high-protein diet and find that protein shakes are a great way to meet their daily needs without having to eat a lot of meat. Almost all fit/healthy people out there drink protein shakes on a regular basis for this reason. Unfortunately, most protein shakes contain high amounts of lactose. Even people who don’t realize they are lactose intolerant find out that they are when they start drinking whey protein (it’s ultra concentrated lactose). If you feel bloated and nauseated after drinking protein shakes or eating protein bars, you might consider switching to a brand that doesn’t have lactose. I put together a list of recommendations, including some that are lactose-free.
A lesson in cheating
This is probably a good time to talk about why cheating is so catastrophic on any healthy-eating regiment. Through the normal course of your day, you’re going to be faced with constant, never-ending temptations to eat these high-glycemic foods such as cookies, cake, ice-cream, and all the other yummy stuff. Some of it is even cleverly disguised as “healthy” like white-bread and fruit juice. You’re going to need to learn to say no. Having “a little bit” of sugar can be a complete disaster, and reset you back to zero, both mentally and physically. Even if it fits your macros, Don’t do it to yourself.
You wouldn’t offer a recovering alcoholic “just a little” drink, would you? So why on earth do people think it’s okay to offer someone trying to recover from a carb addiction “just a little ice cream”? (And believe me, people will offer and try to convince you that “a little won’t hurt”, or “why don’t you have some? I’m sure there are only a few calories in it.” Don’t blow things up. Just say no.
There have been hundreds—probably even thousands of reputable scientific studies that prove carb addiction is every bit as difficult to overcome as substance addictions. This is largely because, as I mentioned above, this stuff is everywhere, so it’s impossible to distance yourself from it. Be strong. You can do it. And it is worth it.
Even just removing the low-quality carbs from your diet, if you change nothing else about what you’re eating or doing, will probably cause you to start losing weight immediately.