Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean: Food Addiction and the Leptin Connection

I wrote last time about how limiting calories can change the chemicals in your brain–how my dopamine highs from under-consuming calories and my endorphin highs from over-exercising had become inescapable addictions. But there is more to the story than  the upset of just a couple of brain chemicals:

We hear a lot these days about insulin, especially in reference to the diabestiy epidemic. [Brief science lesson: Insulin is a regulatory hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to the presence of sugar in the blood. Our bodies were only meant to have about 1 tsp of circulating blood sugar, so when you eat foods that contain (or are converted to) a lot of glucose, the body responds with insulin, which shuttles that glucose out of the blood and into your muscles to be burned or liver to be converted to glycogen and stored.]

But there’s another hormone that people are only just starting to talk about (because it’s only recently that science has begun to understand it…): Leptin.

Fat cells, believe it or not are part of the endocrine system (the system related to the release and regulation of hormones). Your fat cells tell your brain when you’re starving and need to eat or that you’re full and good to go by releasing the hormone called “leptin.” When your fat stores are high, your fat cells are full of leptin, which transmits the “we’re full, don’t send supplies” signal to the brain. When your fat stores are low, however, there’s a lot less leptin to go around, and your brain gets the message that you need to eat.*

Leptin Pathways Simplified

Leptin is also responsible for stimulating the production of endorphins, the exercise-high neurotransmitter.

Now, there’s a lot of chatter in the science/nutrition world about leptin disregulation as a result of obesity, but what about leptin disregulation in anorectics and eating disordered people? (For a short, really informative look at how leptin disregulation and insulin resistance can influence/be influenced by obesity, check out this awesome video by Sean Croxton: Leptin: Fat-Loss for Smart People)

When you’re eating disordered, an overly restricted eat-clean devotee, or somehow reaching low levels of body fat, your leptin levels go way down. Your brain gets the message that you’re starving and need to build up your body fat levels again, so it tells your body to start craving food. The cravings raise your dopamine levels, making extended marathons of Man vs. Food seem like a good idea. Of course, the restriction is what feeds the dopamine high, so you keep restricting and craving.

Now, those of us who couple the restriction with exercise are in an even more dangerous boat, addiction-wise. Why? Well, as I mentioned earlier, leptin is partially responsible for your brain’s release of endorphins. If your leptin levels are low, your endorphins become low as a result. What raises endorphins? Exercise.

So it’s very possible that your exercise regime becomes necessary to maintaining your mental health. And, as with most addictions, you can easily build up a tolerance. Now you need more exercise to get the same high.

I know this to be true because I’ve lived it. Because I used to read the transformation stories on the Oxygen and Eat Clean websites, because I still follow some of the professional fitness models on Twitter. The stories are all the same: I was overweight (or thought I was) and decided I needed a change. So I started by cutting out processed foods. I felt so good that I went for a run. Then I found (insert clean-eating protocol here) and started lifting weights. I looked and felt so good that I got a personal trainer. In a few months, people in my gym suggested I compete. And so: the diet became a strict regimen of extra-lean meats and “complex carbs” like oatmeal and brown rice. And so: the exercise became fasted cardio in the morning and weights in the afternoon. And so: the complex carbs were “too much food” except around training times. And so: the exercise became necessary to not having a nervous breakdown today and I pushed myself so hard I cried but it was worth it because I’m still in shape. And so: the food became all I thought about and egg-whites-with-stevia are delicious, you just don’t understand because you’re not healthy and devoted like me. And so: exercise became the only thing I cared about, not that you’d understand because you’re busy living your fat lifestyle while I’m flying high on thinness and muscle.

Leptin "Pill" in Mouth

It scares me that this is even a possible thought process, but there it is. (And you can find some version of it on every thinspiration Pinterest board or on some of the fitness pros’ Twitter feeds if you don’t believe me.)

I’m not saying that this will happen to everyone who tries to get healthy, nor am I against cleaning up your diet and starting to exercise–in fact, I’m all for it! But for those of us who may already suffer from neurotransmitter imbalances, trading one addiction for another–cookies and cake for quinoa and kale; “skinny is the new healthy” for “strong is the new skinny”–becomes a real and imminent threat.

And if you’ve ever had these thoughts, it’s okay: it’s not your fault. There are processes in your body and brain that you and I can’t see or hear or feel, processes that happen in the background, processes that can mean the difference between starvation and health, addiction and freedom. And once your body/brain chemistry is affected, it’s hard to see past the immediate need for the next hit.

It’s especially hard when the messages sent out by science and society only serve to encourage these addictions.

– K.

*Leptin isn’t the only hormone involved in hunger–there are other hormones/peptides like ghrelin and PYY that are secreted by the lining of your stomach/pancreas to mediate some of those hunger responses…But we won’t get into that today!) For more, check out Wellness Mama’s great explanation here.

5 thoughts on “Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean: Food Addiction and the Leptin Connection

  1. This really resonates with me. I’m currently in that “eat clean/work out 3 hours a day!” mindset, but this post makes complete sense to me. My therapist was explaining my exercise addiction to me today. I understand what I’m doing to my body, but I am so scared of missing a workout because I either turn into a pouting toddler or I have a panic attack, and overeat (meaning going over my self-imposed calorie limit, not actually overeating). Now, I’m just exercising to burn calories, regardless of if I’ve binged (which I haven’t done in nearly 2 months) or not. It’s really mind-boggling how I can play these sick games with myself–what food can I eliminate this week…how many times in one day can I go to to the gym before someone says something?

    I can rationalize my eating disorder by telling myself that I am still at a healthy weight and I feel fine physically (sleeping all day and having insomnia at night are the definition of being in good physical health to me, apparently). Thus, recovery seems ridiculous to me at this point. I used to be an overweight couch potato teenager; in my mind, recovering means reverting back to that, which is terrifying (even though I realize that is completely irrational!!)

    I’m sorry this comment was so long, but thank you for posting this.

    • Please don’t apologize! Thank you so much for posting–and for reaching out!

      Recovery is a long-term process, and it take a LOT of work…work that sometimes gets a little uncomfortable and scary. It’s wonderful that you’re at least thinking about taking the first steps to change your mindset.

      I’ll be honest, I still struggle with my exercise addiction, even though I have been physically unable to work out for many months due to my ankle injury. When I have a “bad day” (a day in which I feel out of control of my life, so I turn to food and exercise to regain a little bit more of a sense of control), I have to really fight the urge to beat myself up for not counting calories or not going to the gym.

      However, since I’ve changed my diet, begun learning about the science of my body, and started really working on recovery, I find that I have many fewer “bad days.”

      The most important thing that I did was start eating more fat. (And I know that when you’re in the eat clean mindset, that sounds like the most ridiculous statement a person could make. But I’m not talking about taco bell or chocolate cakes; I’m talking about whole eggs, fatty meat and fish, and coconut oil/butter and ghee) It’s helped me feel satiated, and I don’t find myself thinking about food as often.

      The exercise part has really just been a process of letting go. Not “letting myself go;” I have been trying to do little things like hold a plank or try modified yoga (so I don’t hurt my ankle). I’ve even started going on short walks with my dog, just to start building strength in my ankle.

      And I did all of this research on the leptin connection, eating clean, etc. because I wanted to understand why my body and mind were reacting the way that they were. I found that, once I began to understand the science, I felt more in control of myself–in control of ED, and not the other way around. I hope you come back to the blog over the next couple of days, because I’m going to be doing a series on the calories in/calories out myth and exercise addiction, which may resonate with you as well.

      Anyway, all of that to say: it’s a process. You’re on your right path, and the fact that you’re willing to look for other options (even if you’re not ready to try them yet) is a beautiful thing. I wish you so much luck on your journey, and I hope that you stay in touch. I know we don’t know one another, but I am happy to be here for you if you ever need to reach out.

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  4. I continue to be amazed of how accurately you describe my situation and how I ended up with anorexia and orthorexia. I can’t comment on much of it as you describe it so perfectly!

    Its really good to see that I’m not the only struggling with this.

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