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.

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Fitness Models Don’t Drink Kool-Aid

It’s difficult to adequately describe the absolute physiological and mental agony of anxiety if you’ve never experienced an attack; however, suffice it to say that I suffered from the throat-closing, chest-crushing, dizzy/nauseous symptoms* from the moment I got the email inviting me to interview for my retail job to the moment I met the store leader.

I was fortunate to, for whatever reason, completely circumvent the entire hiring process and just meet with the store leader at the mall directly. (Normally, the company makes you go through several rounds of group interviews over several days at a hiring event.) I spoke with her for about half an hour, and, rather than invite me back to meet with a second manager another day, she pulled a manager and had me interview with him right then and there. Two days later, I came back to meet with the head of our market, and by the following day had an invitation to come in and fill out my paperwork.

I was both delighted and devastated.

Here I was, technological know-nothing with no sales experience and an eating disorder keeping me prisoner in my own house. How was I going to function as a high-volume sales rep–and, more importantly, how was I going to continue my eating habits while working retail hours?** (Not to mention the fact that I had gone from 21-year-old high school teaching rock star to 23-year-old part-time retail employee who had completely failed to live up to her prep school’s Ivy League expectations.)

I wanted to die.

The good news (?) was, if I continued on my “health” trajectory, I was going to.

Sure, I could do pull ups, but it looked like my arms were going to break while I did them.

A visit to the physician brought me some disturbing news: I was 112 lbs and severly underweight. I had dropped below 15% body fat (somewhere around 12%), and was testing positive for osteopenia, bradycardia, and secondary amenorrhea. That meant I was at risk and on track for osteoporosis, heart failure, and an early menopause. In other words, I had turned myself into an old woman. Death couldn’t be that far away.

I’ll admit that scared me.

Unfulfilled threats of suicide are one thing, but complete and impending physical failure are quite another.

Shredded abs…and not enough body fat for healthy reproductive function.

I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could: go to work.

And work, my friends, is what saved me.

On the morning that I left for the first of my three days of corporate employee training, I told my mom to kill me if I came home having drunk the “Kool-Aid.” She didn’t kill me, but I drank that metaphorical Kool-Aid with the fervor of a three-year-old on a sugar binge. There was something absolutely compelling–a sense of purpose and a company culture of openness and forward-motion, perhaps–that made me feel almost high every time I clocked in.

It turns out, I was very good at retail. And being good at something was fun. Although I was still freaked out about downing my whey-protein-cottage-cheese-and-spinach shakes on time, the very act of working at my new job calmed some of the anxiety. I felt needed. I felt useful. I felt okay for the first time in months.

And though I had the opportunity to train to become a staff personal trainer at the gym where I still worked three days per week, I quit. I wanted to commit to my new Kool-Aid job and work my way toward a full time position as quickly as I could. I never wanted to leave.***

-K.

*These are the same symptoms that led my pediatrician to misdiagnose me with asthma in the 6th grade. I’ll touch on the issue with anxiety in another post, I’m sure.

**I tweeted about my concerns (as whimsically Millennial as that sounds), and I was answered by one of the fitness models and pro figure competitors who I followed. Apparently she had done the retail/fitness thing, and had lived to tell the tale. While her answer wasn’t a complete panacea, it certainly did a little to alleviate my immediate concerns. I mean, if she could do it, then why couldn’t I?

*** On the days I worked, I hated sitting at home and waiting to put on my uniform, so I’d leave early and wait outside of the store until I could go in. In fact, I used to show up at the mall on my days off just so I could say, “hi,” and make sure that the store was still functioning without me. After a few months of this, one of my managers actually yelled at me to go home when I showed up unscheduled on a Saturday.