Do you have Carborexia
23:05 GMT, 31 March 2012
Cut back on carbs to lose a few pounds, by all means, but if you start to view white sliced as the devil incarnate and shudder at the mere sight of spuds, you could be suffering from carborexia – which can affect your happiness as well as your health, says Charlotte Methven
My name is Charlotte and I am a recovering carborexic. For many months, I balked at the sight of a bread basket and couldn’t so much as eat a piece of sushi without imagining that the little blob of sticky rice was somehow going to give me a muffin top. And I was not alone… Say the word ‘carbohydrate’ to a group of women and you’ll induce a collective shudder.
Not so long ago, to lose weight you simply ate less food. But a steady wave of trendy diets over the past few decades, from Atkins (founded in the 1970s and rediscovered in the mid-noughties) and South Beach, to the current favourite Dukan, have managed to convince us that the secret to a slim figure lies not in mere moderation, as good sense would dictate, but in adopting a low-carb diet. Where once calories were ruthlessly counted and controlled, now it’s potatoes, cereals, pasta, rice and bread – foods that were once staples but have now been invested with evil powers and unceremoniously ejected from our diets.
Google ‘carborexia’ and you will be directed to endless web pages devoted to a condition gripping eco-obsessives hellbent on reducing their carbon footprint. But the term has now also been adopted by the equally fanatical anti-carbohydrate brigade. We are fast becoming a generation of pasta-shunning carborexics.
On-trend sandwich chain Prt–Manger responded to the demand for low-carb fast food by introducing its ‘No Bread Crayfish & Avocado’ sandwich – in other words, a salad (and now a bestseller) – and Waitrose followed suit when it launched a 125-calorie ‘Lettuce Boat’, a sandwich using lettuce instead of bread.
I am not proud to admit that I succumbed to this madness when my marriage broke up last year. I was so consumed by anxiety that I was unable to eat much at all, and my weight dropped to just over seven stone. Though I had never set out to lose weight, the feeling of being waifish was intoxicating. Because I was going through a hard time emotionally, looking fragile reflected how I felt. I didn’t want to let it go. At a time when life felt uncertain, my carbohydrate intake was something that I could control.
And it felt great, most of the time. I adored never having that full feeling after a meal, and because
I was still eating protein and vegetables, I usually had enough energy. Very occasionally I would feel slightly light-headed in the afternoon, and in a to-hell-with-it moment attack the biscuit jar (and afterwards feel very guilty). However, I have no doubt that had I carried on with a super low-carb diet long term, I would have started to feel less and less well. And psychologically it never did feel right. Once paranoia about eating these foods becomes a habit, it is a hard one to shake. Whenever I was forced – usually out of good manners at someone else’s home – to eat carbs, afterwards I could almost feel them swelling in my body and causing me to expand. My mind played tricks on me.
This led to some strange eating behaviour. I would find myself tucking into roast lamb for Sunday lunch, but desperately pushing the accompanying potatoes to the edge of my plate, or picking the mushrooms out of a risotto, while leaving the gloopy pile of rice to one side. Breakfast was a particular challenge; with cereal, toast, croissants, muffins and more or less any other food typically associated with the morning meal all out of the picture, few options remained, and I’d usually just have four cups of tea and wait for lunch. I’ll never forget spending a weekend with two immaculately trim gay friends – both self-confessed carbophobes – and being offered a choice of a boiled egg (no soldiers!), natural yoghurt or smoked salmon for breakfast. It was a great relief.
Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, says that carborexia is becoming more common and is similar to the more widely known orthorexia (a compulsion to eat organic or biologically correct food). Both, like anorexia, involve a desire to control food at a time when other areas of life seem difficult to manage, as was the case with me. ‘Both carborexics and orthorexics adopt “healthy” eating as a proxy for weight loss,’ she says. ‘Carborexics invest these foods with all kinds of dangers – so they represent all that is bad and wrong – and then they can justify staying away from them and feeling in control. They go to naturopaths or homeopaths who tell them that they’re wheat- or gluten-intolerant, which they mightn’t be necessarily. It’s easier to deal with a demon you can control, such as bread, than having to confront real issues, such as family and relationship problems, which often lie behind our feelings towards food.’
Of course not all women adopting low-carb diets have such deep-rooted issues, and some are simply just reaching for a straightforward way of shedding some pounds. But Cheryl Wilson, a nutrition and wellbeing consultant at the National Nutrition Clinic in London, agrees that women are convincing themselves of the evils of carbs (and often feigning wheat or gluten intolerance) to justify cutting them out. ‘In fact,’ she says, ‘only about one person in 100 is intolerant to gluten.’
The problem is that it’s hard to avoid the evidence in celebrity magazines that this kind of dieting works. Carole Middleton credited her much-admired svelte form at the royal wedding to the low-carb Dukan diet, while model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley went on record to say that her amazing figure does not come through good genes and exercise alone, but largely from cutting out carbs, which ‘always gives me a good result’.
The once curvy actress Jennifer Hudson announced, upon revealing her new willowy frame at the last Vanity Fair Oscars party, that she did it by ‘deleting all carbs. When I wanted something crunchy, I ate nuts instead.’ Neither Jade nor Wilson deny that restricting carbs leads to weight loss – in the short term at least. ‘Of course, if you cut a whole food category from your diet, you’re going to lose weight. We’ve all known people who’ve been on these diets and seen the results,’ says Jade. ‘But only about three people in 100 manage to keep the weight off in the long term. No extreme solution works. This is no different to a liquid diet; the minute normal habits resume, which they always do, the weight returns.’
Then there is the small matter of health. The low-carb diets rely on a process called ketosis. Normally the body metabolises the glucose found in carbohydrates to make energy; but when carbs are removed, or drastically reduced from one’s diet, there is insufficient glucose, and the body must instead convert stored fat into energy, which leads to intense calorie-burning, but also to a number of other less desirable effects – from kidney damage, at the most serious end of the scale, to muscle cramps and bad breath.
Wilson is at great pains to point out that not all carbs are created equal, and it’s the quality of what you eat that matters most. ‘Good carbs, such as starchy vegetables including squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and pulses, legumes and whole grains are important for our diet and for healthy gut function,’ she says. ‘If people were only cutting out processed white carbs, it wouldn’t matter, but because this is not just about health but also about weight loss, that is not what tends to happen.’ Unsurprisingly, another health consequence of cutting carbs is severe constipation. Not to mention low energy and bad moods.
A major factor in advising against low-carb diets, says Wilson, is the question of what the carbs are replaced with when they are removed (or reduced). The answer is usually cholesterol-rich protein and fat. The Atkins diet in particular sanctions liberal quantities of foods such as eggs, bacon, cheese and butter.
There is no doubt that the low-carb trend has flourished as we have collectively become more aware of what we eat and been inundated with so much – often conflicting – advice about food and diet. Deanne Jade concedes that ‘low-carb diets are handy because they’re easy. They’re perfect for people who don’t trust themselves to make the right decisions about what to eat when confronted with too many options. They’re very black and white.’
But as my life settled down, I grew tired of being so controlled and started to miss eating pasta at my favourite Italian restaurants. I may have regained a few pounds, but no more than that because I lead an active lifestyle and eat healthily. I still fit into all my skinny jeans and I feel much happier and calmer now that I am back to an ‘all things in moderation’ mentality. And other people certainly seem to think I look better now than I did at my most gaunt. Having experienced carborexia, I have decided that being black and white is pretty boring – and exhausting.
How to have a healthy relationship with carbs
● Just about everything has some place in your diet, just in the right proportions.
● Stick to the 80:20 rule: eat well and stick to your goals 80 per cent of the time.
● Fad diets don’t work and there are too many of them out there. Eat healthily and nourish your body and you won’t be overweight.
● Never invest food with emotional qualities — it exists to keep us alive.
● If you want to cut down on carbs, cut out all the processed white ones and eat the rest.
● A woman needs a portion of grains a day. Those with wheat or gluten intolerances should try gluten-free millet and buckwheat products.
● Sixty per cent of our calories should come from carbohydrates.
● Studies have shown that those who eat a bowl of carb-rich porridge for breakfast every day are more likely to lose weight than those who don’t.
● Men are also susceptible to carborexia, so share this information with the men in your life.
The low-carb diet lowdown
Atkins The forerunner. Dr Robert Atkins’s 1972 book Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution suggested that it was possible to lose weight by cutting out virtually all carbohydrates and existing on protein and fat. This diet was rediscovered 30 years later and gained widespread popularity. It works, but at a cost (it is said to lead to everything from heart conditions to osteoporosis and, at the less serious end of the spectrum, bad breath and constipation). This is the most extreme of the low-carbohydrate diets.
Dukan Introduced by French nutritionist Dr Pierre Dukan ten years ago and having a moment right now, it has attracted Gisele, J-Lo and Carole Middleton. Like Atkins, Dukan eschews calorie-counting, but unlike his predecessor, he advocates a low-fat approach. Dukan followers must commit to one protein-only day a week for the rest of their lives — many restaurants in France have protein-only Thursdays. Acceptable proteins include lean poultry and dairy, such as cottage cheese or yoghurt. Once the weight has come off, carbs are gradually reintroduced in moderation.
South Beach Created by cardiologist Arthur Agatston and dietician Marie Almon, the South Beach does not condemn all carbs, but rather distinguishes between good and bad, bad being heavily refined and good being those with a low glycaemic-index rating, such as certain veg, beans and grains.
The Zone Devised by biochemist Barry Sears, it advocates eating carbs, protein and fat in a 40:30:30 ratio. The diet has been criticised for encouraging an unhealthy amount of saturated fat. However, when a US study compared all of the lower-carb diets, the Zone was showed to have the best weight-loss results and fewest adverse side effects.