Why We Crave Carb and Fat Combo Foods

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This morning is my first try at using the low-calorie, nutrient-dense food fast; hence, this blog seemed like a good one for this morning. I bought several Prolon kits a few months back to test out for patient use and, honestly, I’ve been a bit reticent to take the five-day plunge. So I’m experimenting with single days here and there to see what it’s all about and then will jump in. Hence, let’s explore why we crave carby-fatty foods because I can’t have any of those today!

What Are Carb and Fat Combo Foods?

Pizza slathered in mozzarella, croissants dripping with butter, a double-scoop of rocky-road ice cream…you get the idea. Foods that combine processed carbohydrates (which turn to sugar in the body) and high fats can be irresistible to many, but what causes this sugar-fat combo addiction, and what makes it generally more satisfying than a carb-based or fat-based food alone? Hint: It has nothing to do with physical hunger! It seems the answer might be a highly sensitive trigger in our brain, and according to one study, many of us actually eat these carb and fat combo foods for mental reward rather than hunger, which often leads to obesity.

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Carb and Fat Combo Foods Trick Our Brain

A new study used an interesting technique to investigate how the brain places value on food. Using visuals of high-carb (e.g., candy), high-fat (e.g., cheese), and carb+fat snacks (e.g., cheese and crackers) that were all equal in calories, participants were asked to both select their favorite foods and to bid money on the food shown in each image based on their estimated energetic value (calories) of the food. Researchers found that most bid significantly higher on the carb+fat foods (even if they didn’t like them as much) and overestimated the energetic value of these foods. Additionally, participants were also undergoing brain scans at the time of the test, and the carb+fat food images stimulated the neural circuits in the reward part of the brain even if the food wasn’t among their favorites or one they even liked.

If these carb and fat combos are actually activating the reward centers of our brain, couple this with the easy access today to every processed food imaginable, and it brings our epidemic of obesity into a much clearer focus. Processed carb+fat combo foods and clever marketing are tricking our brain! Let’s explore that a bit.

Sweetness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

What I mean here is that I remember as a kid that the only two fruits I liked were pineapples and bananas. Why? They were the only two that could hold a candle to kids’ breakfast cereals as far as sweetness. When you’re used to Frosted Flakes, only a ripe banana can match that sweetness. Now, I can’t really eat these two fruits as they have too much sugar. What changed?

Sugar has now been identified as a major factor in the development of heart disease. This is an epigenetic phenomenon, meaning it impacts some of us more than others, all based on how much insulin we release when we eat sugar. Most of us release too much insulin, and by eating sugar, we rapidly march toward long-term disability and type-2 diabetes. Many of us end up in that prediabetic state by the time we’re in our 40s or 50s, dramatically increasing our odds for a fatal heart attack or stroke.

The sugar disease begins with the processed foods that are marketed to use every day. The hook is oftentimes the nutrient-poor sugar fat one-two punch. Think of taking a perfectly great food like almonds and covering them in sugar. So your overall goal as you age should be to cut your sugar intake.

We all have a set point for what we define as sweet. If we eat less sugar, our perception changes. Things that are less sweet taste sweet. If we eat more sugar, it takes more sugar to get past that threshold. This is likely a classic cell receptor issue. The receptors for sweetness down-regulate (meaning there are fewer of them) when we eat more sugar. Hence, it takes more sugar to reach that threshold receptor activation. When we eat less sugar, the number of those receptors increase, meaning that less sugar is needed to trigger the sensation of sweet.

This is a critical part of losing weight as you age: resetting your sweetness threshold. I use what I call a chocolate test. If you try a Lindt 70% chocolate bar, it should taste sweet. If you try an 85% chocolate bar, it should taste just a tad sweet, but mostly bitter. If you try a 55%–60% chocolate bar, it should be way too sweet. If you try a diet Coke or Coke, it should be so sweet as to almost make you nauseous. Meaning these drinks should have way too much sugar.

The only way to reset your sweetness threshold is to eat less sugar. You can test this from time to time above, but your days of sipping on a diet Coke or Pepsi should be over. Why? If that’s what it takes for you to function, your sugar threshold is set way too high for optimal lower carb and lower sugar health. You’re a sugarholic.

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Important Information About Obesity

Weight gain and obesity are associated with many, many health problems. Some are well known, such as cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases. Others might be less obvious; obesity has also been linked, for example, to knee arthritis both mechanically, or in how the excess weight puts added pressure on the joint, and hormonally via the signaling hormone leptin, which is oversecreted with overeating, and increased leptin levels have been found in both the blood and knee joints in those with arthritis. So let’s review ways, in addition to staying away from those processed carb and fat combo foods, you can work toward preventing or tackling obesity.

It’s important to understand that many of us really are genetically inclined toward obesity. However, that doesn’t mean we just sit back and let it happen. While genetic obesity might be our default, we also know that a healthy lifestyle that includes a proper diet and regular exercise may override it. And the good news is that those with a higher risk of genetic obesity actually obtain more benefits from a healthy diet than those with a lower risk (some healthy diets can also be found at this link), so don’t assume you’re doomed to be fat just because your obesity risk is high.

The upshot? Carbs and fat are what many of us crave. However, now that we know this, we can make better choices. Your main goal should be to cut the carbs and sugar. Use my chocolate test above to see if you’re a sugarholic. If you are and are middle-aged or older, time to cut back on the sugar! BTW, I’ll let you know how I do on the Prolon low-calorie/nutrient-dense fast as I experiment with it for patient use. Since we know that fasting can supercharge your stem cells, I’d like to see how our patients will tolerate it before recommending it.

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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