As I was wheeling my supermarket cart toward the checkout area, a display of outrageously colored marshmallows chicks caught my eye. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “it is Peeps season.” Easter was a few days away, and in honor of the traditional junk foods of the holiday, the supermarket had stacked shelves with the garish little chickens and rabbits. Seeing them there brought back memories of giving them out to a group of binge eaters who participated in a weight-loss program at our clinic. I am quite fond of Peeps; they are one of a very few number of foods that are almost guaranteed to stop people from bingeing.
“What would make you stop eating?” we asked the members of the group when each described a situation in which her eating was out of control. The answer was usually “when I can no longer put any more food in my stomach.”
At that point, I, or the other leader of the group, would produce a plate of Peeps. We kept them in the freezer so we would have them when no holiday confections were being sold. After passing them around and telling the group to eat a couple, we would ask, “So how many of these could you eat during a binge?” Some of our participants would turn the green or yellow of the little chicks and respond by saying they would gag if they had to eat more than a couple. “They are so sweet. How could anyone eat more than a two or three?” were the typical responses.
“Most people can’t,” was the answer. “And that is why each of you is going to take home a box of these marshmallows. When you feel an uncontrollable urge to binge, you can eat only the chicks. Nothing else.”
We were never disappointed in the results. Unless she cheated and ate something else, no one in the group could eat more than six of the chicks. Each found her binge stopped in its tracks.
Although one could suspect that the color of the Peeps was enough to stop eating, that wasn’t why they worked to abort a binge. Peeps are made of rapidly digestible sugar. The sugar stimulates the production of an appetite-controlling chemical in the brain called serotonin. By the time the fourth or fifth Peep was eaten, enough serotonin was produced to shut down the desire to eat anymore.
It is not necessary to wait until Easter or Christmas Peeps are in the supermarket to control a binge. Any rapidly digestible carbohydrate (except that in fruit) will accomplish the same thing. In fact, one of the other foods we used to block the binge was a sports energy gel called GU. Like other energy gels, GU consists of glucose, the simplest sugar in nature. People engaged in long-distance competitive events use energy gels to restore their depleted carbohydrate energy stores.
The gels come packaged in tiny plastic containers similar in size to fast-food mayonnaise or ketchup pouches. Once opened, they are squeezed onto the tongue. They taste more or less like chocolate, vanilla, or orange frosting. Because the sugar is the same as that used by the body to make energy, the contents travel rapidly through the digestive system and quickly stimulate a process in the body that allows serotonin to be made.
The problem with binges is that they tend to take hold without warning. Anxiety, unexpected problems at work or home—indeed any type of stress—can make many people reach automatically for food and start to eat with no end in sight. And all too often, once it is realized that five chocolate chip cookies have already been gobbled, the binge eater gives up all hope of control and keeps on eating until either there is nothing left or it is too uncomfortable to eat anymore.
An effective way of stopping the binge before it is wound up and unstoppable is to shock the tongue and the brain. This is why the excruciating sweetness of GU or Peeps on the tongue makes the person focus on how and what she is consuming. Within minutes, the brain is focusing on making the new serotonin that will take away the desire to eat.
Of course, the best way to stop a binge is to develop an eating style that prevents you from falling into one in the first place. Binges often occur following a high protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Such a diet leaves the brain depleted of serotonin. Since serotonin also buffers you against the unpleasant emotions of stress, lack of serotonin leaves you hanging out there, vulnerable to every stress that comes your way.
If you follow a food plan such as The Serotonin Power Diet, your serotonin levels will be available to help you cope with the emotional unpleasantness that comes into all our lives. You won’t have to eat to relieve the agitation and anxiety the stress is causing because serotonin will soften the harshness of these emotions. Simply by making sure you eat a non-fruit carbohydrate at least once or twice a day without any protein (protein prevents serotonin from being made) will put you in a stress-protected mode. This doesn’t mean that you won’t experience stress—it will just be easier to endure.
What will happen to post-holiday Peeps if they are no longer needed for a binge? Around Easter, there was a national competition to see what kinds of artwork could be created out of these creatures and some complicated dioramas were shown on national television. So when binges are no longer a problem, get out your scissors and glue and see what you can create from pink chickens and green rabbits.