By Zoe Harcombe
Buy "Why do you Overeat? When all you want is to be slim" (£9.99) and get "The Harcombe Diet for men" (£7.99) free.
I sat in my student room at Cambridge University and should have been enjoying the magnificent view of Kings Chapel. Instead I was looking at the desk in front of me laden with confectionery, crisps and cakes. I wanted to be slim more than anything else in the world and yet I was about to devour every single piece of junk in front of me. Why?!
I spent the next decade piecing together the answer to that question - and I'm about to share it with you. Through experience and research I discovered three very common conditions that cause insatiable food cravings. You may have heard of them, you may know that you have one or more of them, but you are unlikely to know how they have turned you into a food addict:
Candida: is a yeast that lives in all of us, but it can easily multiply out of control, creating many nasty symptoms - from bloating and fatigue to irritable bowel syndrome and mood swings.
Foods that encourage candida growth are the ones you crave - bread, fruit, pickled foods, cereal: basically any processed carbohydrates. The more you give in to the cravings, the more you feed this condition - and the more of a food addict you become.
Food Intolerance: occurs when you have the same foods every day and you literally become intolerant to them, but you crave them to avoid the withdrawal symptoms that occur when you don't consume them.
The most common intolerances in the UK are to wheat and dairy foods - in that order.
We have cereal (wheat) and milk (dairy) for breakfast, sandwiches (wheat) and lattés (dairy) for lunch, pasta for dinner with maybe yogurt for dessert. No wonder wheat and dairy are our biggest problems.
Hypoglycaemia: is suffered by most people, most days at around 11am and 4pm. It’s that ‘can’t concentrate/must have some food’ kind of feeling and it causes intense cravings for carbs – especially sweets and chocolate etc.
When blood glucose levels dip below normal, your body will do whatever it can to get you to eat something - to get the level back up.
When you get that 11am/4pm feeling - you reach for a muffin, or a bar of chocolate. Yet this gives you way more sugar than you need, so you may release too much insulin coping with this unrecognised modern 'food' and then your blood sugar level dips again.
This is why many people find that they can't stop eating once they start - you never manage to get stable blood sugar levels throughout the day.
The first of these conditions was discovered while I was at Cambridge.
I went to see the college GP thinking I would be dismissed as a neurotic female for having a list of symptoms that included bloating, gaining pounds overnight, PMT and food cravings.
Thankfully, my appointment was with a wonderful young doctor who had heard about some work going on at Cambridge's Addenbrooks hospital, looking into food intolerance.
He referred me to the expert there - Dr Jonathan Brostoff - and I was put on an exclusion diet. I transformed into a different person within days - I lost approximately 10lb in the next fortnight and felt better than I had done for years. I really thought I had the answer to the million dollar question, but food intolerance was not the whole answer.
As I increased my consumption of things I thought were healthy - fruit, particularly - little did I know that I was feeding candida and hypoglycaemia nicely. My cravings returned with a vengeance, and I was powerless to resist them. I regained the weight lost and spent much of my 20s fighting to stay below 10 stone - the same heaviest weight I had been at university (I'm only 5'2").
Two books were to provide the key remaining bits of the puzzle.
The first I discovered in a book store while working in the USA in my 20s. New Low Blood Sugar And You by Carlton Fredericks seemed to have been written for me.
The back cover talked about 'anxiety, irritability, exhaustion, fainting spells, headaches, indigestion, indecisiveness, forgetfulness...' and I thought he'd captured me perfectly!
I realised so-called healthy carbs and masses of fruit had been sending my blood sugar levels from high to low several times a day - every time they dropped, my body would cry out to be fed - hence the cravings.
The final book - Candida Albicans: Could yeast be your problem? by Leon Chaitow - was spotted in a London book store.
The words were on the front cover this time: 'anxiety, irritability, bloatedness, heartburn, tiredness, allergies, cystitis, menstrual problems...' An incredible overlap with the book on hypoglycaemia, with a couple more symptoms on top. Again, they described me perfectly.
The discovery of these conditions during my 20s and their documented impact on cravings was exciting enough. The final piece in the jigsaw was a show-stopper. There are many and varied causes of these three conditions, but they all have one cause in common - calorie counting.
Trying to eat less drives people down the route of eating more of the foods that make these problems worse.
Fruit, muesli bars, cereal, low-fat/low-calorie products – things that you think are healthy - are feeding these conditions beautifully. So, start a diet and you will end up a food addict - the pathway is as clear as that.
I sat down again, 10 years after university, surrounded by books about candida, food intolerance and hypoglycaemia and worked out the perfect diet to overcome these three conditions.
And so Phase One of The Harcombe Diet was born. It only needed to be five days long – driven by food intolerance - as any food to which you are intolerant has passed through you in this time.
The core foods of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, salads, brown rice and Natural Live Yoghurt (the latter helps to fight candida) emerged as the 'super foods' that would fight these nasty ailments.
I set out to design a diet that would end addict-like food cravings. I did not set out to design a diet that would lose 17lb in 5 days - and yet that is the current record.
Candida and food intolerance both cause serious water retention, and pounds can be dropped in the first few days - shrinking you by one dress size in the process. More typically, people lose 7lb in five days - but without going hungry or counting a single calorie. In fact, it is vital that you eat plenty - trying to eat less will make you overeat faster than you can say 'I'm starving!'.
I confess I felt no compulsion to share my findings immediately. I was enjoying a successful career as an human resources director, working as far afield as the Americas and Asia.
Within days, not even weeks, of working out Phase One, I had reached my natural weight of eight stone and I have been there ever since. I could never have imagined that I could eat as much as I do and stay at my perfect weight so easily - not least while eating a 100g bar of 85 per cent dark chocolate every day!
To say this has changed my life is an understatement. I wasted a decade of my life obsessed with food but terrified of it at the same time. I would turn down social invitations because I felt fat and then sit at home and stuff my face instead.
I started every day thinking 'today will be different', but it never was because I simply did not know why I could not resist the urge to eat – not everything, but quite particular things: biscuits, chocolate, cakes, crisps...you know the foods I mean!
I hated myself and beat myself up for my assumed lack of willpower, but it wasn't my fault. I was an addict, and only when I understood the cause of the addiction could I overcome the causal conditions and get back in control of food.
Freedom from any addiction is wonderful. Freedom from food addiction is the best thing of all, as we have to eat – we just need to be able to control what we eat and not have what we eat control us. That's where I've been for 20 years, and it's bliss!
The book only came about because I was on a team building course with my HR team. We got to the end of a wonderful three days together and the trainer asked us to buddy up and commit to our buddy to do something that would make a difference to us or other people.
I joked that I would share my diet secret by writing a book, but then said that I'd pick something else because I didn't have the time to write a book.
The trainer happened to be walking past and said he'd heard me talking about Big Brother – if I had time to watch that, I had time to write a book. Fair point! And so I committed to my buddy, Sian, that I would write Why Do You Overeat? When All You Want Is To Be Slim.
I put my email address in the first edition of the first book – thinking that about 20 people would read it. Hundreds of emails later I realised that people were losing several pounds in Phase One, then going on to lose several more in Phase Two - and still keeping this weight off.
One woman wrote to me: 'Where were you when I was stuffing my face at college?'
And I replied that I was probably doing the same thing! That’s when I realised I may not be an HR director for much longer.