“I’ve been gaining weight since I turned 50 and I can’t stay away from the carbs!” a midlife ADDiva told me last week by phone. I can relate. Oh, I can definitely relate.

Yesterday, I picked up my PostIt-filled copy of Mastering the Zone by Barry Sears – the place I visit when I am finally ready to return to a more sane eating pattern. There, on page 37, was a chart that simplified the connection between focus and carbohydrates.

The chart was labeled ” Extent of Hunger 4 Hours After a Meal.” It showed two alternatives:

1. No hunger — which stemmed from the “correct” ratio of protein to carbs to keep hormonal levels (insulin) steady.

2. Significant hunger — which had two causes — one was too much carbohydrates relative to protein (insulin too high), which led to POOR MENTAL FOCUS. Hmmmm.

The alternative – too much protein relative to carbs (insulin was too low) – led to Good Mental Focus…but a growling tummy.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Zone, it advocates a consistent ratio of fat-carbs-protein every time you eat. It’s a pain to learn, but I admit, I feel much better on the Zone than almost any other food plan. The Zone also mirrors the Prefrontal Cortex Diet which advocates protein at every meal – especially breakfast – and no refined sugar.

It made a lot of sense to me. I don’t know the precise physiological mechanism for the protein=focus and carbs=fogginess. I am intimately famliar, however, with the churning carbohydrate cycle that feasts on sugar and more sugar.

(A quick refresher on the definition of a carbohydrate, since I tend to forget: anything that produces sugar in your bloodstream. That, of course, includes anything made with sugar or its ilk: candy, lemonade, cookies, cereal (I dare you to find one without added sugar or beet juice or high fructose syrup added) AND it includes things that convert to sugar once in your body – bread, rolls, rice, noodles. Even vegetables are carbohydrates, usually better than the sugary stuff – but carrots and beets have a lot of sugar in their little cells, bless them).

Consider an extreme example: you eat a donut (sugar, fat, white flour – yum) and your blood sugar spikes, allowing you to feel energetic (although unfocused). When you dump sugar into your bloodstream, it screams for balance — so insulin comes to the rescue, neutralizing all that excess sugar.

Problem is, there is so much sugar in your body, that the insulin overreacts and send a thundering herd of little hormone armies to counteract the sugar. Pretty soon there is too much INSULIN hanging around in your bloodstream with nothing to do. That insulin likes to have a job so it needs more sugar to neutralize, so your body screams at you to eat something sweet and sugary. You feel faint from hunger, so you have another donut, or a Coke or a piece of toast and jelly.

Then it’s off to the races again — with your body doing its good job of noticing that there is sugar coming down the pike…and releasing more insulin…as if you needed any more! This silly circus act goes on for as long as you keep feeding the sugar monster inside you.

In  the meantime, your ADD goes beserk — attention goes out the window but energy ebbs and flows with your carb intake.

The Zone suggests rather strongly that the key to a balanced mental and physical state is a balance of food types. In my experience, a low sugar, moderate protein, low fat diet works great. Until I allow myself to get on the sugar train again.

It’s hard to get OFF that carbohydrate train. Yesterday, I promised myself “no sugar.” But by the end of the day, I was digging around in the trash to find the last few bites of a candy bar I had righteously thrown away that morning. Embarrassing. But testament to the power of sugar.

Today is another day. I will try to balance my foods so my blood sugar stays steady and my focus….well, my focus can only improve from here on out!