Most weight loss programs and recovery programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the environment we live in. Sure, they’ll say stay away from places where the sight of foods will trigger you but that’s about it. They don’t really tell us what to do with the coworker at the next desk with a big bowl of jelly beans or the break room with donuts and cookies. They don’t have much in the way of suggestions for eating out with non-addict friends who look forward to beer and pizza and a chocolate lava cake for dessert, a meal that will have us stopping at the grocery store for sweets on the way home.
Nor do they talk about the emotional environment we swim in: the overly critical mother-in-law, the narcissistic boss, the cheating or indifferent or demeaning partner, the teenage son or daughter who’s always in trouble, the aging and demanding parent. Of course, non-food addicts have these issues too, but they may not respond to them in the self-destructive way we do: by bingeing or overeating.
Recovering alcoholics often discover that they have to change jobs, change partners, change their lives in major ways to stay sober.
Can we food addicts find the same courage to make big changes to make peace with food?
I’ve been at this game of addiction/recovery/addiction/recovery for a very long time. Some of you have too. For that last eight or nine years, I’ve been in an inquiry to understand myself. Not why I do it, which in many ways is no longer relevant, but why I can’t stop.
I understand the brain science of it all—how the cravings work and how they resurface. I understand that addiction isn’t logical, isn’t rational, that my brain cannot “solve” this. I also understand that there’s a very delicate balance between what my will power can do and what it can’t.
I could say that I can’t stop because I don’t want to stop and that is partially true. My desire to stop is not as strong as my desire to keep eating everything I want. The old short-term gratification problem. But I also know it’s more complicated than that. In order to stop and stay stopped, I need to make some big adjustments to my life and that’s what I’m resisting.
What are you resisting around your food addiction?
I hide and sneak food. I’m not proud of it. It’s a trait I don’t like in myself. But it’s been a part of my food addiction all my life. I knew my mother would disapprove of the amount of candy I ate and how frequently so I hid it and the wrappers. (I later discovered that my mother had Mr. Goodbars hidden all over the house.) I don’t want people to know how much I can and do eat. Of course I’m not fooling anybody. You can see the results on my body, the 70 pounds I’ve regained over the last two years isn’t from salad.
This lifelong fear of others’ knowing what I’m up to makes it really difficult for me to seek support for recovery, to call someone from the grocery store as I’m putting two big packages of Snickers ice cream bars in my cart and ask them to talk me down from the fat ledge of sugar suicide. And I can go to a meeting of OA or FA or Weight Watchers and listen and share my story and stop on the way home for cupcakes.
I’m realizing that most of the support I need is internal. When I have dessert or binge on candy or chips, I’m not acting in my own best interest. When I overeat at a meal, I’m not advocating for my best self, for my best health. And I’m not fooling anybody, not even myself.
Can I get willing to stop being divided against myself? Can you?
When I was about five years sober, an AA buddy and I were talking about the quantities of sugar that showed up at AA meetings. (It’s even recommended in the old AA literature to be sure to have coffee and cookies on hand for those in recovery.) My buddy, who had been sober a long time, talked about her own need to have a multitude of candy bars “just in case.”
Then she mentioned a man she had known at meetings in LA. I’ve forgotten his name so I’ll call him Joe. Joe had been sober for 30 years but was diabetic and could not give up sugar. He had a foot amputated but he could not give up sugar. He was losing his sight but he could not give up sugar. In the end, he died in his late 60s of diabetic complications.
I don’t want to become Joe. I don’t want to be Joe. And yet I understand that seduction, that need, that pull, and my own inability to say no.
How will you keep from becoming Joe with whatever your food addiction is?
About five years ago, through an email from a friend and a quick decision, I lucked into an affordable art space about 10 blocks from my house. For the next three years—until the building was sold and the new owner tripled the rents—I worked there quite happily, stepping into my identity as an artist. After a couple of months, I began to realize that even though I took a thermos of tea and some snacks with me, I never touched them there. In fact, I forgot all about them and would just carry them home with me.
I can contrast this with the same amount of time spent on the computer, whether editing (which is how I earn my money) or taking care of emails or researching for a project. After 15 or 20 minutes, I’m up and in the kitchen and looking for something interesting to eat. This isn’t about hunger; I can be only 20 minutes from a meal. It’s a difference in satisfaction.
I can experience the same contrast after lunch out. If I felt seen and heard by my lunch companion, I don’t eat when I get home. But if the encounter was unsatisfying, I’m in front of the fridge before I get my coat off.
My challenge is to identify those satisfying things that don’t trigger me to overeat.
Have you identified what’s satisfying in your life?
When I feel stuck around my experience of food addiction, I think of that old story of the woman who always cut off the end of the Christmas ham before roasting it in the oven. When her daughter asked her about it, she said her mother had always done it and the ham was always terrific. The daughter asked her grandmother about the tradition. She laughed at the question and said, “I cut it off because my pan was too small.”
Many of our habitual responses to discomfort are based on the same idea. When we put the habit into place, we had a good reason. We were little children who were abused or neglected or wounded in some way, and we had few resources to take care of ourselves besides food. Now many years (or decades) later, we’re still cutting off the end of the ham (and stuffing it in our mouths), even though we’ve lost touch with the original reason why. We’ve never sought a better solution (like buying a bigger pan or loving ourselves into wholeness).
What better solution could you try as a replacement for soothing with food?
Last week I discussed the reasoning behind my decision to stop looking for the Solution, the big cure-all. I’ve come to believe that there isn’t one. Here’s what I know:
- Any food restriction plan will cause weight loss. The less we eat, the more we will lose—up to a point. It’s best if it’s a healthy diet with a lot of fruit and vegetables and some protein and a little fat, but almost any way you restrict your food will work to some extent.
- No food restriction plan will cure or even treat the emotional difficulties of sugar and food addiction. We eat too much or the wrong things or both because we are angry or sad or lonely or bored or stressed or restless. Dieting doesn’t fix this; in fact, for many of us, food restriction makes it worse.
- Weight loss alone will not cure our emotional difficulties or our addictive habits. Yes, we may look better and physically feel better and that’s no small matter. But if weight loss “cured” us, we wouldn’t go back to overeating.
- Sugar and its counterpart, white flour, is as addictive as alcohol and heroin for some of us. Abstinence is the only real treatment for the physical part of the addiction (the allergy that we have to it).
- Healing our emotions is a slow process but it can be done. Eliminating triggers and stressors is a great first step.
Are you still under the illusion that diets will cure your addiction? What supports that belief?
Like many of us, I’ve been looking for decades for that perfect solution to my sugar and overeating addictions. I dated Weight Watchers briefly, went out with OA for a short while. Read a dozen books that promised I could do sugar in moderation. They lied. Juiced, fasted, did power smoothies. I lost weight on every food restriction plan (aka diet) that I tried, but I gained it all back after some time.
In 2015 I thought I had found the Solution. It was called Bright Line Eating and the creator of the program, Susan Peirce Thompson, is an addict and alcoholic and knew about addictive eating and the science of sugar eating. There was (and is) a lot of good information and online support to the program and that all seemed perfect. For 18 months I followed the food restriction plan, which was very healthy. I lost a lot of weight (84 pounds) in that time and I was convinced I’d been saved.
And then the hunger got to me. I’d been hungry for 18 months and I just couldn’t be hungry all the time anymore. I’d also been hypervigilant about what I ate and how much and when, and I was exhausted from that too. And I realized that Thompson was a recovering anorexic and anorexics get power and energy from hunger, not suffering the way we overeaters do. And this big piece of the puzzle both disappointed me and made me feel powerless, and I jumped into relapse with both feet.
How do you deal with hunger?
I’ve been thinking a lot about discomfort and my resistance to it, which shows up as a need to avoid it at all costs. Like many of us, I started using food as a child to deal with any form of emotional hurt, and in my family there was a fair amount of that. I created a very deep groove in my brain, a neural pathway of response: emotional discomfort? Eat something and eat enough of it to get numb.
While this was a survival technique for me that worked well as a child and as an adolescent, it is now a habit that doesn’t serve me. More and more of the wisdom available to us tells us to lean into the discomfort so that it can pass. When we avoid it—or worse, numb it, it doesn’t go away. It just stays stuck in the body and compounds the next bout of discomfort.
So how do we lean into the discomfort? We wait. When we feel off or hurt or angry or annoyed, we wait. We don’t eat. We don’t run. We don’t get busy. We wait. And I know this is so much easier to say than to do. But it’s worth it.
What are your tools for dealing with discomfort?
Today might be the best chance you have to take action.
The longer you wait, the more deeply embedded you get in your current lifestyle.
Your habits solidify. Your beliefs harden. You get comfortable.
It will never be easy, but it may also never be easier than it is right now.
–James Clear, Atomic Habits