Today I want to dive deep into an idea that I have been mulling over (and over) after quitting drinking, smoking and dieting.
First, I think we can all agree that the word addiction is over-used (especially in a casual way) and misunderstood (duh, scientists are working on this).
Since we know and agree that there aren’t clear scientifically defined boundaries around what constitutes “real” addiction, I want to propose that it cannot and really truly should not ever be used in relation to food. It can be applied to dieting, binging, purging and any other disordered eating behavior, but I don’t think it can be applied to specific FOODS. I am saying, without any scientific support, that a person cannot become addicted to food.
I know that this is a pretty unpopular point of view (who am I to tell people whether or not they are addicted to sugar, fast food, pasta, pizza or ice cream??), and it may piss you off a bit. In fact, it would have pissed ME off three months ago. So let me explain.
When I thought to myself, many times, that I am addicted to carbohydrates and sugar in all forms, here’s how I came to that conclusion:
- When I ate certain foods (ice cream, french fries, pasta, brownies, cookies, etc.), I felt like I couldn’t stop once I started (I did actually eventually stop, but not until after mindless overeating until I felt sick)AND I WAS AFRAID THAT THIS KIND OF EATING WOULD MAKE ME FAT. AND FAT IS BAD. I FELT SHAME WHEN I ATE THESE FOODS, SO I ATE THEM IN SECRET OR ATE A TINY AMOUNT IN PUBLIC AND FELT DEPRIVED FOR DAYS AFTERWARD.
- When I would stop eating sugar and refined carbohydrates periodically, I would feel like I was going through withdrawal, especially gastro-intestinal changes and initial headaches/flu-like symptomsBUT IT WAS OK BECAUSE I WAS AFRAID THAT EATING SUGAR (etc.) WOULD MAKE ME FAT. AND FAT IS BAD. MY SHAME LIFTED WHEN I SUCCESSFULLY ATE IN ALIGNMENT WITH MY DIET. I WOULD FEEL VIRTUOUS BUT ALSO AFRAID OF WHEN (not if) I WOULD FAIL.
- When I ate sugar and refined carbs, I would experience a noticeable high, and a noticeable crash (fatigue, low energy, grouchiness, etc.) afterwardAND THIS JUSTIFIED QUITTING IT ALTOGETHER BECAUSE I OBVIOUSLY CAN’T HANDLE SUGAR (etc.), AND BESIDES – SOMEONE SAID IT IS “EMPTY CALORIES” AND IT MAKES ME FAT. AND FAT LIMITS ME AND SAYS THAT I’M UNHEALTHY TO THE WORLD.
- I would crave sugar sometimes, so the only solution (I thought) was to make anything sugary completely illegal in my mind – off the table, not an option, and completely poison. Just a “little bit” in moderation just wasn’t realistic for a girl like me.CRAVINGS ARE A NORMAL PART OF DIETING AND RESTRICTION. FIGHT THE URGE, INGRID, BECAUSE OTHERWISE YOU WILL BECOME FAT.
- Over time, after eliminating sugar (for example) for 3-4 months, I would still feel deprived if I saw someone eating a donut. Or pasta. Or if I was offered pizza and I was hungry and knew I “couldn’t” have it.I KNEW A LITTLE SUGAR WOULDN’T LITERALLY KILL ME, BUT I WAS AFRAID THAT IF I EVER ATE SUGAR AGAIN I WOULD NEVER EVER STOP EATING SUGAR AND I WOULD GET SO FAT THAT A TRUCK WOULD BE NEEDED TO GET ME OUT OF THE HOUSE WHEN I DIED.
So, this sounds like it could be addiction, right?
Here’s what it was like with cigarettes, for comparison:
- I woke up wanting a cigarette, but I would wait until I had a nice cup of coffee in my hand to go outside and have my first (and usually “best”) cigarette of the day.BECAUSE MY BODY WAS USED TO NICOTINE AND IT WAS IN WITHDRAWAL FROM 8 HOURS OF SLEEP. BUT I KNEW I WOULD GET CANCER OR LUNG DISEASE IF I KEPT SMOKING. DARK CLOUD OF SHAME WOULD FORM OVER MY HEAD.
- Like clockwork, I would crave a cigarette every 45 minutes to an hour. If I didn’t have one (because I couldn’t for whatever reason), I would go into nicotine withdrawal, which feels like an empty uncomfortable insecure feeling that is only resolved by a cigarette.BECAUSE MY BODY WAS USED TO NICOTINE AND IT WAS IN WITHDRAWAL FROM AN HOUR OR SO WITHOUT IT.
- When I tried to quit smoking, many times, I went into withdrawal for three days to one month (depended on the attempt- can’t explain it). The physical craving for cigs would stop pretty quickly. The psychological desire for a cig remained, and would kick in full force if I was drinking and didn’t have my defenses up.I WAS A SMOKER FOR 20 YEARS. TOUGH HABIT TO BREAK.
- I would start smoking again because the urges seemed too great. Also, I was afraid of life without them – the concept of forever would freak me out.I WAS A SMOKER FOR 20 YEARS. TOUGH HABIT TO BREAK.
- Now that I’ve quit smoking for 10 months, I can say that unequivocally I have zero desire to smoke – emotionally, physically or mentally. Time passing has resolved this addiction for me. I’ll admit that when I see a bunch of giggling smokers outside of a bar I have a wistful “oh I wish I were young and reckless and smoking again”… but that lasts all of 2 minutes then disappears.BECAUSE NICOTINE IS NOT SOMETHING I WAS BORN WANTING OR NEEDING. MY BODY AND BRAIN ADJUSTED AND NOW EVERYTHING IS FINE. FOR REALS.
And now, with drinking:
- I would wake up and need my coffee and cigarettes (luckily, never craved booze in the morning… yet)IT WAS MY ROUTINE. I DO KIND OF MISS THAT ROUTINE BECAUSE IT MEANT I HAD TO STEP OUTSIDE EVERY MORNING. I FORGET TO DO THAT NOW THAT I’VE QUIT SMOKING.
- Towards the end of my drinking days, I started craving wine at around lunchtime, but would only indulge at brunch on the weekends, or big work lunches where everyone was drinking. Otherwise I would wait until 3-4pm to start drinking if I could swing it. I worked from home for an east coast company, so that was my “happy hour” since it was 6-7pm for my coworkers in CT an MA.ONCE, I HAD TWO GLASSES OF WINE AT 3PM AND THEN WAS ASKED TO JOIN AN EMERGENCY WORK CALL. IT DIDN’T GO WELL.
- When I started in on wine, I would fill a very large stemless glass and drink it very quickly – sometimes in the 10 minutes it took to smoke a cigarette and check facebook. Then it just was too hard to stop. The second glass got me to that perfect buzz, and then it made lots of sense (every single day) to keep the buzz going with a third glass. Then, well, why not finish the bottle? And whoops, I really could use one more glass before bed, I think I’ll open another bottle. And finally I would either cry, pick a fight with my husband, hit on my husband (yes, it’s a thing when you’re a drunk), or pass out. More often than not I wouldn’t remember what I said/did in the waning evening hours when I woke up in a dehydrated panic at 2am.WHEN THIS CYCLE DIDN’T STOP EVEN THOUGH I PROMISED MYSELF EVERY SINGLE DAY THAT IT WOULD, I REALIZED I WASN’T JUST A GLUTTONOUS MAGNANIMOUS SOCIAL DRINKER. I WAS ADDICTED TO THIS SHIT AND IT WAS KILLING ME AND MY SOUL.
- Shame cycle and spiral finally led me to try quitting drinking. Then I finally was able to do it for a while (today, 316 days of not drinking).SHAME GONE. CRAVINGS WERE STRONG FOR THE FIRST 30-90 DAYS, THEN THEY FADED. NOW THEY FEEL LIKE THEY ARE GONE MOST DAYS, MOST HOURS. RARE CRAVINGS DO STILL CROP UP, BUT THEY ARE WEAK AND EASY TO DISMISS. MY CRAVINGS ARE FADING BECAUSE MY BODY IS ADJUSTING TO THE ABSENCE OF A POISON THAT IT NEVER WANTED OR NEEDED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
So, from my subtle ALL CAPS notes, you might have noticed a theme, especially at the end of the stories. With food, my brain and body continue to want anything that I decide to restrict, and that feeling never goes away. Everyone says that sugar cravings fade, and yes, they do a little bit in the physical sense, but its allure (cupcakes, brownies, ice cream, WHATEVER) never really fades. Just the physical craving might drop a little. I believe this is because our bodies are literally hard wired to prevent starvation. I am not saying that people are born needing sugar – not at all. I’m saying that if we restrict sugar, we are kicking off a baked-in mechanism in our minds that makes ‘not eating sugar’ a form of starvation. That kicks off obsessive compulsive responses to sugar. This chain reaction isn’t automatic with chemical substances – it takes time and use to train your brain to recognize the substance as a thing that makes us feel normal (like food).
This means, to me, that the feeling of having a food “addiction” is a feature, not a bug. When we do go ahead and restrict food intake, our bodies are designed to slow the fuck down. The weight loss plateaus. So, we can either eat less, exercise more, or we can give up and binge (or just eat normally again, if you’re not at all like me). If you repeat this cycle enough times you will wind up fatter than you started out before you ever dieted. This is proven by science (I’ll link to supporting data soon). Diets make you fat because your body wants to survive the next one.
So how do you get out of this cycle? You don’t quit the substance you’re addicted to. That’s FOR SURE. Because all you’re doing when you eliminate a food is feeding your body’s panic response.
I am learning a ton about unrestricted eating as a “cure” for disordered eating, including dieting. The message to me is this: you CAN abstain from dieting, and all other ways of eating that trigger the body’s natural “don’t starve me!” response. You can’t abstain from foods to “cure” an addiction. You can certainly choose not to eat certain foods if that choice isn’t made due to fear of fat/ugliness/unlovable-ness. This is the key. I am working on this key in my day to day life, right now. IT’S HARD, I tell you. But I have faith it will be able to re-train myself to understand that food is abundant, I am fine as I am, I will be fine if I gain weight, I will be fine if I stay the same weight, and I will be fine if I lose weight. Weight doesn’t equal worth, no matter what society and the medical world tells us. Even if I get sick from being overweight, it is not a moral failing.
What do you guys think?