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Moderation Won’t Work If You’re Addicted, but Are You Sure You’re Addicted?

sharma-obesity-chocolateWhenever I talk about moderation in eating, I always hear from people who have at least some foods that they do not believe they can moderate. These foods are usually things like potato chips and cheesies, cake and cookies, nuts and pretzels, chocolate and ice cream.  To a lesser degree, some avoid things like pizza and french fries for similar reasons. They can’t eat just a little bit.

My initial reaction to this claim of the inability to moderate is skepticism.  The intuitive eating approach that I’ve been following lately, and that has miraculously freed me from all rules about food and from overeating pretty much anything, works on the premise that when we release ourselves from the idea of forbidden foods and eat what we want, when we are hungry, in a mindful fashion until we are satisfied (not stuffed, satisfied), we will achieve a peaceful relationship with food.

“Peaceful” may seem an odd way of describing it, but if food has been the enemy for many years, as it has for many chronic dieters, then making peace with it is a huge achievement.  The intuitive eating approach does not require that we cut out any particular foods altogether.

And it pretty much promises that if followed in a committed manner, with a firm resolve never to diet again and to stop monitoring your weight with regular weigh-ins, even the most obsessive, chronic dieter, even those with severe eating disorders (whether they be at the starvation end or the overeating end of the disordered eating spectrum), will learn to eat what they want, when they want, in moderate amounts.

This has been my experience. But it doesn’t happen overnight. When the rules are first lifted, of course we feel giddy with the new permissiveness.  At that stage, it’s easy and fairly common to eat what we want when we want, but in amounts that exceed satiety. That is not what intuitive eating is all about.  The mindful eating part of the equation, which is also something Sam is practicing with her precision approach, is as important as lifting our judgments about good foods and bad foods.

So my first response is always to encourage people who are ready to do something radical and different in their relationship with food to think of it as a process. I urge people to believe that if they have patience and follow the guidelines, the foods that they thought might forever trigger them into binging have a good chance of losing their power.

But this outcome may not be possible for everyone with respect to every kind of food.  Why? Because it may be that in some small number of cases people actually have an addictive relationship with some foods.

I’m no stranger to the ways of addiction. It’s a serious thing that can take people down hard.  It wrecks lives, makes people miserable, and has a huge impact on those who suffer from it and on almost everyone in their lives.

In my experience, the minimum requirement for overcoming an addiction is total abstinence. So I am quite willing to believe that for some people, if they are completely out of control around certain foods, then moderation is not going to work.

The other thing I know about addiction is that it is not only about the thing to which a person is addicted.  Reaching outside of ourselves (for food or drugs or alcohol or more more of whatever it is) to change the way we feel, i.e. to feel better, even if only temporarily, is an ineffective coping strategy.  When we abstain from the so-called problem substance or behavior, we have not necessarily developed better coping skills or dealt with the core issues that lead us to seek solace in e.g. a bag of potato chips in the first place.

Abstinence is a means of beginning to address addiction, but it will not give anyone a full recovery from it.

Since I am not one to throw around the idea that someone may be addicted lightly, I want to suggest that the majority of us who appear to have certain “problem” foods in our lives might find surprising results if we took a risk and truly allowed ourselves to incorporate these things into our lives.

I’m not suggesting that you incorporate foods that you don’t even like, of course. I’m talking about foods that we wish we could eat but avoid because we can’t control ourselves when we are around them.

I have felt that way around all sorts of foods and no longer have that experience. This change tells me that thankfully I was not addicted. I was just caught in a cycle of diet and deprivation followed by rebellious eating.

BUT, if you are a person who simply cannot deal moderately with a food and need to abstain completely, then you might have an addiction. Cutting out the problem substance (be it crack or potato chips) only addresses the symptom. Addiction is much more all-encompassing than just being unable to stop using something or eating something or drinking alcohol.

If someone’s reason for being unable to stop eating peanuts is that they are addicted, then abstaining from peanuts might stop them from overeating peanuts, but it will not address the deeper issues that lead them to an addictive relationship with certain foods.

I know of one organizaton, Overeater’s Anonymous, that is dedicated to helping those with food addictions in the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous helps alcoholics deal with their alcoholism. It’s a drastic measure that from what I’ve heard includes a very restricted food plan (I don’t have first hand experience with OA, so that might not be the case).  Before taking it, I would explore less drastic measures, such as the intuitive eating approach or any approach that does not involve severe food restrictions and that encourages mindful eating.

I acknowledge that I am something of an evangelist, singing the praises of the intuitive eating approach to all who will listen. That is only because I have experienced an amazing, almost unbelievable shift in my relationship with food, weight and body image since embracing this approach on January 1, 2013.

I am relieved that my “food issues” were not about addiction, and that something as reasonable as the intuitive eating approach could have such a transformative impact on my life.

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