addiction · body image · diets · eating · overeating

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.

10 thoughts on “Moderation Won’t Work If You’re Addicted, but Are You Sure You’re Addicted?

  1. Mostly I agree with you. We just have some differences in approach, I suspect. With some foods, for me, the amount that feels good will always be more than belongs in a healthy diet. Who eats four potato chips? Not me so I don’t eat them at all. And it’s not like they’re forbidden. They aren’t even a food I particularly like or crave. It’s kind of like my approach to television. If there’s some amount that would be good but I can’t achieve that amount, then better to have none. Not deprivation, just pragmatism. And some food for me is like bad TV. I’ll watch it if it’s on, eat it if it’s there. But potato chips and bad television aren’t even something I really, on reflection, like. So I don’t have a TV and I don’t buy potato chips, not b/c they’re a healthy food no-no, but b/c I eat them when they are around and would prefer not to.
    No part of me, not even the ‘yummy food craving’ part of me wants to eat them, but if they are on a table and I start snacking it’s hard to walk away. It helps knowing they’re made that way. Like cigarettes. It’s not my problem with food. In that case, it’s a food designed to be a problem! I really want to read the book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, reviewed here: “Chips and soda are addictive, and it’s not by accident. Here’s a taste of what investigative reporter Michael Moss uncovered in Salt, Sugar, Fat, an eye-opening book about America’s food industry,” Fascinating topic and thought provoking post!

  2. Thank you for acknowledging that for some of us, addiction can be something very real. I’ve joked to many that my lifestyle change in the last year and a half – eating healthy, losing 70 pounds and exercising fiendishly – is just the substitute of one addiction for others, that it’s still all obsessive-compulsive. Thing is – to some extent, it might not be just a joke. That is why I’ve very much enjoyed and learned from your website and especially the call for balance in one’s approach to training and life in general (I know it is something I am lacking to some degree and would like to achieve) – but moderation with unhealthy foods? My addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviour in general are still a little too strong for such an approach to be effective for me. And perhaps I’m just projecting here, but I’ve a hunch that alot of people are actually addicted to some bad foods. As Sam has stated in past blogs, we used to be hunter-gatherers and rich food is craved by us naturally because it can sustain us for a long time between meals. So just as people can get addicted to heroine because it makes you feel like you’re in heaven, people can get addicted to unhealthy food because it really satisfies you in many ways. Are there underlying problems? Of course there are! But we live in the here and now – and sometimes in the here and now, we are told for medical reasons to lose alot of weight and to keep it off. So some of us don’t have the luxury of playing with intuitive eating – gaining weight – and then having patience, sticking to it and seeing if it will eventually work. I read the book and tried it, Tracy. I gained 10 pounds. I am now still in the process of losing that 10 pounds, because for medical reasons, I have to. Worse, my obsessive-compulsive instincts have now been triggered through the roof, and I have to rely on those instincts (and the will power and resolve which come quite naturally to me, thank the stars – a “by hook or by crook, it will be done” attitude) to lose the weight. **sigh** Thing is – I really don’t know how unusual my case might be, i.e. it could be that many chronic overeaters are just like me. You sound like the opposite of that to me – you are a chronic dieter/exerciser who then binges out of rebellion – it might just be that intuitive eating is better suited and perhaps amazingly effective for people like you – people who have not in reality ever truly had a weight problem, but rather had eating disorders on the other end of the spectrum.

  3. And I really am not making light in any way about the problems which people like you on the other end of the spectrum face, Tracy. Those problems are every bit as real and as devastating as mine. But they are different problems, and sometimes different problems require different approaches to solve them, as you yourself acknowledge in your blog.

  4. Excellent post. I agree that the word “addiction” gets problematic when taken into general usage and without the very specific meaning(s) it has in clinical use. Two problems I notice are that when it comes to actual substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.), our culture (North American) has a love/hate relationship with them much as it does with sex; we both glorify it and vilify it and blame and punish people who fall into bad patterns without wanting to address what is behind the need to feel/not feel, escape, numb down, speed up, etc. As such, use is rounded up to abuse and abuse is equated to addiction, and true addiction is just something we want to think happens to other people or bad people.

    Also, there is a vast difference between “habituation” and “addiction”. What most people talk about as “addiction” is really an engrained habituation to a maladaptive coping strategy or pattern of thinking/feeling/behaviour (which are all related). As you wisely said, a habituation or addiction is not always about the substance, it’s about the hurt/needs/fear/trauma/etc. underlying it. The addiction/habituation is the symptom, but the cause is deeper.

    Thanks for this food for thought! 🙂

  5. Interesting post.
    I am 37 and have in the past suffered from an ED which I mostly have under control. I am trying to stay away from sugar at the moment, not sugar which occurs naturally in say fruit but sugar that has been added to well, anything really. I can’t have one piece of cake, or one biscuit and after years of beating myself up about it and binging (and I have tried the non denial route) I have decide to deal with it by cutting the problem foods out. It’s easier for me to say no to the first biscuit then it is the second. This is NOT a weight loss method for me, I am quite happy to eat the calories I need I just make sure the sources are added sugar free, this has the added benefit of meaning my food tends to be healthy and good for my body.
    At the moment this approach is working for me, whilst I work on my emotional eating response.

    With much respect (as I love your posts) 3 months into a new regime isn’t a lot, I hope this post still stands the same in 2 years time.

    1. Helen, I completely agree with you. The true ‘test’ will be whether I still feel so grounded and free with this method 2, 3, 5 years from now. I sure hope so. And I do think we all need to make choices that will work for us. Glad you found what’s working now and enabling you to continue working on the emotional eating. 🙂

  6. Thank you for sharing. I just discovered your blog today anx I LOVE it! The subject of mindfulness is often over looked epically in the area of addiction. In recovery (recovering alcoholic/addict, 111 days sober) one of the things my program focuses on (Refuge Recovery/Darhma Punx) is the mindfulness of everything and one unexpected benefit was food. Just simply being conscious of what and how much I’m eating and paying attention to how it effects me has made a big difference in my overall health and well-being. Thank you for sharing further into the subject and I look forward to reading more. 🙂

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