Buckle up, this is a serious post. I had a long conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think my issues with food are very similar to an alcoholic’s issues with alcohol.
There was a time where alcoholics were just told that they were weak and that their problems were all based on lack of willpower and that if they really wanted to, they could handle liquor just like everyone else. And then, eventually, alcoholism was recognized as a disease that needed specific treatment. Today, eating poorly and in excess is always blamed on a lack of willpower and people without food addictions feel free to judge those who eat excessively and think that if they really wanted to, people with food addictions could just eat normally. Sound familiar?
I’m going to use the concept of alcoholism as a tool to understand my food issues, but I fully admit that I don’t have an alcohol problem and so I may misstate or generalize alcohol issues because I’m not an expert at all in that area, so please forgive any inaccuracies or generalizations.
Healthy people use food for nutrition, for fuel and certainly for pleasure. But for me, it’s not healthy to eat for stress relief or to deal with any other emotion other than hunger. When life is calm and orderly and my worries are minimal, I have very little trouble with eating healthy foods, even if I do tend to eat too much of them. But the moment my stress levels go up, or I’m tired, or worried, or feeling sorry for myself, I turn to chips, chocolate, queso, fried rice and anything else that is terrible for me. I’m not eating the right things and I’m not eating for the right reasons.
I’ve heard that for many alcoholics, there is an immediate sense of relief as soon as they even buy that first drink. I have that same feeling when I buy a “treat”; it’s a physical feeling of relaxation of the tension that I’m feeling at the time. And over time, I need more of a treat, more of a splurge to trigger that same sense of satisfaction and peace.
For many alcoholics, they can do well from completely avoiding alcohol, but if they take that first sip, it leads to another and while it may take weeks or months, they eventually end up right back where they started, out of control. I feel like I have that same relationship with eating “badly”. I can stay on track when I follow strict rules and don’t “imbibe” junk food or sugary food but when I make an exception for birthday cake or a holiday or vacation or a double digit run, then that one exception leads to more exceptions over time and eventually I’m downing a can of Pringles without a thought.
Most people know enough about alcoholism now that they don’t pressure an alcoholic to “just have one drink” or tell them that it’s healthy to drink in moderation. But people who don’t have food addictions certainly feel free to advise people with food addictions that they need to just “eat in moderation” and that it’s fine to have treats from time to time. That’s great advice for a person who doesn’t struggle with emotional eating, but it’s not true for everyone.
I’m starting to think that for me, it’s time to admit that I have a food addiction, that I use food for stress relief and to soothe uncomfortable emotions and that I have to go cold turkey (excuse the pun) on all junk food, sugary food and treats if I want to recover from my food issues.
Sounds doable right? Well, I think this is something I need to commit to for at least a year and probably longer. That means no cake on any family or friend’s birthday for at least a year. No peanut butter balls at Christmas. No Halloween Candy. No rice crispy treats at Disney. It means being a pain in the butt (or going hungry) at restaurants and work lunches. It means having to hear people tell me that I’m being silly and that one treat isn’t going to hurt me. It means having to hear my own inner voice trying to convince me that I’m being silly and that one treat isn’t going to hurt me.
I do think that eating in moderation, having treats occasionally and exercising is the right way to get fit for most people. Unfortunately, for me I’ve got something out of kilter in my brain chemistry or in my hormones that is getting in the way and not allowing me to stick to the “occasional” treat approach. And while I believe I can get back to a balanced, healthy state, I do think it’s time for me to acknowledge that I have to take a different approach to end my dependence on food for comfort and relief. I’m not sure how long it will take and I’m not sure that there’s ever a good time to start. We’re going to California tomorrow, entering holiday and birthday season and work is as crazy as ever.
I think I need to set a start date and do some self-work on the way to that date including defining what is now off limits, setting dates to reevaluate my progress and writing down why it’s so important to do this. I’ll also need to get my family on board with keeping my trigger foods out of the house (I can avoid snickers and Doritos even if they’re on a plate in front of me but dove dark chocolate and plain ruffles are irresistible to me).
I think that Friday, October 24th is going to be my day to start. I’ll be back from California two days before that and getting ready for Wine & Dine. That gives me some time to figure out in detail how I’ll approach this and line up the tools I’ll need to be successful. I know it’s not a willpower problem. People without willpower don’t run half marathons or give birth to two children (9lbs 2oz and 8lbs 2oz) without any pain meds on purpose. I know it’s not a discipline problem. People without discipline don’t get master’s degrees and pass the CPA exam. I have willpower and discipline, unfortunately I can make the right choices most of the time but have a moment of weakness and ruin my diet for the whole day or week with bad choices made for emotional reasons in just few minutes.
Stay tuned for details on how I’m going to approach this. And I appreciate your support and understanding and perhaps suspension of disbelief that this is a real problem. Just think of me as an alcoholic and of junk food as alcohol and see if you can find the logic in my approach.
I know some people will see my use of the term “food addiction” as an excuse, but to me it’s more of a self-awareness issue. If I recognize that I have a junk food addiction, then I can put the right tools into place to overcome it and get to my goals of health, fitness, and running super fast!