[I am happy to present my second guest post on Weight Maven. Michael is a blogger and the author of Fat Boy Thin Man, which I’ve read and recommend. In this post, Michael shares his perspective on the usefulness of abstinence in managing food addiction. — Beth]
By Michael Prager
When I saw Beth had welcomed a guest blogger a while back, I put up my hand and shouted, “me too, me too!” ‘cause I admire both her and her audience — smart, engaged, opinionated. I’m happy when I can live up to those traits myself.
She made a few suggestions on what I might discuss, and, natch, any of them would have worked, but I decided to talk about addiction and the notion of abstinence when it is applied to problem eaters who are also food addicts.
For drug addicts and alcoholics, the notion of abstinence is considered wholly different because everyone has to eat, right? But I don’t think the gap is as wide as most do. Do drug addicts ever take pharmaceuticals, ever? Most do, even if it’s only aspirin. So the question isn’t “drugs,” it’s “which drugs.”
The gap is even less pronounced regarding alcoholics, IMHO. Just as everyone has to eat, everyone has to drink. Alcoholics don’t swear off drinking, they swear off alcohol. If you think that’s just semantics, then you are in the majority of folks and don’t understand the term.
Food addicts don’t swear off eating — duh! — they swear off some food substances and behaviors. I grant that the comparison isn’t perfect — the alcohol and drug examples are clearer, certainly — but it’s still useful.
The most common substances that food addicts avoid are refined grains and sugars, but perhaps a better description would be processed food. This isn’t all or nothing; I consider processing on a continuum: The more steps that separate farm from plate, and the greater number of these manufactured substances there are in a product, the less likely it’s to be healthful.
The thing is, I am sure this is true for all eaters, not just food addicts. The difference for us is that “normal” eaters can far more easily regulate whether they’ll take these substances in. When I ingest them, my body cries out for more of them — it’s a biochemical craving.
But “processed food” doesn’t nearly cover the food addiction landscape. In the active period of my addiction, I encountered minimally processed foods that I couldn’t handle. Peanuts and popcorn are two examples: I choose not to begin eating these today, simply because when I do, I don’t want to stop. I can’t express how many times I ate enough popcorn — drenched in salt and butter, of course — that I experienced little mouth cuts from the husks for all that salt to sting. Still, I kept going, often to painful overfullness, and still, I returned to it another time.
So does that mean peanuts and popcorn are addictive? It’s the wrong question.
Why can two people go into a bar, drink the same substances and amounts, and one ends up home in bed and the other ends up in the gutter? It’s not just the substance, but the interaction of substance and constitution. For me, the only “out” for those substances was never to start, but it took me years to realize, and years more to be willing.
Meanwhile, substances are a secondary issue for others food addicts; the amount is the thing. We readily accept this for anorexia, but are less willing for binge eating, which is merely the flip side: getting a hit from emptiness or fullness.
Part of me rues that I will never have the same black-or-white certainty that alcoholics can experience. But ruefulness is hardly very useful. The issue isn’t what I feel about a circumstance in my life, the issue is what I’m going to do about it.
Even if I can’t get my food addiction down to the same all-or-nothingness, I can sure get a lot closer than “everything in moderation,” which will not work for someone with a biochemical sensitivity. Someone allergic to strawberries or peanuts doesn’t decide to cut back, not if they want to avoid the consequences they’ve been dealt regarding those substances.
I often weigh and measure my food, which I once considered eternal servitude but now appreciate because it’s how I stop the hamster wheel in my brain that won’t stop asking, “too much? enough? do I need more? can I get away with more?” I have adopted other disciplines that help me not to overeat as well.
One last word: Anyone who mocks food addiction as the excuse that lets someone avoid responsibility for their actions betrays obvious foolishness. Saying I’m a food addict isn’t what allowed me to keep overeating. It’s what allowed me to stop overeating, by understanding that I had a condition more serious than I’d understood, and that I’d have to adopt sterner measures if I was to overcome them.