If you struggle with your relationship with food and your body, you’ve probably told yourself, or at least heard other struggling people say, that you (or they), are a food addict. ‘Sugar addict’ is another popular label. I used to use both these terms to describe myself – for decades. I thought it was helpful, because if I could describe and define the problem, then I could go about trying to fix it.
Part of the problem is that we are wired to be addicted to food. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t survive. Our interest would be taken up elsewhere, and we’d forget to eat, and slowly die. Reward centres light up in our brains when we eat, exactly so we’ll repeat the behaviour – consensual sex does the same thing.
We are ALL food addicts, biologically speaking.
But this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the term in the way compulsive eaters, emotional eaters, and overeaters use it to describe their out of control eating; their eating for reasons other than nutritional nourishment..
Here’s why I find this term problematic:
It medicalises our dysfunctional relationship with food
If you’re an addict, you are viewed as someone with an illness. Addiction is viewed as a psychophysical illness, and people with an illness need to be treated. In fact, some food addicts say they have a disease that can be managed (at best). Managing usually means restricting certain trigger foods or situations – in other words, managing the external environment to reduce the chance of triggering an episode of out of control eating.
Seeing oneself as powerless over an illness, or having to ‘fight to beat it’ is enormously stressful, and in fact, never ending. It means it’s never over and never resolved without hyper-vigilance and control.
*This is by no means to say that eating disorders are not mental illnesses. They absolutely are, and absolutely do require treatment.
The addiction model proposes abstinence as a solution
When I was following an addiction recovery programme, I learned that you have to be vigilant about your food. I was told to read all the labels, and if sugar or refined flour was in the top 5 ingredients on the list (or was it 3?) it was to be avoided because it would trigger an overeating episode. While abstinence itself is defined as refraining from the behaviour, in practice, (certainly at the groups I went to) there was a belief that certain foods could trigger the compulsive behaviours. Therefore, in order to be abstinent from compulsive eating you also had to be abstinent from certain foods.
This entrenched my fear of food and mistrust of myself
I couldn’t relax. I had to be vigilant. I had to be on the look out all the time for those pesky lurking ingredients that would cause me to binge. I had to call my friends in advance of dinner in their home and let them know I couldn’t eat flour or sugar; I had to ask probing questions at an impromptu meal with friends about what was in the food, interrogate waiters in restaurants and make almost impossible requests of them. I believed certain foods were evil, toxic and against me – that they’d trick me into bingeing.
And of course that was the reality that played itself out. Whenever I did eat something with any of those ingredients, I binged. It was, after all, foretold.
I embodied the adage I learned that ‘one is too many and a hundred is not enough.’ Of course it was impossible to eat a moderate amount of chocolate when I believed this. Of course it was inconceivable to eat a slice of my daughter’s birthday cake. I was different. I had an illness.
‘Food addiction’ is a joy robber
Of course I enjoyed my food at times – as long as it was my current version of healthy and didn’t contain any of the ‘trigger’ foods. But I never experienced gay abandon. I never sat down in the company of people and food and felt truly relaxed about the meal – the whole meal. I was always on the look out, always slightly uneasy about it. And I couldn’t fully join in! I’ve lost count of number of celebratory occasions when I held back because I was being vigilant. My mind was always on ‘the food’ – what was in it, whether I’d stay abstinent or not, if I didn’t, whether I would binge (inevitably I did) or eat too much… rather than be present with the connection of the people around me, rather than focus on the pleasure and sensory enjoyment of the surroundings – and indeed on the taste of the food itself. I missed the present. And when I couldn’t stand the restriction any longer and eventually binged on all the forbidden foods, I didn’t enjoy that either!
It means you don’t have full permission to eat whatever you want
It was a revelation to me to learn that having unconditional permission to eat whatever I want, whenever I wanted it was essential to becoming a Peaceful Eater. Believing you’re a food or sugar addict is in direct conflict with this approach. I’ll tell you why unconditional permission is so important. When we tell ourselves we mustn’t, shouldn’t or can’t have certain things, we want that thing! I say this next bit with caution – even when we tell ourselves we’re choosing the restriction, it can often lead to a sense of deprivation. Think of this: have you ever been around a child who wants something that’s being denied? How many kiddies have you seen trailing their parents in the shops, whining and crying for the toy or the food treat, and the parents grit their teeth, saying ‘I said no!’ or ‘no means NO!’ The child’s reaction escalates to meltdown right there on the shop floor! Seen that? That’s what we do to ourselves with food. Perception of denial sets up rebellion and cravings. It works so much better when the parent says ‘yes, you can have one when we’re at granny’s tomorrow.’ Or, ‘I’ll buy one for you to have later with your dinner.’
Often this idea is interpreted to mean ‘unconditional permission to binge.’ That is not what I mean, though of course, if that’s what you want to do, go right ahead!
All I’m saying is point-blank denial is like a red rag to a bull for dysregulated eaters.
It is possible to have unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, without it meaning you’ll eat all the cake batter or polish off your children’s Easter eggs in February (blush). It does take practice. It does take time for your body and monkey-mind to really trust you on this, and if you have lurking at the back of your mind that you’ll try it out for a month, it won’t work, because that is not unconditional permission. It can be a tough nut to crack, but it is totally crackable, and immensely freeing.
Mostly, it promotes control rather than letting go
One of the biggest turning points in transforming my relationship with food, was letting go of control. This might sound very scary and impossible, especially if you’ve been believing that you can’t be trusted around food, that it’s out to get you, or that certain foods will cause you to binge.
If you believe you’re a food/sugar addict, how possible do you think it would be to truly relax, trust, and let go? You could only do that within the confines of your rules. You could only relax if you knew you were abstaining, or eating measured portions, or any other ‘framework’ you might have signed up to. And that isn’t relaxation. Or freedom.
People sometimes think that if they relax, and stop controlling, it means they’ll ‘fall asleep at the wheel’ and eat themselves out of house and home. But relax does not mean go unconscious! In fact, true relaxation and ‘letting go’ have exactly the opposite effect.
Allowing yourself to not be in control is hugely freeing. It emancipates you from the past and the future. And why is this important? Because being in the present means you can discern whether or not you’re actually hungry. It enables you to make a choice for your here-and-now-body. Hungry now? Yes. What do you want to eat, in this moment, without fear of the future, for it’s not yet here, without concerns of the past, as it has long gone? How much will satisfy you right now? Not actually physically hungry? Great, now we get to find out why you want to eat, which is an awesome journey of discovery.
(Learn about How Not to Be a Slave to Sugar)
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