Thin from Within

How inner conflict keeps people stuck

Addictive Foods

Eat more, want more? Eat less, enjoy more?

How do you deal with the foods that get you in trouble? You know, the ones you love and can’t picture giving up…the ones, at the same time, you can eat by the bag- or pan-ful. This becomes one of the most important questions to answer when striving to eat healthier, lose or maintain weight. These foods usually fall in the “salt-sugar-fat” realm—and for good reason. Many recent books and studies shed light on the addictive properties of these kinds of foods. (See especially Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss or The End of Overeating by David Kessler.)

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If these foods truly do hijack the brain, though, does that mean “abstinence” is the only option, as it certainly is with other drugs? Here I’m reminded of an OA saying: “When you are addicted to drugs, you put the tiger in the cage to recover; when you are addicted to food you put the tiger in the cage, but take it out three times a day for a walk.” This complicates the addiction-taming, for sure. But it also points to the possibility of finessing those walks. Put differently, some people can and do learn how to eat smaller and less frequent amounts. With this, their brains and emotions adjust to new norms.

Some will decide they need to quit sugar for good. Indeed, some find complete abstinence the only workable goal. That said, though, few can maintain total abstinence in our culture without a lot of support—such as through OA or another group of abstinence-minded people. This decision often follows years of struggle—and possibly the conclusion, “Once I start, I can’t stop, and this doesn’t seem to change no matter what I try.”

Far more often, people want to keep sweets in their life to some degree—they just want to be able to live with less, to have more control. And while difficult, especially at first, learning to eat treats in small amounts does offer advantages. The habits and skills acquired in the effort can benefit health and peace of mind in many ways, well beyond weight control. I call particular attention to the “difficult, especially at first,” part, though. Because you’re more likely to succeed once you acknowledge and respect that this isn’t a simple or straightforward task.

For starters, try to picture what you think is actually reasonable for you--a small serving per day? Two per week? Three? (What’s reasonable if you have a lot of weight to lose will be on the lower end--not only because of the calorie content, but also because of how the sweets may affect your metabolism. Discuss with a nutritionist or doctor if you’re simply not sure.) This is what you can set as your “working toward” goal. Often people will target something like “one chocolate after dinner each night”, or “dessert on weekend nights”.

So, now, aim for this goal amount. Know that as you begin, you’ll probably want more after you’ve eaten that amount. Think of how you’ll deal with the desire for more. For example, you might give yourself a time limit before you head back for seconds. The scenario might play out as follows: First, you put a brownie on the plate (not tiny, not gigantic). You sit down to eat it with a fork. You try not to gobble and rush. You savor it. (Note that here you’re employing some strategies to help reduce the tendency to overeat: setting a plate, eating more slowly.) When you’ve finished, you definitely would like another. However, knowing that you’re learning moderation, you’ve helped yourself in advance by not keeping the serving plate in view. In fact, the ontainer is already stored away. You tell yourself, I’m not going to have another for at least 20 minutes. Then you make some coffee or tea. In 20 minutes you rate your desire for the second brownie. It’s definitely reduced. You decide to wait another 20 minutes. By then, you’re busy doing something else and eating more seems irrelevant.

As successful episodes like this accumulate, your ability to stop after one serving will increase. If an episode is not successful, analyze what went wrong. Ask yourself what might have helped. Then try again another time.

A second strategy involves substituting healthier items and giving yourself some time to get used to those. For example, you might note that your beloved morning coffee frappe contains 49 grams of sugar. This is a good change target. You might start by ordering something different every other day. For example, perhaps you could try an iced coffee with Splenda or a latte. You might then find that you actually like, or least don’t mind so much, the new choice. Then you try increasing the days you make the new choice. After some weeks, this will become your new normal. A similar strategy can work with, for example, substituting a single good chocolate or cup of hot cocoa for larger evening desserts.

As you work toward building new habits, remind yourself of the benefits that accrue: fewer calories, fewer health risk factors, an increasing sense of self-control and efficiency. Also, as with any addictive substance, the more you consume, the more you need to feel satisfied. The less you consume, the less you need to feel satisfied. This also most definitely proves true with those foods that exert a powerful pull.

For further reading see the Eat Sanely blog archives for Addictions and for Emotional Eating, and the Eat Sanely workbook (available on ebook or in paperback).

Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, eating disorder specialist and diet coach. Her website offers tools for lifelong freedom from weight issues.

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