A few months ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Sugar Addiction” where I questioned whether abstinence is the best treatment for sugar addiction. That post sparked discussion amongst my readers and the comments inspired me to write a follow-up to my original post.
There is a growing body of research showing that certain foods can have addictive properties for certain people. The similarities between some eating behaviors and drugs of abuse have resulted in use of the term “food addiction.” The term “addiction” is value-laden with strong associations to substance abuse. Abstinence has long been the primary mode of treatment for drug and alcohol addictions and it is the most widely accepted path to recovery. However, there are alternate methods of recovery from substance abuse, including the harm reduction model that has helped people to recover from substance abuse without requiring complete abstinence. Just as there is more than one path to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, there is more than one path to recovery from food addiction.
Food addiction occupies a gap between substance abuse and eating disorders. Traditionally, these two fields have remained separate and have evolved with different methods of treatment. While much of substance abuse treatment has focused on abstinence, eating disorder treatment has focused on the opposite- lessening restrictions around food. Research has shown that restricting your food intake (abstinence) most often leads to binge eating, loss of control, and other disordered eating behaviors. In addition, classifying foods as “good” or “bad” also tends to increase disordered eating, in part because of the judgments that we make about ourselves when we eat a “good” or “bad” food. Have you ever thought “I was bad tonight” based on what you ate? This type of thinking fuels eating disorders.
Of course, we cannot be completely abstinent from food. Unlike drugs and alcohol, we need food to survive. Food nourishes our bodies and provides us with the energy that we need to soar through our day. Since we cannot avoid all foods, what about just eliminating sugar? Sugar is often singled out as a culprit in the addictive process (remember what I said earlier about labeling foods as “good” or “bad”?). Sugar has become ubiquitous in our food products. It is in everything from breakfast cereal to canned fish to salad dressing to dried fruit to ketchup. In fact, sugar is in most processed foods and restaurant meals. It is nearly impossible to avoid sugar without finding yourself on a highly restrictive diet. And it is exactly this type of restrictive dieting that buys you a seat on the diet-binge rollercoaster.
I believe that mindful eating is our ticket off this ride. Through mindful eating, we learn to eat in tune with our bodies and provide our bodies with the nourishment that it requires to function effectively. Through mindful eating and mindful observation, we may find that certain foods don’t make our bodies-minds feel good and chose not to eat these foods. These foods are available to us should we chose to eat them. They are not off limits. They are neither good nor bad and we are neither good nor bad because we chose to eat or not eat these foods. We make decisions moment-to-moment as we mindfully chose what we will and will not eat.
The bottom line is: do what works for you! If abstinence from sugar has helped curb your problematic eating behaviors then by all means continue abstaining from sugar. However, if abstinence is not working for you and you are continuing to ride the diet-binge rollercoaster, please know that there are other options available to you. There are multiple paths to recovery and you must keep searching until you find what works for you. Healing from disordered eating and food addictions is best done with professional help from a licensed mental health practitioner. I wish you all peace in your relationship with food.