Why is it that when we want to treat ourselves or binge or find solace in food it's always the same old friends we turn to? Chocolate, biscuits, crisps, ice cream, cheese, pastry, bread and butter, peanuts, pizza... Our lists of forbidden, naughty, fattening, unhealthy foods are endless. We see it every time we run a workshop. We believe that in large part the irresistability of these foods is fuelled by deprivation. The more we tell ourselves that we can't or shouldn't have them, that we have to cut them out of our diet, whatever the reason (whether it's because we think they are fattening or unhealthy or addictive or too expensive...) the more we want them. And even when we can go weeks or even months without them, the moment they are around again, we just can't resist and we find ourselves polishing them off in those overheating moments. So, does stocking up on them undo the years, often decades, of deprivation and all or nothing thinking about these foods? And if so, exactly how does that work? And what about the notion that it's the sugar or the carbs in these foods that keeps us hooked, not the deprivation? What about the idea that they are addictive? These are the questions I'll explore in this post (and that we've written more fully about in our new book Beyond Temptation).
Starting with the last question first; do I believe that sugar is addictive and harmful? I wish I could answer that question with a simple yes or no. I can't. I've been doing lots of research, reading, exploring and experimenting (on myself) on this subject and so far my results and conclusions are inconclusive. But here is what I can say. Let's say that in the spirit of being my own Guru I decide, after all my explorations and experiments, that I do indeed find it impossible to eat sugar in moderation, what would that mean and what would I do? I could choose to treat it as a harmful substance, a drug, and cut it out of my diet completely. Would I also choose to cut out refined flour products and fruit sugar? Mmmm... More research and experimentation necessary. And let's say I decide that all these are harmful and addictive, I could decide to stop eating them, completely. The question is not weather this is right or wrong - it may be right for some and not for others, it may be true for some and not for others. The question for me is can I make this a choice and one that I can stand by and feel comfortable with? One that I can sustain and find ways of managing when I slip up? Sucrose, fructose, carbs, they are everywhere. If I choose to cut them out of my diet, it may well help considerably, if I really believe in what I'm doing, not just dabbling in another fad because I think it might help me lose weight. It's one thing to cut these foods out because I genuinely believe they are bad for my health and well being (including perhaps my weight) and quite another to cut them out in the hope that this strategy with help me get into my bikini this summer or will be the answer to my life-long weight problem.
The key here, I believe, is to be my own Guru. To take the time and give these questions the serious consideration and exploration they deserve. Then I can make a choice based on my own experience and beliefs. Otherwise I know I'll just be jumping on the next bandwagon that comes tearing around the corner when I struggle to say not to an ice-cream this summer. I'll be convincing myself that it's not sugar I need to avoid it's fat or artificial additives or bread or whatever. Don't stop eating sugar because someone tells you it's addictive or because you read it in a book! Read 100 books if necessary, do as much research as you can but most importantly experiment, on yourself. That may well take time, months, even years, and the answer will be one you trust. Indisputable. If you find that cutting sugar or carbs or whatever out of your diet really helps, does whatever it is you want it to do, and you are willing and able to sustain it, why would you not? If you really do find that cutting out these foods puts a stop to your overeating 100%, then you will have solved the problem and that's fantastic.
But what if that's not how it goes. The way I see it is this. Let's say I do discover that my desire for my forbidden foods is fuelled by their chemical composition and I decide to cut them out, will that be the solution? Problem solved once and for all? In my experience that's not always how it goes. Wanting to cut them out is one thing, being able to (sustainably) is another. And partly, for me, that's because of the emotional tie I have to these foods and what they represent, along with the fact that they are everywhere and are not universally recognised as a drug (unlike alcohol for example). The fact that eating chocolate is part of how I say "fuck this" to the world when everything gets too much, the way crunching crisps helps me manage my anger and frustration, the fact that time alone doesn't feel the same without a latte and a pastry or the cinema is just not the cinema without a bowl of popcorn are an important part of the picture. The way these foods a universally regarded are treats, fit for special occasions, that we are urged, encouraged and cajoled to 'just have one, just a little bit' means that resistance is pretty much futile. Would anyone goad an alcoholic to "just have little drink, one won't hurt surely?" Even if I know that these foods are not good for me (whatever that might mean for me) that is not always enough to stop me. My willpower, my commitment to taking care of myself, my determination to look after my body are simply not enough and in those moments I crumble and give in! However fervently I believe that cutting out any particular food group is the answer, doing it is another matter entirely. And how we do it, how we approach changing the way we eat and the foods we choose is what makes all the difference. That's where stocking up and learning to manage my overeating come in. Because I am not a machine, I am not made of iron and much as I'd love to, saying that I am cutting a food out of my diet is just never enough to make it work for the long term.
Stocking up, really giving myself the message that I am allowed to eat whatever I want, is the only way to give myself back the power to CHOOSE. Only when I am allowed to say YES do I also have the freedom to say NO. No without feeling deprived and hard done by. A no that I mean and feel comfortable with. And the thing about stocking up is that it takes time. A long time in most cases. Years, not even months. I used to find chocolate, bread and butter, all my forbidden foods irresistible. Today they sit in my cupboards and I hardly notice them. And when I do, I know it has nothing to do with the foods and everything to do with my desire to overeat. To eat anything as long as I have something to shove in my mouth and stop myself from being present. Stocking up takes commitment and patience and courage. You don't have to stock up on tons of the food in your home if that's too scary, you can just remind yourself every time you want chocolate or crisps or whatever that it's your choice. You can allow the yes as well as the no. And for a while you may eat and eat and eat them more than you feel comfortable with. Often we feel that we fail at stocking up because we end up eating it all. That's how it goes. That's part of how it works We eat it all once and then again and again. Keep going and keep working on your desire to overeat at the same time and the day will come when you know that the irresistability of the biscuit tin has less to do with the biscuits than with the urge to eat. Because if we don't deal with our overeating and we just cut out the so called offenders, we are very likely to find ourselves overeating whatever we are allowed to eat or turning to other behaviors to zone out, treat ourselves, comfort, soothe etc.
Ultimately I wonder if the thing that really keeps us stuck is the desire to find a solution. Our desperate need for an answer. If only we knew what to do, what would work, then we could do it and everything would be ok. What I am discovering is that the more I do this work the more I realise that there are no answers or definitive solutions, that managing my desire to overeat means being willing to accept the reality that there are no solutions or answers. As the years go by I am increasingly willing to accept that I will always know far less than I don't know. The more years I spend researching and exploring, the fewer answers I have. And that leaves me with the only thing I can work with: me. Myself. And that's what all the addictions and compulsions are about for me, keeping myself from really paying attention to and responding to myself. Because most of the time I'd rather distract myself from the discomfort of being me.
So whether we choose to stock up or cut out, the key is to do it with compassion, curiosity and gentleness knowing that nothing will be fixed or sorted, knowing that every choice, whatever it is, takes commitment and effort and willingness to pay attention to me. Day after day. One tiny step at a time. And with support.