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DAY 5: Is it possible to “cure” food addiction?



The role of willpower and why moderation doesn’t work

It seems so logical, doesn’t it? If we’re eating too much of the “wrong” foods – foods that make us feel sick, that are having a detrimental effect on our health, that are maybe weighing us down with unwanted pounds – we should just eat less of them, right? And though mainstream diets acknowledge that weight loss is challenging, that’s essentially what every diet tells us to do. “It’s a mathematical equation,” they tell us. Calories in, calories out. Well, sort of. But what if that equation included a whole bunch of factors that you couldn’t actually see? What if those factors affected all the other numbers in the equation, but you weren’t even aware of them? How could you possible say it’s a “simple mathematical equation” if you had no idea that these invisible forces were in play?

That’s the fundamental challenge of food addiction, and why trying to control overeating without first understanding and learning to manage the addiction is doomed to fail.

The addiction – our out-of-the-blue cravings, impulsive behavior, and obsessive thinking that is driven by powerful emotional, behavioral, habitual and physiological forces – conspires against us without our even being aware that it’s happening. All we know is that stuffed French toast smothered in caramel apple cinnamon sauce is sounding pretty good right about now!

But let’s be honest: there is no “moderate” way to eat stuffed French toast smothered in caramel apple cinnamon sauce. Moderation doesn’t work because the foods themselves are not designed to be eaten in moderation.

All of the unique sensory experiences that happen when we eat something like that French toast work in unison to overcome what researchers refer to as “sensory-specific satiety.”

You can bet that iHop (and every other restaurant chain and food manufacturer) knows that if their foods offer a rich variety of flavors, textures and sensations our palates won’t “tire” of any one particular flavor, hence we will eat much more, and we’ll come back time and time again. Think about it, one bite is sweet and sticky from the gooey apple cinnamon sauce, another is warm and fluffy from the bread, the apple is slightly crisp and the whipped topping is cool and creamy. All the better if there are crunchy nuts on top, too. It’s that variety of sensory experiences that make it so maddeningly appealing. And of course, the presence of SSF makes the whole thing a happy-bomb for our brains.

Moderation only works when you’ve got a fighting chance at achieving it.

With this hyper-palatable food we we’re not on a level playing field. It’s like being in a boxing ring with a guy who’s got all his gear on and is ready to rumble and you’ve got a blindfold on. There’s no doubt in my mind, you’re going down.

So what are we left with … willpower?

Holy hell, that doesn’t seem like it’s going work very well.

And in fact, it doesn’t.

For starters, exerting “willpower” to moderate our intake of addictive foods is impossible because we’re powerless to change the chemical reaction that happens in our brains when we eat them. But it’s even more complicated than what’s happening to us chemically; as human beings we are driven to pay attention to what scientists call “salient stimuli” in our environment.

Here’s how it works: if a bear is chasing you, he becomes the most salient stimuli in your environment and all of your attention goes to him. No surprise!

If you have a heightened awareness of certain kinds of foods (sweets, pizza, Snickers bars), when they enter your environment – even if just by a TV commercial or a memory of a time when you had that food – that food becomes your salient stimuli. (There are all kinds of fancy-pants scientific reasons why your awareness of this food may be higher than say, your next-door neighbor, but for now let’s just agree that some of us are overachievers in this area.)

It’s this heightened awareness that makes willpower a losing battle.

That heightened awareness is loaded with positive memories of when you’ve eaten that food before, emotional cues about how you felt when you ate it or who gave it to you (grandma always did make the best apple fritters), and anticipation of how good you’ll feel when you get to eat that food.

Exerting willpower means overcoming all of those powerful forces and somehow restraining yourself from giving in. Is it possible that sometimes willpower might be enough and you’re able to walk away? Maybe. Might you be able to eat that ooey-gooey French toast in a moderate way occasionally? Yes, you might.

Can you predict when that will be? No.

Will you be able to do it consistently? Almost certainly not.

We know from our own experiences – because we’ve tried and failed time and time again – that moderating our trigger foods and trying to exert willpower over them simply doesn’t work.

It’s not just a slippery slope; it’s a slippery cliff. You may not fall off every time, but you will fall off.

So is it possible to “cure” food addiction? I believe the simple answer is no.

Food addiction is behavioral (seeking out trigger foods), physiological (the chemical reactions that happen in our brains when we see, smell, taste and digest our trigger foods), and habitual (the rituals that surround engaging in our addictive behavior).

It is certainly possible – and necessary – to change our behavior and our habits, but we are powerless to change the chemical reactions that happen in our brains. And it’s not likely that iHop or any of the other bajilion sources of unhealthy food in the vast food carnival in which we live are going to pack up and leave town.

Does that sound bleak? Oh dear, I hope not.

My own experience tells me that while there may be no cure for food addiction, just like with other addictions, it is absolutely possible to overcome it.

Those of us who are afflicted must go through the painful process to:

  • Understand our addiction
  • Accept our role in it
  • Believe that we are capable of overcoming it
  • Create practical strategies to overcome it
  • Have a proactive plan in place for <sigh> inevitable relapses

There are no shortcuts to overcoming addiction. And maybe even more challenging, we’ll probably never be free from our addiction. But the awareness and strategies we will learn in these 28 days will go a long way in lightening the weight of our burden.

As for me, even though I don’t consider myself in active addiction these days, I’m still a work in progress.
But progress is progress, so I’ll take it over the alternative.

More tomorrow. Until then, stay strong.



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