DAY 1: Program introduction
Hi, I’m Marilyn McKenna and if we haven’t met – either in person or virtually – before, it’s nice to meet you! I live in the Seattle area, and I am a writer, blogger, mother of four kids (three now grown) and I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for 29 years.
I spent most of my childhood and all of my adult life up until eight years ago as a chubby kid, an overweight young mom and then a morbidly obese woman.
At age 44 I decided I’d had enough of being fat, miserable and a slave to my out-of-control compulsive eating. In June of 2007 I had lap-band surgery (I’ve since had it removed), which, over a period of a few years, helped me gain some control over that compulsive overeating, and it helped me lose 120 pounds. During that time I overhauled my eating habits, my relationship with food and became an athlete, going on to run marathons, compete in triathlons and pursue all kinds of athlete activities. As I sit here I’m still breathing hard from my kickboxing class I did this morning. Awesome!
If you don’t’ already follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, I encourage you to do so. On those social media platforms I talk more generally about healthy eating, fitness and what I’m up to on a day-to-day basis. We’ve created a great community and I learn something new every day from my followers!
I also wrote a book about my weight loss experience, what I learned along the way and how others might find their way to better health, too. It’s called Eat Like It Matters: How I Lost 120 Pounds and Found My Inner Badass (And How You Can Too!) and is available on my website, on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other online booksellers in print and as an ebook. I encourage you to get it if you’re curious about my personal journey to wellness, my philosophy of healthy living and how to incorporate them in your own life.
After forty-four years of obesity, 8+ years of weight loss and maintenance, and what I now know to be a lifetime of food addiction, I’ve learned a lot about what we crave and why. In a sea of diets, weight loss promises, “motivational” folks and celebrity trainers screaming at us, I hope you’ll find this course to be a place of sanity, compassion and healing.
Before we get in to the meat of the program, a big ‘ol giant disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist, certified dietician or naturopath. I am not a personal trainer (though I’m currently studying for my certification). What I am is an expert in what it’s like to be addicted to food after having lived it for 53+ years. I am also pretty darn good at deciphering the scientific information that’s out there and boiling it down in a way that’s concise and useful.
I highly recommend that you talk to your doctor to get his/her opinion about how to best care for yourself. If he/she thinks you should not do this program, please email me and I’ll issue you a refund. I’m not doing this to get rich; I’m doing this because I know how terribly painful food addiction can be and I want to share my recovery plan with others.
Having said that, understand that I cannot make you better. Neither can anyone else. Only you can do that. That’s good news and bad news. I want you to follow the program very carefully because it will take a lot of the guesswork out of what is “safe” to eat, and when you should eat in order to stabilize your blood sugar and maintain a baseline level of satiety (fullness/satisfaction). But the truth is that no one can force you to comply with the program, no one can guilt you into stopping your destructive behavior, and no one can do this for you. You’ve got to be able to see that your own wellness – from today until the day they put you in the ground – is nobody’s responsibility but your own.
One last caveat and then I promise we’ll move on: this is not a diet or weight loss program in any sense. In fact, do not expect or try to lose weight while doing this program! Might you lose some weight? Yeah, you might. But that’s not our goal here. Is it totally possible to lose weight over time while using these principles? Yes, absolutely. But if you’ve tried to lose weight time and time again, only to fail and go back to your old eating habits, it’s probably because you have an underlying food addiction. If you don’t tackle this first, no amount of dieting will ever make a dent in your problem. And just in the off chance you’re thinking to yourself, “HA! Easy for her to say; she had a lap-band to help her lose weight!” My lap-band didn’t do squat to keep me from eating the junk food and sugary treats that feed my addiction. Breaking my addiction to them and uncovering the reasons I turn to them (which is actually at the heart of addiction) has been some of the hardest work I’ve done in my life, and truthfully the work is ongoing.
Alright, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s look at some of the questions you may be asking at this point, including the elephant in the room:
“Is food addiction legit? Is it the same as addiction to nicotine, or even cocaine or heroin?” Doctors who study obesity and addiction say yes. Brain research shows that salt, sugar and fat trigger the same chemical reactions as other known addictive substances. Our brain’s primary pleasure receptor – dopamine – is only too willing to respond to the influx of salt, sugar and fat to give us that sense of calm and pleasure that we all crave, just like any other drug. This is why we have such a difficult time quitting or even moderating foods that provide this fix. In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association included Binge Eating Disorder in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a psychiatric evaluation and diagnostic tool that is recognized across the field of study.
So yes, food addiction is absolutely a real thing.
“Is it a medical condition? Is it a mental disorder? Is it an eating disorder?” In all the years I dieted I confess I used to think, “I don’t need another meal plan, what I need is a brain transplant,” meaning I knew it was my thinking that was out of whack. Medical condition, mental defect, biological predisposition, cultural environment … all of these things may play a part in food addiction, but ask yourself this: does it really matter? There are so many factors that play a role in the addiction – and we’re going to examine them – but in the end what really makes a difference is our actions. Do we choose to mindlessly submit to the addiction or do we chose a more self-aware path that offers us freedom from our self-destructive behavior and torturous thoughts? I know which one I choose.
“How do I know if I have it?” If you’ve ever felt helpless in the face of your trigger foods, if you are regularly preoccupied with thoughts of your favorite foods, if you hide or sneak food, if you prefer to eat alone, if you spend more time than you’d like planning how to obtain certain foods, if you “come to your senses” after you’ve eaten much more than a reasonable portion of food, if you feel guilt and/or shame after eating, or if you’ve ever wondered how other people leave a portion of one of your favorite foods on their plate, not scarfing it all down as you would have, you probably have a food addiction.
“Is everybody addicted to the same foods?” Yes and no. I mean, no we’re not all addicted to double bacon cheeseburgers or quadruple venti mochaccino hot chocolate (with whip), but we are all addicted to the components that these foods and hundreds of thousands of other foods available to us have in common: salt, sugar and fat. Salt, sugar and fat are the cornerstones of processed foods and the Standard American Diet. Getting and staying unhooked from them is no easy task. Food manufacturers, food scientists, product developers, chain restaurants and their marketers are working overtime to come up with ways to get us hooked. They know that doing so means they grow their brands and their companies, secure their position in the marketplace and make more money for themselves and their shareholders. Much more on the lethal salt/sugar/fat combination (hereafter referred to as “SSF”) to come.
“How do I avoid my trigger foods?” I have armloads of strategies for this that I will share with you, but first and foremost, stick to the meal plan. The 28-Days to Overcoming Food Addiction meal plan serves two primary purposes:
- It will stabilize your blood sugar so that you avoid the highs and lows that make us extremely vulnerable to food cues. No joke, don’t play games with it and try to go an hour longer so that you can skip a meal in some misguided effort to lose weight. (We’ve all done that; it backfires. We get ravenously hungry and give in to temptation more often than not.)
- It resets the SSF tooth. As we’ll discuss at length, trying to moderate trigger foods doesn’t work. That’s why most diets fail; it’s not just a slippery slope, it’s a slippery cliff. We know this to be true: when we fall, we fall hard. The meal plan will give you a guide to help you get the proper nutrition you need while resetting your palate.
“Wait, does this mean I never get to eat my favorite foods again???” I already know what you’re thinking: “Where’s the exit?” But no, it doesn’t mean you’ll never get to eat your favorite foods again. It does mean that you need at least one round of 28 days to reset your palate and establish new eating behaviors. Among the many strategies we’ll talk about will be how to eat some of your favorite foods again, so hang in there for now.
“What will I eat on the meal plan?” Real food! Good food, focusing on lean protein, vegetables, whole grains (they are not the enemy!) and healthy fats. But probably simpler and possibly less exciting food than what you’re used to. We have all become accustomed to food that excites and entertains us. That’s a big part of what food manufacturers and restaurant chains (hereafter referred to as “Big Food”) are trying to do. Heck, they understand our own brain chemistry much better than we do! Part of what we’re doing is repairing the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves by mindlessly falling prey to this attack on our brain chemistry and better judgment. To do so we’ve got to go back to basics. But the very good news is that you will likely not be hungry on this plan and even better, you can definitely retrain yourself to enjoy simpler, healthier food that you can eat without guilt or shame and finally put those compulsive thoughts to rest.
“Do I have to eat like this forever?” Um yeah, pretty much. Not these exact recipes of course, but yes, to stay out of active addiction you must stay within the guidelines established by this program. But there are ways to stray and indulge in a controlled way and we’ll talk about some of those strategies throughout the program, especially in the final week.
“Wait, don’t go now! I have a bajilion more questions!” Not to worry! We’ve got a live chat tomorrow at noon PST and we’ll talk through many of these same concepts. If you have specific questions definitely bring them with you! If you’re unable to participate in the live chats they’ll be available to stream afterwards.
You will receive an email with a link to my Google+ page to participate in the live chat, which I’ll also post to the 28 Days Facebook page. If you do not have a Google account (or don’t wish to use it) you can watch the chat live via YouTube. You must have the link to participate and we really need you there, so please keep an eye out for it!
The road to food addiction recovery is long and arduous. And it is definitely not a straight line! But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Truthfully, this is not the beginning of your journey, either. You’ve been on the path toward recovery for a very long time and didn’t even know it. All of the times you tried to diet and failed, all of the times you were confused and exasperated by your own eating behavior, all of the times you wondered “what the hell’s the matter with me and why can’t I just control myself like everybody else seems to do???” … each of those moments was a glimpse into your own recovery.
I am humbled and privileged to be on this journey with you.
Until tomorrow, stay strong.
PS: I promise my regular daily communications will not be this long.
PPS: I know you’ve seen them before, but please review the program’s Guidelines and Expectations below again, and use the Facebook group to ask questions of the group or me. We’re here to support each other!
- Follow the meal plan. “Meal plan, schmeal plan,” you may be thinking. But you won’t have to do it forever and for these 28 days we need to get off of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats so we can really feel what our bodies and biochemistry feel like without them.
- Get enough rest. Seven hours Sunday – Thursday and eight if you can swing it on Friday and Saturday nights. Sleep makes all things better and staggering through life in a sleep-deprived stated only makes it harder to tune in to our bodies.
- Get outside at least 4 days a week. Nothing fancy here, but a 30 minute walk, four days a week will give you more energy and a little dose of vitamin D. It never ceases to amaze me how the combination of fresh air and exercise clear the mind and bring clarity.
- Don’t drink calories. The goal is for nearly all our liquids to come from water or unsweetened tea, but coffee without sweetener (even artificial) is fine. If you must have a splash of milk in your coffee or want a foam-only cappuccino as a weekend treat that’s fine. This isn’t a weight loss program, but many of the same foods / beverages that have lots of calories also have lots of salt, sugar and fat.
- Hydrate with water. Banning all soda (even zero calorie) seems like a no-brainer, but fruit juice, sweetened teas, vitamin waters, sports drinks and energy drinks are devoid of nutrition and only serve to keep our palates trained to desire hyper-sweet ingredients. Drink water with every meal and snack and at least one 8 oz. glass between each meal and snack. Zero calorie fruit flavored water or sparkling water is fine.
- Ramp up your self-care. Seriously, get a weekly massage if you can, have a pedicure (even if you’re a guy), take a Sunday afternoon nap or a long bubble bath. In short, be gentle with yourself. I’m guessing you’ve had more your share of self-flagellation and deprivation in your lifetime. It’s time to play catch up. Take care of yourself and let others do so too.
- Clean the crap out of your house (and your car… and your desk drawer … and your purse…). You wouldn’t expect an alcoholic to detox with a full liquor cabinet at home, would you? Of course not. Nor can you be expected to resist the temptations that are most easily within your grasp. Anything and everything that can be abused must go. I’m not inclined to give you a list of specific items (if you’re anything like me, it would fill a book) because honestly, who knows you better than you? Give it away, throw it away, bury it in the backyard, but get it out of your house!
- Be honest with yourself. In the end it’s just you and your conscience. Self-awareness begets self-acceptance, but the latter isn’t a destination so much as road of self-discovery. You make good decisions and ones that don’t serve you as well; we all do. Examining our own motivations – without denial or defensiveness – is what allows us to gain self-acceptance.
- Allow for the fact that it will feel worse before it feels better. Having denied our addiction for so long, coming to terms with it will stir up a lot of negative emotions. Oh, and don’t kid yourself: you will go through a physical withdrawal. Giving up caffeine is child’s play compared to this. I’m not exaggerating when I say … it will feel bad. But it passes; you must trust the process.
- Prepare to be uncomfortable. I mean seriously uncomfortable. Those negative emotions I just mentioned? They’re a means of self-protection to keep us from looking at things that are emotionally painful. You don’t have to deal with all of them at once, and you certainly shouldn’t try to deal with them alone. Seek compassionate and supportive friends, but get a professional therapist to help if it feels overwhelming. I did and it made the struggle much more tolerable.
- Go through the steps completely, sincerely and mindfully. You wouldn’t have been drawn to the program if you didn’t think you needed to do it. So give it your best effort. Half-assed effort earns half-assed result. Which in the case of the addiction means remaining actively addicted.
- Commit to understanding your addiction and how it affects you. Not everyone’s experience of food addiction is the same: I may be weak-in-the-knees for sweets, but maybe it’s a double bacon cheeseburger that does you in. We are here to learn about our addiction and from each other’s experiences, but they will be different.
- Create a mental, emotional, spiritual and physical environment that is conducive to healing. All addictions – from booze to heroin to shopping – have some characteristics in common. Food addiction is no different, but one important difference is that unlike heroin, for example, food is everywhere and we must eat to live. We’ll talk at length about the challenges that dilemma creates, but know that it is still possible to create a safe environment for yourself, and in fact you must do so in order to heal.
- Prepare for pushback. Whether you choose to tell people that you consider yourself a food addict or not (sometimes I do, most times I don’t) you will encounter people who don’t believe food addiction is a legitimate affliction, who think that you simply lack willpower, or who think you need to lighten up and just have a cheeseburger. You must know in your heart of hearts that their beliefs are just that: their beliefs. They are not you, they don’t know your reality and their opinion certainly does not mean you’re wrong in your decision not to indulge.
- Expect the process to take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your resolve. I understand that you want to get better, but rushing the process, or skipping over parts of it, will not get you to recovery any sooner. More than likely a cursory examination of your addiction will not bring success in overcoming it.
- Plan to fail. After all, that’s what we’re used to, right? That’s where we’re comfortable. If only we could heal from our addiction in a stress-free environment that controlled for all negative input. But none of us lives in a bubble. Stress, work pressures, other people’s demands, negative pushback from family and friends, hell sometimes just opportunity (hello Snickers bar in the grocery store check out!) can all steal our hard-earned confidence and send us reeling. Call a friend, forgive yourself, clear the dead bodies and move on.
- Prepare to amaze yourself. I abused food in every conceivable way for decades and yet I no longer consider myself in active addiction. I now guard my recovery like a precious gift. At my core I know that each of us is capable of overcoming our addiction. Over time, with patience and self-acceptance, we will find our way to recovery and wellness.