Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Appetite Dogs

Many times during my 20 or so years of marriage, I have remarked to my husband that food addiction is so much harder than other addictions like alcohol or smoking. You can give up booze or cancer sticks and experience nothing but benefits, but you can't give up food. You have to have food to live. I used to feel that if I could just decide never to eat again, I would be able to control my weight. It was having to eat at all that often sent me into binges, cravings, and blood sugar yearnings.

I'm not sure that it is true that it is harder to deal with food addiction, but it is a fair bit more complicated. You can give up fast food, junk food, and sugar and still remain fat. I guess you can give up carbohydrates and dairy as well, but the problem then becomes that it is difficult to manage your diet in any circumstance where you do not have 100% control over your food choices. What is more, sometimes cutting out all of the food that might make you fat causes illnesses. Getting the mix right for nutrition and swearing off of multiple categories of food can be tricky.

At any rate, I know now that one of the reasons I struggled so hard when I tried to eat more healthily before is that the "all or nothing" approach is a hard one to maintain forever for a variety of reasons. If you swear off of certain foods, you are often going to feel left out or deprived during celebrations or special occasions. There's nothing more depressing than a birthday without a special treat or going to a restaurant to enjoy a special meal and writing off everything on the menu except the green salad and lean chicken. Food is fuel, but it is also social and cultural.

When "all or nothing" doesn't work, you have other options, but they are risky. Many people find that they can't go an inch without taking a mile when it comes to certain foods, but I think that's because they try to cut back too much too quickly. I think you need to first adjust your body slowly to the idea of less food and change the way you eat (tasting very consciously with every bite and eating more slowly) rather than shock it with drastic portion reduction and an abrupt change in your eating habits.

I've mentioned before throughout multiple posts that I've reached the state I'm at right now where I average 1500-1600 calories most days (sometimes bumping up to 1800-2000 and sometimes dropping down to 1400) by making slow changes. I ate smaller and smaller portions and didn't calorie count. I calorie counted one day a week, then two days, then three, and now all seven. The first month or so was really hard, but it has gotten much easier as I've gotten accustomed to it. There are days when I'm surprised at how easy it is to stay within my plan and feel that I ate plenty of food without being terribly hungry. On those days, I feel like I must have done something wrong and eaten too much. I'm supposed to suffer every day, aren't I?

What I've come to realize is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing and that in fact that just makes everything that much harder on your body and your mind. The main drawback is that the slow adjustment approach is less fulfilling initially because you don't see rapid weight loss. If you imagine your appetite as 30 unruly dogs on leashes struggling to pull you the way they want you to go rather than allowing you to direct and lead them, the gradual adjustment to diet and lifestyle approach is your taking control of one dog at a time by pulling in the leash an inch at a time. After you slowly pull it in, you train it so that it doesn't go wild when you allow it on the leash again.

The dramatic dietary change is like simply yanking them all in at once. The problem with pulling them all in at once is the difficulty of holding back 30 unruly mutts is considerable and the chances that you'll simply let go of all of the leads and let them run wild is pretty high. That is, if you just say "no chocolate, no chips, no fats, very few calories" one day and try to stick to it, the chances that you'll just give up and give in to your desires to eat those "bad" foods is higher.

I feel like I've slowly trained the dogs of my appetite one by one and have fairly decent control over each of them. Occasionally, one will act up and strain at the lead and I'll eat a little too much of something or other, but it never goes way over the line. Sometimes it's a struggle to stay in the range of calories and to eat what I should or what I want, but usually I feel pretty good about my ability to keep things where I want them to be.

I wish I had considered the systematic reduction and alteration plan before rather than feel that I was going to be controlled completely by "trigger" foods all of the time. While it is true that I suffered for a few months with losing control with some things (and expect to do so again), I find that putting the brakes on myself got easier and better as a result of the way in which I've slowly built up to this point. I can eat a square or two of a chocolate bar and leave the rest in the refrigerator for later. I can ignore cookies, cakes, or chips. Sometimes they go stale before I can eat them all.

I don't know if this method would work for anyone else, but I'm happy with how it has worked for me. I'm happy that I can eat a donut, some candy, or ice cream and not feel deprived or lose all control. I imagine that this is what people who have never had an eating disorder must feel like everyday of their lives. The only difference is that they don't struggle as much to get to this point and stay there.

1 comment:

dlamb said...

I've always thought that breaking the addiction to food is the most difficult of all addictions. It is like breaking the "addiction" to oxygen. Having to decide how much, when, under what circumstances one should breathe and in what concentration the oxygen levels should be inhaled.
Add to that the needs of each of our organs for a particular level of oxygen concentration, based on activity level, the health of the individual organs, etc. and we can get an idea how easy it is to manage it all and still remain sane.
The parallel might be ridiculous to consider, as breathing is somewhat involuntary but the exercise is comparable if one learns to scuba dive or is a mountain climber. Even something as simple and common as being an athlete will put one in a position to consider the similarities between these two seemly mindless basic needs, eating and breathing.