Am I a harmful user or a full-fledged food addict?
Are you a harmful user or a food addict? And what can you do about loneliness as a food addict?
These questions are answered this week by our food-addiction expert, Bitten Jonsson, RN:
Am I a harmful user or a full-fledged food addict?
I would really appreciate some advice, clarity, guidance, direction… etc. I have a long history of dieting (I am 69 years old) starting when I was 13 but never a serious effort until I was 24. Thinking back on it, I have always had a focus around food but not a lot of access. Whether it is because I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s where snack food and highly processed food was less available and advertised or whether my parents just didn’t buy it, but in spite of my awareness and attraction to tasty food, I was never driven to steal food, hide food, gorge or lie about food.
My diet from 16 years old and on (when I got a drivers licence and a car) was burgers, fries, milkshakes, pizza, deli sandwiches, pasta, potato salad. Although I indulged in sweets, it really wasn’t my go to. UNTIL, I joined Weight Watchers when I was 25 years old. The program in those days was three meals a day, a snack if you desired, of fruit. 2 oz (100 grams) of protein in the am, 4 oz (200 grams) of protein at lunch and 6 oz (300 grams) of protein for supper. Very moderate allowance for starchy veggies like potatoes, corn and peas. I stuck to that religiously. I lost weight consistently.
Toward the end of that year, after I had lost 85 lbs (39 kg), I was struggling to stick to the program. One possibility was that my goal weight as set by WW was too low and I couldn’t maintain it. As well, due to the departure of a WW leader, I assumed the role. When I lost the weight and was re-introduced to pasta and sweets, it was like a bomb went off. I binged like I never had before. Entire box of cookies/granola bars. Containers of ice cream – all behaviours I had never exhibited before.
I overate in the past (I suspect I am a volume addict too) but I have never binged. I was really confused. I left WW and started OA. I disliked that program. Still don’t like it. But, I digress… from 1976 until today, I have gained and lost tons of weight. When I have been successful at losing weight, I have devised my own plan, which is typically low fat, very little to no processed food/carbs, little to no sugar. Just clean eating. All goes well until I hit my first stressful event: usually around pleasing people as I am a definite co-dependent, people pleaser. Too many meals out or too many responsibilities pressing me… and my immediate go to is lots of carbs and some sugar.
Then I feel bad as I am heading into another diet failure, I feel physically out of sorts etc. etc. Eventually I get sick and tired of overeating and I find another plan. My latest was LCHF and intermittent fasting. I am a member of Diet Doctor which is where I found you.
I was super successful on LCHF for 8.5 months. Then I had a super busy time sorting out my elderly aunt; going to a Christian camp for a week, and one social event after another. I just lost my rhythm, as it were. Since then I have been desperately trying to get back on track. I started reading your Q&A. I went to your website. I bought and read Food Junkies by Vera Tarman at your recommendation. I loved that book. I thought she really laid it all out in terms I could understand. I also appreciated that although she is a huge fan of OA and the 12 steps, she offered other alternatives.
But I am no less confused about where I fit into the food addiction spectrum. I do believe that sticking to the 1960’s WW food plan altered my brain chemistry – or awakened what was already there. I do believe that I have to avoid or eliminate sugar and processed carbs, but it really is my complete difficulty in managing my emotions when and where I go right after pasta/burgers/sweets and overindulge in those foods to assuage those feelings. Like most people, when I am eating the LCHF way I don’t have cravings as much with sugar and processed carbs although I do have to manage my portions. And I am very addicted to caffeine, which I know also contributes to a lack of control over some foods I might want to eat to manage the anxiety too much coffee creates.
SO… I read in one of your responses in the Q&A that there are 3 types of people: some that aren’t affected by sugar, some that are harmful users and then the serious addicts. Am I a harmful user? That is what I feel I am. But I can’t find any more of a description of that type other than to join your Facebook group. I don’t do Facebook so I couldn’t find out anymore about it.
I am so confused and on information overload. Stats regarding myself: I am single, retired and live alone. I am extroverted and social. I love groups but I am careful about what I may join because I find myself so emotionally affected by story after story of grief and loss as it pertains to their addictions (OA is where I experienced that and here in Vancouver, BC I have never found a group that had anyone with ANY abstinence). I don’t like the 12 steps anyway so I only tried out a few groups, I will grant you. Most of the resources that are on your website are in Eastern Canada. I am in the west. ACORN was the only one in my area. I would really just like a group of people that meet to discuss their challenges with sugar and processed food and are hopefully devotees of LCHF… and the group leader is a recovered food addict of some sort. Someone like Kristie on Diet Doctor.
My burning question to you is: am I a food addict of the serious type? I don’t feel I exhibit the hiding, gorging, purging, lying, stealing, coma types of symptoms. I use sugar and carbs to cope with stress. I overeat them. I eat them when I am not the least bit hungry. I do stuff myself with them. All of that causes me no end of mental problems and weight gain. The strictness of weighing and measuring (which I did start out with in WW and did inform me a lot about portions), the intense focus on food, eating etc. makes me crazy, anxious and heading straight for the sugar and carbs.
I realize this is very large email. I would so appreciate a response though. I am not sure whether I have given you a big enough picture of where I am at, but I am hoping your years of experience will help me sort it out!
If you think it would help and/or if you do phone appointments, I would be more than willing to participate.
Dear, dear Muriel,
Thank you so much for a very distinct description of your situation. You are describing the life of a sugar/flour/processed food addict. It is a severe brain illness.
Your story is so common, I have heard it hundreds if not thousands of times over the years. Addiction is about loss of control, that is the main symptom. We could also say that the outcome of one’s behavior is not the intended outcome i.e “I want to lose weight, but I keep eating/relapsing and adding on weight” etc. It is about obsessing around food, trying new diets all the time, having a constant battle in our head (unless recovered, then it is quiet) falling back due to emotions that in fact are caused by the faulty rewiring in our brain from the drug, we take the drug as “remedy” for emotions created by the drug. Such a vicious circle.
You story screams addiction to me, it is a long time ago you passed the harmful use stage. People with “harmful use” do not have the loss of control you have. If you keep wanting to be a harmful user you will fall in the trap of chasing diets and constantly try “moderation eating”. Addiction is a biochemical illness, faulty wiring in the brain. Harmful use is more like eating wrong because they do not know nutrition, more a behavior problem. All my client’s hope to be “harmful user’s”, because the reward center do not want to give up the drug, hoping to eat normal if we do this and that. Nobody want’s to be addicted BUT if we are, and we do not accept that, we will die from all the consequences from our disease.
We also have a saying, “analysis creates paralysis”, you can’t figure out what to do with a brain that is affected by the drug and addictive thoughts, feelings, urges and behaviors due to using sugar/flour/processed foods for years.
You need help in staying drug free long enough to restore your brain and body. Learning relapse prevention which is extremely important in how to deal with the emotions (not being able to set boundaries for yourself and your recovery) . I know for a fact that we create “situations” that give us the excuse to eat our drug, that’s how powerful addiction is.
We need knowledge from addiction experts, I say to people, do not see your gynecologist if you break a leg, Anyone not trained in addiction will send us on the wrong path. We need to do as the expert tells us, we can’t keep trying to do it our way. It might not feel good in the beginning, because it takes time for our brain to heal and do the new rewiring it needs to do for us to find balance and health and with that the freedom and wellbeing we so strive for. It takes a lot of patience and faith.
Many have asked me to do online treatment/support but for now I only teach professionals but do intensive workshops where I take clients and also train professionals at the same time. If you have the possibility I invite you to join me in Boston in October when I do the first 4 day intensive in English with a 6-month follow up online included. Some of the professionals I have trained in Sweden will start online treatment groups in English later this fall.
All in all I do advise you to ask for help, some of the counselors on my page also do online coaching you can ask for an individualized food plan and how to weigh and measure, since also having problems with volume. My experience though is that group treatment is the best for us, we need to listen to others in order to identify with the illness. I will email you information about the different treatment’s available today.
For now, live softly one day at a time,
First of all: THANK YOU!
Your work has helped me in a way it’s hard for me to describe. I’m in tears at the moment. I might be very emotional (more than usual) because today is my third day without eating sugar and flour. I’m in the middle of the abstinence hurricane but now is manageable because I know about it. Again, thank you.
Because of my work I travel A LOT and I spend a lot of time by myself. I have been able to not get hungry, angry or tired. You might know by now where this is going: how do I not get lonely when I am in a very small town by myself. At the moment I wish I had a support group I can talk to, I don’t have a Facebook profile.
Are there any other online options you recommend?
This is me, howling.
Thank you so much for feedback and I am grateful my experience and knowledge is helping you. I hear you loud and clear and yes it is very important for us to have support on this journey. So I howl back :)
There are several online support groups today that use for example zoom live meetings and you connect with your phone. They also provide support with a list of people you can reach out to thru phone when needed.
Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add you to the list (need your email to do so).
Hang in there and “see” you soon.