How do you know you’re addicted to sugar and starch?
I get this question a lot. Admittedly, sugar and starch addiction is less devastating than alcoholism or drug addiction. But just because I’ve never sold my body for a bagel doesn’t make it any less of an addiction.
So how do I know I’m a sugar and starch addict?
1) Once I start eating junk, I eat it indefinitely.
People with a regular relationship to sugar & starch want a cookie 1 or a piece of fresh bread, 2 so they eat it. They’ve satisfied their craving. Without further ado, they move on to the next thing. 3
Despite the fact that I had gastric bypass surgery 10 years ago, if I eat that first cookie or get the taste of fresh bread on my tongue, there’s no telling how much I’ll eat before I stop. 4 One taste makes me want more. Two makes me want three. Three makes me want them all. When it comes to most sweet or starchy foods, there’s no such thing as satisfaction or satiety. I eat until it’s gone, or until I’m too embarrassed to keep at it, or until it’s time to leave.
2) Fear of scarcity
This is true even when I’m abstaining from sugar and starch, but it plays out with gorier details when I’m eating junk. I obsess about all aspects of eating when my addiction is running the show – especially securing more. At home, I have to fight the urge to hide food to make sure no one else eats it. At parties, I visit the kitchen early and often, eating large amounts in small, appetizer-plate quantities. Every time I hit the kitchen and discover that more of what I want is still available, I’m swept by a wave of relief.
As you might imagine, calorie- and portion-controlled diets have always failed me – miserably. 5 Of course they would; they trigger my deeply-seated fear of never having enough. I’m like a roller coaster, and every time I walk away from a “properly-portioned” meal wanting more, the car clicks another inch toward the top. A slice of bread here, a cup of pasta there…eventually, I can’t control myself anymore. The brakes open up and I’m off on a rampage.
3) Straddling the fence between regret and anticipation
Addiction is soul-crushing, and this symptom is largely responsible. Like any good addict, I’ve awakened the morning after a binge feeling like shit. Motivated to stop feeling like hell, I make a resolution – “I won’t pull that again;” “Today will be different.” But, when you’re me, you know the quickest way to take the edge off of an unpleasant thought or feeling is to eat more crap. We addicts exist in the now. We’re not super good at considering the consequences of our actions, or at making healthy choices that will pay off down the road.
In an instant the discomfort, the sick feeling and the self-hating thoughts are eclipsed by anticipation, by aggressive wanting. And, for me, this wanting is made all the greater by trying to sate it.
4) The anticipatory binge
Maybe you can relate:
It’s Friday. I’ve resolved to change my eating habits on Monday. The weekend stretches out before me, a smorgasbord of culinary possibilities. Treats I might normally go without appeal to me like lost kittens in a blizzard. “Take me home;” “Make me yours.” Bakery displays cry out like gas station billboards in the desert – “Last Blueberry Muffin for 10,000 Miles.” “EAT ALL THE BREAD.”
My addiction manifests so clearly here, it’s heartbreaking. Everything Monday’s new eating plan would restrict or eliminate calls to me like a siren. Pastries for breakfast? Sure! McDonald’s for lunch? Pizza and ice cream for dinner? Yes, yes, YES! Not to mention endless snacks, spontaneous chocolate purchases at the checkout counter, and cookies or muffins or croissants with my coffee. I become a single-minded eating machine, prophylactically eating every sweet or starchy thing I can get my hands on.
Part of why my efforts to control portions or calorie-count always ultimately failed and left me demoralized, fatter, and event more nuts is because trying to control my compulsion to eat sugar and starch is like throwing Miracle Gro® on my addiction. And it wasn’t until I began to recognize these behaviors as symptoms of “Addiction” that my issues 6 began to make sense. As with many other illnesses, finding the right treatment depends on a proper diagnosis. Unlike many other illnesses, addiction can only be treated effectively when it’s self-diagnosed.
Thankfully, not every food inspires me to binge in anticipation of a dry spell. I love beans, but they don’t trigger me. When I realized I needed to stop eating them, I just stopped. Meat and vegetables don’t trigger me, either. I’ve gone on weeks-long meditation retreats where meat is verboten. I’ve never once eaten meat obsessively in the days leading up to one of those trips.
When I eat only those foods to which I healthily relate, I feel good. Like, genuinely good. I can focus. I enjoy myself. I feel good in my skin. I’m less inclined to depression. I’m more vibrant and enthusiastic. My kids have more fun with me, as do my clients, because I’m actually there with them when I’m there with them. I’m free. And it just so happens that, when I’m free, my body settles quickly and naturally into a healthy, sustainable weight.
I know some people pity me my addiction to sugar and starch, but as a woman whose default is morbid obesity, I’ve come to consider it a blessing. 7 I’m grateful that my problem is discernible, and that it’s one that has a clear, free, and universal treatment: Abstinence. Meanwhile, “You-just-eat-too-much-and-don’t-exercise-enough” is a problem I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
- Or two, or three, or ten… ↩
- Or several. ↩
- Emails, conversation, tooth-brushing – whatever else normal people do after they eat sugar and starch. ↩
- After I had weight loss surgery, I overate to the point of pain over and over and over again because, well, I’m an addict. Getting “more” – of whatever – is my priority most of the time. As a result, my pouch is just as big today as my whole stomach was prior to surgery, and I have no restriction on how much, or what, I can eat. ↩
- As they fail almost all of us, again and again and again. You’re more likely to grow wings and fly than to lose and keep weight off long term with a calorie- or portion-controlled diet without losing your mind. ↩
- The obsession, the insatiability, the repeated, failed attempts at getting my eating “under control.” ↩
- I consider it a blessing when I’m abstinent. After all, I’m not perfect. I’m SUPER familiar with relapse. But I’m happy to report that each time I falter it’s easier to get back on track than it was the time before. My relationship to food is a study in progress, not perfection. ↩