Portrait of the Trainer as an Addict

December 27, 2013
Kelly Coffey

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.

_MG_0091sThankfully, 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.


  1. Or two, or three, or ten…
  2. Or several.
  3. Emails, conversation, tooth-brushing – whatever else normal people do after they eat sugar and starch.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The obsession, the insatiability, the repeated, failed attempts at getting my eating “under control.”
  7. 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.


 We all feel stuck in the cycle of self-sabotage, out of control and powerless. I put together a workshop to give you practical, actionable next-steps to ensure that you feel healthier and more in control, starting now.

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Showing 17 comments
  • Felicity

    Loving your posts on sugar addiction! I can really learn from this.

    • Coffey

      Thank you! Keep reading, and please share.

  • Melissa Copfer

    I found your blog from http://authoritynutrition.com/how-to-overcome-food-addiction/
    Reading this post was like reading a page out of my diary (but much better written). You made me cry. I don’t want to deal with my addiction to food. However, the more I see the manifestation of this disease in black and white, the more I realize I NEED to deal with it. I keep making half heart-ed commitments to give up sugar and wheat. I am about 150 pounds overweight, suffering from physical problems due to the weight (knee, hip, ankle problems) and yet the idea of abstinence from sugar brings fear worse than the fate of death. I am so afraid!
    I look forward to following and reading your blog!

    • Coffey

      Melissa, I’m so glad my writing resonates with you. Don’t drag yourself over the coals – it’s useless, and it will only hurt you in the end. Gather information, read, surround yourself with support, treat yourself with respect, and be open to a deeper understanding of your relationship with food. There’s no time-limit, and there’s no one right way.
      I hope you’re following along on FB – https://www.facebook.com/strongcoffey – be sure to hover over the LIKED button to Get Notifications, otherwise they won’t go through.
      I’m out here, rooting for you.

      • Shayanne Davis

        This post is me. I am aware that I am horribly addicted to starch. Not so much sweets. I have been off sugars and starches since Jan 1st but had a couple of relapses. This is so hard and causing my anxiety to be a lot worse. I have done a lot of research and believe I know what I am supposed to do but have a hard time doing it. Thinking about my body makes me want to cry. Its so stressful. I’m 5’6 and weigh 190. I have lost 8 pounds since Jan. I jog 3 miles 3 times a week. Can you give any recommendations?

        • Kelly

          Shayanne, you sound so much like me! I love starches, not so much sweets. I’m 5’5″ and 196 lbs. I’ve researched SO much and can tell other people how to lose weight, but I can’t do it for myself. 🙁 I CrossFit, but not as much as I probably should. I’d love recommendations on motivation myself!

  • Linzb

    This is crazy–everything I read was like you were looking into my own brain and wrote down what you found. I had an epiphany: I’m a food addict. My first reaction? Shame. My second reaction? Relief, knowing there is a reason for what I do, and I’m not the only one, and most especially, that there is a way out of the cycle. What do you suggest for someone new to this? What is the best way for me to start my abstinence in a house where the others don’t have this issue and don’t think twice about having all sorts of my downfalls stocked in the cupboards? Thank you for giving my problem a name and a (hopefully) solution all at once!

  • Jazzy

    Satisfaction is an emotion to me – kind of like that Rolling Stones song. It means to be happy. So when I eat a cookie and it doesn’t make me happy, I eat another and another. or if I eat a cookie and it does make me happy I eat more cookies thinking that more will make me even happier.

    When I let go of the idea that food is supposed to satisfy me, when I tell myself that everyone is lying about this whole satisfaction business also when I tell myself I can have one cookie every day, it’s easier to eat less. Unfortunately I forget about this policy or when I’m tired and it’s late at night.

    It would be much easier not to have any cookies in the house but unfortunately my husband insists.

  • Pam Sillars

    I too was over 300 lbs. before I joined Weight Watchers and lost 160 to get to goal weight. Because of medical issues, one of which my thyroid was destroyed due to Graves Disease, I have put on about 20 lbs. and took off 10. I just can’t get the other 10 off. I find the article about the scale to be real informative. I have an awful habit of weighing daily which I know is not doing me any good. But I am so anxious about trying to weigh in this month. I am in danger of losing my life-time membership. Thanks for letting me vent.

  • lisa burke

    I think I just read my life. ……oh my

  • Katie

    Hi, my name’s Katie, and I’m an addict.

    Girlfriend I am so with you on this. Sugar is one of the worst things to be addicted to. It’s awful. Withdrawals suck, cravings suck and it’s never ending. Even if you abstain for the longest time, they’re still there, taunting you. And yep, i’m so not a moderation girl. Not at all! I’m so glad I found someone who I agree with!

  • Tara Swinchatt

    As with folks above, you write my story. I just don’t know how to abstain. And it makes me cry.

  • Jordin

    I feel like I wrote this… this is incredibly my issue and crazy mind-set.

  • KK

    I think I can finally understand my own addiction. I connect completely with your writing. From this day forward, I will give up my addiction! Thanks for helping so many people!

  • anon

    Dear Kelley,

    I can so relate. My issue is I am round others who believe (including the medical exerts who are basing their advice on the evidence base) in eating all food that “trigger” for me and I find it hard to just say “just one” especially as it almost puts me into a euphoric mode when Ihave these foods, just one bite isn’t enough. Sigh. I’m sounding quite flippant about this but it’s a daily struggle. It feels like I can only hold my breath for so long. I am not dieting… just the urge to eat copious quantities of those foods is overwhelming. If I have to focus on another task i.e a board meeting, I just eat to “get through it” and it’s never chicken and broccoli.

    So I can’t do portion control, and another issue I have is I can’t sleep on low carb.. any advice appreciated. I will read more about your story, but have you found anything that lifts you like food does

    • Kelly Coffey

      For me, any tiny portion of these foods is too much, and once I have some, no amount ever feels quite like enough. Such is the nature of an addictive relationship. I feel that same tug you describe, and have anything shy of abstinence to feel very much like I’m holding my breath. Abstinence is freedom for folks like us. Control is madness, and very, very difficult to sustain.
      As for finding something that lifts like food, the experience of freedom from craving, compulsion, and regret makes the jolt from food look like a joke. Once we’re in an addictive cycle, food doesn’t so much bring us pleasure as relieve our experience of the discomfort of craving, a discomfort we lose when we break the cycle.

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