Tis the season of sugar and flour in abundance! Let the emotional eaters and food addicts beware! The shelves of our local grocers and retailers are overflowing with cheaply priced candies, caramelized popcorns, and frosted pastries. The sugar and flour fest begins in October with the fall festivals, Halloween parties and trick or treating. Then, continues on with Thanksgiving, Religious Holiday dinners and ends with New Years Eve celebrations. But, does it really end? No, we have birthdays and the rest of the observed holidays for the remainder of the year. There is always a good reason to have sugar and flour but for the person who is not aware of his food addiction, it is a tough season.
For starters, the sugar and flour propaganda is pervasive. Commercials, movie previews and magazines advertise not only how affordable and delicious consuming their products are but it also speaks to our human need of community, love and connection. When we eat these products, we feel connected and life feels good.
Secondly, it is true: sugar is in most commercially sold foods. When we start looking, we see sugar in salad dressings and condiments for example. We’ve come to expect sugar in breakfast cereals but we don’t expect to have sugar in our butter. Some restaurants do that, so we must check.
Fortunately, for mindful eaters, this veritable feast of sugar and flour outlay doesn’t pose any physical danger or health threat. Unfortunately, for food addicts, there is no mindful eating because a food addicts’ brain is wired for addiction. It’s really just that simple. A quick google search will provide hundreds if not more links to research being done on food addiction. My go to for medical literature, PubMed, has a veritable selection of literature on food addiction.
Lastly, It’s a slippery slope for a food addict to have one bite of sugar or flour. It’s a bite that can lead to full blown binging and mental depression. Meet Alice. Alice came to me as an overweight bride-to-be who kept putting off setting a wedding date because she desired to look like the models in her bridal magazine. She envisioned herself as a slender bride wearing a mermaid gown being escorted by her father and reveling in self pride. Alice is a food addict and periodically would hear the words “oh, just have one bite, it’s not going to hurt you”. But it did. Can a cocaine addict just have a little bit of cocaine? We know the answer. The chemical reactions that are supposed to occur, don’t and the ones that shouldn’t occur, do. There is literature on this.
In Alice’s brain, her leptin response goes dormant when she eats refined foods (flour) or sugar. Insulin rushes out to regulate the spike in blood sugar levels. In non-addictive brains, there is a direct response to elevated levels of insulin and leptin which due to hypothalamic interactions creates the sense of satiety. Alice does not have the benefit of such a feed back loop that a non-addictive brain has. Her hypothalamic sensitivity is down regulated. Her brain requires significantly more insulin and leptin signals to reach the level of control of food intake that non-addictive brains (mindful eaters) reach more easily than do food addicts.
Alice thought she had no will power, that there was something wrong with her metabolism, her thyroid, her genetics. She was disgruntled that her tests came back normal. Ready to give up, Alice’s fiancé stepped in and urged her to seek help. There was nothing wrong with her body; her brain is just wired for addiction.
When a food addict eats sugar or flour, several things occur: insulin comes out to regulate the blood sugar levels. And, at the same time, the satiety chemical, leptin goes to sleep. Insulin is activated when the consumption of flour and sugar generates a spike in the blood sugar levels. A food addict’s brain doesn’t send the message that it is full (because leptin is napping).That’s why an entire sleeve of cookies can be eaten without a hint of satiety. At this point, the food addict might stop eating only because the food is no longer available or he might be violating a social norm which helps him stop eating or at least refrains from eating until no one is looking.
Alice tried all kinds of diets. She vehemently explained that no diet had ever worked for her. She was in apathy about being in a “right” sized body. When we spoke about food addiction, she was in complete disbelief. But, after several days of digesting her situation, she was ready to go to work and re-wire her brain. This is the beautiful truth: we can re-wire our brain.
Alice became challenged when she would allow herself to have a “cheat” day because her “cheat” days turned into full blown binges. She would stick to a rigorous dieting program for 6 days and on the 7th day, she would eat at least an entire week of groceries in one day. Her fiancé told her that she was eating more than he, but she didn’t believe him. He told her that she served herself larger portions of food than she served him. She didn’t believe this either. Any loving attempts from her family or fiancé to help her with her weight problem, became a bitter battle field with everyone suffering. She would do great for 6 days, then go off the wagon, sometimes weeks at a time until she put herself back on track with a new program. She kept thinking all these diets didn’t work. She hadn’t realized that when she gave herself a little bit of sugar or flour, her addictive brain took over. Her saboteur was in the driver’s seat for weeks at a time.
What’s a saboteur? It’s the voice in our head that gives us permission, or justifies, or to tells us to do things that are not in the best interest of our highest self. Eating volumes of sugar and flour for weeks on end, is not acting in her best interest since Alice desires to be a svelte bride.
Neuroscientist talk about the voices in our head. We don’t have to have psychological issues to hear voices. All of us have voices in our head because each part of our brain advocates for itself. The challenge for anyone is to discern which voice is the voice of the saboteur. Because once a person can discern the voice of the saboteur, he can talk back to it much like he talks back to the voice that tells him to stretch when he’s been seated for a long time. For example, “I’ll stretch right after I finish this task”.
The saboteur is the 2 year old demanding attention and it wants it now. We taught Alice how to recognize her saboteur’s voice and how to talk to it. We taught her to survey which of her needs were not being met and helped her to discover how to sustainably meet those needs instead of reaching for food for the comfort, companionship, loneliness etc.
We also taught her how to prepare her kitchen, how to stock her pantry and refrigerator. How to prepare foods that didn’t contain flour and sugar. We taught Alice how her brain operates and how she can get back in the driver’s seat in relation to her brain signals, leptin and insulin. We taught her how to dial in new habits, to drive them in stronger than her food addiction.
Alice began making marked improvement when she learned how her brain is wired. She immediately felt control over her food choices. She not only understood the value of not eating the foods that gave the saboteur rank, but she avoided eating them because of the chemical reactions that occurred when she consumed sugar and flour: it would wake up the food addiction. She began spotting her saboteur’s voice with ease and efficiently handled the underlying unmet needs. Alice began following her program, making enormous changes in her lifestyle habits.
Other important ingredients to have when one is overcoming addiction is repetition of good habit, community support and accountability. Alice has support from people that hold authority over her. She respects them and that is key. If we don’t respect the community, then the fortitude that the support provides diminishes. She has a fully laid out plan that she executes daily. She always knows what’s she going to eat the night before and commits this to her support community. This way, no matter how terrible her day is, this won’t affect her choice in food. She eats only what’s she had committed to eating.
To date, Alice has lost 85 pounds and has scheduled her wedding date. She has confidence in being in her right sized body. Her life is changing for the best every day. We are honored to be a part of Alice’s journey of recovering from her food addiction.
The beauty is that there is enormous hope for food addicts. We are hear to help you re-wire your Brain. If you are interested in how to overcome food addiction, or know of anyone that would benefit from our help, please contact [email protected] or call 904-565-1001.