Food, Addiction & Abstinence

Thoughts on Food, Addiction and Abstinence

Abstinence from food…this has the potential to be a very controversial blog post. I might step on some toes or say something you vehemently disagree with. No worries, I want to open up the discussion. My strong opinions stem from the fact food played such a vital part of my journey to good health.

I’ve seen quite a few (at least 4 or 5 in my area) 12-step groups that focus on food issues or food addictions. Each has a different take but most use the term abstinence. What does abstinence mean? Merriam-Webster defines abstinence as the practice of not doing or not having something that is wanted or enjoyable. The example phrases they use include references to alcohol and sex, yes, they actually call out alcohol and sex in the definition! So for example, I have been abstinent from drugs and alcohol since 1999 (but not sex lol!).

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a reason exists to remove foods. For example, if you have celiac disease you must abstain from gluten or risk serious illness. For me, over the years, I’ve found that gluten, most dairy and some tomato products give me digestive distress, cold sores and congestion. So I stay away from these for the most part. I’ve learned to use the saying “is it worth it?” to determine whether I eat something in this list or not. I let my health drive my choices.

In most of these 12-step groups, the members decide to remove certain foods from their diet. Most popular is abstaining from sugar and white flour. Pretty crappy and nutritionally poor on their own and absolutely horrible when combined. They also make up most of the processed food at the grocery store. You would think I like this abstinence thing right? Sugar = bad and white flour = bad, therefore, abstinence = good. Not so fast…

The main problem is that they use the phrase “breaking your abstinence” to refer to eating the foods they have decided to abstain or not sticking the the plan they committed to. Sometimes compared to a relapse in the drug and alcohol recovery world. As someone who has kicked a pretty bad meth habit not to mention that pesky drinking problem, the idea of someone “relapsing” by eating a doughnut makes me so sad. The word relapse brings to mind guilt, shame and remorse. Somehow, we’re bad or weak people. Somehow, we didn’t “work the program” hard enough. We need to 12-step harder to kick this sugar habit. No I don’t think so…

I wish I had a magic wand to remove all the guilt, shame and remorse that we have surrounding food. Food is not inherently bad or good. Food is just that, food. It can taste good or taste bad. Wait, you might ask! But isn’t sugar more addicting than heroine or cocaine? My standard answer is, yes it can be. It really depends on your body, health conditions, nutritional status, stress levels and lifestyle. If you eat a processed diet, sleep 6 hours per night and have a very stressful job, then sugar probably feels pretty addicting. For someone such as myself that gets at least 8 hours of sleep per night, eats real, whole foods and manages stress, it might not feel that way at all. I know that because I’ve lived in both camps, before I changed to a real food lifestyle, sugar had me in its grips. Since I’ve made all these changes, I can have a bowl of ice cream or share a dessert while dining out now and then and it doesn’t set me off down the path of sugar hell.

Some of these 12-step food programs also have some pretty bad non-science based recommendations. I’ve seen these food plans and researched them online to find their origin. I’ve even called the related 12-step organizations local office and inquired as to who developed these diets. What did I find? Nothing…I didn’t find anything online about the diet, no references at all. When I spoke to the 12-step organization they said their traditions prohibited the posting of the diet and the person was unsure where it came from. As a nutritionist, I highly discourage following any food plan without knowledge of the science behind the recommendations. Most of these diets are super low in fat which prevents you from absorbing your fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K which are essential for good health. They are also incredibly low in calories which can slow your metabolism and lead to further nutritional deficiencies. Low-fat and low calorie for long periods of time can be a recipe for disaster. In this case, your body will be starved and you use your willpower and the tools of the program to stay on track. Imagine a rubber band being pulled back slowly…then it shoots off and down the rabbit hole of binge eating you go, accompanied by a side of guilt, shame and remorse because somehow, it’s your fault. When in reality, you’re unknowingly being set up for a physiological and psychological catastrophe!

I’ve also heard of people removing all spices and then are asked to weigh their salt. While there is some validity to eating bland food called the Food Reward Principle – you eat less when your food is less tasty (rewarding), a nutritionist only applies this strategy for brief periods of time. As for weighing salt, how does the person sponsoring you know how much sodium your body needs? Every body is different. Did they go to medical or nutrition school? Have they read the latest research that shows that perhaps the FDA’s or the American Heart Association’s sodium recommendations might be too low? Probably not. In my opinion, this makes for a very dangerous path to walk down.

It’s a huge and frustrating problem trying to convince people that these practices might be unhealthy and dangerous or that they have not failed because they couldn’t stick to the plan. Why? Because people lose weight on these plans. The focus on weight loss as the goal is part of the problem. If you lose weight, it must be working! Yay, we lost weight! But at what cost? Signs your health is suffering due to poor diet: do you have hair falling out, eyebrows thinning, cold hands and feet, brain fog or fatigue? A good but absurd example – I could lose some weight simply by starting to smoke cigarettes again. Does that mean cigarette smoking is a good healthy weight loss plan? I think not! Weight loss at any price? No No No!!!

The bottom line (remember I’m an accountant by trade) – crazy diets of any kind not only don’t work in the long term but can lead to serious health issues. Let’s leave the nutritional advice and recommendations in the hand of people trained to give it. Instead of focusing solely on weight loss, let optimal health drive you! Be nice to yourself – no starving, no deprivation, no counting, no weighing and measuring. Addicts and alcoholics (myself included!) tend to overcomplicate things. Let’s not make it hard. The answer is real food and proper lifestyle management. Food is something to be enjoyed. Good friends, good conversation and good food, I can’t think of anything better than that!

We plan on providing an eGuide soon that will help people achieve this and improve their relationship with food. We also speak nationally so if you have or know of a group that needs our message, contact us and we can set up a seminar or workshop! Stay tuned everyone!

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Food, Addiction and Abstinence”

  1. Thank you SOMUCH, for writing this. I am in OA and I feel like I need to keep the fact that going sugar and flour free is not part of my plan for “abstinence”. I believe foods with these ingredients deserve limits, or to exist only on the periphery of a healthy eating plan, but believing I would “break my abstinence” by having a single cupcake at a birthday party, just doesn’t ring true for me. I’ve found comparisons to eating sugar or chocolate to getting back on drugs or alcohol flat out hurtful, and your words, especially due to your experiences, have brought me a lot of healing tonight. Thank you!

    1. Adrienne,
      Thank you so much for the kind words! I’m glad I helped with your healing! Check out our podcasts and other articles for more info on our approach. We’ll be launching a 6-week course this summer that is much gentler and more sustainable than the abstinence approach. Stay tuned!


  2. Hi I need help with my overeating. I’m gonna go to my first o.a. class tomorrow night.I don’t know what to expect, and I’m kinda nervous, but I KNOW I HAVE A PROBLEM.I need to do this for ME! Not anyone else.I am a diabetic, but the sweets & breads are Sooo hard to break away from, I can eat & eat till I make myself sick!! I am ready for a change. I like your style..You seem down to earth, I know some people who say…JUST STOP EATING!!! Easier said than done..I don’t like the negativity that ones who don’t suffer, think we’re weak or pathetic..I was an acolohic & a pot smoker!!! I KNOW the controll it had on me..I’m happily clean of both now for 5 years.I just LOVE TO EAT TILL IM SICK!! I look forward to my first class…Thank you..peace.

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