Five Ways to Diet Like an Addict
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Five Ways to Diet Like an Addict
I didn’t get sober to be fat.
As a recovering alcoholic, I live with the pitfalls and limitations of an addictive personality. People who have struggled with addiction need structure and, during six years of sobriety, I’ve become a creature of healthy habits, gradually developing the disciplines of balanced diet and regular exercise to complement 12-step recovery.
It’s cliché but true: we are wired differently. Non-committal middle ground doesn’t work for us; per a popular saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “half measures avail us nothing.” We either do things very well or very, very poorly. During my sobriety, nothing has exemplified this more than my alternately peaking and plummeting weight.
Before we continue, a note: I am not a chronic overeater, bulimic or a member of Overeaters Anonymous. I’m not addicted to food specifically. Rather, my addict mind compulsively craves practically anything that will trigger my pleasure sensors - from substances like drugs, alcohol and nicotine to rushes like sex and gambling. People with addictive personalities like stimulation; we’re everything-aholic.
And that brings us to food.
When I quit drinking, I was 50 pounds overweight. Obesity wasn’t my primary concern then but, as recovery progressed, I vowed to lose the beer gut along with the beer.
Progress was fleeting. Various diet regimens were begun, temporarily capitalized upon, and inevitably abandoned. I’d lose five pounds in a month of strength, then gain it back in a week of weakness. Why couldn’t someone with the discipline to completely abstain from booze and cigarettes manage to sustainably lose weight?
That was 45 pounds ago. The secret? I started dieting like an addict. Here’s how:
No Carbs until Evening
We’ve all seen conflicting reports on the ideal times to consume carbohydrates. Many experts advise eating carbs in the morning, so they'll burn off throughout the day. And there's probably some truth to that.
But here's another truth: A diet only works if you can stay on it.
Carbs like bread and sweets can stimulate regions of the brain involved in cravings and addiction. They turn on the obsession switch.
It's simple: when I eat, for example, a bagel for breakfast, my addictive personality makes it incredibly difficult to steer clear of additional, unplanned carbohydrates the remainder of the day. Per the AA adage "One day at a time," the best reset for this compulsion is a good night's sleep.
Assuming you can't completely give up carbs (I know I can't), the logical solution is limiting carb consumption to evenings. After my daily carb fix, it's typically close to bedtime before the cravings for more really kick in. Another day won.
If it means losing weight slower than someone adhering to strict dietary science, so be it. A solution is only a solution if it's sustainable.
No Sugar Substitutes
It's tempting to go heavy on the diet sodas for a faux sugar fix. The problem is this: though our thighs know the difference between sugar and sucralose, our brains do not.
For addictive personalities, the result is similar to the aforementioned bagel: immediate carb pleasure followed by insatiable craving for more. Though that Diet Coke has zero calories, it lights a fire only extinguished - yet, per the addict's paradox, also exacerbated - by actual sugar.
There’s a reason you can’t beat the real thing, so don’t even bother trying.
Exercise the Demons – But Treat It as Its Own Reward
The health benefits of regular exercise are well documented and widely known. In a country with an unprecedented obesity epidemic, it’s baffling – and shameful – that more people don’t act upon this settled science.
Many of us, myself included, spend 8-10 hours a day at desk jobs. Amid our largely sedentary realities, the idea that exercise is a luxury rather than a necessity is utter nonsense. Human beings weren’t designed to sit around and atrophy.
As an addict, I’ve found the mental lift provided by working out as valuable as the improved physical fitness. If I don’t spin, I might spin out.
On good days, the extra endorphins solidify my serenity, reinforcing the notion that sobriety is so very worth it. On bad days, exercise provides a constructive outlet for aggression and resentment. I’m a public relations executive, a profession conducive to dealing with some difficult personalities. When confronted with a brusque journalist or unrealistically demanding client, one of my go-to personal pep talks is “Save it for the gym.”
What I’ve learned not to do – and, like a true person with addiction, I learned the hard way – is reward myself for exercising by pigging out afterward. In doing so, I was negating an hour’s progress with five minutes of gluttony. That’s classic justification; it was bad for my gut, and even worse for my mental sobriety. Good works – and good workouts – should be their own reward.
What’s more, exercise allows me to put my addictive personality to good use. I don't feel quite right without my daily workout - and I shouldn't. Of course, sometimes life (lately, in the form of my 18-month-old son) gets in the way – just like I can’t always make an AA meeting. That’s fine… but I’m back on the bike tomorrow. In sobriety, we should commit to our health – both mental and physical.
People with addictive personalities must be vigilant about the dangers of substitution. It's too easy to give up one stimulant for another. There's no sense rearranging chairs on the Titanic.
But some rules of thumb have exceptions. And coffee, that ubiquitous 12-step beverage, is exactly that for dieters with an addictive nature.
Caffeine stands as the only substance to which I’m perfectly OK being addicted. Caffeine can suppress hunger and help burn calories, and its preferred delivery method - coffee - can help fight depression. It’s the closest thing we have to a magic potion. So unless it's causing adverse side effects - high blood pressure, IBS, insomnia - bottom's up.
Strive for Progress, Not Perfection
Like any self-improvement process, diet discipline gets easier over time. People in recovery have an easy comparison: the more sober time you have, the easier staying sober becomes. Success has a snowball effect.
Likewise, dieting is hardest in the beginning. My body rebelled against the diminished calorie intake for weeks before chronic hunger pangs subsided… and even then, some days I just couldn’t hack it. Even now, best laid plans for eating well sometimes conflict with the hangry fallout of a rough day.
Life happens. And when it does, I have to make a choice between being unbearably hungry and just plain unbearable. As a father, husband, colleague and sponsor, the latter really isn’t an option for me, so I’ll have one or two (or six) slices of cake and live to diet another day.
When that happens, eat your cake with a side of humble pie. Accept dieting as yet another thing at which you’ll never be perfect and, like someone fresh out of rehab, move forward with quiet determination. Humility is sobering. It can also be slimming.