Sunday, February 12, 2012

The answer isn't out there

For years, I’ve tried to figure out the right way to have sweets—the foods I have historically overeaten and binged on. I wanted to know how could I eat them--or NOT eat them--without feeling tortured. I’ve written about this before. Sometimes I tried to come up with my own system, and sometimes I’ve looked to others for help.

I tried the no-S diet for some time, which says you should only have sugary treats on “S” days—Saturdays, Sundays, and Special Days, defined as major holidays and personal events like birthdays and anniversaries. (There were other components to the diet, which you can read about *here*.) The creator of this plan is a sensible guy and in no way condoned binging on S days, but I personally couldn’t stop binging and ultimately abandoned the plan.

Still thinking there was an answer somewhere “out there”, I went on to try Overeaters Anonymous for several months. My sponsor and the vast majority of people I met there advocated total abstention from desserts. My dislike of OA probably calls for its own series of posts at some point, but for now, it’s enough to note that a philosophy of total and lifelong abstention (even if viewed through the lens of “it’s not forever, it’s just one day at a time, tee hee!”) didn’t sit well with me.

(A classic OA’er response would be that I couldn’t handle total abstention because I’m incapable of honesty, or because I haven’t truly turned my problem over to a Higher Power, or because I’m too deep into my addiction, or whatever other thing they’ve heard parroted a million times in OA books and meetings. And my response to THAT would be: Sure, alright. Have fun attending meetings several nights a week for the rest of your life, and remaining obsessed with food and eating--albeit in a different way than you were before joining OA. Enjoy feeling that catastrophe is one missed meeting or Reese’s cup away. Enjoy not thinking for yourself. Enjoy the concept of powerlessness. Hey, is that sugar free Kool-Aid over there?)

Ugh. See?! On the topic of OA, I just can’t help myself.

So, more time passed. I started to read Mark’s Daily Apple and explore the paleo/primal philosophy and online community. I took some steps in that direction, but before long the whole thing struck me as too extreme and, perhaps ironically, too reminiscent of my days as a vegetarian. (Again, another post for another day.) Anyway, Paleo proponents tell you to kick sugar and wheat flour (and sometimes dairy, depending on the expert) to the curb, and Paleo dessert recipes sounded more like punishments than treats to me. So that wasn’t going to work much better than outright abstention.

When I wasn’t trying out someone else’s suggested plan or solution, I was asking myself questions like:

1. Should I stick only to gourmet and homemade treats? Maybe the cheap junky stuff I grew up with is the real problem because of the convenience factor and emotional ties I have to things like Little Debbie snack cakes.

2. Should I try having a tiny treat each day? Many people advocate that.

3. Or would it be better to have a normal or even large amount, but only have it once a week? Lots of people talk about weekly “cheat days” and it seems to work for them.

4. Should I modify no-S and keep sweets just for holidays and personal special days, which don’t occur weekly, and not have sweets on regular Saturdays and Sundays since that’s too much and I failed at regular no-S in the past?

5. Should I give myself permission to have one treat from each “category” of dessert, spread out over the course of the month? As in, choose one dairy-based thing, one baked good, one kind of candy, and one sweet drink to enjoy, once apiece, and that’s it for the month?

6. Should I not make any specific resolutions about the amount or type of dessert, and just let myself have anything I want during PMS week, since that’s when I crave crap the most? Maybe if I behaved the rest of the month, it would even out.

On and on this went--the musings of an obsessed person, desperate for answers. Desperate for something between binging and total, lifelong abstention.

These questions subsided for a short while after reading “Brain Over Binge.” Suddenly, it didn’t matter what the treat was, or how often I was having it, or for what occasions, as long as I wasn’t binging on it. I could have a little, or an average amount, or even a bit more than average, as long as it wasn’t a binge. What a relief!

Now, however, I’m a month into not binging, and the question of the “right” way to have sweets has resurfaced. The cessation of binging is the basic foundation I needed, no doubt about it. But I do have a significant amount of weight to lose as well as a problem with emotional eating, and how much/how often I eat sugary treats is going to affect my progress on those fronts. The author of “Brain Over Binge” doesn’t give specific dietary recommendations, so I can’t look to her for the answer on sweets. (The lack of such recommendations is only appropriate, given the focus of her book, the arguments she’s making about binge eating recovery, and her credentials. I respect her as much for what's in the book as I do for what she left out of it.)

Hmm, so if that author doesn’t have the answer…where to look next?

Then it dawned on me. The long-term answer regarding sweets is not “out there” somewhere. There is no magic pattern of specific days, specific intervals, specific treats, and/or specific amounts that will make everything easy for me. The answer lies in me and the development of my own self-control.

I know, I know. Facepalm in 3…2…1.

What I really want is to be able to trust myself in ANY scenario. It’s what I’ve wanted all along: the ability to make a rational decision that takes my normal human desire for pleasure, my desire for weight loss, and my other health concerns into account, backed up by the ability to stick to that decision. Whatever the situation, I don’t want to be swayed by my lower brain in the heat of the moment.

I want to be able to eat a little bit every day, or a little bit rather frequently, if I decide that’s appropriate. I want to be able to eat a normal-sized amount but then not have anything for awhile afterward, if that’s the rational choice I’ve made beforehand. I want to be able to completely abstain from dessert for as long as I deem necessary, if I deem it necessary. I want to know that whether it’s the cheapest shit out there or the most gourmet, I won’t lose control. That I can trust myself.

The ability to do all these things is important because I expect different approaches to be useful at different times. For example:

During the holidays, when there are social gatherings and rich foods at every turn, it would be good to have confidence in my ability to savor a small amount of something every day (or most days). I’d like to know I can enjoy 3-5 bites of something and stop there. The same thing applies to travel and vacations. People often gain weight when they go someplace new because they are eager to enjoy as many local specialties as possible. I want to try new things when I travel too, but eating a full serving (or multiple servings) of dessert every day for a week or two could very well result in weight gain. Daily sampling is a good compromise between total abstention and gorging. Believe me, I have gorged on gelato in Italy, stroopwafels in the Netherlands, chocolate in Switzerland, and pastries in Austria because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out, and also couldn’t be satisfied with just a little. I understood my options to be EVERYTHING or NOTHING, because I wasn’t capable of anything in between at the time.

Different scenario now. Say my bloodwork comes back and I find out I’m prediabetic or diabetic. Or I get pregnant and develop gestational diabetes. Or I have a special event coming up and want to drop a few pounds to look as good as possible. Whatever the reason--if the route most aligned with my current concerns and goals is to completely abstain from desserts for awhile, I want to have confidence in my ability to do that…and in my ability to NOT go crazy when the period of abstention ends.

Or, say that I simply want to have an entire ice cream cone or a big piece of cake once in a while (not a few bites, but the whole thing, perhaps on my birthday?), yet I don’t want to gain weight or harm my health by initiating a downward spiral of overeating. I’d like to know I’m able to eat the whole serving and move on, skipping treats for some time afterwards in order to balance everything out.

As time goes on, my husband and I tend to go the homemade or gourmet route for our desserts. But when I’m with the rest of my immediate family, which happens a few times a year, I’m confronted by the Pop-tarts and Nutty Bars of my youth. And I want to trust myself around everything. Even within the category of homemade/gourmet, I currently have more confidence around baked goods and candy than I do around ice cream and other dairy treats. I ultimately want confidence around it all.

The only way to develop these abilities and this confidence is to practice. Practice periods of abstention, practice having a little bit many days in a row, practice having an average or even large-ish amount at more spaced out intervals. Practice with crème brulee, practice with Lucky Charms. So that’s what I’m going to start doing. I will write more about it as I'm doing it.

I wonder what other answers are staring me right in the face each time I look into the mirror?


  1. Hi! I found your blog during a search on Brain Over Binge. Just to let you know that I'm really enjoying reading it today.
    I read the book last summer and when I first read it I did 9 days without a binge - that was the most consecutive days I'd managed in years. Then I decided that losing weight should be my priority and conveniently forgot everything I'd learned in the book, went on a diet and yes - started to binge again. I've been feeling desperate lately and returned to Brain Over Binge yesterday.
    This post completely resonated with me, especially the parts about OA and your overall goal being to be able to trust yourself in any situation. I truly believe now, after trying the OA way on and off for 25 years, that any attempt at sugar and grain free abstinence forever will never work for me. Even as you point out, if it is supposed to be just one day at a time ;)
    I want to be free to make my own food choices. Brain Over Binge makes me realise I AM in control of my choices, not 'powerless'.

    I totally identified with your attempts at classifying when/how to have sugary foods too. I've done all of that musing, all those 6 points you wrote about and more.

    Anyway, I've babbled on long enough, just to let you know that I've added you to my Reader.

    1. Hi Helen,

      nice to "meet" you! It's always wonderful to find people that can relate, especially about the OA thing. This statement of yours:

      "Then I decided that losing weight should be my priority and conveniently forgot everything I'd learned in the book, went on a diet and yes - started to binge again..."

      really struck me because I think that's where I was heading. Kind of like--"oh, I'm not binging, that's a good start, but now it's time to get down to the REAL weight loss by following some clear dietary rules, particularly rules about sugar..."

      and I already wrote about what happened shortly after.

      Wishing you the very best as you re-explore Brain Over Binge! :)

  2. This discussion is fascinating. My weakness is beer and while I've looked at AA (like your opinion of OA) I don't believe abstaining is the answer for me. I'm doing pretty good with being 'normal' about drinking again. I think you and Helen will do well with your 'brain over binge' tactics.

  3. mrschupchake--awesome that you are becoming more normal about beer/drinking. :)

    It's nice that AA and OA help many people; the MAIN thing I don't like is that the groups put down people that try it out and decide it's not for them. Any claim to a near-monopoly on The Truth/The Way creeps me out, whether it comes from a recovery group, political organization, religious community, whatever.

    At the beginning of the meetings, my local OA chapters used to read this passage from the Big Book:

    "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest."

    *cue theme song from The Twilight Zone*