Everybody has a cheat food. When you’re with your friends and co-workers sharing and you admit, yes, sometimes you eat 2 ice cream sandwiches instead of just one. The cheat food you describe in menu-like detail – “and then, I top off the burger with…”
What is your cheat food?
OK, come on. There’s cheat food that you admit to, and then there’s the REAL cheat food. What’s your real cheat food?
You know – that food you buy when no one is around. I have a friend who will drive through McDonalds and order Big Macs. But he eats it in his car outside the drive-thru and then gets rid of all the evidence immediately. Another friend is so ashamed of his double cheeseburger habit, he orders a corresponding number of French fries and drinks to make it appear he is feeding more than one person. He even carries his Whole Foods grocery tote to hide the take-out bag as he walks from his car into his home.
When you exhibit this level of behavior, it’s not so much the food you are hiding; it’s the emotion that this food represents. To explain it, you’d have to explore it. Or, as they say in recovery circles, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
My cheat food: macaroni and cheese, and I’m not talking about the homemade kind. It’s not a 4-cheese gourmet concoction with a panko breadcrumb crust. I like my fix cheap and dirty; like crack, not cocaine. Translation: I like the 79-cent, powdered cheese variety, which I usually buy at 7-11 late at night. Boil up the macaroni and mix in that neon orange powder, but not too well. Those salty clumps are little sodium-laced nuggets of comfort.
Mac and cheese, like most cheat foods, uses the trifecta of fat, sodium, and carbs to keep you wanting (and eating) more. Fat releases activating neuro-chemicals, carbs and sugar release sedating ones, and the sodium keeps you eating and drinking more and more. It’s like washing down your crack with an ecstasy pill and shot of Jack.
Looking at our own cheat foods helps us to realize that food addiction is just as “real” as drug or alcohol addiction. I would even guess that you, like an addict, have used this food to self-medicate loneliness or stress. So besides the neurochemical response, you probably also have some sort of positive sense memory-linked to this food (my mom always cooked it for me growing up).
Now for most of us, food doesn’t cause as many problems in our lives as quickly as heroin can. But what if what you were food-medicating away, more than just a bad day?
Let’s also not forget that what we consider to be real “addictions” are culturally defined. Pharmacologists classified cocaine as non-addictive until the 1980s. However, biology doesn’t take into consideration that food is more socially acceptable (and legal) than drugs or alcohol. They all stimulate the same part of the brain, and food, like drugs, require more and more of the same substance to get the same response. And if we want to define addiction as what’s harmful or lethal, remember the fastest growing disease in our country is not alcohol-related cirrhosis or substance dependence — it’s diabetes.
Rocker Phil Varone (Skid Row), addicted to both drugs and sex, said in an interview with Oprah, “drugs are easy.” What he means is that while drug addicts and alcoholics can use a clearly defined abstinence policy, it is more treacherous for all of us to find a healthy relationship to possibly addictive behaviors such as sex and eating in our lives.
So since we all are cake whores and cupcake junkies, here are a few things we can do have a healthy relationship to food in our lives:
1. Instead of self-medicating with foods, deal with the underlying causes of emotional eating. See a therapist, have that talk, meditate, or forgive yourself.
2. Create new positive sense memories around healthy foods. I go to a farmers’ market to buy organic fruits and vegetables. This enjoyable experience helps me to crave these healthy foods while increasing their availability in my kitchen. Think of how you can link positive experience to healthier foods.
3. Engage in behavioral replacement therapy so that you begin to use experiences and not food as reward. Substitute ice cream with a vacation and wine with calling a loved one. Get high on things that are good for you!
4. When it comes to urges, milliseconds count. Every millisecond you spend thinking about that trigger food exponentially increases the chance you will engage in the behavior. So when you are having emotional urges for donuts, the sooner you do something that takes your attention away, the better.
5. Decrease triggers. If you feel powerless and out of control around a certain food, don’t keep that “crack” in your house.
About “Freaky Eaters”
TLC invites viewers to learn about the struggles of an unusual and often overlooked segment of the population – those with a bizarre compulsion towards a particular food. From an addiction to cheeseburgers to an obsession with sugar – these freaky eating habits are explored in this fascinating and eye-opening series. Each episode tells the story of one Freaky Eater as he or she is forced to confront the painful truth behind the food obsession and come face to face with the destructive side effects. Two experts, Psychotherapist Dr. Mike Dow and Nutrition Specialist J.J. Virgin, will stage a food intervention in a bid to help this individual overcome the culinary compulsion.
More on Dr. Dow:
Dr. Mike Dow is a member of the California Psychological Association and the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and from The Betty Ford Center’s Professionals in Residence Program in the disease and treatment of addiction. A licensed psychotherapist in private practice, he is also an author, a frequent talk-show guest expert on topics related to addiction. Dr. Mike currently resides in Los Angeles. For information on Dr. Mike Dow, or on Facebook or follow him on Twitter/DoctorMikeDow .
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