Amy Chillag is a CNN Writer/Producer.
At 5’ 1” my small, 42-year-old frame was taking on a dreadful Body Mass Index. I’d start in on a pint of coffee ice cream at three in the afternoon, every day. Not just any ice cream, but Bon Appetit top-10-rated best-in-the-nation ice cream that just happens to be a five minute drive from my house.
I didn’t know how to stop. I’d sit on my couch and scoop one creamy spoonful after another. It was never enough. I could not put the spoon down. I’d feel sick after downing three-quarters of a pint of that coffee temptress.
My psychologist would later explain I’m trying to fill a void. What void? I have a good job, a thoughtful, handsome and loving boyfriend, two Boston Terriers who love me. But these things, as they always do, go back to childhood.
What I didn’t realize is I’ve been depressed for a couple of years, gradually getting worse and relying on sweets to give me a high that buzzed a pleasure center in my brain increasing evidence shows could be as addictive as cocaine.
Studies have shown the same area of the brain that lights up on MRI scans when people use drugs, also shows increased activity when people consume, or even look at, high-fat, high-sugar foods like ice cream or bacon. The concept of food addiction is controversial, though, and a psychiatrist at the American Enterprise Institute suggests humans have far better ability to control food cravings than they do drug cravings.
Either way, I apparently am one of those individuals who succumbs more easily than others. So I did what I had to do to break out of this cycle of death-by-ice cream: I entered a Yoga Detox program.
Before you judge me for making a nouveau-hippie move, hear me out. I needed something to jolt me out of my addiction and what had turned into months of despondency. Plus I had to go; the darned yoga studio was just three blocks from my house on the same street! I used to drive by and see people clutching rolled-up yoga mats and feel disdain. Maybe deep inside I thought they were better than me, that they had learned the secret to a happy, balanced life.
I signed up for this 10-day affair: no sugar, no oil or butter or fat, no meat, no nothin’ that tasted good to me. It was a rough, bland, beany road. My already-cramped kitchen was full of giant stalks of vegetables I’d never tried before. I went to yoga every day and drank nasty-tasting teas with turmeric that was supposed to clean my liver but tasted like dirt. I lost seven pounds in 10 days which may sound alarming but by swapping overeating and ice-cream binging for yoga and beans, it was inevitable.
I felt light in my body and in my brain. I didn’t feel the negativity. It felt good not to have sugar crashes. At the risk of sounding like a Jenny Craig commercial, I’ve kept the weight off for nearly two months and since lost five more pounds. I felt a sense of victory for sticking with something for a change and exercising self-discipline I don’t remember ever having.
At work I was so proud of avoiding my friend’s crystal candy bowl despite having to walk by it 10 times a day. Halloween passed without my even touching one mini Nestles Crunch bar. That’s amazing considering I spent half my childhood scavenging kitchen cabinets for candy that my well-intentioned parents tried to hide from me.
Now I’m struggling with food addiction again, despite all the compliments at work over my clearer skin and my svelter profile. It started about a week ago with the intoxicating smell of popcorn wafting down the hall at work from a giant, theater-style popcorn maker that I’m told the new cafeteria manager apparently set up to win our affection. It appears to be a permanent fixture. No one has come to dismantle the Satanic butter machine.
I was able to muster the strength to avoided the delightful, ‘50s-style red and white mini-popcorn bags for a few days. Then I broke down after the same co-workers who’ve been dousing me with compliments kept exclaiming, “What’s a cup of popcorn going to hurt?”
I grabbed one of those red and white paper bags and the commercial-grade scooper and joined the crowd. I ate one bag and stopped.
That’s totally unheard of for me. My addicted brain wanted many, many more bags. But I said no. And it was painful. But I just moved the hell on. Exercising the self-control muscle made me feel good and it had a buzz of it’s own. I decide what I’m going to eat, not my unconscious impulses.
Any articles you read about food addiction say food “cues” are a huge reason for cravings, and you should try to avoid them. Or, some psychologists say to face the craving head on to feel the sensation in your brain. If chocolate cake will give you a sense of warmth and love, realize that it does but wait 30 minutes, busy yourself with something else and that craving will pass. That’s what physician Pam Peeke suggests in her 2012 book “The Hunger Fix.”
Apparently not everyone has the same level of craving. I scored high when I filled out Yale’s Food Addiction Scale (PDF). Signs that you might have addictive tendencies with “highly palatable” foods containing loads of fat, sugar and carbs include: consuming certain foods to prevent feelings of anxiety or agitation; an increase in depression, anxiety, self-loathing or guilt over food consumption; and needing to eat more and more to get the feeling you want, such as reduced negative emotions or increased pleasure.
There’s a list of 27 things, and based on how many times a day, week or month you feel this way, it determines how strong your addiction may be. Over the past year, I’ve felt this way a whole hell of a lot.
Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity had 48 healthy young women take this same study. Then they conducted brain imaging to show how they responded to cues that they were about to get a chocolate milkshake versus cues they would get a tasteless solution. Women who had higher food addiction scores showed greater activity in parts of the brain responsible for cravings and the motivation to eat, but less activity in the parts of the brain responsible for inhibiting urges such as the desire to drink a milkshake. These individuals may feel more “out-of-control” when eating highly palatable foods.
Bottom line, there is no magic solution. I think I’m always going to feel a tremendous impulse to eat crap and have a hard time stopping. Whether it’s ice cream, my friend’s well-stocked candy jar or free buttery popcorn in a bag.
Life is harder when I seek solace from food. But it’s getting a little easier every day. Instead of running to food for comfort, I’m slowly turning my brain to new comforts. My psychologist would say I’m creating new habits that form new neuron pathways in my brain. She says it takes at least two to three months to break a bad habit. I figure out what I’m really wanting when I’m craving fat, salt or carbs, whether that’s a nap, a walk in my lovely, tree-filled neighborhood, a hip-hop dance class or a few “downward dogs.”
I try to keep my kitchen stocked with foods I love – not ice cream and potato chips but hummus, guacamole, multi-grain Kavli crackers, fruit salad, tuna salad. There are so many delicious possibilities, but they don’t make me want to stuff until I’m sick. And they have the added bonus of being healthy.
Simply knowing I’m triggered by certain foods makes me avoid them. I’m not saying I didn’t just eat a slice of delicious chocolate ice cream cake at my friend’s holiday party and baby shower. But I did it knowing that I’m going to crave another creamy, delicious piece for a couple of days. Not a good feeling.
But that’s awareness, and I think that knowledge is going a long way towards helping me change my love/hate relationship with food.