Food: The Sweetest Taboo

by Dawn Walton

“It sounds ridiculous, but I wait until everyone is either asleep or out and then I go down to the kitchen and I just eat. I eat until I feel sick. I don’t even know why I do it. I don’t even taste the food. I feel so bad after.”

This is a common explanation I get from clients who binge-eat.

Shary Boyle, "Burden"

Food: the only addiction that you can’t overcome by abstaining from it. And yet it is still an addiction. If you think about what an addiction is, it is using a behavior or a substance to either give you or help you escape from a feeling you can’t cope with.

Those who have an addiction to food use it in the same way as people use alcohol. Yet, as a society we deal with food addiction totally differently. We label people who struggle with weight as lazy, unfit, and unhealthy. We believe they should be able to choose to eat less, eat better, and move more. As a result, they believe the same. They believe they should be able to lose weight if they just make more of an effort.

We believe it is a conscious choice to be addicted to food, but we accept that addiction to drugs and alcohol can be the result of a difficult life.

The Independent Newspaper in the UK published a feature called “The top ten comfort foods that cheer Britain up” and yet we are still talking about putting a tax on sugar. On the one hand it is okay to have an emotional connection to what we eat, yet on the other hand food is just fuel and we should not see it as anything else.

I wonder why we regard it as taboo to accept that we can be addicted to food, but not taboo to accept that we can be addicted to other substances? Maybe it’s because we all assume that other addictions contain a physical component which takes away our choice. This is not necessarily true. With smoking, your heart rate returns to normal roughly 20 minutes after a cigarette, and within 12 hours the carbon monoxide levels return to normal (Source: CDC 2004). Within two to three days the physical nicotine craving will be gone. From that point forward it is all mental. But often when someone has tried to give up smoking, a week or so later, after the physical symptoms have returned to normal, they give in and start again.

You expect that. You expect people to find it hard to give up smoking. You don’t expect that people will find it hard to lose weight. And because society doesn’t believe it should be difficult, you don’t believe it should be difficult. You limit yourself with your beliefs based on the taboos society communicates both subtly and explicitly. Taxing sugary foods implies if they were more expensive, you could choose not to have them. It’s amusing really — if that theory were true, then surely a big sticker on the front of a cigarette packet reading “YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THIS” would stop people smoking in the UK. But it hasn’t though, not at all.

Consider this: There is a button on the wall in your house. If you press that button you will instantly feel better. The stresses and strains of the day will go away, to be replaced by a feeling of comfort and happiness.

Why would you not press the button? You’d be irrational not to!

This is what your subconscious is doing:

All through childhood your subconscious is making connections. You experience 7,363,228 minutes before you are 15 years old. Any one of those minutes could be taken as significant by your subconscious. A significant moment is one where you need to learn something that will help you avoid getting hurt as an adult. Unfortunately, these lessons are assimilated by a primitive and emotional part of your brain when you are too young to truly understand what is going on. The rules your subconscious follows could also use an upgrade; they are based on the caveman rules of survival, when being hurt equalled death by sabertooth tiger. Being hurt would mean you died. Your subconscious is in charge at least 90% of the time and is responsible for keeping you safe from harm. It is important for it to learn what might hurt you while you are still a child, so it can help you survive as an adult.

Let me give you a couple of client case studies:

Caveman Rule Number 2: If your parents don’t love you, you will die

Lisa’s parents divorced when she 13 years old. Although they both remained in her life, she felt she had done something wrong and that was why they split. She was always a bit of a fussy eater and soon realized that she could use dinner time to get extra attention from her parents. She stopped eating most things. The less she ate the more attention she got. Her brain learned the rule, “When you are fussy with food your parents give you more attention, which means they love you more.” By the time Lisa came to see me, her parents had both died and yet she still had the problem with food. She was still following the rule.

Caveman Rule Number 3: If you are not part of a pack, you will die

Susan was bullied at school. She always remembered being fat. Her mother was always obsessed with her own weight and used to take her daughter with her to Weight Watchers meetings from the age of 10. She had been on a diet her whole life. Whenever she got pocket money she used to stop at the local shop and buy chocolate. For a short while she could eat the chocolate and forget how miserable she felt. Her brain learned the rule, “You are the weakest person in the pack because you are fat and that hurts. Eating the chocolate stops you from hurting.” She came to see me as a happily married mother of three, who’d never managed to give up the chocolate. She would sneak through to the kitchen at night and steal her children’s snacks and then replace them when she went shopping the next day. She felt so bad about what she was doing that no one knew, not even her husband. She didn’t tell anyone that she was coming to see me.

All of us have a rule book. All of us have a subconscious that is driving our behavior, about 90% of the time, using that rulebook. It’s only when that behavior begins to get in the way of your life that you notice it. Even then, society and all our experience of therapy dictates that the only way to get over anything is to do hard cognitive work until you overcome it.

I don’t believe that. I believe if you find the rule in the rulebook, the miscalculation, and get rid of it, then you get rid of the behavior or the need for the addiction. Get rid of the “thing” that is triggering the behavior in the subconscious, and as a consequence the behavior will go. It won’t come back either. We are reprogramming your brain, not teaching you coping mechanisms. If we put you under an MRI scanner while I worked with you, you would see lines growing and moving in your brain. This ability to rework and restructure your brain is called neuroplasticity.

This is why I don’t believe it’s your fault that you eat too much or binge-eat in secret. I don’t believe it’s your fault if you drink or do drugs. I don’t believe it’s your fault if you smoke. All behavior serves a purpose, and if your subconscious believes that eating, drinking, smoking, or whatever will stop you feeling hurt, then you will always ‘do’ that behavior.

If I clear that connection out of the subconscious, then those behaviors become meaningless and you have the freedom to act on the conscious thoughts that have been there all along.

“What is wrong with me? The chocolate doesn’t even taste nice and I feel so bad after.”

“I hate it when I drink. I can’t remember anything I have done that morning after.”

“I don’t want to do the drugs — if work catches me I will lose my job. But for some reason whenever I have a fight with my girlfriend, the first thing I do is go out and buy drugs.”

I do not believe it’s true that you have to be stuck battling something for the rest of your life. I help clients change it so there is no battle. You are free to make the choices that are right for you. The thoughts have been there all along, you have just not been able to listen to them. I believe, if we clear the trigger out of the subconscious, then you can be truly free to listen to your rational voice and make the choices that are right for you.

 

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