Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Key to Beating a Binge or Habit: Creating Something to Lose

I have been corresponding with a friend about the challenges around giving up sugar. By his own admission, he has a problem with it. I think the most telling quote from his emails is this:

I can eat literally huge quantities of chocolate, cakes (especially cheesecake) and other high sugar foods.

I am always talking about Mrs M's legendary sweet tooth, but herein lies a difference - my friend combines Mrs M's insatiable desire for sweetness with the same devastating capacity for volume I demonstrated in my shameful and thankfully rare alcohol fuelled cake/chocolate binge not so long ago.
I am a Mere Amateur
His first problem is that he needs no alcohol to precipitate a sugar-fest; second, the frequency. My binge was very much a one-off, giving we weeks to allow my organs to relieve themselves of whatever they had been forced to retain/absorb as a result; whereas my friend manages binges of comparable magnitude on a regular basis. Here is a sample menu, which I gather took place within a couple of weeks:
  • Over 2 nights an 800g box of Thornton's continental chocolate
  • On another day, an entire strawberry cheesecake
  • On another, 3 Cadbury's chocolate puddings with 3 Cadbury's flakes
  • One evening, an entire tub of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food, a whole case of profiteroles and a ½ a litre of cream
Lordy - I am an amateur, and Mrs M is a mere dabbler.

My friend enlisted my advice in kicking the 'habit' mainly because he was having awful headaches which he had been able to link to the sugar intake. He was also concerned about the history of heart disease in his family - we had, in the past, discussed the role of sugar in the condition.
Breaking the Cycle
This has given me an opportunity to ponder the the dynamics of breaking the cycle and getting back onto the straight and narrow, particularly in the wake of my own lapses at Christmas and the one mentioned above.

I am not a person who finds giving things up hard. I have up smoking after 5 years without blinking. When I went Paleo, I cut out my favourite food, porridge, without question and without return.

Yet at Christmas, my third dessert-guzzling session seemed to tip me into new territory. My normally solid resolve had begun to weaken, and I was unable to resist a fourth, and then a fifth. I hated myself, but I had to do it.
Downward Momentum
I had acquired downward momentum. Put simply, the more crap I ate, the less I had to lose. I had already put on a few pounds and put a dent into my normally good health. With each successive binge the marginal loss of having a further binge was reduced. The further down you go, the harder it is to arrest the downward progress because the less different it makes to you where you are.

So what stopped me? A growing sense of self-loathing and recognition that the mountain to be climbed to return to former health and body composition was growing. The scale of that mountain was well illustrated by my post-Christmas body composition chart. It was no big deal compared to the kind of achievements many have made - but for me, who has always been lean, it meant a lot.
Creating Something to Lose
The points is, I had been intending to stop after binge number 3, but didn't. I needed something to lose.

Creating something to lose is the biggest challenge around ending a week of lapses or even years of a habit. The first day is the hardest day. If you eat a cake or take a drink or smoke a cigarette, what have you lost? Nothing.

If you manage to go for a day without something, then what have you got to lose by having some the following day - a little, but not much. You have only gone a day without, so by having some now you would not exactly be interrupting up a glorious run.
Upward Momentum
For me, it's all about that first week - you have to create something you are proud of or pleased with; something which, if broken, would represent a loss. You need to create upward momentum.

During those first few days, recite the reasons you shouldn't lapse. They are different for everyone. For me, the most powerful one is this:

You will hate yourself; you will be pissed off, big time.

I posted about Tough Love - Reasons not to Quit a while ago. It was a tongue-in-cheek analysis, but nevertheless had many elements of truth. Maybe some of your reasons are amongst those.

Maybe for you there are physiological dimensions to your momentum - with sugar I have found the cravings diminish with time. For many days after my most recent binge, I could still feel the tug. Maybe it's entirely psychological - but either way, you might regard these changes as something you have made, acquired, built. By lapsing, you would be throwing that away.

So - whether you are recovering from a brief lapse or trying to break years of habit, figure out what matters most to you, conquer that first week by reciting those things to yourself, then ride the momentum from there on: now you have something to lose.

P.S. Things are not going so smoothly for my friend, who emailed me today to confess to having broken a few weeks of momentum with:
  • 2 slices of chocolate birthday cake
  • a dairy milk chocolate bar
  • a Cadbury's crème egg
  • a bowl of apple crumble
I was disappointed, yet faintly jealous...

See Also:
Sugar Rampage Demonstrates How Alcohol Kills Self Control
When does Intermittent Fasting Become an Eating Disorder?
Tough Love - Reasons not to Quit You Don't Normally Hear


Anonymous said...

When I cut out sugar and refined carbs (most carbs, actually), I felt weird for a couple of days, and then I stated feeling SO MUCH BETTER. So, right away, I wouldn't have wanted to lose that.

But another thing that helps is self-observation. If you give into that craving (for the 3rd drink, or the sweets, or the drag off a smoke, or whatever), then WATCH LIKE CRAZY! What led up to it? How do you feel during? How do you feel after?

In my experience, self-observation is excellent for damage control, and ensures that future lapses are less intense, much shorter, and much less frequent.

Anonymous said...

I am the friend in question! And agree with what you are saying in regards to giving it up. Speaking from personal experience I am not a big drinker, in fact sometimes I go a whole month without one alcoholic drink passing my lips, I stopped smoking without any difficulty (with the exception of one or two drunken lapses) , I play a great deal of poker online, which is in essence online gambling but I am a winning player, and I don’t feel ‘addicted’ to it. I could walk away.

The only thing I have a problem with is this food issue, and it is addictive- addictive like nothing else I have ever experienced. I am a very considered level headed person so why do I crave this type of food so much? Maybe this is due to a lack of easily available high energy sweet foods in our evolutionary past, and our bodies ‘telling’ us to eat as much of these as possible because starvation may be round the corner.

Now you may think I am some huge overweight spotty unhealthy looking oaf, this is a long way from the reality. I weigh around 13 stones and a couple of pounds which is around 83.5 kilos, I am 6’1 or 1.85 m, so I don’t look particularly fat, for my 36 years I am not in bad shape, I excersize quite frequently. I spent 6 months travelling around Asia some years ago and didn’t have access to high sugar foods, I lived off fruit, vegetables, rice, fish and chicken. After this journey I weighed in at 11 ½ stone, which is a touch over 73kg. I firmly believe that this is my natural weight or what I call my fighting weight. I would love to be in that region again, looking at your weight charts and knowing your height and build I think we would be in similar territory to be honest.

So what to do? I take a great deal of satisfaction from hitting milestones and not eating high sugar foods, and I really care about my long term health so I will manage this- even if it kills me!

I spoke to you the other day and said it was a bit like giving up smoking, you have the occasional lapse, but one day you will wake up and realise that it has been a year since you had a cigarette. In my case I hope I’ll wake up and It’ll have been a year since I ate a Twix!

BJ said...

You may want to check out Dr. Eades blog. He has some posts about carb addiction. Maybe they're some tips. I know he's mentioned, either in the book or on the blog, that carbs activate the same dopamine receptors that drugs like cocaine do.

Another good site might be Connie Bennett's http://conben.typepad.com/about.html or her book Sugar Shock. Hope it helps. I'm more like Methuselah, it happens once I binge on alcohol first.


Anonymous said...


When I first realized in order to be healthier I was going to have to give up Sugar, I about died. Lucky for me, I was getting chronic infections and the sugar was part of the uphill battle I was fighting. I had a reason to turn around. Now years later and much healthier, I still get crazy cravings for sweets. I have learned to rely on 2-3 small squares of this low carb chocolate I found at trader joes when I get cravings.

Unfortunately my REAL weakness now is processed "crap", aka rice and pasta. I LOVE these two things but hate how they make me feel. When I decided to go grains free I was okay but still get cravings all the time. To help solve this I give myself a "treat" once of twice a month, just one serving, but it helps and over all I think I'm much healthier for it. It helps me not to cheat when I know in the back of my head I'm putting off the cravings for something amazing later on in the week. If I have something to look forward to it's easier to pass on. Or at least that's how I work.

Good luck!

Kaveman said...

I can tell you the reason for me looking into the Paleo lifestyle initially had nothing to do directly with my weight/health - it was because I have IBS - full blown, every day bloated and all the rest of the nasty parts.

I had experienced relief from the IBS when I did the whole South Beach/Atkins diets a few years ago but never stuck to it. I even started the Paleo lifestyle early 2008 with some good results and slowly slipped off the wagon near the end of the year - gained nearly 8 lbs over xmas and IBS back in full.

Then I really started looking at WHY the Paleo lifestyle fixes my IBS - getting into the real science behind it. I read the Protien Power book by Dr Eades and started just reading more and realized something - when I had done these changes before I always told myself "I can't eat that, it's not on my diet". Now after getting some real knowledge on the subject in my head I am much more committed - instead I now tell myself "I don't want to eat that - I know what it's doing to my body inside and out"

That has changed my outlook immensely. 3 months later IBS is gone (lost 16 lbs too) the results are so obvious and I know WHY now.

Not sure my experience will help but I find I am more committed the more I know the WHY rather than just seeing results.

Good luck!

Methuselah said...

Ruth - agree - insight is absolutely key. As you say, it's how you figure out what buttons to push when talking yourself out of the next temptation.

Mini - how's the sanctimony coming on? We also discussed that as a powerful way to resist temptation when others nearby are indulging...!

Joseph - yes Eades has some great ideas. Mini has it spot on when he talks about the unavailability of carbs when we were evolving, which is Eades' theory for our inability to control our appetite for carbs.

Rayna - having a treat now and again is not a bad idea - indeed Eades does say that in our evolutionary past we would have stumbled across a bee hive now and again, and gorged on the honey. So I figure we're made to withstand the occasional binge. Nice blog by the way!

Kaveman - I had IBS too. It's not why I went Paleo, but I was surely pleased that it cleared up. Probably not as bad as yours sounds, but bad enough. Understanding why certainly helps - but once you do, explaining it to other people is really hard once you get into it, because there are so many dimensions to cover. Glad you are doing so well.

Asclepius said...

Mini - you could flip this whole thing on its head. Rather than fixating on what you CANNOT have, invest some time in finding out what you CAN eat.

There are loads of tasty meats out there - game, steaks, poultry. Crispy chicken skins are deadly-good. Stir-fries done in chicken fat are gorgeous as well.

Then there is seasonal veg and salads....

Best of luck with your sugar cold-turkey!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Rayna, maybe I am wrong to think this but I don't put rice in the same ball park as pasta and bread. Rice seems to me to be quite close to its natural state and therefore isn't highly processed.
I could be wrong though?

It seems that there are 2 types of people end up eating this type of diet. One type are the ones who were ill and came to this diet as a solution to make them feel better.

The second group are the people that realized that some foods are pretty nasty and want to prolong their lives. They then follow quite a strict dietary routine although were not necessarily ill as such.

There may even be a third group, people like myself who realise there is a problem and do something about it but are always falling off the wagon!

Asclepious- Interesting comments and I was speaking to Methusellah only the other day about where I live I am very fortunate in that it is a rural area with lots of good quality farms nearby. The local butchers can tell you the source and feeding history of the meat that is laid out in front of you which is wonderful. Also I am quite a keen hunter and shoot wild game (ducks, pheasant, pigeons, geese) and do a bit of fishing so I have the benefit of that as well.


Methusella- I had a very weak point on Wednesday the 25th, and found myself parking up outside a Greggs bakery in order to procure a large chocolate muffin, with sticky chocolate sauce in the middle to boot. I also liked the look of the double chocolate chip jumbo cookies in the window.
Somewhat amazingly I stopped myself and got back into the car and drove off, I resisted which for me was nothing short of amazing.

A good week so far, I am even able to go to the shop to purchase M&M's/Mini eggs/Marshmallows for the Mrs and not be interested myself, and even better she has also noticed that her headaches may well be linked to sugar as well! Progress is being made...

The weekend will present its dangers though.

Asclepius said...

"Also I am quite a keen hunter and shoot wild game (ducks, pheasant, pigeons, geese) and do a bit of fishing so I have the benefit of that as well."

Bloody hell! I could do with meeting you! I use an excellent local butchers but want to hunt for more of my food - but don't really know how to go about it (outside of poaching - which I wouldn't do. I am also beginning to forage for plant based food which is much easier, especialy this time of year).

Your carbophilia is going to take a while to break. After several months on a HG diet, I progressed to fasting, which in time became intuitive and not at all arduous.

Having been at this stage for a couple of years I can truly say that I can USUALLY control my carb binges even in the presence of fresh bread. I rarely get the cravings I used to and when I fall/jump off the wagon, find it easy to get back on.

I reckon you will find it gets
much easier as your body develops its ability to switch to fat burning. At this point, the psychological pressures should ease!

Stick with it. It WILL get easier.

Shelley said...

I empathise with Mini, I lost a lot of weight a few years back and when I got to my lowest weight I suddenly started binging on sweet stuff, chocolate bars, cheesecake, you name it. I am a cyclist and have practiced yoga for many years now so this lack of discipline and control was distressing and confusing and I also of course began gaining weight again. this course came to a grinding halt late last year when a friend of mine whom is a health worker suggested I go for mercury testing, and I have a high level of mercury in my system. I am not suggesting Mini is carrying a heavy metal burden just that the body binges when it is unable to get the nutrients it needs. as soon as I started supplementing with minerals such as zinc, selenium and magnesium the binging stopped. I have continued to gain weight because I have a toxic load but I am getting my amalgams removed so I can start chelating soon. maybe if Mini gets a blood work up done to see if there is a deficiency it might be better addressed. also yet another cause of sugar binging is intestinal yeast, which demands to be fed sugar to keep it going. its ok to say she has "carbophilia" but there is, in my opinion always a reason.

Methuselah said...

Shelley - very interesting to read about your experiences. Mrs M has recently been told her fillings are leaking, so she'd be very interested to read this, given her own tendencies to sugar bingeing. I will also make sure Mini knows about your comment. I guess it shows that whilst clealy sugar binges can happen simply because of our innate desire for sweet foods, often/sometimes habitual bingening could have a more sinister cause. Thanks for sharing that.

Shelley said...

Thanks Methuselah,

In fact intestinal yeast, which is a driver of sugar binges, is also indicated as a symptom of toxic load, the body actually encourages the yeast to grow as the yeast absorbs the toxins and keeps it away from the rest of the body, however this isn't incredibly successful, just more damage control. Wouldn't want to suggest this is Mrs M's problem either, just that yeast is a fairly common symptom of mercury overload. This is the reason why people can feel ill when detoxing or giving up sugar and grains etc, the body starts letting go of it and some of the toxins get recycled up through the liver before they leave.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Shelley - that's a lot to take in. Let me know if you have any good links on the subject, as it would be good to read up on the detail. Mrs M read your coment last night as was very interested.

Shelley said...

After a lot of research I found Andy Cutler

he is a PhD in Chemistry and not a med doctor but he has suffered from mercury poisoning. He shows on this page some of the problems that mercury can cause, candida is on the list.

If Mrs M is considering having her amalgams removed there is a safe(r) protocol, where dams and high speed suction and a nose hood to provide alternate air source is used to limit exposure to mercury vapor caused by the drill. I would actively seek out a dentist that follows this protocol. some info on that

The iaomt also has a list of dentists world wide that follow the protocol.

Andy Cutler also has a safer protocol for chelating mercury, and one should NEVER use IV chelators and test certain chelators such as DMPS and DMSA. Its important to note that chelation or removal shouldnt take place before the amalgams are removed.

Sorry to go on about mercury, my findings are that it is freaking everywhere, even in high fructose corn syrup (they actually use it in the process) and larger fish, which is how I overloaded myself eating too much canned tuna, even one can per week is probably too much.

But to be fair to myself ;),mercury does tie in with food, eating, and overall health. Interestingly a paleo/primal diet is recommended, as proteins have sulphurous compounds that displace mercury, and contain glutathione which helps the body to battle the toxic load.

Andy's page is a good place to start.

Again, I am not suggesting this is anyone else's problem but then how can we be sure with such a contaminated food chain and environment? So many illnesses that were rare 100 or 200 years ago, even with eating an agrarian diet, are so prevalent now. I am certain that environmental contamination is the culprit.

Thank you, I will now step down from the soap box.

Methuselah said...

Shelley - many thanks for this information. I have passed it on to Mrs M and will be looking through it myself when I have time. I have at least one amalgam filling left myself.

Soap boxing is positively encouraged around here, so you are welcome to climb back onto it any time you want!

Barbara said...

Your blog is just GREAT I just write on my hand "Upward momentum" So whenever I feel like I "can't resist the urge to get some chocolate" I look at my hand and remember what I am trying to create and all the work I will have lost if I eat junk food. I don't care if it makes me feel bad, if it bloats me, if is carb what I do care, is that it is about to destroy the work of my will!!!

Methuselah said...

Thanks Barbara. Good idea to write it on your hand. I sometimes write messages to myself on post-it notes left in the kitchen so that I can be reminded of earlier resolve. Works wonders.

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