Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Open Letter About Moderation

I try to be relatively strict with my diet.  This means that aside from a few planned family feast days (Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.) I try to stick to what I consider good, biologically appropriate food.

Every once in a while a family member, co-worker, classmate, or somebody else will offer me something that is not good, biologically appropriate food... candy, or soda, or pizza, or something like that... and I will decline it, provided I am not already in a weakened state.  People get very defensive when somebody rejects their food, for some reason, and if they know I rejected it because it is not a part of my diet, they often give me this response:

"Moderation is key to everything!  Denying yourself things you love just sets you up for failure!"

This is the sort of common-knowledge wisdom that really grinds at me... because it just isn't that simple when you're a food addict.

When you're a food addict, "moderation" is the perfect way to set yourself up for a binge eating mess.  Food addicts have things called "trigger foods," often sugar and wheat, which flip a switch in our brains and turn us into mindless eating machines, often for days at a time in my case.

While you might be able to look at a pizza, say "I'll just have one slice," eat a slice, and then be fine, if I eat a slice of pizza I am going to eat as much of the pizza as I can.  I will eat until I can't move or there is no more pizza left.  I will race people so that I can eat more pizza.  I have tried for years to just eat one slice of pizza.  When that first piece is down, my brain will lose all rational thought, and I'll think things like "Well, I'll just start over tomorrow," or "Another piece won't hurt me," or "Hey, it's a holiday!"  If I do hold out, it will give me "ants in the pants" cravings until I either sleep it off or find some other awful thing to eat.

This is something that has been going on for a long time.  I have very vivid memories of food addiction getting me into trouble... parents scolding me because I took three cookies at a fundraiser instead of the mandated one, being told to sit in the car at Subway because I kept taking more and more of the communal potato chips, and being so stuffed at restaurants that I couldn't move.

Being surrounded by food that I am allowed to eat is also a trigger.  I can have food around me that isn't mine, and I do not steal it.  It isn't mine, so I leave it alone.  But as soon as you say "Hey, what's mine is yours, you can eat whatever you want!", it sets off a cause-and-effect reaction, and I will probably eventually eat it, as well as everything else.

And you know what?  When you egg me on, saying things like "always in moderation" or "just one!" you chip away at my willpower until it goes away entirely.   I know that you are trying to be nice.  I know that you are trying to be polite.  I know you think it would be just fantastic if I could taste whatever it is you're making.  And I know you probably have no way of understanding what that psychological switch is like.

So I'll give you an example.  I am not an alcoholic, nor am I addicted to smoking.  I am an ex-smoker... barely.  I smoked for maybe three years... in very strict moderation... before my doctor told me to stop, and I did.  I had no withdrawal symptoms, I had no cravings, and I was just fine.  I also drink alcohol, in strict moderation, having binge drank only about once a year for the past five years (by Wisconsin standards, not even close to binge drinking), and I only drink maybe a beer or a glass of wine or two every couple months.  If I get to the point where I am drunk enough that I recognize my alarm system shutting down or feel uncomfortable... I stop.  I rarely accept free booze from people, and never a free drag on a cigarette.

But I recognize that alcoholism and tobacco addiction are very real things.  I've seen friends and family who could not stop drinking once they started without passing out, or who woke up drinking and went to sleep drinking.  For me to tell them they should have "just one beer" or that "moderation is the key" or that they should totally try this flavor alcoholic beverage, knowing this fact about them, would be insanely rude of me.  Similarly, I know that pressuring somebody to have a cigarette when they are trying to quit smoking can and probably will cause a relapse.

All reasonable people recognize that healing from these addictions requires abstinence... you can't just cut down on drinking, you can't just cut down on smoking.  This is something we realize even if we aren't afflicted with it ourselves.

Similarly, please recognize that the fact that you might be able to consume just a small handful of M&Ms and then stop doesn't mean I can.  And there's a good chance that if I do cave to that pressure, it will take days for me to get back on track.

I am fully aware that this is a problem for me.  I recognize that this causes problems for my health and self-esteem.  But it's not a problem I can solve by just eating less without radically changing what I eat.  The only way for me not to binge eat is to avoid eating things that make me binge eat... pretty much always.

I don't need you to babysit my eating habits.  What I do need is for you to understand that the things Weight Watchers and conventional wisdom about dieting tell you do not work for me, no matter how well they work for you and no matter how many self-righteous diet gurus tell you otherwise.  And when you give me this advice as if it were something nobody could ever argue with, you are undermining everything I know about my body.

So if I tell you to stop offering me food... stop offering me food.  If I reject something, accept that it isn't because you're an awful cook or because I don't appreciate the gesture, it's because I know how my body will react.  This isn't something that I can turn off just because your food is somehow special.