Diet Rehab: 28 Days to Finally Stop Craving the Foods That Make You Fat

 
Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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INTRODUCTION:
 
How I Kicked My Food Addiction . . . and How You Can, Too
 
I
’m going to make a confession: I used to have a food addiction. And although I’ve since kicked the habit, every so often I want one of the foods I used to be addicted to.
Although I eat healthily, work out, meditate, and practice yoga, there are still times when I just feel blue. And sometimes—after I’ve called a friend, done some deep breathing, or found some other healthy alternative—I still feel desperate for a boost. It’s then that I turn to my own secret treat: a big bowl of macaroni and cheese.
Now, I’m not talking about the homemade gourmet “gratin” with four types of
fromage
and a panko crumb crust. I’m talking down and dirty: the 89-cent box you get at the convenience store, the type of gluey treat that you make from elbow macaroni and that grainy orange powder. Sometimes I don’t even stir all the lumps out of the sauce. In my late-night slump, those salty little nuggets are actually comforting.
I said I
used
to have a food addiction, and I meant it. I don’t turn to my secret indulgence all that often, and because I enjoy it in moderation, it doesn’t concern me. My mac and cheese is an occasional treat, not a habitual form of self-medication. But I had wondered many times over the years what it was about that starchy dish that I found so restorative. We all know the term “comfort food,” and many of us have felt the pull of a sugar craving, but why? How do these foods affect our feelings? Why would I turn to a carb-laden meal when I needed comfort and calm? And what’s the link between emotions, food, and our difficulties with weight?
Then I became a psychotherapist who specializes in disordered eating and addictive behaviors. I began to learn more about how the mind responds to food, which gave me valuable insight into my patients and myself. I discovered that anxiety depletes our store of serotonin, a “feel-good” brain chemical that helps to soothe worries, boost self-confidence, and create a feeling of “okayness” in the world. I also learned that depression and listlessness can signal a shortage of dopamine, the energizing biochemical we all need to function during stressful situations and exciting challenges.
The basics of brain chemistry explained what was happening when I felt anxious or sad. But why did I crave mac and cheese? Why do some people crave high-fat foods while others want starchy carbs or sugary treats in times of stress or sadness?
I began to investigate the way that food and brain chemistry interact, and what I found had that “aha” quality of any discovery that seems to explain a major aspect of your life. I discovered that the carbs in my beloved treat release a quick, feel-good dose of serotonin, and that the high fat content of that neon-orange cheese boosted my dopamine levels. That soothing, calm, and energizing lift wasn’t only in my imagination. I really
was
experiencing a chemical reaction, just as if I’d taken drugs to counter my low feelings.
Significantly, both prescription meds and street drugs boost serotonin and dopamine. Prozac and Zoloft, antidepressants that are effective for treating anxiety, increase the amount of serotonin available for our brains to use, while the street drug Ecstasy (MDMA) floods our brain with it, producing that over-the-top, blissed-out, “everything is fabulous” sensation that we’ve all seen portrayed in movies and on TV. Who knew that pasta, white bread, and doughnuts were cheap, quick, and legal ways to get a mini-version of the same high?
Likewise, the antidepressant Wellbutrin lifts dopamine levels, as do nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. But so do bacon, potato chips, and other high-fat foods.
I realized that when my patients talk about self-medicating with food, it isn’t just a metaphor. They really are altering their brain chemistry—often in much-needed ways. It doesn’t matter if their low levels of feel-good chemicals were inherited or are the result of a traumatic series of life events. They just know that they don’t want to feel as bad as they’re feeling.
When people would talk about food addictions, I realized that it wasn’t a metaphor. Just as you can become dependent on a nicotine fix or a cocaine high, so can you grow to rely on the effects of high-carb or high-fat foods.
So that was
why
I had turned into a food addict. But
how
had it happened?
How I Became a Carb Junkie
 
I was fifteen years old when my family changed forever. We were on vacation in Las Vegas. One morning we were walking through the hotel lobby, headed on a daylong trek to a national park, when my ten-year-old brother, David, suddenly vomited. My mom urged me and the rest of my family to go ahead while she stayed behind to nurse my brother through whatever virus he’d picked up. He didn’t seem to be in such bad shape, so we thought it was okay to leave.
This was in the days before everyone had a cell phone, and we were gone eight hours. When we returned, they weren’t at the hotel. They were in the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital. There I was greeted with a shocking sight: my little brother hooked up to machines and covered in tubes, unable to speak a word. When his eyes found me, he let out an unearthly wail I’ll never forget. David had had a massive stroke right after we left.
I stared at him, unable to move. Then I heard a terrible sobbing. It was coming from my strong, unshakable grandfather as he stood beside my brother’s bed.
In that moment, everything I thought about adults being infallible simply collapsed. I would never again feel safe as a child. I also knew that I had to be the most perfect, most helpful son in the world. How could my family survive if I wasn’t?

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