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I have lost count of the amount of times I have stepped on the scale hoping for a miracle; I used to equate my self-worth to that figure. The cycle—gain weight, start a new diet, lose weight, return to old patterns of eating, regain weight—continued for years. Even though I knew that fad diets didn’t work, my quest for the latest fix was endless. I couldn’t understand why I ate in such a disordered way. It was only once I got a handle on my addiction, that I could see the bigger picture: that food was as much as a ‘drug’ to me as alcohol and other substances. I learned how to address that addictive behavior in my overall recovery program, lose nearly 60 pounds, and use my newfound knowledge to enhance my recovery.
My disordered eating started when I was less than ten years old—I would sneak food to escape my uncomfortable feelings. In my teenage years, I began starving myself to both feel more attractive to boys and to play out the illusion that I had some control—to balance out the lack of control in other areas of my life. In my mid-teens, I discovered drugs and alcohol, and they overtook food as my substance of choice. Although the disordered eating continued—in the form of binging, purging and starvation—it was less prevalent as an issue as opposed to drugs. In my late 20’s, I lost total control of all substances and gained a significant amount of weight.
In March 2012, I entered recovery: 32 years old, 150 pounds’ overweight, with a full-blown addiction. I felt destroyed. Much of my early recovery was spent learning about my disease and re-learning how to live. I struggled with my energy levels and felt physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. I recall having to get cabs everywhere because I didn’t have any energy to walk. I spent the rest of my time sleeping and eating. I often wondered when I would ever feel that light ‘happy, joyous and free’ feeling that is promised when you get sober. I felt cheated.
Sure, I was sober and had no obsession to use alcohol, but I had an insatiable hunger for food and felt physically terrible. This is where traditional modalities of recovery fall short: they do not deal with your whole self, i.e. your physical recovery—just what do we do to rehabilitate our body? We rehabilitate our minds and spirits, so why miss out your body? It is like buying a full set of tools, but not buying the toolbox. Meetings are laden with fatty, high carbohydrate foods and people are positively encouraged to eat donuts and candy.
My first few years of sobriety I consumed a diet high in caffeine, refined carbohydrates and sugar. There was little nutritional value in my diet: strong coffee and bread for breakfast; sandwiches and chips for lunch; cake and coffee in the afternoon; and an evening of take-out and more snacks. All consumed whilst sitting on the sofa, in front of the TV, or at my desk-based job. I justified this behavior as I ticked off the more important recovery activities, such as meeting attendance and step work.
Eating in that way left me feeling lethargic, constantly fighting colds and viruses, suffering with crippling anxiety and depression, always being hungry and engaging in destructive eating behaviors. I felt terrible and I looked terrible. I was 150 pounds’ overweight and hooked on appetite stimulating foods.
I wish I had known then what I know now: that eating right can enhance your recovery by making you feel great—I could have had significantly more energy in those first few years. It isn’t rocket science, we all know some of the benefits of eating well: it can lower weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, keep our immunity high and ward of infections. It is practically common sense: eat well, feel good.
Except it isn’t that straightforward—there are larger issues at play here.
By facing up to my issues with food, I discovered that it wasn’t my fault I was eating in such an addictive way. It wasn’t a matter of willpower. You can’t overcome food addiction with control in much the same way as not being able to control addiction; by its very nature, the disease is so overpowering it takes over your life. I realized that the parallels between disordered eating and drug addiction were striking.
What became apparent is that the foods I craved—and couldn’t stop eating—have the same effect as drugs and alcohol: releasing the same feel-good chemicals in the brain (dopamine and serotonin). Typically, when we stop using drugs and alcohol, our mood drops and we seek alternative substances to boost it—more commonly known as addiction transfer. It isn’t a matter of choice; the pleasure-seeking part of the brain can override the rational part of the brain and motivate you to seek foods or substances that release those chemicals.
The way I tackled my issues with food was much the same as my addiction. After all, I believe that my relationship with food is simply another aspect of my addiction: using a substance to change the way that I feel. The slight difference here is that you cannot abstain from food as a substance, but you can abstain from the addictive food.
I worked with a food coach to make small, incremental, and manageable changes. I started making one change at-a-time (below), introducing a new change two weeks later.
I slowly eliminated processed foods from my diet, starting with one meal a day.
I began walking 10,000 steps a day.
I used a bike as my mode of transportation.
I made food planning and shopping a priority. With a plan, I had a list to go to the store with, that way I didn’t buy into temptation.
I increased the amount of protein in my diet, and decreased carbohydrates, keeping me feeling full for longer.
I opted for complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, to sustain my energy levels.
I bought myself cookbooks and learned how to create food that was delicious and good for me, not dull.
I began drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day, as my cues to eat were often dehydration cues.
I reduced my coffee consumption to 2-3 cups a day to avoid peaks and troughs in energy levels.
I started drinking green tea for the health benefits and as an alternative to coffee.
If I wanted a cake, or chocolate, I would try and make a healthier version. Or, I would have one if I really wanted it to avoid feeling deprived. I would just try and hit the gym beforehand.
As a result, I have lost over 50 pounds, I exercise every day, and choose healthy nutrient-dense food over overly processed food, which I no longer desire. My depression and anxiety are under control and I actively want to participate in life. I feel great.
Recovery isn’t about perfect adherence to any kind of plan, it is about balance, and a bridge to normal living. It is about treating yourself well and making choices that support a recovery lifestyle. Eating in a healthful way can enhance your recovery, because you are making choices that are creating more energy to enjoy life.
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. She passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her popular site—Liv’s Recovery Kitchen—is a resource for those on their journey toward health and wellness in recovery. You will find Liv featured amongst top recovery bloggers and fellow writers. She is published on websites such as: Recovery.Org, The Fix, Sanford House, Winward Way & Casa Capri, Intervene, Workit Health, Sapling, Transformation is Real and Addiction Unscripted.