The food addict's "all or nothing"

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Is it common for sick people to wish they had a different disease, if they have to have one at all? I don’t know, but a couple of examples have come up for me in the two decades I’ve identified as a food addict.

The first one is especially feckless: I used to think that anorexics had a much better strain of my disease than did I, a compulsive overeater. I didn’t doubt that we shared similarities, such as that we both used food behaviors to try to exert control on our world. But I thought they had it better because while we were both addiction-addled, their bodies were far more likely to be desired in society than mine.

The other one isn’t any more legitimate, but it raises some points worth discussing. Though especially on addict topics, I try to speak only for myself, I believe that at least some of what follows is universal to food addicts.

It’s my observation that addicts are far more prone to all-or-nothing thinking than the general population, and that it is generally a liability. Among many substance addicts who choose to recover, though, that trait can become an asset. “Don’t drink, no matter what” is a mantra for recovering alcoholics, for example.

Food addicts who tried to mimic that meme would starve, of course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to draw on that experience. The first is that I can employ that attitude around specific foods: I choose not to eat refined sugar or refined grain, for example, which I think may be problematic for a great many people, addicts or not. I also choose not to eat peanuts, popcorn, dried fruit, and sugarless gum, candy, and mints, whose problems are more specific to me: When I start eating them, I have too much trouble stopping, and even after that, too much trouble stopping to think about them. So for them, all or nothing works just fine.

Another way I try to apply the principle is by weighing and measuring; I put about 90 percent of what I eat in a cup or on a scale first. I don’t weasure when I eat out, though for that reason, I try not to eat out very often, which is a different form of measurement.

In spirit, it’s very similar: My food plan calls for 4 ounces of protein at lunch, for example, and if I choose to be rigorous, that can mean 4.0, or even, on the scale I most recently purchased, 4.00. I bought on price, not anal-retentive potential, but I’m not unhappy with the added digit, either.

For me, willingness to appear to be a tight ass, despite embarrassment, is evidence of my commitment. My baseline is to follow my nutritionist’s guidelines, without interpretation, because an overflow of evidence has proven that when I’m in charge of what I eat, or (especially) how much I eat, I unravel pretty quickly. I’ve also seen that when I respect really small barriers, bigger challenges do not arise.

Even with such rigor, however, “all or nothing” remains unreachable. Consider “1 cup of tomatoes”: If you just put the red orb onto a cup uncut, more than half the tomato would be outside the cup, and air would fill more than half the insides. You could cut it into two and reduce the imbalance, or into quarters and reduce it further, or puree it and remove all doubt. But does that mean I can only eat tomatoes safely if they’re pureed?

OK, so I carried the example perhaps absurdly far, but only to illustrate that “all or nothing,” in food terms, can lead to its own semi-sane territory. And what if you do only puree? Do you then have to use a spatula to ensure you got every ort from the cup? Do you have to lick the spatula? It just gets crazier and crazier. Or, rather, it can. Compare that to “don’t drink, no matter what.”

I can do my best to honor that spirit, but ultimately, I just have to accept that I live in a gray world and I have to do the best I can. To the best of my understanding, alcoholics have to do that too; it just doesn’t involve their substance of no choice.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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