Just last week I was approaching the 80-pounds lost mark, bumping up to it, actually, when I went off the rails and gained three pounds in the past week. Granted, some of that weight is probably water retention, but it’s not the total weight gain or even any weight gain that is troubling. What scares me is how I got here.
I learned that for me to have any control of my weight I have to control my cravings. When I crave, I constantly think about food, particularly sweet foods, and can only be strong for so long, usually caving when overly stressed, frustrated, or sad. I struggled with the cravings beast for years, thinking I lacked willpower, thinking I was weak to obsess over food day in and day out. I also felt agitated on a regular basis. I would feel uncomfortable in social situations and mentally review, blow-by-blow, all the wrong things I said or did. I felt socially inept and anxious and thought it was another character flaw confirming how weak and worthless I already knew I was. I was depressed* for most of my life, running on an emotional roller coaster with the troughs being the norm. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get control of my internal life. What I never knew, from puberty until last year, was that NONE OF IT WAS MY FAULT!!!
I learned that, for me, sugar is a drug and all those nasty mental struggles were primarily side effects of a diet far too high in easily digestible carbohydrates. I know this might sound crazy, but what if I told you that all of that nastiness virtually vanished (along with a lot of weight) when I gave up certain foods?
My discovery came about when I modified my diet to, hopefully, speed up weight loss. I had a very strong desire to eat junk food every evening after dinner and, generally, to have something sweet with my afternoon coffee. I knew that all my efforts during the day were not going to add up to much if I ate back the calories in the evening. Although I was tracking my food and staying within my daily calorie range on most days, on the days I gave in to my cravings I could easily eat over my cumulative calorie range for the week. To put a stop to this forward-backward progress, I decided that I should set aside the idea of eating sweets in moderation and see if I could more easily stay within my calorie range over the long term by making a black-and-white rule to not eat any sugary foods like cake, candy, ice cream, pastries, etc. No meant No. No slippery slope. No decision-making. No sweets, period!
It was incredibly hard to stick with my plan. I suffered cravings something fierce. But black-and-white doesn’t allow for grey, so I endured and found that my cravings lessened and eventually subsided. On one warm evening, my husband wanted a Magnum ice cream bar. I love those. I had been craving-free for weeks. I thought I could handle eating one little treat so I joined my husband and happily had one delicious ice cream bar. The next day I had to fight sugar cravings all day. By the next day I felt better again, but learned a lesson. A few moments of sensory delight just wasn’t worth feeling lousy and mentally obsessed all the next day. My body obviously could not handle junk food. So I returned to my “No means No” policy and got right back on track.
Strangely, I still wasn’t losing much weight. I think I was making up for the “missing” calories by eating more carb-rich foods like pasta, potatoes, and breads. I was eating within my calorie range consistently, but weight loss was very slow. At least it was finally headed in the right direction, though. But better than finally being on a downward trend weight-wise, was the alleviation of so many other “symptoms.” My agitation and, hence, my “anxiety” was greatly reduced. My mood swings seemed to be less dramatic and less frequent. My self-defeating self-talk was not nearly as prominent. Best of all, my cravings for food were very low. I was no longer obsessing over food 24/7. I barely recognized my internal self. I wondered which parts of “me” really were me and which were driven by the effects of certain foods.
My weight loss stepped up and my other symptoms improved even more when I eliminated carb-dense foods such as bread, pasta, and potatoes from my diet. (More on my diet specifics in a later post). At that point I also noticed that I had no cravings and very little appetite. My appetite only arose when I felt genuine hunger. At other times I really had no interest in food other than knowing intellectually that it would taste good if I did eat it. Without the cravings beast it was easy for me to choose health and a slimmer body over eating food for recreation. No willpower required.
So now to this past week. It started on Valentine’s Day. My husband and I had cake and ice cream after dinner. It was super yummy, of course. The next day we went on an out-of-town trip for four days. Being out of my routine and facing tempting foods while suffering post-deliciousness cravings, I ate fries (x2), hash browns (x3), baked potatoes, toast with jam (x3), cookies (x?), ice cream, candy (x2), chocolates (x4), alcoholic cider (x2), scones with jam and clotted cream (x2), sugared tea, fudge (x2), a meringue, barbeque sauce coated ribs, and onion rings (along with other good food choices). I was beyond obsessed with food. I couldn’t seem to control myself. The cravings were so strong and so constant by the end of the trip that I suffered from cravings for several days after returning home.
The strength of the cravings was not just from eating the initial cake and ice cream. Although I did crave after that, it was giving in to those cravings that caused stronger cravings, which set up a vicious cycle that I gave in to (giving myself mental permission, at first, with the excuse that I was on vacation, deserved it because I had already lost a lot of weight, and would get back on track after returning home).
On my third day home I am finally not craving sweets and feel like my new-old self again. The last few days have been REALLY hard. But I learned a few good lessons. My body still can’t handle sweets, so “No” must still mean “No.” Eating junk is NOT worth the suffering it causes both in weight gain and in feeling lousy mentally and physically. Oh, did I mention that mental symptoms such as food obsession, anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, self-doubt, and negative self-talk all reared back with a vengeance? By the end of the trip I was a grouchy, irritable, pouty mess. My poor, poor, patient husband. At one point he even pleaded with me not to keep eating cookies, telling me I didn’t really want them, but I really, really did. I caved and he gave up trying to reason with my cravings beast. Now that I am once again out of the clutches of the food fog I really can’t believe how truly compelled I was to eat and eat and eat.
Willpower? More of it would only help until cravings get to be too much. But eliminating the need for willpower? That makes all the difference. Without cravings, I feel sane again.
* I had under- or untreated depression since puberty, but was put on effective antidepressant medication mid-2011. Although generally effective, too much sugar can override the anti-depressive effects, leaving me feeling very low emotionally.