Managing Food Addiction by Lighting Our Own Lights This Holiday Season

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The topic of food addiction has gained some attention in the recent past. Our talented dietitian, Dana Notte, wrote two excellent blogs The Truth About Sugar Addiction & What You Can Do About It (Part I and Part II) and presented a webinar that were wildly popular and well received.

It makes perfect sense to me that these are popular topics. What we know is that food addiction is more of a behavioral issue than a physiological one, that we feel addicted, and we feel that we can’t stop. Our participants will often report that they feel like they can’t stop, or they feel withdrawal-like symptoms especially when they stop eating sweets, or that they really do feel good when they eat that food. Notice a pattern? The feelings.

While food, especially sugar, can cause these feelings, it’s quite different from addictive substances like cocaine, heroin, tobacco, or even caffeine. What studies point to is that brain changes are seen mostly in those that binge on such foods. And we at Green Mountain know that most often, binge eating is a consequence of restrictive eating (aka…dieting).

But here’s the truth about all this…the truth of the matter is that nothing will do it like food.

Really. That’s the truth. Eating in that way lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s like a freight train pounding into the reward centers of the brain and lights them up like floodlights at a football stadium. But then, it crashes down and shuts off those lights. The downside is that at the end of eating in that way comes guilt, shame, disgust, pain.

The food works…until it doesn’t. Somewhere along the way, those floodlights came crashing off.


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When Food Doesn’t Work Anymore

Part of the process of letting go of this way of eating is grieving the loss of food. Mourning the floodlights in the pleasure centers of the brain. Again, not much will do it in the same way.

However, there are other ways to light up the pleasure centers of the brain. But not with flood lights, instead with twinkle lights, little lights, so you need a lot of them.

We know that things like good music, a warm bath, a massage, talking to a friend, watching the ocean waves, a crackling fire, making art, making music, dancing, getting a pedi or a mani, meditation, etc., etc., etc., these things also light up the pleasure centers of the brain. But again…just a little bit at a time, so you need lots of them.

I know, I know, I can see some eyes rolling and thought bubbles above your heads that read, “Yeah, right. When I want to eat a tub of ice cream, I’m supposed to light a candle and that’ll fix the problem?”

Well…no…and yes.

No, a candle alone won’t do it, you need more than just a candle. We need to add lots of ‘twinkle lights’ to those parts of the brain. And yes, those alternatives WILL do it…ish. Those things also light up the reward centers of the brain. We DO feel good listening to good music, or watching the ocean waves.

See, the hard truth is that eating in that way ISN’T really doing it. We wind up (remember) feeling guilt, shame, disgust, pain, etc. So it’s not really doing it.

But when we add some alternate options, it may not necessarily be as pleasurable as eating was AT FIRST, but we don’t end up feeling guilt, shame, disgust, pain, etc. after lighting a candle, talking to a friend, taking a bath, meditating, etc.

Instead we end up with pleasure…less pleasure perhaps…but pleasure nonetheless. And certainly not pain.

So this holiday season, as you may be getting ready to light your holiday lights, consider also adding twinkle lights to the reward centers of your brain. LOTS of them.


4 responses to “Managing Food Addiction by Lighting Our Own Lights This Holiday Season”

  1. Maggie York says:

    Thank you for this honesty about the WHOLE matter: the glorious floodlights, the inevitable and painful aftermath, the need for lots of twinkle lights.
    It feels like you’re speaking to me, and I hear your voice as I read your words. Thank you for not pretending it’s an easy path, but that it is a path to freedom and peace.
    Thank you, Shiri!

  2. Shiri Macri says:

    Hi Maggie,
    You’re quite welcome. I’m glad this was helpful to you. It certainly not an easy path at all, but yes, it does change.
    Take care,
    Shiri

  3. Deanna says:

    I am a little late reading this post but it was still very timely for me. So many emotions are in play during the holiday season and we all know that those emotions are not always positive. Parties abound and it seems like everything revolves around food. It has taken me a long time to realize that it’s ok if I choose NOT to attend all the parties and events where I know there will be copious amounts of food. And the pressure to compare myself to others at those events is especially difficult for me. I think that I’m finally seeing the twinklies in much simpler things this year. Quiet time, reading a book, watching a favorite movie and writing notes to friends are some of the things I’m doing to try to keep my mind off of food, bingeing and the awful shame that follows. We keep some twinkle lights around our back porch all year long. I love the way they look in the darkness. Now, when I see the lights, I will be reminded to focus on the things and people in my life that are so much more pleasurable than a trip to the refrigerator that could easily ruin my week or worse, bring me to my knees in shame. Thank you for these powerful posts and how they are so relevant to me in my recovery.

    • Shiri Macri says:

      Hi Deanna,
      This time of year certainly can be quite difficult when it comes to eating. I’m glad you’ve found your own personal twinkle lights to enjoy. One thing to consider – maybe you can allow yourself to accept 1 invitation so you can have some fun social time during the holidays. If you do, try to bring awareness to all of your senses while you’re at the gathering – notice the sights, sounds, smells, yes, tastes too, notice skin sensations (air temperature, what you’re sitting on, etc.). The idea is to broaden the focus to more than just the food. There’s so much more happening at holiday gatherings – music, people, ambiance, people and food too. If we can notice ALL that’s around us, then all the focus isn’t on the food. Perhaps that might help.
      In the meantime, take care of you and have a nice holiday season.
      Shiri

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About the Author

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC

Since 2004, Shiri’s approach as a therapist for treating binge and emotional eating is holistic, focusing not only on the presented issue at hand, but also considering overall health. Working in this way, often includes mindfulness based approaches. Now as a trained MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher, Shiri’s love of mindfulness and meditation practices are at the forefront of her blog writings and recordings. Shiri is the Lead Therapist at the Women's Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, affiliated with Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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