Confronting Sugar and Overeating Addictions

It was very easy for me to give up most of my addictions - to alcohol, marijuana, and caffeine - seven and a half years ago when I became an assistant RC teacher. It took a great deal more thinking, counseling, deciding, and direction-holding to give up the last one, which was to overeating in general, and to sugar in particular.


Several factors contributed to prolonging the process. First, overeating and sugar addiction is generally not recognized as such, either in our society as a whole or in RC. No well-meaning parent gives their child alcohol or marijuana, but almost every parent gives their child sugar, and many parents encourage their children to eat, even past the point of well-being. No one in my family had had to struggle with alcoholism or drugs (my parents drank no alcohol until I was a teenager, and still drink very little) and no one smoked tobacco. However, a great deal of our family life revolved around food, especially on holidays, which always included overeating and sweets. No one saw any problem with this. At RC workshops, too, sweets are often served, while other addictive substances are not allowed. So it took me years to see that I actually was addicted to overeating and to sugar. Additionally, sugar is added to almost every prepared food, so it's harder to avoid than alcohol or caffeine. There are many social situations where there is no beverage available which contains neither caffeine, alcohol, or sugar. I now drink a lot of water!

Second, I felt "different" a lot as a child, being a preacher's child, with all the ensuing confusion about where I fit into the class system, and having to deal with other people's assumptions that I was prissy, goody-goody, not one of the bunch. This feeling sometimes got restimulated when, starting seven and a half years ago, I would explain that no, I really did not want even a little drink, because I do not drink alcohol. All of us who model living without drugs or alcohol know how restimulating it can be to people who still live with those addictions, even when we do not act self-righteous. When I would see the other person's restimulation, I would quickly and jokingly volunteer the fact that I still ate lots of chocolate and sugar, in an effort to reassure both of us that I was "normal" after all. As I write this, I realize that the explanation I've often given for why I gave up alcohol was that I realized I'd been drinking to feel part of the group, and that I didn't need to do this to achieve that closeness. But given my family and our society, I knew that I'd feel much more ostracized for giving up sugar.

Third, I was raised poor. My parents were deeply affected by the Depression, even though they were babies at the time. Although they never went to bed hungry (neither did I), they always acted as though we had just barely enough money and food to get by, if we were very careful. I was taught basic nutrition (other than information about sugar) and thrift at a young age. I was also taught to eat as much as I could when away from home. Since we never went to restaurants, this usually occurred at church potlucks. I figured out how to pile a plate very high with food, and prided myself on going back for seconds and thirds - finally there was a feeling of abundance. Big eaters were marveled at and praised, as long as they ate inexpensive food or ate food away from home. This was confusing to me.

Part of my feeling powerful as an adult has been to splurge on food dining out, ice cream cones, fancy homemade desserts, eating seconds at home. I felt like after all those years of deprivation, I deserved to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, in the quantities I wanted. When I went to college, for example, I gained ten pounds right away; while all my classmates were complaining about the lousy cafeteria food, I was delighted that I could eat as much as I wanted of everything! Since I'd already paid a flat fee for the food, I was also "trying to get my money's worth."

The times that were the hardest for me in dealing with this part of the pattern were at potlucks, eating pizza with a group (to make sure I got my share I had to eat fast and a lot), and at RC workshops, where my access to food was so much more limited than at home. I would always overeat at workshops, for fear that I would be hungry again before the next scheduled mealtime. (Later, another Co-Counselor and I coined the term "preventive starvation" to describe this non-functional phenomenon, which actually does not even prevent feeling hungry later.)

Fourth, sugar was used in my family, especially by my mother, to express caring. When she was feeling tender, she'd make candy or cookies, and leave them for me with an affectionate note. Birthdays and holidays always included cakes, ice cream, pies, Easter candy, Christmas cookies, candy canes, etc. So I learned that if I felt a little bad, I could "treat myself" to something special, like a candy bar. After I gave up alcohol, I often gave or received fancy chocolates at Christmas or birthdays. Last Christmas my father-in-law gave me a large box of chocolates, which I left in full view, unopened in my room, for several months. Its very presence served as a contradiction to the feeling of deprivation, so I didn't feel compelled to consume it. However, after a few months, I could no longer resist the pull of the pattern, and ate the whole box in a couple of weeks.

Fifth, I was intensely ashamed to admit to myself or anyone else that I was addicted. For years I'd been making great strides in feeling and acting powerful in almost every part of my life, and had been told by others what a model of power I was to them. I had trouble telling people that there was one area where I felt totally out of control of my life and hopeless of ever gaining control. I'd never seen anyone else successfully tackle this one. And no one in my family had a weight problem, so I felt it must be all my fault and that I should be ashamed of this.

Sixth, I've been living in the same house again with my parents for almost three years. Being constantly exposed to their distress about food made it an even greater challenge to drop the pattern. My mother still counts the almonds and the grapefruit.

Last, I'd seen what nonsense "dieting" is. As a feminist, I refused to act out the internalized sexism I saw going on around me - I wasn't going to be like "those other women" who were constantly preoccupied with every inch and pound. I realized early on that following a "diet" would just restimulate the deprivation feelings and would not contradict the pattern. I sometimes wondered if I was meant to be heavy, and if it was just sexism and fat oppression that made me think I had a problem. The support, systems for fat women which now exist in the San Francisco Bay Area (special swims, dances, and exercise classes not focused on weight-loss) were not open to me, as I was not fat enough. So it seemed there was no one dealing with exactly what I struggled with, or at least not from the same perspective. I knew there must be a rational alternative, but I was too embarrassed to discuss the issue with the few people I knew who had good attention on the matter.


I made many efforts to get rid of this pattern. I attended an RC workshop called "Food, Weight, and Body Image." I'll never forget the night when went out for a field trip to a pizza place. I sat opposite someone who had the same desperation pattern I did. After we were full, there was still one piece left, and he and I silently fought our respective patterns for an hour or so as we sat and talked. Neither one of us grabbed the last piece, a real victory for both of us. However, in retrospect, I did not get all the contradiction I needed from the workshop, because the leader jumped too quickly to positive directions and didn't spend enough time counseling people on the underlying distresses.

I decided over and over to just eat less. I joined an aerobics class. But the pattern persisted, as they do when not discharged!


Several factors gave me the courage and hope to tackle this pattern head on. I had a close friend who lost thirty pounds after joining Overeaters Anonymous. This inspired me and contradicted my hopelessness - if she could do that, surely I could lose ten pounds (the most I dared hope to lose). One day when I picked her up for a (non-RC) workshop we were about to co-lead, she said she'd "fallen off the wagon" and had been eating sugar and junk food again. Her attention was terrible, until I counseled her on being able to give those things up for good. At the workshop, neither of us ate any of the two dozen doughnuts placed in front of us for two hours, and proudly explained to the participants that we were being good to ourselves. I could see what a difference it made in her body not to eat sugar, and how my having decided to give up sugar and other junk food inspired her to keep at it.

Another factor in finally taking the pattern seriously was weighing myself at the exercise club one day, and finding I was gaining weight rather than losing it - I was up to 169 1/2 pounds. It was time for some real action.

A third factor was having counseled someone who was hypoglycemic on giving up sugar. I could see what sugar did to her, even though she is not overweight. Finally I felt safe enough to tell her that I was struggling with an addiction myself; it took most of the session just to work on the feelings of embarrassment, then shame, then hopelessness, about even choosing to look at this material.

With her and another Co-Counselor's help, I arrived at the perfect directions for me: I was no longer going to deprive myself (of feeling healthy and in control of my body). I was going to treat myself (to what my body really wanted and needed, including all kinds of exotic fruits, vegetables, and juices). One of my counselors suggested that I focus on eating healthily, and see the weight loss as a nice side effect, but not as the central issue.

These directions have worked well for me. I went home and made a list of foods my body actually likes and needs, and posted it on the wall: rice cakes, kiwi, cantaloupe, chicken, fancy mineral waters, froosties (frozen fruit put through a juicer), and so on. When my husband would stop at the store for a half gallon of ice cream, I'd buy fancy fruit or pickled herring, and be very pleased with myself. I stopped eating most fatty foods too, like butter, margarine, croissants, and sour cream.

I realized that I needed "instant" foods on hand for times when I came home too tired to cook or to make elaborate salads, so I stocked up on rice cakes (rather than fatty crackers), almond butter (the one fatty food I still eat), cottage cheese, nonfat yogurt, fancy mineral water. I kept frozen fruit on hand for froosties.

I re-negotiated the house food budget so we can afford a little more each week. I explained to my mother what I was doing, and how her "rationing" approach restimulated the old feelings for me.

I also counseled on fear of starvation: among other things, the threat of nuclear war restimulates the pattern. My beloved Co-Counselor promised me seriously that she would not let me starve. I discharged old feelings of not being able to trust the earth to provide food for me. I can now see how much energy it has taken to hold onto this old anxiety.

One thing to watch out for is that, as with any addiction, working on it temporarily restimulates the desire to act it out - I became "hungry" in sessions, and needed to be sure to get my attention fully off this before I left. It was helpful to have Co-Counselors who were familiar with addiction patterns, and thus could see this process in context.

Another thing to remember is that, like other addictions, food/sugar addiction depletes energy and attention on two levels. The first is the chemical effect on the body. The second is the emotional energy it takes to keep the addiction going. This second part may seem backwards to people who have not counseled on an addiction, since it appears that it takes less energy to continue to live with the addiction than to give it up, but the reality is that the patterns connected to the physical substance continually drain the addict of free attention. Once the initial struggle to get rid of the addiction is over, the person has much more zest.


The one time I ate a lot of sugar after deciding to give it up was on my first wedding anniversary, when we took the top layer of our wedding cake out of the freezer and went away to a romantic, Victorian hotel. The next morning I ate lots of cake on an empty stomach; I felt very sick that afternoon. It was the first time I saw clearly what a dramatic effect sugar has on me.

Giving up this pattern once and for all has given me a great sense of power and optimism. I'm now wearing clothes I hadn't been able to wear in a year, having shed twelve pounds so far in about eight weeks, and I'm proudly proclaiming this victory to my friends, relatives, co-workers, and Co-Counselors. The day I lost over ten pounds, I celebrated with a bottle of fancy sparkling water in wine glasses. Since I've already lost more than I'd dared to hope for, I'm now wondering if my preconceived notions about my body are all wrong - maybe I am meant to be slim rather than "solid."

I'm continuing to go to aerobics class or run once or twice weekly. All along, I've persisted in thinking of this as "my new food plan;" I've found that using this term rather than "dieting" is helpful in seeing it as a way of life, and a positive direction rather than a deprivation.

A couple of weeks ago, my mother offered me a piece of candy, which I declined. My father, who has never had an addiction to sugar, perceptively asked my mother if she would offer a drink to a recovering alcoholic. She replied, "Of course not;" I reminded her that this really is an addiction I'm fighting. Since then, she has offered me no sugar.

I've noticed that my stamina is increasing markedly: the few times recently when I've worked extra long hours or gotten little sleep, I've bounced right back, while a year ago I would have gotten sick. It is exciting to contemplate achieving greater and greater health as I give my body just what it needs.

I encourage anyone who has a food addiction to take it seriously but hopefully, counsel on it directly, and take a direction of deserving full health and energy!

Nancy Lemon
Berkeley, Califomia, USA

Last modified: 2015-07-21 17:30:38+00