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From Alcohol Recovery to Sugar Recovery

By December 3, 2020 No Comments

In my teenage years, I began to struggle with my weight. 

Looking back, I can now see clearly that I was eating an unhealthy diet—the standard American diet, also known as SAD—and I was also eating at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons (for example, eating to soothe my emotions, even when I was not actually hungry). Overall, I ate to comfort myself throughout a turbulent home life, sexual trauma, financial struggles, and the regular challenges of being a teenage girl finding her path.

I have lingering scars from being called “Fatburn.”

I have lingering scars from being called “Fatburn.”

With my 5’ 2” frame, the weight began to pack on, and I began the endless dieting, jumping from “starving myself” to eating fat-free products.

I have lingering scars from being nicknamed “Fatburn” in reference to my last name, Rathburn, in high school. In addition, my boyfriend’s friends would tease both him and me about my weight. My body image suffered what seemed to be a permanent blow, because even today, as I pass a mirror, I instinctively suck my gut in, and think, “Does this outfit make me look fat?”

In college, I became a vegetarian and naturally found my normal weight. In my early 20s as a pharmaceutical rep, I would wine and dine with customers and colleagues, often eating large meals finishing late in the evening. Not wanting the extra calories, I learned to purge, thinking what a handy little intervention it was to deal with unwanted eaten food and/or consumed alcohol. This behavior continued whenever I felt bloated as a result of unconsciously overeating, which happened whenever I felt stressed or felt my life was out of my control. I was completely blind to the damage this caused to my teeth, mouth, and stomach, and to the fact that I had an eating disorder. 

I learned to purge, thinking what a handy little intervention it was.

I learned to purge, thinking what a handy little intervention it was.

Fast forward to the height of my alcohol addiction, in my early 50s: I was 35+ lbs overweight. But now, I numbed out any feelings of disgust with alcohol. At least I had my drinks; any side effects were worth it, even extra weight and a poor body image. Alcohol was all I cared about. 

Transitioning to early recovery from alcohol use disorder, I began to eat whatever I wanted, thinking: “I deserve this” or “at least I’m not drinking” or “desserts are better than cocktails,” etc. Total justification without hesitation is common with addiction. How many of you have done the same?

The interesting, not-so-fun fact here is since alcohol converts to sugar, nearly all of us in active addiction, by default, have a sugar addiction problem too. So, it’s completely understandable that in early recovery we would instinctively search for a new replacement for our sugar. And for those of us who are soothed by the process of eating, unconscious overeating often becomes an issue in recovery as well. And, I was headed right in that direction. What’s more, sugar ignites the dopamine center of the brain just like alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc., adding yet another layer of addiction to cope with in recovery. 

Sugar
Sugar

Eventually, I woke up to the fact that I could easily head into a full-blown sugar/food addiction. Maybe you can relate to this and have noticed some of your own food issues, whether eating sugary or carb-heavy foods or simply overeating as a way to cope with life’s stresses. If so, you are not alone.

So, similar to being in recovery from alcohol use disorder, I should consider myself also in recovery from addictive food behaviors. Certainly, food did not destroy my life like alcohol did, but it took conscious dedicated effort to reverse unhealthy patterns related to food and sugar. 

An important distinction to make is that with a food or sugar addiction, the goal is to change the relationship to it from unhealthy to healthy while still eating, versus removing the addictive substance altogether like with alcohol or drugs. This is called a “process addiction,” and food, sex, and shopping addictions are other examples. Process addictions focus on changing the relationship to a healthy state.

My learnings and strength in recovery from AUD has helped my food addictive behaviors 100%. Hence, to recover from my sugar addiction, I followed a similar path as I did with alcohol by first acknowledging the problem existed, then wanting to change, followed by becoming educated on how to eat for healthy living as well as to heal my body from decades of alcohol use, and then, finally, most importantly, DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Here are ten ways to heal this addictive unhealthy pattern with food and/or sugar:

1. CULTIVATE AWARENESS. Just like with alcohol, recognize what is happening. Do so without judgement, but rather only love and compassion toward yourself.

2. MAKE A DECISION. Make a decision that you want to change, heal, and transform your relationship to food. Write it down as a mission statement. “I want to change my relationship to food because… It will offer me… The way I plan to do this is…”

Sugar

3. ASK FOR HELP. This could be as simple as sharing with those who live with you that you need help with managing your food and meal choices, and make requests regarding meal times and what is served. Also, it could mean you ask for help from a professional (dietician, counselor, and/or coach), or trusted friend who knows about food. (NOTE: for bulimia and anorexia, an expert professional is highly recommended.)

4. EAT THE RIGHT FOODS. Eat high protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables for breakfast and with each meal and snacks. Eat a primarily plant-based high-fiber diet. For animal protein, eat small portions of organic. Include seeds (e.g., chia, in your diet. Limit simple-carb food. No processed food; sugar; white, refined carbohydrates; or anything artificial. Always read the label for hidden sugars and chemicals.

5. EAT AT THE RIGHT TIME. Eat all your meals and snacks within a 10–12 hour eating window preferably around the same time every day, thus giving your body time to detox and repair (on an empty stomach) within a 12–14 hour no-eating window

3. ASK FOR HELP. This could be as simple as sharing with those who live with you that you need help with managing your food and meal choices, and make requests regarding mealtimes and what is served. Also, it could mean you ask for help from a professional (dietician, counselor, and/or coach), or trusted friend who knows about food. (NOTE: for bulimia and anorexia, an expert professional is highly recommended.)

4. EAT THE RIGHT FOODS. Eat high protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables for breakfast and with each meal and snacks. Eat a primarily plant-based high-fiber diet. For animal protein, eat small portions of organic. Include seeds (e.g., chia, in your diet. Limit simple-carb food. No processed food; sugar; white, refined carbohydrates; or anything artificial. Always read the label for hidden sugars and chemicals.

5. EAT AT THE RIGHT TIME. Eat all your meals and snacks within a 10–12 hour eating window preferably around the same time every day, thus giving your body time to detox and repair (on an empty stomach) within a 12–14 hour no-eating window

Sugar

6. DRINK PLENTY OF WATER, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU FEEL A CRAVING BEGIN. Maintaining proper hydration supports appetite control, helps detox, and is essential for proper elimination.

7. CREATE A SYSTEM TO COMBAT CRAVINGS AND EMOTIONAL EATING. Just like with alcohol, adopt several strategies to support cravings, such as electrolyte water or tea, peppermint essential oil in water, cold showers, walking away from the kitchen, getting outside in sun, and exercise such as a walk. (Note: when we eat the right foods, we will have less cravings.)

Sugar

6. DRINK PLENTY OF WATER, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU FEEL A CRAVING BEGIN. Maintaining proper hydration supports appetite control, helps detox, and is essential for proper elimination.

7. CREATE A SYSTEM TO COMBAT CRAVINGS AND EMOTIONAL EATING. Just like with alcohol, adopt several strategies to support cravings, such as electrolyte water or tea, peppermint essential oil in water, cold showers, walking away from the kitchen, getting outside in sun, and exercise such as a walk. (Note: when we eat the right foods, we will have less cravings.)

8. “SCRATCH THE ITCH” BY USING NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO SUGAR. Rather than try to completely deprive yourself of sweet foods, which could backfire and lead to periodic binging, satisfy your sweet-tooth cravings with healthy alternatives. Have lots of natural treats available, such as raisins and figs, so you don’t reach for something processed or sugary. I also use lots of sweet seasonings such as cinnamon and vanilla, and substitute monkfruit as an alternative to sugar (using half of the specified amount).

Sugar

8. “SCRATCH THE ITCH” BY USING NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO SUGAR. Rather than try to completely deprive yourself of sweet foods, which could backfire and lead to periodic binging, satisfy your sweet-tooth cravings with healthy alternatives. Have lots of natural treats available, such as raisins and figs, so you don’t reach for something processed or sugary. I also use lots of sweet seasonings such as cinnamon and vanilla, and substitute monkfruit as an alternative to sugar (using half of the specified amount).

9. FIND OTHER COPING STRATEGIES. For a well balanced, grounded, and calm approach to stress and everyday life, consider the following: exercise or gentle movement, meditation or prayer, singing or other art forms, journaling, talking with a trusted friend, laughing, being in nature, or anything that brings you joy.

10. EMBRACE AFFIRMATIONS. “I am beautiful just the way I am,” “I am sexy,” “I am healing my body.” Food and sugar addictive behaviors run deep, so create a mantra to replace thoughts of “I am fat” or “I need food” to “I am beautiful and healing myself.”

In summary, early recovery is all about rediscovering who we are and making choices about how we want to live, heal, and thrive. 

If you are struggling with a sugar addiction, you are not alone! Just think how far you have come to enter your alcohol free life! You DO have the strength and resources to heal from this too.

Embrace your whole self with compassion, your successes and struggles—THIS is what healing is all about.

Jill

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