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Fighting Back Against Overeating.

March 16, 2010

When I was in college, I started smoking. It’s not something I’m proud to admit, and since it was something I knew I shouldn’t do, I never blogged about it. My reasons for smoking are complicated, yet pathetic. It made me feel better. It gave me something to do when I was bored. My friends did it. I knew it was something I shouldn’t do, which made me want to do it even more.

The funny thing is, I never really liked cigarettes. Smoking often made me sick to my stomach or dizzy. I couldn’t smoke very much because of it. I think the fastest I ever smoke a pack of cigarettes was about three days, but more often than not it would take me a week, or longer (unless I gave them out to people who asked – then they went faster). I didn’t like the way my hands smelled. I didn’t like how dry my throat became.

Yesterday, I had my quarterly endocrinologist appointment. Although my A1C came down – albeit oh so slightly – I found out my weight went up. Again. It’s devastating, but of course, not exactly out of my control. As I was taking the subway after my appointment, I was finishing up a book called The End of Overeating. The book, which like most books of its kind are filled with obvious statements and repetitive examples, had an interesting comparison between eating and smoking at the end of the book.

By itself nicotine is only moderating reinforcing, but that begins to change with the building of layer upon layer of sensory stimulation: The sight of the packaging, the crinkling sounds of the wrapper, the tactile sensation as you light a cigarette and hold it between your fingers, and the sensory characteristics of the first puff all bolster the reinforcement. Factor in the times of day and the location where you often smoke, and smoking becomes a conditioned behavior. Cues, couples with the emotional salience that the tobacco industry has embedded in cigarettes through decades of strategic advertising, intensify the drive for nicotine, which then becomes highly reinforcing. (Kessler, 240)

After several years of what I called social smoking (which is a misnomer – you either smoke, or you don’t), I quit. Cold turkey. I never developed a hard and fast physical addiction to smoking. It was the pattern of my life, the way cigarettes and built itself into how I lived, that made cigarettes a mainstay in my life for so long. I didn’t have to smoke, I wanted (whether I liked to admit it or not) to smoke.

I realized this is very much like my relationship with food. Growing up with diabetes prior to the insulin pump meant that my food was rather regimented. The idea that I would eat when I wanted to sort of flew out the window at an early age. Hunger? Pssh. It’s 3:30, dammit, and you will eat your crackers! It’s an easy way to get into a distorted pattern of eating and it’s something that I figured out a long time ago. (Edit: I realize that food is necessary, while smoking is optional; this analysis is based on the premise of *overeating* being optional, not food as sustenance)

It’s easy for me to blame my weight just on my diabetes. Blame it for my distorted thinking. Blame it for my inability to recognize the fact that I don’t have to eat lunch at lunchtime if I’m not hungry or otherwise occupied. That my eating schedule does not have to be fixed to a clock. I think it’s partially true. Like the habit of smoking, the habit of diabetes has reinforced odd notions about food. The rest of the problem? Lies in the same reasons that the rest of America is overweight. The portions at restaurants are out of control, so not only do we not recognize when we’re hungry, but we don’t even realize when we really aren’t hungry anymore. The fat and sugar content of food make it difficult to resist temptations, so it becomes easier to convince ourselves that we can or should or want to eat something. Over and over again, Americans have had their good intentions thwarted, and people with diabetes are no different.

The technology used to manage our diabetes doesn’t help either. We’re told we have the “freedom” to eat “whatever” we want “whenever” we want. We can be just like “them.” There’s no such thing as a “diabetic” diet. But for people who struggle with self-control and willpower, for people who grew up with a distorted pattern of eating because of meal plans, can take advantage of the insulin pump. I “can” have the mocha frappuccino, so dammit, I’m going to have one!

But that’s not true.

When I smoked, I made up a lot of excuses. I told myself that I didn’t smoke that much. I clearly wasn’t physically addicted to smoking since I would go so long without a cigarette, so it wasn’t a problem. I told myself that I didn’t even like it, so that meant I wasn’t really a smoker. But with every puff, I was a smoker.

The similarities between my reasons for smoking and my reasons for overeating are remarkably similar too: “It made me feel better. It gave me something to do when I was bored. My friends did it. I knew it was something I shouldn’t do, which made me want to do it even more.” I am an overeater. It doesn’t matter how it started. It doesn’t matter if the diabetes “made me do it.” It’s not making me do it anymore. I realized soon after graduating college that smoking really was hurting me, regardless of how slow or fast it was doing it. It’s the same with food. I know overeating is hurting me. I know that overeating is causing problems not just with my diabetes but with other parts of my health.

Every bite I put in my mouth that I don’t need, I am an overeater. But I know what to do to not be an overeater. Like smoking, quitting is hard. Painful even. There are a lot of cues and triggers and desires and reinforced behavior that make eating normally so very, very hard. But I quit smoking. Many, many people have quit smoking. Many people have stopped overeating too. If we recognize that smoking is unhealthy, why is it so difficult to recognize overeating is unhealthy too?

The last chapter of the book is called “Fighting Back” and it reminds me of all the people who think of living with diabetes as a battle. While I have never been keen on anthropomorphizing an illness (diabetes isn’t attacking you because it doesn’t have a consciousness), I do think one can fight against himself. Right now I am constantly fighting with myself in how I eat. It’s like the devil and angel on your shoulder, one telling you to do the right thing, the other telling you to indulge. I have to start working with myself to take care of myself, instead of constantly sabotaging my best efforts.

I can do this. But I need my help.

11 Comments
  1. March 16, 2010 10:38 AM

    Excellent, excellent post – so important that we all talk about the ways in which our relationship to eating and food are completely affected by diabetes.

    In my opinion, I don’t know that our collective issues with food/overeating/etc. have to do with us not recognizing that such behaviors are unhealthy. Unlike food, smoking (and drinking or drugs for that matter) is a choice. It may have its addictive component but, ultimately, you don’t need to smoke to survive. With enough work, you can eliminate it from your life. Not so with food, and that’s the hardest part. As much work as you put into taming that relationship, you always HAVE that relationship. You can never walk away from it, you can never give it the boot. And no one can be that much in control of themselves every day for the rest of your life, and when you slip it becomes a slippery slope.

    I’ve been fighting with these issues for well over a decade, and I know I’ll be doing so for the rest of my life. I have good stretches, I have bad stretches, but I’m always thinking about it and always working on it. Not that it helps you or anyone else of course, but I find it heartening and strengthening to know I’m not the only one whose had this battle thrust on me….

    • March 16, 2010 10:41 AM

      I agree – but the amount of food you eat is a choice and I think that’s where we fool ourselves. But saying “Oh, I don’t have a choice, I have to eat” we’re kidding ourselves in how *much* we have to eat. I just thought it was interesting how addiction to smoking and addiction to food are paralleled. We may need food, but we certainly don’t need most food we eat.

  2. March 16, 2010 10:39 AM

    Diabetes and food go hand in hand. It makes for a hard “break-up” w/ overeating. I fight it everyday too. And I think you’re right about those of us who were brought up on the whole “It’s 3:30, you’ll eat your crackers even if you don’t want them!” schedule. I remember fighting with my mother over not eating. I’d had my insulin. I HAD to eat. And I didn’t want to. There were many tears shed. And days that Mom kept me home from school because she couldn’t send me. I hadn’t eaten. And I’d had my insulin. So I’d go to work with her and some food and a sprite (w/ sugar) and she’d obsess until she was sure I wouldn’t go low.
    Oh my, I could go on and on. But I think I feel a blog post coming on…

  3. March 16, 2010 10:45 AM

    I totally hear you. I smoked about a pack a day for 8 years, and I quit. It’s been a year and a half, and the longer I go, the more happy I am that I quit. I am also an over-eater… well, more of an emotional eater. I found this book to be really helpful…

    http://www.amazon.com/Appetite-Awareness-Workbook-Overeating-Obsession/dp/1572243988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268754230&sr=8-1

    Addictive tendencies go for everything… food included. You can do it. And the healthier you feel the less you will want to smoke – so the 2 efforts support each other! =)

  4. March 16, 2010 12:57 PM

    I have had this same problem for years. For me, it is especially difficult to recognize when I’m “satisfied.” Not full, necessarily, because I don’t even like to feel full, but satisfied with a normal-sized meal.

    One thing that’s helping me, albeit in a not-so-fun way (at least, at first) is Symlin. It’s helping me recognize that “satisfied” feeling that comes after eating a small amount of food. Sure, the nausea after the meal is over sucks, but it’s bearable. It even goes away pretty quickly. Just knowing that it’s temporary makes it a little easier to live with.

    I was also a smoker just like you. When I quit, it was no big deal because I was never really “addicted.” I just liked the action of smoking, the social aspect (it was fun to take a “smoke break” with the cute guy from accounting). And then there was the alcohol connection. I liked to smoke when I drank. But, when I decided to stop, I stopped. I never had another cigarette, and I never wanted one.

    Eating has been far more difficult because, as you point out, we MUST eat to survive. It’s finding that line between eating and overeating that I have always struggled with. When I made the decision to start Symlin, knowing its unpleasant side effect, I committed to eating less. After all, I’m not going to go through this misery all for nothing.

    The added benefit of more stable BG after meals is a bonus!

  5. March 16, 2010 1:03 PM

    Great, great post, thank you! It really is hard to quit, much harder than many people realize. I like your comments about over eating and how this is just as bad for you as smoking. It really is helpful to know there are others that have a hard time with both these habits.

  6. March 16, 2010 3:37 PM

    You’ve made very good points Allison. I have found that if I keep track of food I’m consuming, it makes it much easier to stay within in “healthy” limits. But who wants to do that every day? I know I don’t! It also gets frustrating when we have those days of multiple low bgs that need to be treated with some sort of food – thus interfering with our normal intake. It’s a lot of work to try and overcome that struggle all the time but you can do it. You are definitely not alone and I think it’s worth it for all of us to work at it.

  7. March 16, 2010 8:35 PM

    Excellent post, lady. You make great points, and you’re totally right – the AMOUNT we eat is totally a choice, and if overeating is a habit (like smoking) it’s much harder to quit. I guess a person’s willpower shows whether they say “oh but I need to eat” or if they say “I guess I don’t need to eat as much”. Good for you for being so proactive on this🙂

  8. Corri permalink
    March 16, 2010 11:02 PM

    I’ve thought about this a lot.

    Most of the time, I try to gracefully accept things as they come. But every once once in awhile when I think about my dad that little nagging voice pops up in my head (I’m ashamed of this) and says, “Why didn’t he stop smoking? What was he thinking? How could he be so dumb?”

    Then I read awhile ago: “Obesity is associated with more chronic disorders and poorer health-related quality of life than smoking or problem drinking.”

    And I weigh exactly 57 pounds more now than I did in college. Which makes me wonder– “What am I thinking? How can I be so dumb?”

    I am truly addicted to sugar, and I’m not quite sure how to fight that.

  9. March 17, 2010 8:29 AM

    I always love how real and honest you are. It is very admirable. I have had issues with over eating in the past, not needing the food but still eating it as if to fill some gap or void. It does take a lot of will power but it can be overcame.

    Once again, great post.

    Best,

    Hannah Katy

  10. NicoleP permalink
    March 18, 2010 12:35 PM

    Hey, Allison –

    Good post. You make some good points about overeating. I think losing one habit is much easier, if you’re developing a new (or other new) habits.

    Sounds silly, I know, but it took developing new habits for me to get out of overeating.

    New habits like:

    Asking for a to go box as soon as the waitress brings the food in a restaurant and then packing half of the meal to eat at another time.

    Setting manageable goals and tracking them. Once a week weigh ins, 10 lb weight losses at a time. Rather than once a doctor’s visit weigh in and saying “I need to lose 78 lbs.”

    Never buying food out if there was something fresh and healthy in the fridge at home.

    Exercising instead of eating. This is tough in the winter – easier in the summer. If I had the desire to go to the store and get cookie or ice cream, etc. I’d grap a bottle of crystal light and go for a walk. Maybe not every time, but most times.

    Really reading labels! I really started reading labels more closely. I had always thought, I just look at carb count and bolus – I’m good. But I was ignoring sugar grams, fat calories, overall calories. When I think now about some of the stuff I ate which didn’t, at the time, seem all that bad – it makes me squeamish. One brownie has 400 calories? Really? One chocolate chip cookie 70 calories? Really? I just ate 2 or 3… Or 8. And most of those calories were fat? Ah, man! And sodium content? Ugh. Reading labels can become a sort of neat habit though. And if you’re reasonable, and you actually SEE what you’re consuming for what it really is, well, it makes it harder to do without thinking.

    Moderating and helping others to moderate. For me, it was easier to look at portion sizes when I was helping others to do the same. My sister in law was working to lose weight at the same time I was. It was great that she would call and ask about portion sizes, etc or that we could prepare reasonable meals together.

    Now, I’m not perfect. I allow myself treats. I just allow them carefully. I have a cookie or cake when I want it. In the summer, I eat ice cream.

    Creating balance is a habit. And one that really makes dropping the overeating habit a lot easier.

    Funny thing, I still have an occasional cigarette…. Yeah, yeah, I know how bad it is for me, but it’s another “in moderation” thing for me. I figure if I enjoy a few cigarettes in a month and I don’t have to become a pack a day smoker, it’s all good…

    Anyhow – good luck to you. I KNOW how frustrating it is when the number on the scale keeps climbing… :S

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