I’ve talked before about my struggles with sugar addiction. About my propensity to binge eat. While I’m not sure if I will ever be fully free from this, I do not accept that I have no options for change ahead of me.
In January of 2010 when I decided to get off my couch and start making some changes in my life, my challenges were quite different. At the time I had never been a fit person. I had never maintained a healthy diet or been close to a healthy weight. I certainly had not purposefully exercised or run for any reason other than to get to the pizza guy at the front door.
Even as I started to start making changes in my life, food addiction was not something that I really thought much about. Sure I had some really bad habits around food and food choices, but I had never experienced what many people would consider compulsive overeating or binge-eating. Instead, I just had years and years of inactivity and poor diet choices to overcome. No big deal, right?
Well, as it turns out, as you peel back the onion, new layers to every problem can be found.
As I started losing weight and learning about the world of healthy living, I became both obsessed with and simultaneous overwhelmed by the process of “reaching my goal.” At the time, I had small numbers in my head at the end of the road and no matter how far I went, I generally just plateaued at some point.
Inevitably I would give up for a bit out of frustration, get lax with my diet, and gain some (usually small bit of) weight. For a long time, it was temporary, and I would usually bounce back, but as I did this more and more, it became harder and harder to maintain an end result vision in my mind. Each one of these setbacks (in retrospect) represented my own inability to ever reach those goals and little by little I gave up.
Simultaneously, as I was giving up, I started to develop some really dangerous habits around eating. Habits which I felt a compelling need to hide, given that more and more of the company I kept (including my wife), expected something better of me.
Thus my habit of binge-eating was born.
Over the last 3-years has represented a hitting of bottom again for me. My challenge now is that I lack much of the physical fitness I gained before and have also gotten heavier as a result of yo-yo dieting and binge-eating episodes. My metabolism is slow and to top it off, I seemed to have become a zombie participant in the sugar-games. Where, given a few sugary treats, I will eventually fall off a cliff and devolve into a wild animal with little control.
While I have enjoyed some limited success getting out of the hole, for periods of time, it never seems to last long and eventually, I slowly transition from “feeling great” to “closet binge-eater who hates himself and is slowly but surely murdering his future.”
After spending some time over recent weeks really taking a look at myself and trying to understand where I am and why I’m doing what I’m doing, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
1) I do indeed have a food/sugar addiction issue
This was not necessarily something I was born with but was cultivated over time due to my use of sugary foods in order to cope with emotional stress that I was (and still am) dealing with at the time. This has led to some disordered dopamine cycles to be born in my brain, and for those that don’t know, dopamine being the “learning hormone“, means that I’ve essentially taught my lizard brain that the best way to deal with problems (including those ones born from the shame of sugar consumption, is to keep eating more and more.
2) A lack of positive reinforcement habits to fall back on
My reward cycle is so messed up that my brain looks to negative habits to seek positive rewards in a time of stress. Which, being a father, husband, traveler, and a bunch of other things, is all the time. How can you expect to make any sort of change when your default way to soothe yourself is to do more damage to yourself?
3) I no longer surround myself with healthy reinforcements
In fact, feeling that I will automatically be a failure, I have a tendency to stay as far away from these as I can. While I at one time would read books about how to be healthy, talk to people about health, and listen to health-related topics, instead now I feel embarrassed not only in the state I find myself in, but also that I know as much as I do, yet somehow do exactly what I know is wrong. As if knowingly being ignorant is somehow going to help.
4) I don’t know what it feels like to really be hungry anymore
One thing that I have been able to understand about when I succeed and when I don’t is that when I’m eating well and making good choices, I am able to feel hungry and let it drive me forward. When I’m binge-eating all the things, instead, I have no idea what hunger feels like and instead just feel compelled to eat. I’ll eat junk-food after junk-food until I feel sick and then eat more for dinner later, even though I am actually too sick to eat, all to cover up for the fact that I ate so much earlier. Hunger should be a driving force, something that focuses you, however, in an everyday situation it should not fill you with panic. That is the closest I can really equate it to in a way that explains it to those who have never felt it.
So now, knowing what I know, I have to learn how to move forward.
My usual tactic is simply to go on a diet and hope it all works out. That somehow something will change. That I won’t just repeat my previous habits and that I will avoid the previous pitfalls.
So what is different this time? This time I want to focus on habits. I want to focus on building and growth, instead of loss and other negative ways of looking at things. What can I add to my life that will create the change that I seek? What positive behavior can I add to my life that will replace the negative behaviors that are overpowering me now?
My assumption about making a change up until this point in life has been, “if I remove this, then I will get better.” However, if we remove everything, what is left other than a void? Maybe there is a better way.
Enter my 90-day experiment
Note: I’m only writing this now, as I’m already 10-days into my experiment and I want to get all of these thoughts into a place the makes sense. I normally have been trying not to talk about what I will do, only what I have or am doing already.
My experiment itself is really to see if I can create a set of positive habits, that have been repeated (nearly) every day for 90-days, in a way that they become easy to do and require little, if any, thought to complete. The idea is that if I can fill my life with positive habits, the negative ones will be easier to remove later, as they naturally make sense, without leaving a void.
This means creating daily practices with my only real goal being to repeat them the next day. I will eventually create goals to improve some of these practices, but right now the hard part is to be consistent, so at the moment, that is my goal, be consistent.
So, here is a quick list of the habits I am looking to cultivate right now:
- Eat lots of fibrous vegetables and avoid sugary foods
- Wake up every day before 6 am
- Read a chapter from a book about healthy eating/living every day
- Complete the 7-minute workout every day
- Run for at least 1-mile every day
- Take small breaks throughout the day to stretch
- Practice gratitude and thank myself every time I’ve done something good for myself
At first this may seem like a lot to add in all at once, but in reality, they’ve been fairly easy to accommodate. The best reason I can think of for this at the moment is that several of them stack fairly well together. On top of that, I believe the last habit is perhaps the most powerful. By thanking myself every time I do something positive for myself, it not only feels good, but it creates a reward for myself that helps reinforce the behavior. Not only that, it slowly starts to shift my inner voice toward a more positive one, by forcefully making my outer voice say nice things.
As I said before, all of this is an experiment. I’ve picked 90-days as a time horizon because I believe the standard 21 or 30-days prescription is too short to make meaningful change. I think that it is easier to sell a 21-day “change your life” program because it certainly sounds easier, but from my own experience, radical changes in habits require far more effort.
At the end of the 90-days, I will measure and assess where I am. At that point, I will start to add some further goals to help me improve the behaviors I’ve begun with these habits. Until then, I don’t need to lose 50-pounds or run a marathon. Instead, I simply need to put in the work. It doesn’t matter how hard it is or how well I do it. As long as I get up and do the work, I will have succeeded and I will thank myself for doing so well.
To be honest, for the first time in a long time, I’m excited about this all. I’m not hedging at all. I think every attempt up until now has had some sort of hedge added to the bet. Some thought that I will likely fail and do it all again. This time, though, I don’t feel that way. I feel excited to feel good about myself and to chase that feeling for once.
I don’t expect that it will always be easy (it certainly has had its moments already) but as long as I can look at myself in the eye and say, “Drew, you’re doing your best,” then I know it’ll be alright.