Abstinence is Not a Dirty Word

This year I joined a group for sugar and processed food addicts called SUGARx Global. Prior to joining I thought of myself as having some “issues” with food. These issues came and went depending on the day, the season, or the year. I believed my food issues were due to personal defects in my character, i.e. a lack of willpower or general hedonistic tendencies. Today, I know different.

The only defect I have, with regard to my eating behavior, is in my dopamine response system.

In fact, this defect even has an official scientific name: Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS). According to a study published in November 2021, RDS is a common neurobiological trait of all addictions. What this means is, for reasons entirely unrelated to my character, I am an addict. It just so happens that my drug of choice is food.

We all know food contains nutrients—vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, etc. Less commonly known is that some foods also contain psychoactive substances proven to reward the brain with pleasure. Sugar in all its forms, from fruit and honey to the granulated white stuff, and caffeine (i.e. coffee, cola, tea and chocolate) are perhaps the most famous foods in this category. But did you know that some foods even contain opioid-like substances? (These include casein, the primary milk protein found in dairy products, and gluten, a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye.)

Certain behaviors, such as the act of eating itself, also can impact and impair dopamine signalling, leading to an addiction. You may be familiar with the pop neurobiology slogan: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It means that every time you engage in a behavior, or even a thought, neural pathways are formed. As you repeat the same thought or behavior, invisible grooves are carved into your brain’s circuitry. The more you repeat, the deeper the groove. This is why habits die hard. You become programmed to repeat the behavior.

If you have a hard time quitting anything—smoking, sugar, pornography, negative self-talk—it’s not because you are weak. It’s because you are programmed. And to bust out of a negative program is not easy. Especially when it involves a biologically addictive/psychoactive substance.

That’s where abstinence comes in. Abstinence creates clear, uncrossable boundaries.  You don’t rely on willpower. You don’t do “everything in moderation.” You say No to whatever it is that has a hold on you, the thing that lights up your brain like a pinball machine on steroids. People with Reward Deficiency Syndrome can never be satisfied by their drug, because more is never enough. Whether the addiction is to alcohol, narcotics, gambling, food, or anything else. One is too many.

The thing about food, though, is obviously one can’t abstain from it altogether. We must eat to live. Fortunately, there is no dietary requirement for any of the “drug foods”. It is entirely possible to thrive in vibrant health without ever again consuming sugar or refined/processed carbohydrates such as flour and potato chips. (Refined carbs have a very similar effect on the brain as sugar itself.)

Once I truly figured this out for myself with the help of the folks at SUGARx—and let me be clear, it took several decades of experimentation, study and struggle to get there—the solution became clear. There were specific foods that I, personally, simply could not put in my mouth. Ever. Period. As noted above: One bite is too many. A thousand is never enough.

Not gonna lie: abstinence is work. It gets easier as time goes on, especially with—if not dependent on—the ongoing support of an understanding community, which SUGARx Global provides. But it’s still me doing it, moment by moment, one day at a time. I need to plan, I need to be prepared. And I can, and I will and I do. I am committed to my recovery, with gratitude and grace. Recovery is freedom. And Freedom is my middle name. (Well, that and Bold.) 🌵OBC🦉