According to brain scans, refined sugar and artificially intense sweetness is more addictive than cocaine.
If that sounds crazy, consider this: In the early 1900’s, the Average American ate 5 pounds of sugar per year. Pretty reasonable, right?
By 2000, the Average American was eating 150 pounds of sugar per year. That’s 30 times more sugar!
To help us sort it out, we’re here with Dr. Vera Tarman, the author of Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction. She dropped a 100 pounds and kept it off for over 12 years, and counting.
Dr. Tarman is the Medical Director of one of Canada’s largest treatment centers for substance abuse, and she’s spearheaded two unique programs for food addiction.
And on this show with Dr. Vera Tarman, we’re chatting about:
- How she dropped 100 pounds… and kept it off
- Overcoming food addiction
- Connection between alcoholism and anorexia
- How the food industry engineers food to be as addictive as possible
- And tons more…
Let’s hang out with Dr. Tarman.
Dr. Vera Tarman: Overcoming Food Addiction
Abel: Alright folks, Dr. Tarman is the Medical Director of one of Canada’s largest treatment centers for substance abuse, and the author of Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction which is now in its second edition.
As a recovering food addict herself, she walks the talk. She has lost and maintained a 100-pound weight loss for over 12 years now, and she has not had any sugar or flour in over 8 years.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Tarman.
Oh, I’m really glad to be here. Thank you for asking.
Abel: So, let’s start with just the simple fact that so few people are able to maintain that sort of weight loss for even a year or two years, or let alone over a decade.
So, take us back in time a little bit. Where were you starting from?
Well, we don’t want to go too far back in time. But during university years, I was really worried about my weight because I was starting to eat the junk food in the hospital cafeteria and whatnot, and starting to gain weight.
I started from the get-go trying to lose weight, which was always really easy to do, but to keep it off was impossible.
So there was always this sort of what we call “yo-yo dieting” thing happening.
It took me years until I realized that, for me anyway, the thing that really worked was recognizing that pull to go back to the old patterns of eating, to slip back into the chips and the junk foods.
There was a dynamic there, and it took me becoming an addictions doctor to recognize it and to say, “Hey, this is just like my addicts who are using their drugs.”
I was a smoker, as well, and found that it was the same kind of pull.
It took me many years to catch onto that, but once I got that it made all the difference.
That would have been probably 12 years ago.
And that’s essentially what my message is now, because I was one of those doctors that was really obese, telling my patients to eat well, and looking at myself like, “How can I do this?” but doing it.
Anyway, that’s not the case anymore.
Abel: Thank goodness, but, you know, addiction is such a strong word.
Some people are really possessive about it, or very emotional about it, and I think rightfully so. It’s a terrible thing.
But there’s just one simple line in your book that just helped me kind of reframe it in my mind.
And it’s, “Phil, you eat like I used to drink.”
And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, totally.”
Because you can see that show up. That’s something that’s almost visceral. So can we dig into that a little bit?
How does food addiction work compared to say, tobacco?
Yeah, your comments about addiction, the word, that’s the thing that really scares people.
If there’s anything that I can contribute to the world, that would be to de-stigmatize that word.
Just like we’re de-stigmatizing the word “depression” and “anxiety” and people are no longer as afraid to say, “Hey, I’m depressed,” because it’s a common phenomena.
And if we could feel the same way about addiction, we could talk more openly about it.
There’s probably a lot of ex-smokers in your crowd because a lot of people who are trying to eat well have quit smoking.
And people know, especially if you’ve been a smoker, the moment you walk by the cigarette burning from somebody else and get that smell, in the drug world we call that euphoric recall.
You remember, “Oh, yeah. It was nice to have that cigarette,” and something subconscious lures you back.
And it’s recognizing that subconscious lure that the alcoholic gets.
So the quote with the alcoholic you mentioned, “Phil, you eat like I drink.” But the smoker will get that, and think they can have just a little bit, a puff,
“I’m going to have a puff because I’m stressed out.”
You do that and you’re smoking a pack a day within two or three weeks.
So we see the same pattern over and over and over again.
And maybe the fact that you see these commercials on TV—rats eating sugar like cocaine addicts—it’s dramatic to catch people’s attention, but probably food addiction is more comparable to tobacco addiction.
It’s not as big in the obvious way. It kills you, but it’ll kill you in 10 or 20 years.
But it’s that ubiquitous every day, you see people smoking 20-30 times a day, that’s what we do with food now, we eat 20-30 times a day, little nibbles here and there.
It’s more like smoking.
Abel: And like you said about those environmental cues, it’s also important to mention that we live in a toxic food environment, and that we live in a toxic culture.
And the amount of stimulus is unprecedented, right?
Like anything that we’re subjected to is completely unprecedented for our development as humans.
Yeah. It would be like people trying to quit smoking 30 years ago when smoking was everywhere. It was really hard to quit smoking.
Your partner smokes, the doctor that you’re talking to in the office smokes. We smoked in hospitals then.
So to try to quit sugar, and try to quit flour now, yeah, it’s just everywhere.
And it’s not only that it’s everywhere, it’s being pushed on us even more than tobacco was pushed on us.
“You’re not feeling well? Here, I made you some cookies.”
Abel: Well, geez. One of the things that I read in your work as well, and I’m just going to read this because it’s so powerful.
“Sugar is also a gateway drug to other addictions.”
Think of how we make our children sugar addicts with cereal, and candy, and fruit juices, which then predisposes children to other addictions as they grow older.
I never really thought about that before. I knew that the advertising that even I got growing up was deeply unsettling, that’s in my subconscious somewhere, trying to get us to eat their food, .
But I didn’t think of how that could translate into alcoholism or cravings for tobacco later in life.
But it totally makes sense that we’re actually conditioned to be addicted to something.
Yes, I think so. Well, we are already primed to be that way.
The food industry you mentioned, the toxic food industry knows that, and it’s deliberate, as you know from other stuff, like Michael Moss’s book Sugar Salt Fat.
Food engineers take a phenomena that’s normal in the brain—we all like sugar.
Unfortunately, it’s energy and the brain likes it. But it’s meant to be the sugar of strawberries, and apples, and bananas, not the stuff that we eat. Right?
And so the food industry takes a normal phenomena that is already a predisposition and just blows it out of proportion.
That’s where the danger is.
That’s the crime, really.
Abel: Yeah, and it’s interesting that it almost comes out looking like cocaine, white sugar, you know?
Abel: It’s like the process is not dissimilar to making a super intense drug.
Exactly. And if we could smoke sugar, it would be even more potent.
And you know what? We’re starting to smoke sugar now, it’s called “vaping.”
The Dangers of Vaping
Abel: Right, with the JUULs and all the vapes that are out there.
I was reading a little bit of the stats about high schoolers who vape, and it’s off the charts.
I’m sure you probably know more than I do. Can we talk about that a little bit, because it’s one of those things where, I don’t know, vaping is cool.
We think maybe it’ll help people not smoke regular tobacco anymore, when in fact, I’m finding the opposite.
Exactly. There are a lot of people who vape, who never picked up a cigarette, and they wouldn’t have picked up a cigarette.
And now, they’re picking up with the vaping, and they may not be doing the translation into smoking, but it’s a gateway drug.
So sure, I think that’s an inevitability.
Abel: Well, even the JUULs, in particular—I was reading about how that’s a proprietary nicotine salt.
At least with tobacco, if you’re smoking a cigar or something, it’s remotely resembling the original plant.
But, I mean, these nicotine salts, these chemicals combined with sugars, combined with all of the flavorings and stuff. This is clearly not good.
And maybe it’s not as bad as smoking, but it is if all of our high school kids and middle schoolers are addicted to it.
Then we should probably talk about this, as well.
It’s so important what you’re doing in those early years, because you kind of come back to them as your comfort zone later in life.
I’m thinking of myself with music. I always loved performing and that’s mostly because I did it when I was a little kid, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
So if that’s true with vaping and tobacco, it’s building that into your brain, right?
Yeah, that’s right. Other than that, I do worry that it’s introducing more people that would have otherwise avoided smoking.
You see, from an addiction point of view, the thing about smoking is the dynamic of how quickly something goes to the brain. It’s a major piece of addiction. Smoking is the fastest way to the brain.
So, you know, alcohol, it takes somebody a long time to become an alcoholic. It’s a slow, progressive disease.
And food addiction is a slow, progressive disease. It’s as terrible as cocaine, but not until you’re 50. Then you have diabetes, and heart disease, and die.
But it takes you awhile ,just like the alcoholic. It takes a while.
Whereas, the crack user or the crystal meth user, they’re dead within two or three years, because they’re smoking it and it just ravishes the brain.
If we start smoking sugar, we’re going to speed up that process, so that I’m not dying when I’m 50, I’m dying when I’m 35. And we see that.
Look at how many kids have diabetes now.
And I think the thing that really didn’t occur to me until reading about the cereal commercials and how we’re kind of conditioned for this, is once again with the high school vaping.
Even if you do quit that, then the risk is that you still have the addiction, right?
Abel: It’s built into you at this point and you’re just going to move that addiction around to a different thing.
Exactly, yeah. We already have the propensity because of our reward pathway which has now been jacked up.
Thanks to the vaping or thanks to the cereal.
And you can kind of desensitize that, which is what recovery is all about. It’s desensitizing this heightened trigger happy brain.
And it’s not only that, we’re also giving drugs for attention deficit—the speed drug.
The medications for attention deficit are stimulant-based, and the only difference between them and a drug on the street is how you take them. One is slow release and one is injectable.
And so we’re giving kids addictive food, vaping, drugs—it’s scary, it’s really scary.
And we’re not only doing it to our kids, our infants, we’re doing it to our fetuses. Because there’s research now showing that what a woman eats will predispose her baby when it’s born towards a heightened sweet tooth.
So once you have a heightened sweet tooth, that’s essentially saying your brain is trigger-happy for other types of simulation.
Yeah, it’s pretty scary. And I think it’s why it’s really time to stop using, and stop being afraid of the word addiction.
Let’s just call a giraffe what it is and get on with it.
Let’s Call Addiction What It Is
Abel: Yeah, which is partially one of the biggest steps that I had to get over, and a lot of other people when they change their lifestyles, unfortunately, is a change of world view.
We’re raised to believe, “Oh, the world’s out to save us and keep us healthy.”
But before you accept these other things as true, you need to be like, “Oh, maybe the world is not trying to help me out and maybe we’re being exploited here.”
And then you can make some progress, right?
But, we live in an addictive world, we shouldn’t be ashamed to be addicted to something, right?
Exactly, exactly. Especially because when you’re a baby, you’re being exposed when you’re the most vulnerable.
So, let’s get rid of the shame, too.
There’s a lot of shame with addiction, a lot of it.
And how crazy is that?
I’m sorry to say it, I don’t want to get too political here, scare everybody away, but our society is premised on creating demand.
And what better way to create demand, but by creating addiction. So it’s everywhere.
Abel: Well, it’s the engine of our economy, isn’t it?
I mean, there’s no real disincentive unless someone dies and they’re not a customer anymore.
There’s no disincentive for making every product as addictive as possible.
And we see that in food, we see that in vaping, in social media, and it seems like it’s just coming at us from all directions.
But I’d like to share something else I found in your work which I’d never come across before.
You say, “Gastric bypass surgery and bariatric surgery has been something I’ve seen more and more as the years go on. Professionals recommending this as the only option for people because they know they won’t eat right, so we might as well cut their stomachs out.”
“But, the second year after gastric bypass surgery, alcohol abuse increases significantly.”
“60% of these patients insisted they did not have problems with drinking before the surgery, but when he or she is unable to overeat, he or she turns to another means to find intoxication.”
When I read that, it turned me white as a ghost.
Yeah, we see that happening, and it’s partly because, yes, they can’t eat as much.
It’s also, again, it’s that quick route to the brain.
When they do gastric bypass, it means that some of the food is re-routed, part of the intestines are re-routed in such a way that the hit is faster, you don’t need as much alcohol to get drunk. And that is a sure way for addiction.
Yes, it’s a real problem. And talk about a community—people who generally get gastric bypass are middle aged, they’ve tried everything else, food addiction has been an issue, they’ve been using food not alcohol.
This is usually a population that doesn’t have a big history of other types of alcohol or drug abuse, maybe tobacco abuse, and that’s it.
And so then now suddenly, they’re drinking, and they have a tremendous amount of shame because they don’t have that history.
And so getting them to talk about it is a big deal.
I like to speak to the bariatric surgery—I don’t know if I could use the word survivors but it’s probably an appropriate word—because there are people who now have basically butchered might be a strong word, but done something to their intestines that has a lot of side effects.
And they’re now starting to gain weight, because they haven’t changed their eating and they want to eat more.
You can’t eat the real food that we’re going to advocate because you don’t have the same stomach mass or capacity anymore.
So you have to mash your food down, basically you have to process your food more. Drinking is the best way to do it. And they’re really vulnerable.
Abel: Yeah. So often these solutions that are presented by Western medicine or traditional media are just leading us down an even more dangerous path, while at the same time promising that there’s a silver bullet.
The food plan that you suggest, which I think is basically the one that I suggest, I think it’s great. Which is just eat real food in moderate amounts.
It’s great, but that’s not the thing that’s recommended because people don’t follow it. I’m a doctor, I see this all the time.
Or they follow it, but not for long.
And I think that once we start talking addiction and say, “Hey, I don’t eat this because I’ll get addicted to it.”
They will be able to follow it, because that’s the thing that trips people up.
It’s the elephant in the room, basically.
Abel: Well, in your book you mentioned Oprah, and I think she’s a good example just because she’s so publicly visible and has been for so long.
But I didn’t realize that she had tried crack until I read your book.
Yes, yes. She did even more.
Abel: I thought that was fascinating, and also I was just furious when she came out on, I think it was Weight Watchers, and she’s just like, “I can eat bread, I love bread. I still eat bread all the time.”
Do you remember that? What’s your take on that anyway?
I don’t remember that commercial, but I know that’s her line.
And of course, you know the thing about addiction is, if you’ve been not eating the food as a trigger, your cravings are quiet.
But then if you re-introduce it, it’s not like you become a ravaging, crazy person wolfing everything down right away. It takes a while.
Think about the smoker who picks up cigarettes, or the alcoholic, it might actually take three or four or five or six months before they’re back.
So the first time, you might be able to get away with it, and the second week and the third week. But what you’re going to find is that instead of now every Saturday, now it’s every Saturday and Wednesday.
And then in a month or two, it’s Saturday, Wednesday, and let’s do Friday.
With Friday in there, and now let’s do Monday in there. And before you know it, it’s every day again.
And then before you know it, it’s every meal. It’s a gradual process.
So Oprah can have her bread, but at some point, I would like to stop her and say, “Oprah, you just had bread. What are you planning to eat later today? And how much would you like to have bread at that meal?”
And probably her desire for bread will have increased from before.
And at a certain point it’s going to increase to the point where she’s just going to say, “What the hell. I’m going to have some, because I’ve had a hard day and I deserve it.”
And that kind of thinking is… that’s the beginning.
That’s what we call stinking thinking in addiction speak.
And the thing I like about the addiction world is, if we can get over the idea about the stigma of it, it opens up a whole bag of tools that you might not have had before.
Like the concept of stinking thinking; the reason that we need support and mentors, you know?
Well, we’re social creatures. And so often, especially in America, food is a weird one, because people are so, once again, possessive over it and defensive about it.
And the community basis of hunting, gathering, preparing food has almost completely been lost.
Just look at a hospital cafeteria and you got proof of that, right?
Yeah. Oh, that’s good, I like that, yeah.
When you said the word “defensive,” I thought, “You know, what is the first reaction if you ask somebody who’s an alcoholic what their drinking is like?”
They get defensive.
There’s something about people. There’s a defensiveness. And if there wasn’t an addiction pattern, I think it would be much more communal.
Yeah. I think it would be.
We say the opposite of addiction is connection. Again, it’s a whole world that we bring in.
Abel: Another thing you mentioned is how a craving is like an earworm of the brain.
Describing cravings and things like that was really fascinating to read about.
But one thing I think that hopefully helps simplify it, or at least it did for me, is when you think about a trigger food, it’s anything that you eat and then you want more of it.
Whereas an actual food, the first bite is always the best. And then it’s downhill from there, but you can still enjoy it for a while.
But there’s a threshold that you reach that some people seem to be able to realize, “I’m here. I’ve reached it. I can stop.”
Whereas other people, it kind of seems like, “There’s just no hope, I’m going to keep mowing through it.”
What is that distinction or how do you know which type of person you might be?
You know that’s a really interesting thing, the way that you describe the way that food should be.
If we wanted to understand, I’m going to call it normal eating, it’s a hormonal endocrine model of eating.
We have hormones that tell us when we’re hungry, ghrelin, and insulin to some degree. You don’t want to use insulin because that makes you ravishingly hungry, but anyway.
And then we have leptin, which is sort of our satiation hormone. And if we’re eating real food, that’s the world we live in.
So that I’m hungry and then when I’m full, my leptin tells me I’m full, and 20 minutes later, done. I don’t eat anymore, I’m good.
But what happens when we start eating even though we’re not hungry anymore, we have this earworm, this itch, this thing that we’ve got to keep doing.
You said we have the first bite and then it’s basically downhill from here. You kind of coast on satisfaction.
That’s the perfect way things should go. But when we have the addiction paradigm, we start introducing neurochemicals like dopamine.
Dopamine is that itch, it’s the earworm. And it should be quelled by the leptin, but if you’re eating something that jacks up the dopamine, like sugar, you have the desire to eat, even though you actually don’t want to eat, you’re full.
Like the person who’s pigging out. The person who’s having a binge is actually saying, “I wish I could stop. I wish I could just get this crazy desire to want to finish, and have one more to feel better.”
They just want this itch to stop, that’s dopamine.
We say that the switch doesn’t turn off because the leptin is not powerful enough, the dopamine is higher.
And when we know that is happening, there’s something wrong with this picture and that’s what we call addiction.
And not everybody is a food addict, but they can be addicted to food because of the foods that they’re eating.
When they stop eating them, they’re good. Right?
And as a clinician, I like to recognize that there are people who can, maybe not Oprah, I don’t think Oprah, but there are some people who can.
Even you, you talk about the chocolate, a person who’s not an addict might be able to have a little bit because they haven’t gone that far, and they’re not that trigger happy.
They might be able to eat within that normal realm, so that a little bit of a flame up is manageable.
But for somebody who’s gone way overboard, because they were a previous crack user, alcoholic or they’ve been binge eating since they were 10 years old. They can’t because that dopamine flare up is just too much.
It’s like a flame, a fire, and it just takes over right away.
Again, not necessarily that day, but the desire starts coming in, that itch, or that earworm.
Abel: Right. And since so many of us are kind of attached to identities, I’ve found that a lot of athletes—whether they’re former athletes or your current athletes—think that they’re immune to all of this, somehow.
But can you could be addicted to running too much or swimming too much, or biking too much, or overeating, or just exercising so that you can eat that much, right?
Exactly. I know a lot of people who do that. Yeah.
Abel: Or under eating, right? So could you talk about the, I guess, less obvious manifestations of addiction?
Yes. Absolutely. So I was saying earlier about the normal way of eating, we have hormones that govern that, which is ghrelin and leptin, and dopamine is included into that.
When you’re hungry, you think about food and you look forward to food. But the looking forward is not so strong that once you’re full, you don’t look forward to food anymore.
When you are overeating or undereating, the hormones get jumbled up and then the neurochemicals drop.
For example, if I’m not eating, my ghrelin is going to start really getting louder—so I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry.
Ghrelin kicks in dopamine, and dopamine is the neurochemical of desire, anticipation, and cravings.
Basically, whenever you have a craving, you’re experiencing dopamine.
And if you’re hungry, that dopamine wraps up. This is why I’m not crazy about fasting for a food addict.
Now, a non-food-addict might be able to get away with it, but a food addict, you get too hungry.
The hungrier you get, the more you think about food, and the more you start to fantasize. That’s all dopamine and it’s like you can get high off the dopamine.
It’s the same as the alcoholic, or the crack addict, or the junkie who starts thinking about their drug.
They’re already having physical manifestations of the drug while they’re waiting for their pusher to come around the corner, they’re already getting high.
And they’ll tell you that. Why? Because they’re anticipating the dopamine.
It’s the gambling rush. It’s the, “soon something will happen.”
And with the anorexic, the person who’s not eating—they’re not eating, but guaranteed 24/7 they’re thinking about food.
They’re thinking about that 300 calories that they’re going to let themselves eat that day.
They’re going to play with that food, they’re going to think about it. And it has its own kind of high. And they will resist eating, because at least this is the theory.
And ask them, “When you eat, are you like, thank God, I get to eat?”
No, they’re fighting it, “I don’t want to eat.”
They do want to eat, but they don’t. It’s this battle.
Abel: Yeah. And we’ve all experienced maybe little bits of these feelings. How and where do you draw that line? How does that work?
Well, yeah. It’s a continuous one.
In the addiction world, we have this thing that’s now called substance use disorder.
So, it’s a diagnosis of addiction.
It used to be called substance dependence, and substance abuse. Now, we’ve just thrown that out, we used the DSM-5. I think the states do, too.
So we have criteria that defines addiction. And basically the criteria is on a scale of 0 to 11.
I would think that anybody in the toxic food environment that we live in today is in at least the 0 to 3 addiction range.
And then the more they do another drug or more food, they’re moving it to moderate, and then the extreme of severe addiction.
So, you’re going to follow, how many of these criteria do you fit? And at a certain point, you’re going to be addicted.
So with the criteria, cravings related to dopamine, fine, can you control it?
Can you have just one cheat day or one indulgence day? If you can, you’re still living in the environment of food, so there’s going to be a 0 to 3 range, but you can manage it.
Then, can you stop when you need to stop? Because you’ve got diabetes, and you really have to stop now.
The food addict cannot.
Are you continuing despite danger and it’s actually causing impairment? Now we’re into dangerous territory.
And then we get to the point where it is controlling your mental landscape, so that you can’t do anything other than think about food.
Can you imagine living in a day-to-day life where food is either always there in your face or at least in the background?
And the food addict, it’s in their face to the point where, “I don’t want to go to work. I don’t want to see friends. All I want to do is sit in front of the TV and give in to this insatiable craving.”
That’s the extreme end.
Abel: Now, why do we keep giving in even though it’s underwhelming almost every time?
That’s a great question. That is the power of dopamine.
Dopamine is the anticipation of food, and the actual satisfaction of food is leptin and to some degree, serotonin. It’s another neurochemical.
Ask any crack addict, “Are you enjoying this?”
They say, “No. I hate this, but I still want it.”
What they’re actually experiencing is the want. The want is dopamine. It has nothing to do with the experience of enjoying it.
You can hate it, but still want it.
That’s the insanity of addiction.You can hate it, but still want it. That's the insanity of addiction. @addunplug Click To Tweet
It’s not fun being an addict because you got this itch for something you don’t even want anymore.
You might want it for five minutes, you do get pleasure for five minutes. That initial pleasure which might have lasted for an evening gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it’s like five minutes.
It’s very disappointing.
Abel: Well, and that’s how it works with drug addiction, as well, right? They’re always chasing that first or second or third time or whatever, and it’s never that good again.
Exactly, and then eventually they don’t even get that. Yeah.
Abel: Now, if you don’t mind. Personally speaking, the way that you eat and create meals or the way that you separate yourself from the things that are triggering you, could you explain how you handle that?
Because it’s in some ways unique, but very, very powerful and obviously works well for you and a lot of people you work with.
Yes. So I’m one of those people who, like I said, spent many years going back and forth, and would lose the weight, and then would gain the weight.
And, long history, at a certain point, I realized I have to stay away from this stuff.
I’m living in an environment where this is all subconscious. Like we were talking about earlier, it’s ubiquitous cues from all over the place.
I have a bad day and I’m going to give in because I’m a human being.
And not only am I a human being, but I’m a trigger-happy human being because I’ve had many years of this experience.
What I have done is—and this is what we do in addiction, and it’s going to sound crazy, until you adopt the addiction framework and then it makes a lot of sense—I control all the triggers of people, places, things. That’s an addiction terminology.
The people who are going to ask me to eat, “Come on, it’s your birthday, I made this for you.”
I either don’t see them anymore, or I tell them ahead of time, “Don’t.” And we have the conversation.
Places I don’t go to, buffets, places like that.
I make sure that stuff is not in my closet or in the fridge. I make sure my external environment is clean.
And in addiction, we say first things first, sobriety first. If I have to go somewhere and I can’t guarantee that or an escape, I don’t go.
Some people might go, “Hey, that’s pretty extreme.”
And I’ll say, “Yes, I have the choice of living that kind of extreme life and I admit it is.”
I even go to the point of weighing and measuring my food, because I don’t have a sense any more of when I’m full. I don’t trust it.
Okay, I’m not saying everybody has to do that. It depends on where you fit on that continuum.
But my choice is, I’d rather do that, rather than suffer the pain of that up and down and the self-loathing and the weight gain. You know how terrible it feels when the scale is going up again.
All of that stuff is in the past. I have total peace of mind.
I get on the scale, and the worst that happens is I’m three pounds over because of water. And so that’s it.
I’m not worried about another 30 pounds, here we go.
And I don’t worry about my clothes. I don’t worry about how I look, I don’t worry about arthritis.
I used to have all sorts of conditions that I don’t have anymore. And that is worth the price of carrying a scale and telling people, “Please don’t offer me cake on my birthday.” You know?
Abel: Yeah. Well it takes the hard emotional work and willpower out of it if you just say, “I don’t do this, I don’t eat that.”
Or like for me, I don’t eat at fast food places and I haven’t in probably almost a decade.
I don’t even think there’s been an exception, really, depending on how you define it.
I’ll eat homemade treats and I enjoy that. I can eat just a little sliver of Boston creme pie and I’m okay and I’m done.
I didn’t always operate this way. It’s taken a long time. But it’s really powerful once you get a little bit of, “Know thyself” going on. Don’t you think?
Not to say that you have all the answers for everybody, but you have some amount of experience with yourself and you know how you operate and you know what your blind spots, at least some of them.
And weaknesses are such that you can artificially engineer your environment so you’re not making the decisions you don’t want to make.
I love the word that you used when you said “blind spot,” because addiction hides in the blind spots.
It’s one of our biggest blind spots.
My bucket list is: What would I like to contribute to the world?
We just start talking about addiction as part of our self-knowledge. We can ask ourselves, “Is that something that I should think about here? Is it a blind spot?”
I’m happy if a person does that because they might be able to say, “No, it’s not.”
Or, “It is to a degree.”
So you say, “I can have a bit of Boston Cream Pie” because you’ve thought about it, you’ve tried it out, you’ve been conscious about that.
But a person who hasn’t had that, they could be eating the whole Boston creme pie and not even know.
So, it’s about self-knowledge and let’s include addiction into that piece of self-knowledge without shame.
It’s just another piece of the puzzle.
Abel: Yeah. With some amount of compassion and self-love, hopefully, because that doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing.
I guess what I’m getting at is, it can be liberating to abstain from things.
I think so. Absolutely. Liberated is good, and in the same way as it’s okay.
It’s too bad Robin Williams could not say, “I’m depressed.” He might be alive today.
So can we say, “I have an addiction to things not because there’s something wrong with me, but because I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, in terms of what my mother fed me or whatever.”
Because in childhood, we don’t have those choices.
So now this is something that is part of my make-up, and it might not be to somebody else.
Abel: Yeah, because some people listening might be like, “Oh my God, I could never give up nachos forever.”
Or “I could never give up a chocolate forever,” or something else like that.
But they’re also not you. And everyone loves different things and makes different compromises, and what have you.
Absolutely. Yeah, that’s right.
But they might also find that if they stop eating the nachos that they’ll actually be liberated and feel like,”Oh, thank God. I don’t have to eat that stuff.”I used to go to Starbucks and now I look at that stuff and go, 'Thank God, I'm not under the pull of these foods.' @addunplug Click To Tweet
Abel: It’s almost under a spell isn’t it? Where it’s like you know that you don’t want it, but you crave it so much that you go anyway.
Abel: Everything is just engineered to be that now it seems.
Yes, yes. You know that one of the phrases I like to use is, “Freedom tastes great.”
Abel: I like that.
Does the Addiction Line Move Over Time?
Abel: Oh my gosh, we could talk all day, but I want to make sure we get to a couple of other things.
Is there anything else that you could offer to try to—I don’t want to say that I’m not addicted to anything, that I never have been, but that moderation bit where it’s like eating a little bit of Boston cream pie or never having Boston cream pie again.
How do you draw that line and does it move over time?
Do you become not an addict anymore once you’ve identified as such?
I don’t know. It depends on, again, it’s the question of where you are in the continuum.
I’ve heard that people say they can move back, but I do think that at a certain point there is no moving back.
There’s a whole lot of phenomena that make it so that you can’t go back, which we don’t have time to get into all of it, but read my book and you’ll find out what I’m talking about.
With moderation, let me just say something about that.
We normalize toxic foods.
Like a Snickers bar is considered normal, it’s not, it’s poison, it’s a toxin.A Snickers bar is considered normal. It's not, it's poison, it's a toxin. @addunplug Click To Tweet
But a little bit of fruit is not a toxin, if you keep it in the package that it’s packaged in—the apple, or the banana, or the whatever it is.
If you take a little bit of stevia or a little bit of honey that’s within the realm of normal life, I don’t think it’s not going to blast our pancreas and make us diabetic. It’s not going to blast our brain and make us addicted.
It’s because we’ve moved into those other worldly realms that it’s hard to come back.
So moderation, as long as we know what we’re calling moderate and normal.
I don’t think even one bite of a Snickers bar is moderate because it’s a poison. It’s like saying a moderate bite of asbestos.
Abel: Yeah. So this is what I wanted to get into a little more, is that one of the ways that you know that you’re an addict is you keep doing it even though it’s negatively affecting your life.
But that’s probably the biggest blind spot where people are just like, “No, I can do it, I’m fine.”
I remember my girlfriend in high school, her mom, unfortunately, was an alcoholic and she would wake up, put vodka in her coffee cup, and then drive her to school sloshed.
And since she could drive, she’s like, “Oh, it’s not a problem for me.”
But it’s a problem.
Yes, it’s a problem.
Abel: So how do you know or how could you identify your own blind spots like that? Because obviously, that’s denial. It’s obvious to people around her, but not her.
Yes, that’s a great example. The alcoholic, the food addict is often the last person to know.
By the way, you can be skinny and be addicted to food, too, because the fat is on the inside, not on the outside.
It’s still going to kill you eventually. Probably, the level of distress and pain, because a person knows when they can’t control.
They want to be able to just have a little bit, just a little bag of chips, but they finish the whole thing, or they rifle through the freezer to find, “There’s gotta be some more ice cream in here.”
Usually the person knows it to some extent.
But it’s usually in that realm of shame because they’re embarrassed to say that they’re hiding their ice cream, so they don’t have to give it their last acquire.
Or they’re hiding the fact that they’re even going into the garbage because there’s nothing in the freezer.
“Well, there’s got to be something in the garbage from yesterday.”
But when you’re getting into that level of behavior, you know something’s wrong, but you don’t want to say it to yourself, or to somebody else.
We usually say the person has to wait until they come to it, but how do you know?
Well, we have quizzes, we have like the 20 questions of food addiction, which is in the book and it’s on the internet.
And usually people will say yes to those.
Like for example…
Have you ever eaten out of the garbage?
Have you ever stolen food?
Do you want to eat in private because you don’t want people to see how you eat when you really want to eat?
You have things like that. Basically, when there’s shame cloaked around it, there’s something funny, it’s not communal anymore.
Abel: Ah. Yeah.
Yeah, it’s private. It’s something I do and I’m hiding it somehow.
Abel: Yeah. Now, one of the things that I think is very concerning about the way that the world is set up now is it’s training us and conditioning us to search outside of ourselves for whatever product, or thing.
And I’m talking mostly about technology. It’s engineered into our lives with all these distractions that kind of break our willpower over time, and it’s so insidious, that we’re not just driving by billboards anymore.
It’s like there’s a hamburger on your iPhone because it knows that you’re addicted to hamburgers, right?
And so every website you go to now, there are hamburgers following you around.
Yes, I know.
Abel: So how do you manage all this in today’s world?
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean this is an example of how we have captured our brains.
My prediction is that we are becoming ever more addicted, more and more, and we already see that we’re getting more and more diabetes.
I think probably, this is just my speculation, this is not science, but probably the rates of processed food match the rates of diabetes, which will inevitably once we start diagnosing it, match the rates of food addiction.
I think they’re all hand-in-hand together, and it’s going to require extreme artificial protection.
So, you know, I am somebody who eats clean. I don’t bring that crap in my house. I just say it flat out, maybe in a nicer way than that.
If I have parties now, there’s no booze.
I say, “Look, no. Don’t. It’s not bring your own booze. It’s bring no booze. There will be no booze. Don’t come to this party if you want to drink.”
And people will still bring dessert, but they know me now, so that they’re much less likely to, because they’re too embarrassed. They know I’m going to be judgmental.
So, they’ll bring healthy food.
Abel: That’s another good point. My wife and I, we go on kicks of not drinking for a period of time.
And, not that we’re never drinking again, or anything like that. Sometimes we really enjoy it.
But we haven’t had anything to drink in like 6+ months now, and we didn’t even really try to do it, we just do it sometimes, and then it’s so easy to keep it out of your life.
Once you’re not in the habit and once you’re not thinking about it anymore, once you’re not getting used to that slight hangover, even though you might not say that it’s a hangover, it’s not like a full blown hangover, but you’re definitely not top notch the next day.
And so, I’d be surprised if I never have more wine again or something like that. But it’s such a gift, really, to even take the things that you enjoy out of your life for a little bit so that you can re-examine your relationship with them, right?
Exactly, yes, which I would love to see people do.
I’m not saying you’re not the only one who’s done this, but on Facebook, I did a sugar-free challenge for September and I want to do one again coming up.
It was amazing how many people said, “Oh, my God, I can never do that.”
Then, when we make it a challenge, it’s a community thing, people are like, “Oh, wow.”
And then exactly like you, they say, “It’s actually kind of nice to have this out of my life.”
And well, yeah, it’s exactly that.
Abel: Well, you get momentum from it, and you learn to love other things instead.
And even more than that, I think if you’re craving anything that’s outside of you, really, it’s training you to not be yourself, not be at peace, always be searching for that something you’re missing.
Whereas, as humans, that’s actually, I would assume, something that we’re feeling more than ever is seeking for this sort of satisfaction from outside.
Whereas, I can imagine our ancestors in simpler times, not ever even thinking about anything else, actually being at peace.
So, you said artificially, which I like that word, because it takes effort and you literally need to engineer your own little world, your own little bubble to survive in a world that’s this toxic, if you want to be healthy.
Yeah, you do.
Abel: So, do you have any other advice for how to make that work?
Well, first of all, you engineer so you don’t have those temptations which have been engineered to make you tempted. Right?
You’re just counteracting the engineering that’s already happening.
Abel: Yes, it’s self-defense. It’s not some sort of delusion, some crazy world. Right?
Yeah, it’s self-defense. I would say that looking to the food itself, identifying, once you say, “Okay, I’m addicted to stuff.”
You don’t have to say “I’m a food addict.”
But, “I’m addicted to some foods.”
Recognize what they are, most likely sugar is number one, flour is number two, anything in the processed food category, it’s been engineered to be addictive.
So there’s a no-brainer, it’s probably addictive.
There are some people who can’t eat grains, and so, we’re even going to that extent, which is why I think the low-carb movement—I don’t even think they realized that they’ve stumbled on a winning formula.
I don’t think they thought about it as an addiction thing, but they’ve taken out all the stuff that’s addictive.
It’s like, “Great, I’m happy about this.”
So recognize what your triggers are, and then respect them and keep them out.So recognize what your triggers are, and then respect them and keep them out. @addunplug Click To Tweet
And then I would say, number three we’ve kind of alluded to already, the actual withdrawal. Which will feel like you’re being deprived, only lasts about 2 or 3 weeks.
You just have to suffer it out for two or three weeks, that’s why a month of sugar-free is a good idea, and then you’re free.
So, there is hope to being free of this dopamine craving, hijacking basically, and then you’re free.
As long as you figure out if you can pick up a little bit or not.
So, you have found yourself, you’ve experimented and you’ve found that you can have a little sliver.
I bet you, though, if you had a cake, that might not work for you anymore. That would push you over, would push most people over.
I can’t even have a sliver. So, you figure out where you are and then respect those boundaries.
Abel: Mm-hmm, and don’t feel bad about it. Don’t feel ashamed about it.
Abel: Feel empowered.
Yes, and that actually leads to maybe one of the biggest things is get a lot of support so that you don’t feel ashamed.
You have people to help you when you have a weak moment, because willpower and being strong, it has a shelf life of about 20 minutes per day.
It’s not very long.
So, you want to have somebody to call and say, “Help me out because I’ve used up my willpower for the day already.”
Abel: That’s such a great point. And actually, it’s not very difficult to find at least an online community of people who are abstaining from almost anything, or part of almost any group.
Technology a double edged sword, but if you want to find people who are not eating sugar for 30 days, or people who are unicyclists who never eat sugar, you could find whatever specific thing you want.
And that is so important and absolutely worth doing, because otherwise, it’s really easy to feel like you’re doing all of this alone.
That is isolating you, and that’s a dangerous path as well.
Exactly, and it’s why communities like yours are so good.
And they’re good, too, because here I am in the addiction world and we have communities, we have 12-step communities, and other types of communities, but for people who don’t want to do that, they want another type of community.
So, the communities like yours do the same thing, but they use different terminology that people are comfortable with.
So, I mean, it’s great. It’s why I’m so happy that you asked me to speak because we’re talking the same concepts, but using different language. But it’s the same thing.
Abel: That’s one of my favorite things about this doing this podcast, and this show.
I mean, there is so much to agree on, even if we just agree that hopefully we’re going to be healthier. That’s a start. That’s a community.
That feels more rare than ever.
But one point that came up at a few shows ago, is that it’s important to embrace being a fluke.
It’s important to embrace being the weird one who is different from everything else that’s happening, because I don’t want to follow that current, I don’t want to follow where that’s going.
We know where that’s going, and it’s not pretty.
Where to Find Dr. Tarman
Abel: Well, we’re just about out of time, but Dr. Tarman, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us, and also give you a chance to mention where people can find your work, and also a little bit more about the second edition of Food Junkies, which is a wonderful book.
Thank you. So, my book with the second edition, Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction, gives the science, the hormonal and the neurochemical science about this stuff, and talks about how to identify if you’re a food addict, and also a lot about the recovery.
Abel: Wonderful. Dr. Tarman, thank you so very much. For those of you watching and listening, check out Food Junkies.
If there’s anything that’s in your life that you might want to ditch or re-examine your relationship with, it’s absolutely worth it.
So Dr. Tarman, once again, thank you so much for joining us.
Before You Go…
Here’s a review that came in from Nursegirl. She says:
I came across your show about a year ago through a podcast search for health and fitness. I LOVE the show for so many reasons.
The topics apply to people who want to get healthy, but if you want to get ripped and lean, there’s some of that, too. The topics apply to men and women. A lot of fitness podcasts address men more than women, but most of your topics are suited for both.
I’ve learned of other fitness & health professionals from your show and now follow them, too. Sarah Ballantyne, Elle Russ, Drew Manning. Just listened to Dr. Saul and plan to increase my vitamin C!
You’re positively influencing lives and since I’m 54, female and work as a nurse practitioner, I learn for myself and my clients.
Thanks Abel! Great job. Always anxious for the new podcasts to come out.
Thank you so much for writing in, Nursegirl. I like your handle. And I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying the show, and sharing what you learn with your clients.
You may know, especially if you’ve been listening for a while, that my mother is a also a nurse practitioner.
I was kind of raised with her ranting about the traditional medical system that she sometimes had to work in, while also being influenced by her as a holistic nurse practitioner and herbalist.
I’ve been dabbling in and speaking in the world of alternative health, and I’m very happy to carry on that torch.
I know that there are a lot of nurses and nurse practitioners who do listen to this show, so tip of my hat to you. It’s really cool to hear from you. Thank you for listening and getting in touch.
If you want to get in touch, the best way to do it is to sign up for my free newsletter, and then just reply to the email I’ll send to you. I read every single one, and try to respond to as many as I can.
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