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The Ritual of Food Addiction

 

If you’ve been trying to figure out the weight-loss game for as long as I’ve been coaching people – twenty five years – you’ve most likely been trying to avoid food, even though that point of view has not worked. What you need to do is to look at the ritual leading up to the part where you finish everything on your plate.

For many years I had either a radio show or a public access television cable show named “Changing Habits.” The opening of both shows state: we cover eating, smoking, gambling, drinking, shopping, spending, and negative thinking. There was also discussion about low wage earning, debt accumulation, messy apartments, and procrastination. All of these things have something in common: they can be ritualized.

I, too, was seduced by the mesmerizing effect I felt when I was in the mindless, automatic state of a ritual. When in that state of mind, you’re comfortable without having to think or feel anything else.

I smoked cigarettes, spent too much, drank too much, and went into debt as if I were in a trance. Writing this book became a behavioral ritual; there was always another chapter to write or re-write or edit or type. I’m in the middle of construction in my apartment. What began as re-doing a bathroom and kitchen floor has turned into buying new furniture and designing built-ins.

One tiny part of the redecorating process was looking for knobs for cabinet doors. There were hundreds of styles and shapes and colors and prices from which to choose. I don’t even want to tell you how many choices I had to make when it came to selecting a couch.

Whether gambling or drugging or eating, or writing a book, there is a ritual of things we do, and say, and think, before, during, and after the actual using of the drug. And I use the word drug here because a behavioral ritual is just as much a drug on your system as is food, or cigarettes, or alcohol.

The gambler knows the phone number of off-track betting or his/her bookie by heart; a bartender remembers your usual drink; you shop whenever you’re bored. The drinker has a favorite drink with a specific amount of ice or mixer or water. He/she might sip the drink rhythmically, with or without others at specific times of the day or week or year, and many people only drink in particular places, i.e., it never occurs to me to order alcohol in a Chinese restaurant.

Whereas my friend Tom always orders a beer and friend Sara orders one large and one small sake when in a Japanese restaurant. Each part of a ritual knits with the other parts to tighten the behavior more and more effectively. Add to your list the way you lock, and unlock, the door to your home or office, answer your phone, call a friend, get ready for bed, set your hair, or comb your moustache.

When I smoked, there was the buying and smoking of the cigarettes. But there was also my cigarette-case collection, a Dunhill lighter, and I used a Lalique ashtray, for goodness sake. I added additional behaviors to my ritual, too: I needed to shop for and have on hand, lighter fluid for the lighter and extra mouth spray and mouth wash to use after I smoked each cigarette.

The ritual paraphernalia is just as much a part of your eating- or smoking- or drinking-habit as the lighting-up and inhaling of a cigarette, or the swallowing of a bite of food. Each habit has its own ritual actions and reactions.

Think about other rituals and habits you mindlessly perform each day: You brush your teeth, shower, shave, or put on makeup. Checking on mail or retrieving telephone answering-machine messages may be a part of your repertoire. I’ve recently added to my ritual, the periodic checking of my email to see if “I’ve got mail.”

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