When we talk about addictive eating we often use the word ‘abstinence’. When I first heard that word, it conjured up an image of a celibate monk, abstaining from sexual and other worldly pleasures. I wondered how abstinence would work with food. In other substance addictions, the concept of abstinence is more clear cut. For example, an alcoholic abstains from alcohol, and a heroin addict from heroin. But you can’t abstain from food because as humans we have to eat to stay alive!

Looking around for definitions of food abstinence I found one used by a support group called Overeaters Anonymous. They define it as ‘the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviours while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight…’

So, how do you define your abstinence? How do you know when you’re eating compulsively (as in, you can’t stop even though you want to), or using compulsive food behaviours? What is a healthy body weight?

I learned that it takes an attitude of rigorous honesty to define your personal abstinence. A useful first step is to make a list of your green, yellow and red foods. Green foods are the foods that you can eat without any problems; yellow foods sometimes trigger you to eat compulsively; and red foods send you off on a surefire binge. Often, people find that sugar and flour containing foods are the biggest offenders. But then there are individual binge foods, for example, some people can’t eat grains, or nuts, or dairy, or specific textures such as crunchy foods or creamy foods in moderation. It’s very individual. The best way to know is to try and eat the food in moderation and see if you can put it away half eaten without obsessing about it, or not. If not, then, it’s usually a red or yellow food.

And what about compulsive food behaviours? That’s also very individual. For example, many addictive eaters struggle with quantity and all foods can be binge foods. So their abstinence might entail eating to a weighed and measured food plan to create firm boundaries and calm the mental obsession they experience. I’ve also found it helpful to write a list of my food secrets to get to the bottom of my compulsive food behaviours. What foods don’t I want to let go of? In what way do I play with my food? What foods do I secretly binge on? Other compulsive food behaviours could be excessively weighing yourself, eating while standing or walking, eating really fast, grazing between meals, or counting calories. A healthy body weight is best determined with the support of a doctor. For many people it can be triggering to try and work it out by themselves, and to obsessively step on the scales everyday.

A crucial difference between living an abstinent lifestyle and dieting is that abstinence from certain food and eating behaviours when dieting is usually temporary. For the addictive eater, abstinence becomes a lifestyle that is aligned with our values and brings us freedom. We change our lives so that we no longer need or want the offending foods and behaviours in our lives. By choice and with volition. So, for many people there’s a bit of stuff to be worked through in defining and guarding one’s abstinence. For example, learning to say no in social situations is a big thing for people. Or letting go of the associations and memories of certain foods. But all of that are matters that we work through with support, and what’s amazing is that most people feel free and delighted once that work is done.

Often, once the physical abstinence becomes stable (abstaining from certain foods, quantities and eating behaviours), people begin to experience the pull to use the concept of abstinence in the emotional and spiritual sense as well. For example, you could be emotionally abstinent from negative self-talk and self-depreciating thoughts, from pleasing others at the expense of your own well-being, from shutting off or minimising feelings. You could be spiritually abstinent by living life according to a personal values system, or abstain from wanting to control life and other people.

My experience is that in the beginning, going back to the image of the celibate monk, I thought of abstinence as a very strict, joyless, and limiting concept. Now it’s the opposite. Being abstinent gives me total freedom and keeps not only my plate but my whole inner and outer worlds and moral conduct ‘clean and sober’. And above all, it brings me a lot of joy.

Do you need to support in defining your abstinence? Get in touch!