“They’re okay I guess, but they’re not a patch on Minstrels.”
It started innocently enough – a debate on the relative merits of confectionary on a second date with my now girlfriend. I’d always been a huge Minstrels fan, but she was putting an argument forward for Maltesers. I wasn’t convinced.
A couple of dates later we headed to the cinema. I bought a bag of Minstrels and she chose Maltesers. It was a standoff. Maltesers won comprehensively.
Fast-forward a year or so and things had gotten out of hand. I joke, but in all seriousness I did actually have a problem. It was not at all unusual for me to scoff an entire 360g box of Maltesers in one sitting. That’s about 1,700 calories.
While you cannot form a physiological dependence on sugar or chocolate, I was nonetheless psychologically addicted to Maltesers. It was ruining my otherwise relatively healthy diet and had the potential to lead to all sorts of health-related issues down the line. Something needed to be done.
So, I did something.
In this post I want to share the specific techniques I employed to neutralize my addiction while still allowing myself to enjoy Maltesers in moderation. If you are addicted to sugar, chocolate or candy (or in fact any type of food), you’ve just stumbled upon the means to make a major positive change to your seemingly fixed habits.
What is Food Addiction?
Let’s start by gaining an understanding of what we’re dealing with.
First of all, regardless of what you may think, we are not dealing with a physiological dependence here. To put it another way, it’s all in your head. While your conscious mind may crave certain foods, that is not accompanied by any physical craving within your body. Physiological dependencies are suffered by smokers, alcoholics, and drug abusers, not by people with a penchant for candy.
However, I do not want to diminish the potential severity of your addiction, because psychological dependence can be extremely powerful. And unfortunately, it is prevalent in modern society.
To a very large extent our eating habits are created by circumstances. If, when you were small, your parents rewarded your good behaviour and good deeds by giving you food, then you will have grown up to associate particular types of food with praise and with feeling happy. Millions of people love eating sweet things because these are the types of food that parents most commonly give as a reward.
This type of food addiction is produced by a process known as conditioning and it can be very difficult to break. It is, indeed, this sort of bad eating habit that is the cause of a great deal of obesity these days. We all have an appetite control centre in our brains and if, from childhood, we are allowed to eat what we want, when we want, and in the quantities we want, then by and large we do not put on excess weight. Experiments done with children have shown that the appetite control centre is quite capable of deciding for us what foods we should eat and when we should eat them. Unfortunately, the parental conditioning that most of us go through destroys that natural ability and leads us to confusion and distress.
Conditioning is not only associated with how your parents raised you; it can take many forms. Whether you like it or not, you are conditioned on a daily basis by the stimuli you encounter. For example, if you eat something and enjoy it, you establish a positive connection between the act and the outcome. Suggestive commercials can be highly effective in convincing your subconscious of a relationship between a product and a positive outcome. Modern society conditions us (heavily) to aspire to a certain body shape. I could go on.
Given the above, your situation may seem pretty dire. However, remember this: it’s all in your head. Established habits can be eradicated and replaced with healthier alternatives. The insidious process of negative conditioning can be reversed.
Understanding Your Addiction
The key to eradicating an addiction is to understand why you are addicted. You need to identify the negative feedback loops that exist.
The reasons are often (but not always) obvious. To use Coleman’s primary example, you may associate certain foods with praise and happiness. Eating these foods can actually make you happier, because they are powerfully associated with positive memories.
Another obvious reason for addiction is the sheer enjoyment of whatever you’re eating. In the case of confectionary, your body loves it. The types of sugar you find in confectionary are simple carbohydrates, which are quickly absorbed and easily used as fuel by the body. Sugar tastes so good because the body recognizes it as an abundant source of fuel and wants you to consume it.
However, you should also seek to identify less obvious reasons for your addiction. For example, I love the taste of Maltesers, but I also love the “process” of eating them. For those of you who don’t know, Maltesers are made up of a malt honeycomb core coated in a layer of milk chocolate. I love to bite the chocolate off the core then eat it afterwards. I can’t really describe how satisfying the process is, but it makes Maltesers far more of a ‘fun’ thing to eat for me than other confectionary.
Then there’s the feeling of satisfaction itself. When it comes to food addiction, it’s not just about the act of eating – it’s the aftermath too. The feeling that you have satisfied your craving cannot be underestimated. You’re no doubt familiar with the phrase, “A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” I understand the thinking behind this, but it’s not that simple. It’s not just about the minute on the lips – it’s about the feeling of satisfaction that comes with feeding and satisfying your addiction.
Finally, we have simple habit. The human body is extremely adept at automating common ‘routines’. For example, consider your morning ritual – you don’t consciously walk through the process; your subconscious knows what to do because of the well-established habit. It’s the same with food addiction. If you’re used to eating something on a regular basis, you will have established a habit, and the body won’t like being jolted out of that habit. It will tell you that something is missing.
Before you continue, you must identify all of the reasons for your addiction. Here were mine with Maltesers:
- I love the taste
- I love the ‘process’ of eating them
- I love the feeling of satisfaction after having eaten them
- I eat them so often that doing so has become a habit
How to Neutralize Your Addiction
When I was a teenager, I smoked.
I did it to be cool, like many smokers originally do. But as you would expect, it soon turned into an addiction. Fortunately, my addiction never got out of hand (I peaked at around ten cigarettes per day) and I managed to quit successfully.
That was more than a decade ago, and I still get the occasional craving to this day. If someone lights up in front of me, I still get the temptation. Fortunately, for the past several years, I have avoided acting on my temptations.
My point is this: an addiction may never go away. If you’re addicted to something now, you may always be addicted.
With that in mind, your aim should not be to defeat your addiction, but to neutralize it. While you may find after time that you cannot stand the sight or smell of something you once craved, let’s take the process one step at a time.
I’m not going to say that you can never have your favorite food again. Like I said, we’re not dealing with a physiological dependence here, so going cold turkey isn’t necessary. Life is too short to give up the foods you love. What we need to do is break your existing habit and address the underlying issues that fuel your addiction. In my experience, there are three factors to consider.
1. Your Environment
For many of us, our cravings our typically at their strongest in certain environments.
For example, my Maltesers addiction is always at its strongest when I am home alone. While I also eat Maltesers in other environments, my addiction is typically far less aggressive. I might go for a relatively ‘normal’ 135g bag and probably share a few with whoever I was with. That’s a few hundred calories rather than 1,700 – an enormous difference.
The above information provided me with one simple thing I could do to temper my addiction: reduce the time I spent in that environment.
Put simply, if I got out of the house more I would be less likely to gorge on Maltesers.
If you can identify the specific environmental circumstances that fuel your addiction, you can seek to reduce the time you spend in such environments and the effects of your addiction will be drastically reduced.
Addictions wax and wane; you will find your addiction to be far stronger at certain times than at others.
The timing of my addiction is particularly well-defined. Unlike many people, I don’t really have a craving for confectionary through the day, but if I don’t have something sweet after dinner, I will feel like I’ve missed out.
I can nail my addiction’s ‘peak’ down to the approximate hours of 8–9pm – after I’ve finished my dinner and a couple of hours before bedtime. That is when I crave Maltesers the most. My body expects something sweet (because that’s the habit I have taught it) and it specifically craves Maltesers (because of the particular reasons for my addiction, as outlined above).
The fight against your addiction is not a 24-hour affair. At the very least you will not be suffering from the effects of addiction while you’re asleep. Furthermore, there are likely to be big chunks of the day in which your addiction isn’t an issue. For example, I could get all the way up to 8pm without even thinking about Maltesers.
My overriding point is this: you only need to neutralize your addiction within what is likely to be a relatively small timeframe. That makes the task far more manageable than if you were dealing with a 24-hour addiction (like with smoking).
3. Events and Circumstances
It is a well-known cliché that a teenage girl’s breakup with her boyfriend must lead to dramatic ice cream consumption. While this is not in itself a sign of food addiction, someone who is addicted to food can find their addiction fueled by particular events and circumstances.
After all, there’s a reason ‘comfort food’ exists – it comforts us in times of need. If you’ve had a bad day, would you rather eat your favorite meal and a generous serving of dessert, or a salad?
Addictions are often the most difficult to resist at such times. However, as with timing, you must appreciate that such cravings are only temporary. You’ll feel better in a few hours, in the morning, or even after a relaxing bath.
As such, when you are feeling under particular stress due to an event or circumstance, consider the alternative ‘treatments’ to feeding your addiction. What else could you do? Then go do it. You may find your addiction tempered by the healing effects of a long walk or a good chat with your best friend.
How to Mitigate Cravings
Now that we’ve explored the three factors you must consider when it comes to identifying your addiction’s strengths, the next step is to arm yourself with weapons that can help to mitigate cravings and neutralize your addiction. Fortunately, there is quite a selection of weapons at your disposal.
We’ve all experienced the curious phenomenon where you’re so busy that you forget to eat. Distractions can be numerous (work, just one more episode of Breaking Bad, or a marathon session of Grand Theft Auto V), but they all serve to push your addiction from your mind.
Next time you feel your addiction coming on, find a way to keep yourself busy. Treat yourself to an enjoyable activity (such as the aforementioned wanton destruction via your games console) if it will help to curb your cravings.
The strength of a craving can be abated with nothing more than H2O. Put simply, if your stomach is telling you that you’re full, you’ll be less likely to eat more food.
This is likely to have a reducing (rather than eliminating) effect – i.e. you may still crave what you love, but you may crave it in a smaller dose. Given that we’re looking to lessen your craving rather than completely eradicate your addiction, that is a big step in the right direction.
I have gotten into the habit of drinking a glass of water after dinner and have found it to help in reducing the urge to eat a lot of Maltesers. I still want them – but I don’t want as many.
Establish Firm Eating Habits
I’ve already spoken about the power of habit, which can be used to your advantage.
Take my recent post on intermittent fasting as an example of the power of establishing firm eating habits. Since adopting a schedule of intermittent fasting, my eating times have become pretty reliable:
- Lunch around 1pm
- Dinner around 7pm
Because of this, my body neither expects nor craves foods outside of those times. Eating dinner still triggers my craving for Maltesers, but I do not experience cravings at any other time. Don’t get me wrong – some Maltesers in the afternoon would be nice, but my body doesn’t crave (or expect) them.
If you ensure that your meals are taken at set times throughout the day and avoid snacking in-between, you will find that your cravings decline drastically at those times when your body does not expect to eat.
Enforce Pre-Indulgence Exercise
If you have decided to succumb to your addiction, do so on the proviso that you complete some form of exercise beforehand.
It doesn’t have to be a five-mile run – to begin with it could be as simple as walking up and down the stairs in your home. But you want to form an association between your addiction and exercise and begin to mitigate the health implications of your indulgence by burning a few extra calories.
When it comes to confectionary, I suggest that you combine this with my tip that you shouldn’t keep unhealthy snacks in the house. Allow yourself to sate your cravings, but only on the proviso that you walk to the shop to buy your vice.
When it comes to confectionary, a proportion of what you eat is likely to be converted into visceral fat that will settle down somewhere unsightly, like in your belly or on your hips.
Think about that for a moment – you could achieve the same outcome by drinking a glass of fat. That is technically what you’re doing – the only difference is that you are making the accumulation of fat a more enjoyable experience.
If you are tempted by your addiction, it can help to visualize the ‘alternate reality’ of what you are doing. Instead of thinking about how much you will enjoy your treat, instead liken the experience to eating pure fat that slides down your throat and straight into the most unsightly location on your body that you can imagine. Because make no mistake – that is essentially what is happening.
If you’re after something sweet, then artificially sweetened chewing gum may help a great deal. Your body can be fooled by the sugar-ish hit and by the physical act of chewing, which can have a drastic effect on the strength of your craving.
If you have identified that your addiction is at its strongest in a particular environment, at a particular time or under certain circumstances, plan to distract yourself when the key time comes.
For example, if I get myself out of the house after dinner, I am far less likely to indulge in my craving – especially if I am doing something enjoyable where I don’t have access to Maltesers (like an evening stroll).
Fill Yourself Up
Food addiction is unique in that its strength is heavily diminished by satiety. Or to put it another way, if you’re really full, your craving will be much reduced.
So fill up on the good stuff – lots of vegetables in your meals, healthy savory snacks (such as pickled onions, olives and carrots), healthy sweet snacks (such as fruit roll ups and Nakd bars), fruit (in relative moderation – certain fruits can be pretty calorific!), and of course water.
Once you’ve stuffed your face on all of that good stuff, you may still want to eat your favorite food, but at the very least you’re likely to eat far less.
How to Eat Less
If you have done your best to mitigate your cravings but still have the undeniable urge to eat your favorite food, the next step is damage control – i.e. limiting the volume of your eating.
Fortunately, there are a healthy handful of effective techniques you can employ to reduce the amount that you eat.
Ban Enormous Portions
This is the only point at which I will simply say, “Just eat less.”
This is for people who are satisfying their addictions with absurdly large portions, like I was with my 360g boxes of Maltesers. The most effective thing I did was to enforce a complete ban on boxes and limit myself to the 135g bags only. This wasn’t particularly difficult – I just needed to give myself a long hard look in the mirror and convince myself how utterly wrong it was to destroy an entire 1,700 calorie box of confectionary in one sitting.
Don’t seek to eradicate your most-loved food, but do seek to eradicate eating it in an objectively absurd volume. If you are doing this, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Make Your Treat an Event
If you’re going to satisfy your craving, make it a big deal. Don’t just scoff your food down while watching TV – give the act the due ceremony it deserves.
I suggest eating your food of choice at a table with no distractions. Take the time to enjoy every morsel. Of course, you should start with a smaller portion than you would normally eat. Taking the time to really enjoy the process can satisfy you as much as scoffing down twice as much while distracted can.
Serve Your Treat on a Small White Plate
Seriously. A study conducted in Spain by Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, Ph.D. at Universitat Politècnica de València found that serving strawberry mousse on a white plate altered the participants’ perception of its taste – they considered it to be 15–20% sweeter, more intense, and more enjoyable.
From a personal point of view, I believe this to be true. A pile of Maltesers in a small white bowl looks far more appealing to me than just munching them out of the bag.
White is not always the best color though – in some cases it is preferable to choose a plate color that complements the color of the food. Having said that, I wouldn’t worry about buying a plate in each color – white is a good default.
Furthermore, use a plate that makes your food seem more plentiful. When it comes to psychologically satisfying your appetite, nothing is worse than food on an enormous plate. In fact, eating from a smaller plate has also been shown to cut food consumption by more than 20%, according to David Neal, Ph.D., Director at Empirica Research.
If your addiction is something that can be easily shared, get into the habit of doing so. For every bite someone else haves, it’s one less bite going in your mouth (and to your belly or hips, remember!).
While I am not typically an advocate of sharing food (woe betide the person who takes from my plate without asking), this is one situation in which I actively encourage it.
Buy Your Food in Advance
This is not a strategy I would employ myself, but I know that it can work for some people.
It’s simple: buy your craved-for food up front for the week, in bulk. Agree with yourself that what you have bought is all you’re allowed for the week – how you eat it is up to you.
This may encourage you to ration your food appropriately, in which case you can gently taper the volume of food you buy per week to wean yourself off your addiction. Alternatively (and like me), you might eat the whole lot and go out the next day, rules be damned, in which case I do not recognize this strategy!
Track the Cost of Your Addiction and Incentivize Moderation
Food addictions can be expensive. You could be spending hundreds of dollars per month without even realizing it.
So let’s address that – from now on you should make a note of the cost of your purchased treats. Knowing exactly how much of your hard-earned money you’re spending on unnecessary treats can be a powerful discourager.
But that’s not all – why not incentivize a reduction (or even an eradication) of your treats? It’s simple: just a set a weekly anticipated cost of fueling your addiction based upon ongoing costs. Any money you save below that amount should be put to one side and used to treat yourself to something nice (but not food!).
Neutralizing Your Addiction With Knowledge
We’re not done yet – there’s even more you can do to neutralize your addiction. A better understanding of the health and weight impact of what you’re eating can go a long way towards discouraging your indulgences. Let’s look at each in turn.
Consider the Health Implications
Let’s face it: you’re more than likely addicted to something unhealthy. With that in mind, take the time to discover the particulars of your chosen vice – namely, the ingredients and the potential effects of those ingredients.
Take Maltesers as an example. While certainly not healthy, it’s a relatively harmless food. However, I must consider the potential impact of the sheer amount of sugar I consume when allowing my addiction to go unchecked. Not only does that sugar add up to a hell of a lot of easily eaten calories, those calories are nutritionally barren. By eating loads of Maltesers I am likely to gain weight and be deficient in key vitamins and minerals.
That’s enough encouragement to provide me with another reason to curb my eating.
Quantify the Weight Implications
If you’re conscious of your weight then you are no doubt conscious of the effect of your addiction on your weight. But have you ever quantified that effect? Putting a number to your addiction is a powerful way of discouraging it.
While calories are generally an unreliable means of measuring the impact of particular foods on your body, their simple nature actually benefits us in this case, as we can calculate a rough idea of the impact your addiction has on your weight.
Take me at the peak of my weight as an example. I would eat something akin to the following per week:
- 3x 360g boxes Maltesers (total 5,100 calories)
- 2x 135g bags Maltesers (total 1,400 calories)
That’s a total of 6,500 extra calories per week, which is roughly equal to 1.85lbs of fat. Per week.
If I replaced my addiction with a far less calorific but still satisfying dessert of say 400 calories on the five days when I gorge on Maltesers, my total calorific consumption would be just 2,000 – roughly equal to a far more reasonable 0.57lbs of fat.
Calculating just how much weight you are likely to put on by feeding your addiction can be a huge boost to your willpower.
I have used all of the above techniques to help control my Maltesers addiction. I still eat them, but I do so in a smaller volume. My addiction is now within my control. It still exists, but it has effectively been neutralized.
I know that if you employ the above techniques, you’ll be able to neutralize your addiction too. Put one or more of the above techniques in place, and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions!