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The Ritual of Food Addiction
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If you've been trying to figure out the weight-loss game for as long as I've been coaching people, 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.

When in that mesmerizing state of mind, you're comfortable without having to think or feel anything else. Smoking, Spending, Drinking or going into Debt can seem almost trance like. Writing a book can become a behavioral ritual; there is always another chapter to write, re-write, edit or type.

Whether gambling, eating, or writing a book, there is a ritual of things we do, say, and think, before, during, and after the actual using of the ritual.

The gambler knows the phone number of off-track betting or their 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, mixer or water. You might sip the drink rhythmically, with or without others at specific times and many people only drink in particular places. 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.

The ritual paraphernalia is just as much a part of your eating, 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.

Getting dressed in the morning is ritualized, too. You might comb your hair and put on makeup, then put on clothes. Some others put their clothes on first, and then comb their hair and put on makeup. :

We organize, and ritualize, so we can narcotize.

All this busy work distracts you, at least for the moment, from feelings or thoughts with which you don't want to deal.

I've practiced and perfected many constructive rituals into my life. After doing them consistently for many years, they are now automatic, and mindless and serve my needs. They help make my day run smoothly, like using a pencil when I write in my appointment book. There is comfort in the familiar.

It is the ritual of the first thought that leads to the next thought and to the next. Eventually, you succumb to what you think is the allure of the taste or smell or even sight of food. But it is really the tail end of a ritual where you might be tired or bored and just used to surrendering to whatever is set before you. Some of us eat as an excuse to take a break, or to rest. It is hard to say no because it is all knitted together from the first thought of a ritual to the first feelings of remorse. There's always remorse. That's part of the ritual, too. This cycle of behavioral ritual needs to be interrupted and unraveled. Identifying these patterns, even acknowledging you have patterns, is a wonderful first step in changing habits.

As you become more aware of your patterns of thought, you can begin the process of rearranging or omitting the automatic next steps and to create new constructive patterns for yourself. Eventually, you'll learn to be comfortable thinking, saying, and doing, something else instead of putting food into your mouth, just because it's there.

This unraveling of the ritual of food addiction helps you to make pro-active choices so you can become the person you want to be. Sometimes, the new way is quite different from what you've accumulated in the way of behavior. Your old way was built over a lifetime of unconscious actions and reactions. You now have the opportunity to create something new and wonderful that better serves your present need to weigh _pounds.

A friends evening activities weren't as stimulating as the daytime ones, he was without things to occupy his mind; old feelings and thoughts bubbled up. With no place to go and no one to talk to, he incorporated going into the kitchen into his usual evening activity of killing time. One trip to the kitchen yielded a piece of candy, another trip yielded a nibble of leftover salad, another trip two grapes. The once- or twice-a-night ritual became more and more frequent. It really took off when he had a phone installed in the kitchen. He found himself sitting on a chair with wheels while speaking on the phone and rolling over to the refrigerator where he'd open the door and window-shop the shelves.

When he worked on breaking that ritual, I had him put a little tick mark on a piece of paper whenever he thought of putting something into his mouth. Between 9 p.m. and midnight, he found himself thinking about food forty-two times! That is approximately one episode every five minutes.

Forty-two times in three hours he had gotten in the habit of putting something in his mouth, even though he wasn't hungry. Forty-two times he nibbled a bite of this and a swallow of that, just because he was bored. Whether eating one item, or one bite from many items, it all adds up. It doesn't matter if it is salad or soda. You're eating when you're not hungry. If you practice this habit every day of the week, you've got a behavioral addiction that becomes a weight gain. Keep doing the same thing and it becomes a part of the evening's entertainment. When he moved the phone out of the kitchen, the picture changed. His weight changed. His habits changed. This was just one of many patterns he discovered as a result of being mindful. There were even more to find.

He realized how he always ordered a glass of wine when he took clients to dinner; or how each meal ended with a cup of coffee. Every visit to a theater to see a movie seemed to be bonded to eating a bag of popcorn or buying a soda. The buying - I call it a compulsion to spend - is a ritual, too.

When I talked about rituals with another person I teach, she commented that keeping the logbook, in which she enters her daily weights and what she eats, was a ritual. I agreed. Some rituals help us to become mindful of what it is we are doing and enable us to see, in writing, the patterns we've created. Some rituals are better than others.

She had difficult times at 4 p.m. each day. It was clear that her desire to eat wasn't about hunger; her lunch was usually only a few hours before. It was connected to her children arriving home from school. When she had to prepare food for them, she mindlessly nibbled on the food herself. She also had a phone in the kitchen and practiced some version of talking on the phone and browsing amongst the food. You may be thinking: But I only pick at the broccoli. If you're eating when you're not hungry, it doesn't matter what it is. It all adds up.

In an office, an eating ritual might begin at the onset of a coffee-wagon bell ringing at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Another person told me of a mindless habit she had when she commuted from Manhattan to her home in New Jersey. Every trip, five days a week for a year, she'd eat a candy bar. Just that one candy bar habit could add up to approximately twenty pounds by year's end.

I used to have a habit of buying a large bottle of fruit juice and would sip it a few swallows at a time - it's only juice I used to think - until all 64 ounces were sipped away and I'd buy another bottle. When I realized how often I repeated this behavior, I began buying juice in individual bottles of 4 ounces each, put the bottles on a different shelf than the top one in the refrigerator. If I didn't see it, I didn't think about it. If I didn't think about it, I didn't drink it. The habit started to collapse on its own. Sometimes, changing just one part of a ritual - whether thought word or action - loosens the entire knot of behavior without much effort. Sometimes it takes more thought. In this case, changing the size of the container did the trick (a physical action). I also thought (mental re-patterning), that I'd gone years without drinking juice so many times during a day and it had always been okay. It could be okay again. You get used to anything.

What are some of your rituals and habits?

By Caryl Ehrlich
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Biography: This article is an excerpt from the book Conquer Your Food Addiction published by Simon and Schuster. Caryl Ehrlich, the author, also teaches The Caryl Ehrlich Program, a one-on-one behavioral approach to weight loss in New York City.

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