Sweetness Beyond Sugar: Curbing Emotional Eating With Author Lisa Kotin
Contributed by Sonyan White August 9, 2017
Divorce is one of the most stressful and emotionally traumatic events that we can experience as adults, and it can also trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms that we developed as children.
Those fond childhood memories of family excursions to the ice cream parlour, baking cookies with our mothers, and the jovial dentists who rewarded us with treats after enduring a check-up… they’ve long conditioned us to associate food (especially sweets) with comfort and love. So it’s no surprise that our natural instinct is to dig through entire pints of ice cream, searching for some kind of solace from the extreme heartache and loss we experience during our divorce.
It’s called “emotional eating”, and it’s today’s most common coping mechanism for women and mothers going through divorce or any form of mid-life stress.
Lisa Kotin is a recovering sugar addict who understands the psychology of emotional eating all too well. For over three decades she turned to food as her remedy for depression, stress, failed relationships, and everything else that stirred the bottomless hole always looming in her soul. Six years ago, Lisa’s life long struggle as a high functioning, full-blown sugar junkie finally took its toll.
She was diagnosed with a serious health problem that scared her into recovery – and it also prompted her to share her personal story in her recently released book, My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict (Beacon Press). Lisa has also become an inspirational figure, helping other women to kick their emotional eating habits with healthy alternatives and a mindful approach to life. After sharing her insight at the recent 2016 KICK SUGAR ADDICTION WORLD SUMMIT, I contacted Lisa directly and she was happy to discuss her experience and share her advice.
After hiding your sugar addiction for so many years, what finally prompted you to share your experience in a tell-all book?
There are tons of books written about all types of addiction and advice on healthy eating, but nothing that really examines the reality of sugar addiction through someone’s personal experience. Yet I always overhear women talking about their relationship with sugar, how “bad” they’ve been or how “good” they’ve been… assessing themselves by what they eat. I realized that sugar addiction and emotional eating is a widespread problem and there are so many women who share the things I secretly struggled with for so many years. I wanted to write a personal memoir that people could relate to on many levels and also start a social dialogue about the serious and dangerous reality of sugar addiction.
What are some of the telltale signs of a serious sugar addict?
It’s pretty much like any addiction. You can be a social drinker or someone who eats a lot of sugar and not have a problem. It’s when you start doing it alone and you develop your own special relationship with food or alcohol that it starts taking over your life and becomes a serious problem. Women going through a divorce or mothers sharing custody with their ex often find themselves developing addictive patterns such as going right to the fridge after a disagreement or an emotional conversation.
Depression is a completely understandable and absolutely normal response to ending a relationship, and it’s also okay to coddle yourself with the simple pleasure of your favorite ice cream once in a while. But when food becomes your go-to response every time you’re stressed or upset and you stop caring about your health or start believing his cruel remarks about your body, it’s a problem you need to address.
Why do so many women turn to sugar as a way of coping with stress and emotional turmoil?
There is a lot of research showing the correlation between men and women’s biological differences and the different foods we crave. Typically, men crave more meat and women crave more sweets – and there are many different theories as to why. Women are especially prone during times of crisis because stress changes our hormone levels, which causes us to crave sugary and fatty foods. Our serotonin levels are also lowered, which causes us to crave chocolate – not only because it tastes so damn good but also because chocolate has dopamine, which is basically a quick fix that raises our serotonin levels again.
Also, women just have a more complicated relationship with food in general. The pressure we feel to uphold a certain body image makes a lot of women see food as both a reward and punishment or the only thing that we can control when we feel ourselves losing control in other areas of our lives.
Is sugar addiction really as bad as drug and alcohol addiction?
Absolutely. It may not be as obvious or as expensive as other addictions but the outcome can be just as grave. I strongly suggest everyone watch Sugar: The Bitter Truth on YouTube. Dr. Robert H. Lustig has done extensive research on how sugar affects our bodies and leads to serious illness such as heart disease and cancer. In the long term, processed food and sugars can be just as deadly as alcohol and drugs.
What were some of your lowest lows as a full-blown sugar junkie?
One low I can at least look back on and laugh at now. I joined a mime troupe in San Francisco during my late teens and we were having a celebration type event outside with a bunch of tables set up with food. It started to rain heavy enough that the entire party moved indoors, except for me. I stayed outside alone in the pouring rain, hunched over the food table – and ate the entire carrot cake using the cutting knife as my fork.
There are also the countless times I’ve been at other people’s homes and would offer to make everyone tea just so I could escape to the kitchen and go through their cupboards eating every sugary thing I could find.
But the worst low came later in life, as a mother. I had gotten in the habit of eating my daughter’s Halloween and Easter candy every year but I was always quick enough to replace it before she found out. Then one year, she discovered all of her candy missing before I had the chance to replace it and she was devastated. Not so much because of the candy, thankfully she doesn’t have a sweet tooth like me, she was more devastated that her own mother would do something like that. It was heartbreaking and yet it still wasn’t enough to make me stop.
What finally convinced you to get help?
Six years ago I started getting really sick and having a lot of problems with my stomach. I was diagnosed with Metaplasia in my small intestine, which is basically damaged cell tissue in the early stages of cancer. Both my mother and grandmother died of cancer, so that was enough to scare me into making serious changes.
You tried a lot of different things and even relapsed a few times. What finally helped you kick your sugar addiction and stay in recovery?
I tried countless cleanses and at one point I even moved into a “recovery” house that enforced a strict macrobiotic diet. Needless to say, restricting myself only made me rebel more and I got kicked out after a month because they found candy bar wrappers in my futon. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I gave Overeaters Anonymous a second try, that things finally clicked for me. Being able to connect with others who share the same struggles really helped me come to terms with my sugar addiction and the many underlying triggers. I realized that being healthy isn’t just about food choices, it’s about our entire outlook and response to life.
Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to kicking sugar addiction and overcoming emotional eating? Or are there different approaches that work better for different people?
Everyone has different triggers, whether it’s divorce or job stress or the pressure of parenting, and there are also different solutions that work better for some people. But the best advice that works for most women is simply finding healthy alternatives to sugar. Exercise, read a book, eat a bowl of fruit, drink water, call a friend, practice mindfulness to determine what it is you really need in your life, anything you can do to respond to a negative trigger with a positive action will keep you moving forward. If you slip, forgive yourself and don’t fall into a shame trap. Soon those positive habits will become your natural way of life.
How has your life changed in your recovery?
It’s not so much that my life has changed, it’s that my outlook has changed. If we learn to live with gratitude and try to be present rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future, we embody a state of mind that allows us to be forgiving of ourselves, forgiving of others and accepting of what is, rather than focusing on what isn’t. No matter how alone you might feel sometimes, you really aren’t alone and it’s just a matter of reaching out and connecting
No matter how alone you might feel sometimes, you really aren’t alone and it’s just a matter of reaching out and connecting with others or being open to those reaching out to you. There is so much sweetness in life beyond sugar if we choose to look for it.
Lisa Kotin’s book, My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict is now available in the UK.
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