You can't stop thinking about ice cream. You go into your room and try to read, file your nails, text a friend - anything to distract yourself. Your brain is insistent: Ice cream. Ice cream. Soon, you're telling yourself that you deserve ice cream - after all, you've had a crappy day. And before you know it, you're heading to the freezer, pulling out a litre, and going at it straight from the tub. Mmmmmm. Until you hit the cardboard the bottom. The litre of ice cream is gone and you're totally full - of regret. "Why did I do that?!" you moan. "I'm starting a diet tomorrow." Then you head to bed, making sure to avoid the full-length mirror when you pull off your now snug skinny jeans.
[Related article: Clinical food addiction could affect as many as one in 200 people]
Sound like addiction? According to a 2011 report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, your behaviour qualifies as worthy of an addict's if (and I'm paraphrasing here):
1. You engage in an activity to satisfy an appetite. (Check)
2. You're preoccupied with the behaviour. (Check)
3. You feel satisfied after you do it - temporarily. (Check and check)
4. You feel out of control. (Um, check)
5. You suffer negative consequences. (Triple check.)
I'll admit it. When it comes to food, my behavior occasionally kicks me into the addict category - and that's also the case for Taffy Brodesser-Akner, whose essay in this month's SELF chronicles her stint in a 12-step program to get her eating under control. The mother of all 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, was founded in 1935, followed by Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. These days, there are practically as many types of 12-step programs as there are diets, including Workaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Neurotics Anonymous and even Underearners Anonymous.
[Related article: 7 surprising things that make you fat]
Clearly, 12-step is trendy, but does it work? Well, it did for Taffy (she lost 40 pounds in a year), but what I find so surprising about her story is that she is not a big advocate of the regimen. In fact, despite her amazing success, one day she up and quit. Why? As she writes in the piece:
"These days, everything's a disease: If you like porn, you're a sex addict; if you've forgotten to apply sunscreen, you're tanorexic. I'm not saying food addiction isn't real. But I would say that the pleasure centers of the brain light up when we eat not because we're addicted but because food is pleasurable - and maybe that's okay."
In other words, Taffy didn't want to be defined as an addict for life. "Maybe I had been sick, but I wasn't anymore, and I refused to forfeit my right to redefine myself," she writes. Nor did she want to adhere to a rigid diet plan forever. The trouble is, most 12-step programs aren't what you'd call loosey-goosey, and Taffy's program - Compulsive Eater's Anonymous - was no exception. Flour and sugar are forbidden. Protein and veggies are allowed, but in strictly defined amounts. (e.g. There's lots of meticulous weighing of food.) That kind of control can be comforting, but it can also be confining. And while it might be necessary for someone trying to swear off booze or pills, it might be overkill for someone trying to balance their eating habits.
[Related article: The Office’s Lucy Davis reveals secret bulimia battle]
A rigid diet can also backfire and make you fatter, something I've experienced personally. I've battled with my weight since the age of 13, see-sawing between a high of size-14 to a low of size-8 and everywhere in between. My weight has gotten in the way of my love life, how comfortable I feel in my skin and my day-to- day happiness. But the only time I've been able to break free of the demoralizing cycle of binging and dieting, dieting and binging, is when I adopt a less-rigid approach to food.
Research confirms that for most people, very strict diets only lead to backsliding. A 2011 study in the journal Appetite shows that the more rigid the regimen, the tougher it is to resist cravings. And a 2002 study at Louisiana State University found that people who are very controlled about their eating (read: rigid) are more likely to show signs of mood disorders.
Which is not to say that 12-step programs are a bad idea - for booze, or even for food. Some people thrive on strict limitations. Me? I tend to be an instant gratification kind of girl. The secret to keeping myself at a steadyish size 10, where I am these days, is to have a bowl of ice cream when I'm tempted, then get on with my life.