Many years ago I read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Quit Smoking (available from Amazon – it is one of the few books to retain a 5 star rating, with over 1,000 reviews). This might not sound especially surprising, until you realise that I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Allen Carr’s book appealed because I wanted to understand addiction – or, rather, find a cure for my own struggles with food and binge eating. I immediately recognised the wisdom of Allen Carr’s book and understood how it worked, but it took me many more years before I was able to apply the theory to our obesity epidemic (and no, it’s not an addiction to refined carbohydrates).
How Allen Carr’s method works
Throughout his books, audio tapes, videos and in-person sessions at clinics, Allen Carr systematically debunks the reasons that you think you want to consume your substance of choice, dismantling the brainwashing, until you realize that there is only one reason: a mild physical addiction that has no more power over you than a common cold.
Allen Carr maintains that we feel compelled to overindulge because we feel as if we need it to alleviate stress or make meals and social occasions enjoyable – to provide a crutch to help with life. He explains that this is an illusion: that the very stresses, discomforts, and dissatisfaction we are attempting to alleviate are caused by the consumption of that same substance. In other words, we engage in the addiction – not to bring joy – but to get rid of the discomfort that the very substance brings…to return us to how we felt before we ever started taking it.
We know that excessive junk food consumption is killing us; we know it has huge negative side effects, but we keep on eating it. Why? Once we expose the false reasons and see the real reason, ending an addiction is straight forward. Allen Carr makes a brilliant distinction: he says people think that addicts have no willpower, but that’s not true – what they have is a conflict of will.
Allen Carr reminds us that quitting is easy once the brainwashing is removed. Physical withdrawal pangs are minor – virtually non-existent in the case of junk food. Rather than tremors or violent headaches, we just have a faint restless hunger that prompts us to consume more. After absorbing the Allen Carr method, almost all readers stop cold turkey, with no willpower required. Rather than acting against their wishes: all parts of their brain pull together on the same team, thus, it is easy.
Applying Allen Carr’s method to weight loss
The difficulty with applying Allen Carr’s method to overeating is that you must first isolate the ‘addictive’ substance or behavior. You must identify what exactly is addictive about the myriad of edible foodstuffs and drinks that we consume and/or the behavior or style of eating. I was under no illusion that my overeating seemed addictive. One part of my brain wanted to stop eating junk food entirely; another seemed insistent upon consuming it at all costs. I had never suffered a ‘hard’ drug addiction, but this thing was costing me my self-confidence, my health, my fitness, my money, my time and my self-respect. It was also affecting my relationships with some of the most important people in my life. Despite all of this – and being utterly filled with misery about it – I somehow didn’t know how to stop. I knew I should throw dieting and binge eating to the wayside and go back to eating normally like a child, intuitively, without obsessing, worrying, counting, eating more and then less and then more and every other crazy ridiculous thing, but somehow I couldn’t work out how.
When I first read Allen Carr’s books, I knew he had the answer; the magic pill. I realized that this man (described by many as a genius) held the information I had been searching for. When I first read his books, however, I made a mistake. It was the same mistake that vast quantities of the population are currently making: to blame refined carbohydrates. (I should note that he also published a book that applies his method to weight loss and sugar, however, unfortunately, in my view, this missed the mark and contains some fundamental errors, such as recommending avoidance of meat. I hesitate to say this, as without reading Allen Carr’s stop smoking and stop drinking books, I would not have the key necessary to escape).
My first mistake: thinking the addictive agent was refined carbohydrates
Upon first reading of Allen Carr’s stop smoking book, I had such an illuminating mental shift that I instantly stopped eating refined carbohydrates, sugar, and almost all other processed food. I adopted what is these days marketed as the ‘Paleo diet’ (read the Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and Loren Cordain, available from Amazon) and slowly and steadily acquired the best physique of my life (see the other diets I have followed on the About page). I know exactly why all the Paleo supporters rave enthusiastically about their diet, however, I also know why they eventually begin to write blog posts such as Getting Back on the Boat – How to Recover from a Paleo Fallout and Falling off the Paleo Wagon.
This question, from a reader of Mark’s Daily Apple sums this up:
I have seen first hand how much better I feel after even just a short period of time eliminating grains, sugars, and processed foods from my diet. However, it seems as if I can get through a week or two of primal eating and then my conscious, intellectual mind shuts down and I find myself face down in a pile of donuts. What gives?
As with any restrictive diet, the willpower required to adhere in the face of a society that largely does not follow such a diet becomes exhausting and difficult. Abstaining from all processed carbohydrates at all times is very, very difficult. And once the line has been crossed, what then?
It is important to consider not just the difficulty in maintaining a diet that is completely free of refined carbohydrates – but also whether doing so is actually the best option. The purported addictive nature of sugar is a hot new dietary topic, now that the evils of saturated fat have been sufficiently discredited. Despite a growing wave of excitement about the Paleo diet in its various forms and the ardent anti-sugar supporters, including Sarah Wilson (I Quit Sugar) Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) and Dr. Robert Lustig (The Bitter Truth), many others do not concur. Some very valid questions are raised, such as:
- If refined sugar is bad, what about the fructose in fruit? If fructose is indeed toxic, why do so many studies highlight the benefits of eating fruit?
- Why do our closest animal relatives eat diets high in fruit/carbohydrates?
- Why are many naturally thin people slim and healthy, despite consuming many refined foods?
- If sugar were the equivalent of nicotine or alcohol, why do we not binge on sugar alone?
- How do you explain binges on whole food? Although rarer, there are many reports of people binge eating ordinary whole foods, such as this comment shared in the Active Low-Carber forum:
Ever since I’ve gone Paleo, it just doesn’t seem like the quantity of food matters anymore. Because of this, I’ve become more and more fond of buffets, particularly ones that serve meat, and sometimes I might stuff myself with meat almost to the point of painful discomfort “just because I can”.
- Why has the obesity epidemic hit recently, when refined sugar and flour have been around for centuries?
- Why do binge eating and other eating disorders typically occur after dieting, and not before, despite similar food being available before and after these situations?
- If the addictive substance isn’t refined carbohydrates, then what is it?
- What on earth is addiction, anyway?
The answers to these questions and more are answered in detail upon this website and within my upcoming book. Before we get to these, I want to explain something I learned when reading Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by Gene Heyman (available from Amazon) – something critical that I had overlooked thus far.
Addiction and satiety
Common knowledge has us believe that the most crucial factor in determining how addictive something is, is how rewarding it is. This makes sense, as when something feels awesome, we want to repeat it. This pattern has evolved to encourage us to do things that benefit our survival. For example, we enjoy a nourishing meal, but hate starving; we enjoy keeping warm and snug in a cozy shelter, but hate huddling outdoors in the mud and rain; we love receiving affection from others, but hate abandonment and rejection. What Gene Heyman’s book made clear, however, is that there is something else that must be present for something to become addictive: an absence of natural satiety.
In traditional situations where pleasure is felt, the ‘pleasure’ is replaced with satisfaction and then disinterest, as the benefit that the action delivers is received. For example, when you first take a bite of a nourishing meal, it tastes fantastic. As your belly fills, your hunger diminishes and satiety kicks in. A nourishing meal thus becomes less and less appealing, the more you eat of it. Similarly, an initial courtship might be thrilling, but endless night time ‘entertainment’ eventually becomes tiring as your need for sleep and other activities compete. Keeping snug and warm in a cave might seem appealing when you first enter from the cold outdoors; after a while it becomes tedious and boring and you want to brave the outdoors again in order to fulfill other needs and goals. In other words, behaviors that traditionally benefit us have inbuilt satiety mechanisms to prevent us from overindulging – leading us to engage in a range of activities that are benefit our survival.
Unfortunately, modern humans are presented with artificial substances and environments that allow us to engage in behaviors that offer a false sensation of pleasure (i.e. one that is not attached to the promised benefit) and then deliver long term pain (leaving the person worse off than before). As no benefit is received, there is no signal to stop. Addictive substances have no shutoff – nothing to provide a signal to the body that it has had enough, because there is nothing for it to have had enough of. Whatever need the substance was pretending to fulfil, it was a con: and thus no satisfaction is ever received. Instead, the feeling of wanting more arises. Consumption may thus continue until the very physical upper constraints are forced into play (vomiting or passing out with alcohol or a stomach stretched to maximum capacity in the case of deceptive food). Stopping addictive consumption before this breaking point relies upon willpower alone: conscious intervention from the thinking part of our brain. This is not difficult, however, as the desire for more is a mild sensation that is easily dismissed: unless, of course, you have fallen for the false belief that you are powerless around this substance, in which case the sensation becomes a full-blown craving that cripples you unless you respond. Addiction is thus maintained by an ‘addict’ losing faith in themselves, as the decline into their excessive consumption takes hold. This lack of self-belief is caused by the deceptive nature of the substance itself, and the brainwashing held by society about the substance and addiction in general.
The breakthrough came when I realized that the danger in a substance is not just that it offers pleasure, or causes harm in excess, but that offers no stop signal (due to mismatch between the benefit promised and what is delivered) and thus has a natural tendency towards overconsumption. For example, when you are desperately thirsty, water seems like the best substance on earth. But as you drink, your thirst disappears and you feel satisfied – the desire to drink more water is gone. This is lucky, because if our thirst was not quenched and it continued to deliver the sensation of pleasure we first felt, we might drink water to excess. In case you weren’t aware, over-consumption of water, the essential, life-giving liquid can kill us.
False pleasure (i.e. one attached to no benefit) creates a lack of inbuilt satiety that leads to overconsumption. This leaves you miserable, tired, weak, sick and less able to think clearly, and primes you to seek the false pleasure again.
With this understanding, I could finally set about defining what exactly made certain foods addictive.
What makes a meal addictive?
For simplicity, let’s look at the following diagram:
In the case of eating, what tells our body to stop? It is clearly not just when we reach an adequate number of calories. If this was the case, no one would ever be fat (rather, we would die of malnourishment). Nor is it a simple matter of consuming sufficient nutrients; our body and brain require energy to operate and move. Satiation arises, therefore, when our need for both calories and nutrients has been met. If we are lacking in either calories or nutrition, it makes no sense for our hunger to abate. Without this, we don’t stop eating, because our body never receives the signal that it has got what it needs, because it has not.
A good meal provides abundant – easily digestible calories – and a tonne of nutrition. A meal is addictive when it is has a great flavor but the nutrition that the taste promises does not arrive.
What sort of food has nourishment + abundant calories? Normal food. The kind of food that most people would eat if they weren’t on a diet and had only a basic grasp of nutrition. The kind of diet you would eat if you had loved your figure from the day you were born. The kind of diet your grandmother or mother would feed you, or the kind you might feed your own child. Perhaps exactly the kind you had before you ever went on your first diet.
Seeing that it offers no benefit at all
Consuming a substance that has been stripped of all nourishment and filled with artificial flavourings, sweeteners and taste enhancers imparts a particular physical sensation that human mouths usually interpret as pleasing. It seems pleasing, because these flavors signal the presence of nutrients that our bodies need, and thus your brain evaluates this as a reward.
If you recognize this exaggerated taste as counterfeit, however – a lie – your actions change.
Let me say this a different way.
- If I walked up to you and gave you $100 and said you’d won it, you might be filled with elation. But if you recognised me as a con artist, and knew that while giving you $100, an armed accomplice was stealing your car from the parking lot behind you, the offer of $100 would fill you with fear.
- If you ate a piece of chocolate, it might taste delicious and lift your mood, but if you knew that the chocolate had been laced with arsenic and you would die in fifteen minutes, you would be filled with pure panic and terror.
It is not the physical sensation that drives emotion, but what we know or believe about it that influences our mood.
This is how after reading Allen Carr’s books, extreme nicotine addicts can go from hating all previous ‘cold-turkey’ attempts and ‘white knuckling’ episodes, to stopping suddenly without any cravings at all. This is because the cravings are not a craving for the substance: they are a craving for happiness, which you have incorrectly connected to the substance. Your addiction has beaten your happiness level lower and lower, time and time again, until your whole being is screaming for any way to escape the pain. But the moment you see that repeatedly consuming fake food is not your escape from pain, but rather the primary cause of your pain, there is an easy, straight forward way to escape and the solution is easy.
What happens when you eat deceptive food over and over again
Addictive behaviours form a vicious loop. The more miserable we become, the more desirable the substance or behaviour seems (even if, paradoxically, this is the very thing that is responsible for your misery).
It is no mystery why a dieting person is particularly susceptible to the fake allure of deceptive food (just as those who have battered childhoods might be more susceptible to the false allure of drugs)…and why, when a dieting / binge eating cycle is repeated again and again, your belief in your ability to control your behavior erodes.
If you eat a normal, nourishing, honest food at every meal, your sensory mechanisms quickly reset, your hunger abates, and you have no desire to eat exorbitant quantities anymore. The moment you see the deception of fake food and how it gives you nothing: not a single benefit and, in the same breath, understand that you never lost your power, your eating issues are over.
Need more? Start here.