I’ve been thinking a lot about addiction lately. What is it? How does it start? Are some people born with brains that make them susceptible to it, or are we all, given the right circumstances, at risk? We all know that it’s possible to become addicted to alcohol and drugs, but what exactly separates a casual consumer of those things from an addict? Or, put a different way, what’s the difference between a habit and an addiction? If addiction is something that can cause a physical withdrawal when the substance you’re addicted to is removed, how do you explain gambling or shopping addictions? Sex addictions? Screen addictions? Food addictions? We can’t completely abstain from food, in the same way an alcoholic or drug addict can learn to abstain from booze and coke. So if there’s all this research out there now saying that foods high in salt/sugar/fat light up the same regions of the brain that cocaine does, how are we supposed to respond to neighborhood bake sales? Birthday cake? Ice cream cones and halloween candy? All those socially sanctioned treats that are, biologically speaking, the dietary equivalent of a crack sandwich with a side order of heroin?
This is my roundabout way of getting to the fact that I completely lost sight of my dietary goals while traveling last month. I started off positive — I was going to stay red meat and dairy and coffee free, and by the end of the trip I was eating dairy and drinking coffee and telling myself it didn’t matter because I was on “vacation.” This is what led me to start pondering addiction, because I honestly didn’t think travel was going to be a big deal. It’s not like we were going places where food choices were severely limited (with the exception of Esalen — but they served a vegan option at every meal). The whole experience made me realize that, in a controlled environment (i.e., my own home) I actually do pretty well keeping to my goals. But put me out in the world, and especially in a home where people are eating meat and dairy at most meals, or even a place like Esalen where meals are served buffet style, so you not only walk by the quinoa stuffed pepper but the delicious creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and my resolve falters big time.
Is it because I didn’t have enough willpower to resist those things? There’s all this research out there now that says willpower is a limited resource, and can be used up. Maybe I was using more willpower to resist so many available temptations that I didn’t have any left by dinnertime. Maybe the extra mental energy I had to expend to navigate life with three young children (and a husband who was working a lot) outside the home turf set me up for dietary failure. Maybe I was overconfident about how difficult it would be to stick to my goals and failed to have a plan in place. Maybe it was the jet lag.
Or maybe it was true addiction, in which case, the only way to combat it is total abstinence. No allowing for slip-ups, even while traveling, even when tired, even when living in someone else’s home for an extended period of time.
Or maybe I need to do what another friend did when she was transitioning to veganism. She was vegan at home but allowed herself the leeway of vegetarianism (i.e. eggs and dairy) when traveling. Maybe less restriction is better, maybe it will set me up less for failure. (This doesn’t help with the coffee addiction though…)
I don’t have any answers yet. I’m still pondering. And open to suggestions.
In happier news, the one thing I did stick with while traveling was my exercise plan. I ran 3 times and went to yoga twice a week. I got my runs up to 5 miles (and accidentally went 8 miles one day when I took a wrong turn on a new running route). I did actually return home feeling more fit, and without gaining any weight, despite repeated indulgences.
So if this was all just about losing weight, maybe I would decide not to worry so much about diet, just keep exercising, getting the mileage up, etc. But I do feel a moral imperative to stop eating meat and dairy, which may sound extreme when there is a lot to be morally outraged about these days. (Genocide in Iraq, racist police officers, Gaza). I can’t solve any of those big dilemmas, I can only feel sad and outraged about them (and perhaps sign some petitions). But I can decide how I’m going to live my daily life, and try to bring that life — including how I treat those closest to me, how I take care of my little patch of land, and yes what I choose to buy and consume — as close as I can in line with what I wish the world were like. A place with more peace and less suffering, more love and less fear. If I could somehow keep those goals in mind, I can’t help but feel that the ice cream and coffee and even the creamy mashed potatoes with butter would pale in comparison.