The No Sweets Challenge--Fighting a Rational Addiction - Live Like a Mensch
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The No Sweets Challenge--Fighting a Rational Addiction

I recently listened to the book Spousenomics (recently re-issued as It's Not You, It's the Dishes) by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. This book looks at marriage through the lens of economics, in an attempt to help husbands and wives "minimize conflict and maximize happiness." Not only was this book an excellent and humorous "read," it provides an excellent basic understanding of the principles of economics.

One theory that I had not before encountered was the theory of "rational addiction." In basic terms, a rational addiction is when the addict is fully aware of the negative consequences of their addiction, but they choose to continue to indulge because they like the way the substance makes them feel. For instance, you'd have a difficult time finding a smoker in America in 2014 who doesn't know the health risks of smoking--most smokers continue their habit because they like they way smoking feels.

Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker (who just passed away earlier this month) postulated that the only way to combat a rational addiction is by quitting cold turkey.

So, what does that have to do with your friendly neighborhood mensch?

Well, you may recall that my very first post on Live Like a Mensch was about my inability to leave Halloween candy alone--even when I stored said candy in the trunk of my car.

I've got a bit of a rational addiction to sweets, is what I'm saying.

Now, I've always had a sweet tooth. But it's become a little more than just a preference that dessert follow dinner in recent years. Basically, ever since my first year of teaching (when I survived on chocolate and abject terror), I've found myself structuring my day around how and when I could get a sweets-fix.

So, I decided to take Gary Becker's suggestion to heart. I decided to stop eating sweets. Completely.

Oddly enough, this was a much easier decision than the myriad times I have tried to limit myself to one dessert per week or some other such moderation. (I would end up redifining the parameters of a "week" or nearly busting a blood vessel with the strain of trying to avoid eating something that I would then go ahead and eat 20 minutes later).

Now, my challenge was not quite so draconian that I will never have sugar again pass my lips. I decided that sweets should be saved for special occasions, and there were four per year that I really want to commemorate:

  • My birthday (in February)
  • Mother's Day
  • LO and BB's birthday party (since their birthdays are two weeks apart in August/September, we will probably only have one party for both boys for the foreseeable future)
  • Thanksgiving

I've been doing this for nearly two months now. And it's really been illuminating and liberating. Here are some things I've learned:

  • By going cold turkey, I've changed the way I view sweets being off limits. Instead of thinking "I can't eat that," I've been thinking "I don't eat that." For some reason, that change in attitude has made it much easier to say no thank you.
  • Since I'm looking at this as a long-term change in how I eat, I've been able to simply shrug off the couple of times I have eaten sweets. Normally, falling off the wagon would be enough for the "what-the-heck" effect to kick in: "Well, since I've already had a bite of LO's cookie, I might as well go and eat a cookie or five of my own. My plan is blown anyway." But I'm looking at this as a long term change in my thinking and eating, so having a bite of LO's cookie, or accepting some chocolate trail mix at a meeting are simply moments when I have eaten things I don't normally eat rather than signs of my moral failure.
  • Now that I don't eat sweets, I feel like I can eat anything. I've never had an issue with other types of junk/unhealthy food. I'm perfectly capable of moderating my intake of pizza or french fries and the like. But I've always felt like I have to watch what I eat because I know I need to leave some caloric space for the sweets I will inevitably be eating later. Now, if I want something savory that's not the healthiest, I go ahead and indulge, because I know that I can stop at just one--which I couldn't with the cookies.
  • I now understand that I did this once before in my life without realizing it! When I was a teenager, I LOVED Doritos. I would stop at 7-11 on my way home from school to get a snack consisting of Doritos and a Slurpee, because I didn't appreciate that teenage stomachs are made of titanium. Every once in a while, my mom would buy a full-size party bag of Doritos for me as a treat, which I inevitably over-indulged in. There was one memorable occasion wherein I actually ate nearly all of a full-size bag of Doritos (see teenage titanium stomachs, above).
I was pretty grossed out at myself after that incident. So I stopped eating Doritos. Just stopped.

On the rare occasions since then that I've had the Dorito-y goodness, I remember exactly why I once climbed into a bag and ate my way out of it. Those things are tasty and addictive. But I don't eat them anymore, and I have no issue avoiding them because they're simply off my radar.

I plan to keep this up in an intentional and specific way for a year. After that, I hope that I'll regard sweets in a similar way that I do Doritos--I know it will be delicious, but I'm not particularly tempted. And during this year, I'm determined to never beat myself up if I have a dessert when it is not one of my four special occasions--since it's not that I can't eat sweets, I just don't (unless I do). No biggie.

Have you ever dealt with a rational addiction? Would you be able to cut out something cold turkey?


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