The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All Chipped Out

I stopped a 20+ year chip addiction 9 months ago.

If you have spent any time with me over the years, you know this is a significant achievement.

I used to consume all manner of chips and other crispy carbohydrates--potato chips, corn chips, even crackers in a pinch.

As early as Middle School, I was trading my lunch money for a couple of small vending machine bags of Cool Ranch Doritos and a drink.

My relationship with chips grew until I was a full-fledged carbohydrate addict by my early 20s. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a "carbohydrate addict," but I was one.

It's not an exaggeration to say I'd average at least a full bag of chips every day for the past 20+ years. I'd store bags in my home and car and to some extent structure my day around obtaining chips.

Eating chips had quite a psychological hold over me. It got to the point where I would be afraid to go to bed without eating chips.

I used to live a block away from an all-night convenience store when I was 24. I would often drift away to sleep only to wake up about an hour later, around midnight. I'd walk half-asleep over to the store, make a purchase, come back up to my room, eat about half a bag of Doritos, and then fall back asleep.

My body would go into a kind of shock if I didn't have them. I would often each chips preemptively just to avoid this kind of episode from happening. It was scary--was it physical or psychological? I didn't know, but I just lived within its parameters.

Number Crunching, Chip Crunching

My path out of this started with thyroid cancer when I was 30. In preparation for the surgery and radiation treatment, I had to follow a strict low iodine diet. No chips of any kind were allowed. I must admit that among all the fears I was wrestling with during that time, one of them was the question over how I was going to cope with this diet. Would my body allow it? Would I go into some kind of low-carb shock? Would I cave and violate the diet? I've tried to give up chips time and again only to snap back each time after a brief interlude like a taut rubber band. My confidence that I could go without chips was pretty low and almost completely untested.

I actually made it through the low iodine diet and did quite well sans chips. That was my first confidence boost out of this mess.

I intuitively blamed the cancer on Cool Ranch Doritos. I tried to eat Doritos a number of times since the diagnosis, only to throw the nearly full bag into the trash with anger.

From that time on, my chip of choice changed from Cool Ranch Doritos to salt & vinegar. I started opting for "healthier" chips but otherwise the addiction resumed unabated. Due to the radiation, my mouth became drier and my taste buds duller. The irony is that I could no longer eat Doritos without chasing each mouthful down with some water. The salt & vinegar helped stimulate my saliva glands enough to partially make up for that.

I tried to eat chips that were as organic and healthy as possible--with sea salt instead of table salt, with organic ingredients instead of GMO potatoes or corn, without any unnatural seasonings and with coconut oil, avocado oil or lard instead of processed vegetable oils (the latter being extremely difficult to find).

However, there is really no such thing as a "healthy" chip. The ultra-scorched cooking process to make chips creates some pretty nasty chemical alternations (like acrylamide), and that happens whether the ingredients are sourced organically or not.

At 41, I started to do some number crunching in addition to all the chip crunching. A full-sized bag of chips every day for 20 years equals 7,300 bags and approximately $21,900. What's worse is that those numbers may be understated. What really concerned me, though, was the impact on my health. I could only imagine what legacy that crud might leave on my body after so many years.

A full meal each day was just a bag of chips: My daily routine was breakfast, lunch and chips.

This song hit a little too close to home: The all-natural, healthy food star who at night is a closet Junk Food Junkie, by Larry Groce. I was making some incredible progress in healthy eating with one major exception.

I didn't want to wake up at say, age 60 or 80, and realize that I had ben spending the last 40-60 years pounding a full bag of chips every day. The numbers were already racking up as it were.

It was never going to be easy to stay, I figured, and it was never going to just go away on its own--so I might as well start now. I got so tired of just being a victim and a helpless pawn to this addiction.

I will say that during the last couple of years, my body has been less and less inclined to eat chips. I would very often feel like absolute garbage after eating them. Time and again, that was becoming the most common response I felt. I was getting some push from the inside to wean off this addiction.

Root Vegetable, Root Cause

It is good to get the root cause of cravings. A dose of chips can sooth overtaxed adrenal glands that have been worn out due to stress. The salt replenishes the adrenals, the carbs help produce the calming serotonin and the fats help stabilize hormones and a host of other effects. Given all that, it might sounds like chips might be a nice tonic for stress, so why stop? Well, yes and no. They do address stress, but they also introduce toxins into the system. And there are better ways of addressing stress. People can effectively self-medicate in all sorts of ways, but not all ways are as good as others. Some methods treat symptoms while others address the root causes. Some methods treat one problem only to generate another.

My body's need and cravings for coffee dramatically reduced once I started addressing methylation issues. That's a post for another day.

All cravings have a root cause. Intense sugar cravings, for example, could be linked to inadequate protein intake or protein processing. Address that, and the cravings can lose their grip on you. There could be other reasons, as well, so it is worth researching.

Salts do help calm the adrenals. But table salt is a poor way to treat that. I take a daily regimen of minerals. I use magnesium, natural salts and the adrenal cocktail at different times of the day to balance out.

There was no question that eating chips was filling an emotional void. I used to "stuff" myself to block out other feelings that were bubbling up. It has taken a lot of work to root all this out and get to the bottom of it.

I've done some intense work on myself to root out stress and anxiety. I wouldn't say that the change happened overnight. But I've been putting healthy building blocks in my lifestyle bit by bit, so that when I finally made the decision to quit chips, it wasn't that hard to do it. I don't recall working directly on the emotional side of my chip addiction, but the more I worked on myself in general, I eventually reached a place where eating chips like this just did not fit any more.

Decision Time

So back on October 25, 2015, I just gave away my last remaining bags of chips and that was it.

In the first couple of months afterwards, I did partake of chips and other junk food at least once or twice. One time I was extremely sluggish at an all-day work meeting. I was out of town and there was a long table of snack food. I caved just to keep my energy up. Looking back now, I'm amazed I did that, because I would never do that now. After building my confidence and my resolve in those first two months, I doubled down on my commitment and became far more strict about it. I could never imagine eating a chip now.

It's hard to imagine I was that person stuffing his face several times daily with all manner of greasy chips. They are gone and feel long done. It feels like my last bag of chips was closer to 9 years ago than 9 months. Despite that, I still get cravings. It's amazing how enduring those cravings are. My mouth will salivate as I pass the chips aisle in the grocery store. I still feel the tug. In very relaxed moments, I could easily grab some chips at a party and start munching if I don't quickly remind myself.

Not. An. Option.

What helped the most was laying out some simple ground rules. I am not going to squander my energy in some immense tug-of-war with myself. Me fighting me means that each side loses half the time, as they are equally matched. That's a recipe only to exhaust myself and ultimately continue--or even further entrench--addiction patterns. I've been there and that's nothing but failure.

I simply declared that eating chips is "not an option," and that's it.

There are some things you just don't do--you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't pull the mask off the ole Lone Ranger. And I don't eat chips.

Cravings remind me of a rebellious teenager. They will keep testing boundaries until they find a crack in the façade and exploit it. If you "more or less" decide to give up an addiction, that part of you that still wants to indulge will know that your resolve is not absolute. It knows there are conditions under which you'll crack. The voice will simply amplify itself until you give in, or even worse--to create the conditions in your life necessary for giving in.

If this happens, don't blame the voice of cravings--you are the one that left the door cracked open! You've got to take charge of yourself. Whether that's your inner child or just the voice of habit, the adult you has to be in charge. If you resolve to not indulge your addiction 80% of the time and just cross your fingers and passively hope that the addiction cravings don't notice the wide-open 20%, you're kidding yourself.

This doesn't mean that renouncing all addictions must be done cold turkey. There is room to gradually take steps and build resolve. Whatever works. At some points along the way, though, decisions have to have credibility and you have to have the confidence to hold to them.

This is about the adult me being in charge---respecting and listening to the child me inside but making sure the balance is appropriate--with the adult being the adult and the child being the child.

I liken it to the way children are calm when they are around calm, confident adults who have a healthy sense of self and boundaries. This doesn't happen by dominating or belittling the children--it happens through calm, respectful leadership where the adult is in charge. When adults are not so well centered, the balance is off, a power struggle ensues and all mayhem breaks loose. When the cravings of an addiction get the best of you, it's like unruly kids who have taken over a school classroom with the teacher playing defense.

Moving Forward

There is one exception. I will eat chips with salsa/pico at a Mexican restaurant. However, the chips are few and I don't make the decision to go there just to eat chips. The experience of eating those chips does not seem to trigger the former pleasures or reflexes associated with the chip addiction. It just doesn't feel like a chip indulgence. I'm okay with that, and it doesn't feel like cheating. it's just a great way to deliver the salsa, which is one of the primary reasons to go to a Mexican restaurant. I may one day decide to forego these as well, but so far I don't think this is a problem. I don't make any desperate evening taco runs or even include Mexican restaurants more often in my dining rotation (which is rarely more than once per week and often less). I won't buy any chips & salsa to eat at home, as that seems like a slippery slope.

Will I ever eat chips again? Good question. I thought about allowing myself some chips after maybe a year. Going without chips forever seems like a harsh penalty. But I really don't need them and don't particularly like them. Leaving the door open for some future indulgence just feels like that--leaving the door open. No, I think I'm done for good. I don't see any value in re-negotiating any other terms. Opening the door a little just ends up opening the door too much.

I suppose eating a few chips without turning into the lady in the comic at the start of this post would be a good sign that the addiction is a thing of the past. But as long as there are any latent cravings at play here, I won't indulge. And frankly, after 9 months, I really don't miss chips all that much and don't see any need to ever eat chips again.

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