Does It Really Hurt?

by Kathleen Callahan 

I've been thinking of that a lot since my battle with a packet of graham crackers in the nurses’ lounge yesterday. As I stood in front of the bin of crackers, willing my hands to stay by my side and my feet to walk out the door, that old, familiar, time-honored voice whispered in my ear, "Just this once won't hurt." Would it? I mean, really, in the grand caloric scheme of things, I'd had a beautiful lower-calorie nutritarian day. How much damage could a hundred calories really do? I'm sure if I'd had the graham crackers and stepped on the scale today, I'd still have lost weight.

Graham crackers. Flickr: Sterlic

Here's what I've figured out. Just this once wouldn't have hurt at all. In fact, it would have felt darn good, especially when whatever empty dopamine receptors I had that were crying out for a hit got that first blast of the sugar/salt/processed combo that brings such a sweet release. How many of us have felt it? You're at the church supper, eyeing a gorgeous piece of pie. You're out to dinner with friends, perusing the menu, trying to convince yourself that you're going to order the salad with broccoli and lemon wedges instead of the fettuccini alfredo . You're trying with everything you've got to avoid the cabinet that holds your husband's stash of Doritos. Most people sharing space with you at that moment would have no idea of the epic battle going on inside you as you ferociously and desperately debate yourself over your upcoming food choice. Sometimes we win that battle, and sometimes we don't. We may reach for the pie, smile at the person standing next to us, and  say, "Oh, well. Just this once won't hurt." And, it doesn't. If anything, it brings on a full-body wave of release. We actually sigh out loud sometimes with the bliss of it. Our shoulders drop as our muscles drain of tension.

Our eyes may even glaze over a bit as we go to our happy food place where our taste buds sing and our heart soars. Dopamine, after all, is the very same chemical that is released when we fall in love.

So, it's true, then. Just this once really doesn't hurt at all. In fact, it feels really good. However, when I close my eyes and picture myself having that bite of pie followed by the full-body melt, it's hard not to also imagine the images we've seen of crack addicts in the movies. Just picture the wild-eyed, jonesing addict on the floor, leaning up against the dirty wall of the crack house, tourniquet tight around her upper arm. She inserts the needle into her vein, pushes the plunger, and we see that same body melt, the same release, the same eye glazing we ourselves get when we eat the pie.

Aren't we so very fortunate that our addiction is socially sanctioned, that it takes place in clean, sparkly church halls, restaurants, and our very own kitchens? Aren't we lucky that we don't have to hide in dirty alleys to get our fixes? And, isn't it incredibly tragic that we share the same exact sort of dopamine-craving, soul-crushing, health-destroying compulsion that the crack addict does? My heart just breaks and my eyes fill to think of the enormity of it.

Just this once doesn't hurt. But, here's what does: The next day, when we're standing in front of the bin of graham crackers and doing battle yet again with the craving, we have no rational reason to avoid them. After all, we already know that once won't hurt. We proved it to ourselves the day before. Physiologically, we've primed our dopamine receptors to look for the blast of dopamine that comes from our fix. We all know it's awfully hard to fight biology. We tell ourselves we don't want the crackers as our hands are tearing the packet open and our mouths are watering in anticipation.

Here's what else hurts. Not only are we eating crackers every day now, but we're also eating a bagel with butter in the morning. And, because we're feeling so tired and drained from a lack of nutrients, we're too tired to cook when we get home, so we're grabbing take-out. And, then we see the scale nudge up in the wrong direction. Because here is a universal truth—our minds can be fooled by our addictive brain, but our bodies cannot. We can tell ourselves that we won't gain weight just by treating ourselves every now and then, but our bodies will always tell us the truth.

And this hurts, too: We feel demoralized. We feel weak. We feel desperate, and let's face it, we feel terrified. We may have the specter of serious health problems looming over us. We may have watched a loved one die of their addiction and like Scrooge, feel we've been shown a vision of our future by the Ghost of Things Yet to Come. Anyone who's lain in bed at night with a head full of visions of diabetes and heart disease knows exactly what I'm talking about.

But, does it have to be this way? Are we destined to die in the back alleys of our clean lives? I suppose it's preferable to die in a sterile hospital rather than in a dirty crack house, but must this be our only choice? I don't think so. I believe with all of my heart that we can change our futures. We've all seen people on Dr. Fuhrman’s blog and website do it. We've read of our Fuhrman forum friends beating heart disease, holding cancer at bay, ditching the insulin and cholesterol meds. We know of people who run marathons in their 80s. We know of others who were reborn after losing a hundred pounds. Why can't this be us, too? It can, my friend, it can.

Here's what I learned yesterday: resisting that graham cracker was an incredibly painful experience. It caused me far more pain than eating it would have. I mean, the pain was truly visceral. I swear every cell in my body felt it. But, you know what? When I walked out to my car after work last night, I felt triumphant. I felt victorious. My belly felt blissfully content from the gorgeous homemade harvest soup I'd fed it. And, I knew that I was one step closer to breaking that devilish food addiction once and for all. For me, that kind of intense pain is worth it.

It's tricky for us, because unlike the crack addict who decides to go clean, we cannot avoid our crack houses. There will always be church suppers, restaurant outings, and, yes, even our own kitchens. There will be Super Bowls, birthdays, Mother's Day, the Fourth of July. And after the summer, we've got that sugar-orgy holiday of Halloween with Thanksgiving and Christmas following right on its heels. How will you navigate your way through these dangerous waters? Will you go for the addict's release, or will you fight for your life? Will you fight for your family, so that unlike my dad, you won't leave them with an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table and steal from them the chance to hear your voice say that you are thankful to be alive and thankful for them?

I know what choice I'll make  from now on.  I will take care of this one body I've been gifted with. After all, I can't turn it in every few years for a new one. It requires my love and protection if I am to live free of addiction and disease. 


Image credit: Flickr - Sterlic

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Comments (44) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Elise - February 20, 2013 10:14 AM

Such a powerful and well written piece! I need to print this out and carry it in my pocket when my good and bad consciences are duking it out in head over the temptation of a m&m.

Brooke - February 20, 2013 10:23 AM

This may have been one of the best things I have ever read. And I read it at a very important time... You have no idea. Thank you for such perfect words.

Eve - February 20, 2013 10:26 AM

Oh Wow, this "speaks" to me...I am one of the ones that loses that battle too often. This inspires me to do beter! Thank you...

Katageek - February 20, 2013 10:32 AM

Wow. That is my life. Thank you for this article. I'm a struggling vegan and have had a lot of success battling type 2 Diabetes, but after almost two years I find it still hard to break my fat and fast food addiction.

And the weight is returning.

My family is no help. Sure I put the peanut butter in a "Fridge Locker" (a food safe designed to keep work mates from raiding your lunch while you are working.) So Peanut Butter is no longer a problem.

But they are lax and unsupportive but quick to point out when I'm "off" my game. With oreo cookies in plain sight.

I even tried to get my DO to Rx me some drug similar to what they give other types of addicts. Nope.

Aint gonna happen.

I have SEVEN fast food restaurants within a quarter mile of my home. I have OVER A DOZEN VEGAN cookbooks, I'm now an expert vegan chef, but EVEN AFTER A FULL BELLY OF HEALTHY FOOD, I WILL GO OUT THE DOOR TO MCDONALDS ON A FULL STOMACH.

I have a black belt. I have a college degree. WTF?

(sigh) back to the vegan potluck this Saturday for support and rejuvenation.

I'm now enrolling the help of a vegan friend to meet me for lunch every week to keep me accountable.

Way. Harder. Than. I. Though.

Charlotte - February 20, 2013 10:33 AM

What a wonderful article! Thank you Kathleen. This will be a great introduction to, that I will send on to others.

Mary Jo - February 20, 2013 10:50 AM

Thank you for putting this into words.

Sue Hull - February 20, 2013 11:03 AM

The analogy is true. The writing is striking. Thank you.

Hope - February 20, 2013 11:11 AM

Thank you for putting into words the struggle and the reason to fight! My addict body tries to convince my brain it's no big deal. Yet the reality of sugar, fat and empty calories is not a blissful experience but a life-robbing choice and deception. I have to let the truth override my desire. Every time.

Pattymc - February 20, 2013 11:21 AM

Wow, that was right on target. I am saving this to my phone to remind me of this whenever I'm tempted. Thank you for posting this.

Denise Drake - February 20, 2013 11:45 AM

OMG!!!! This is the best!!!!! Totally relate!!!

Pauli Trent - February 20, 2013 11:59 AM

Wow! I don't know what to say except that I'm crying so hard that it is difficult to type. This post made me really, really think about what I am addicted to and what it looks like from the outside looking in. Thank you for your insight. So powerful!!

Jen - February 20, 2013 12:09 PM

Fantastic, heart-felt post...just what I needed to kick-start away from the week long slide I've made into processed corn flakes, pasta, etc.

The Good Luck Duck - February 20, 2013 12:22 PM

Thank you for that. I'm going to try to think in terms treating my body well, instead of just treating my body.

McKinley - February 20, 2013 12:39 PM

Thank you for putting to words what so many of us have grappled with over and over again Kathleen! You are so courageous!

marthava - February 20, 2013 12:55 PM

Painfully true. Thanks for your honesty...and the reminder. I will need to read this every time that old boogeyman Food Addiction rears his ugly head.

Jean Myers - February 20, 2013 1:22 PM

Thanks for the accurate description of food craving! That really rings true.

Here's a book I have found very helpful: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., who teaches The Science of Willpower course at Stanford University. While I appreciate Dr. Fuhrman's educational approach, learning how to build my willpower muscles has been very helpful, too.

Barbara6 - February 20, 2013 1:33 PM tears...

What is there to say but thank you for posting this extraordinary piece, thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable in public, thank you for making me feel less crazy (who else could know our inner lives, the battles, the pretending), and thank you so very much for the inspiration - and just in time too.

I'm miserable with some sort of cold - just so tired and flopped on the sofa watching foolishness on TV. All day, I've been caught in the battle loop that goes, "I want cinnamon raisin toast with butter. It doesn't count when you're sick - you get to have anything you want when you're sick - etc. etc."

But I read your post and the knowledge came back. Your words restored me more powerfully than the addiction compelled me - and now I'm peaceful again, and strong. I wanted to tell you this.


Jenna - February 20, 2013 1:40 PM

Thank you for saying this! Sometimes it seems like healthy bloggers completely deny the fact that they WANT those graham crackers, bagels or chips. Thank you for admitting your struggle and not pretending like choosing healthy food is easy and once you eat a healthy diet you won't even crave those other foods. Maybe for some that is true, because there are so many reasons to eat healthy and choose those good for you items, but for some of us all those reasons sometimes just do NOT outweigh the pleasure and community and years of tradition and habit. Just like you said, that choice to avoid the crackers was PAINFUL, and it is truly hard to choose pain.

Struggling - February 20, 2013 1:56 PM

Were you that fly watching me all day this week? How did you know exactly how I feel? Thank you for sharing this. I know exactly what you mean. We battle that pizza party at work. We say just one slice and as soon as we come back to sanity after eating it we regret it. 10 minutes later the food coma ensues. That's if we're lucky and somehow managed to not add a second or third slice. Right now I'm sitting next to a plate of unfinished salad from a conference that provided salad and pizza. Of course three slices of pizza are in my stomach.

I can say no thank you when someone offers me unhealthy food. I can spout all the knowledge I've gained from Fuhrman's books, the forums, etc. I can go through the aisles at the market and avoid all the junk it has. But WHY OH WHY when free food sits in front of me can I not take and eat it? Adam and Even had everything they could possibly imagine in the garden and still they ate the forbidden apple. Why am I a person who's not starving, who's able to buy any food I want, not able to say no to the junk food in front of me when no one's looking?

I truly believe it's an addiction. None of my friends seem to know what I"m talking about and simply thinks it's a case of willpower. If they're right, I'm screwed. Wife is fully supportive but she can't be there every second of the day keeping me in check.

Laura - February 20, 2013 2:43 PM

Thanks for this article. It came at the most incredibly right time today. I needed the reminder (again) of why I choose to eat this way and not giving in today when I was hungry and wanted to "just this once" (but didn't).

Carolyn Peterson - February 20, 2013 2:44 PM

Very moving piece! I have found that having the cookie or candy "just this once" is like a gateway drug. Once I've eaten one cookie, I want MORE, MORE, MORE! I can spiral down that day, or week, or even month and be eating poorly. I want to be free from my food additions; that cookie or cupcake isn't worth it!

Mberkovitz - February 20, 2013 3:01 PM

Please be a regular contributor and not just a guest blogger here. Your diet is not the only gift here. We readers would be greatly benefitted by seeing your posts frequently.

Numa - February 20, 2013 3:05 PM

How true!Today's battle I lost because I was out and about and bought chocolates for a friend and thought that I deserve a bit of appreciation as well! The appreciation to myself was some chocolates! Still, overall things are getting better and I've stopped having two almond croissants for my mid-morning break. I've lost 35kg. My BMI is normal and I enjoy Dr Fuhrman's books and recipes.


Lisa J - February 20, 2013 3:29 PM

What an incredible post. And the timing is, well, incredible. I have been struggling with binging after 12 great ETL weeks. Lately, I have been coming to the realization that it is nothing other than desire that requires my saying NO in order to turn this around. Denying the desire of the moment for the medium and long term gains that are far superior. I was at a huge choice point sitting before my computer, and I saw the email about your post. As soon as I started to read it, I knew what I had to do. I think it spurred me on to make a significant decision and commitment in my life. Thank you for your honesty and for your example. Now I know I can do it too!

Wendy Keller - February 20, 2013 4:41 PM


I am a literary agent - I sell books to publishers on behalf of select authors. This is exceptionally well-written. I'd like to talk to you about a potential book. Please refer to the website given and contact me if you are not currently under representation.

Thank you.
Wendy Keller
Keller Media, Inc.

Kristi - February 20, 2013 4:49 PM

This is the first time I have commented on this blog but I had to thank you for this post. It was the right post at the right time. Definitely going to save this, print it out, and keep it with me. Wonderfully written! It's nice to hear someone articulate so well what so many of us are feeling.

Chris - February 20, 2013 6:05 PM

Greetings. I do not want my comments below to take away from this very well written and important blog post. I completely understand and respect the message being communicated here, and I have nothing but love and respect for all of you on your personal journey to great health.

First let me say that I am not defending “moderation” as a means to achieve optimal health, that isn’t good enough. I believe the nutritarian diet is what must be followed. I also personally understand the challenges with food addiction, but the “I can never have it again” approach to food does not work for everyone. In my opinion, this approach for some people just exacerbates the “I had a good day/bad day” cycle of food obsession and results in more self-criticism over an occasional poor food choice. There is much more chemistry going on inside of a person’s body (caused by emotional issues, physical stress, medication, disease, etc.) than just a simple dopamine reaction that causes a person to want to make poor food choices for a temporary high.

If you are eating a nutritarian diet and living a healthy lifestyle including exercising, practicing meditation/stress reduction and taking care of your emotional issues then I don’t see how a graham cracker episode will result in a complete abandonment of a person’s nutritarian diet and healthy lifestyle. If your body is getting the nutrients it needs then you will eventually stop craving and wanting these poor foods. Obsessing and beating yourself up over an occasional poor food choice seems much worse for your long-term health and happiness than a couple of empty calories. I think we sometimes put too much emphasis on diet and food choices alone and neglect the other issues that need to be fixed in our lives to really achieve perfect health and happiness.

Best of luck to everyone in their pursuit of health!


Carol - February 20, 2013 8:01 PM

An outstanding article. Thank you. This is a lesson I am learning. Did ETL a couple years ago and succeeded for a couple months. Then I started business traveling and a little SAD food here and a little there, and well, I had gained all the weight back and then some.

Last November - Nov 17 to be exact - I started again. The Holiday Challenge also helped me make the commitment. I was home for a couple months and did extremely well right through the holidays. Mid-January I started business travel again, but this time it was different. I plan, I travel with greens, fruit, a NutriBullet, frozen portions of homemade ETL soup and, by grace, I'm doing great!

I'd down about 25 pounds, but most importantly, I have not had those cravings. Why? Because I'm eating such high nutrient food every day. I truly see that "one time" WILL hurt. I hated wrestling with the cravings. Now I don't wrestle. I am so thankful for such freedom. And I am so thankful that I feel SO much better. That is a huge incentive for me to keep going.

Thank you, again, for such a great sharing.

Susan H - February 20, 2013 8:50 PM

If I didn't know any better, I thought this was me you were talking about. It makes me crazy (and yes, angry because I am just plain jealous!) when people say that "you should have a little treat now and then so you don't feel deprived." One Oreo or 100 Oreos is not enough! I find that treating myself is JUST what leads up to me going to a binge (big or small it doesn't matter!) and causing a weight gain! I did that in November with holiday treats and haven't been able to lose those darn 5 - 7 pounds I found. It is just one little thing and with me it usually causes a 1 - 2 pound weight gain for a seemingly small amount. I KNOW what you say is true. It is the one little chip in the dam that causes it to eventually crumble to pieces and give way. Thank you for such a thoughtful post! It reminds me to stay on track. I know I'll get back on again 100% but for now it is a real struggle.

Andrea - February 20, 2013 10:35 PM

A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.! Thank you for speaking my heart and mind. Today I walked away from one of my favorites...a Cadbury creme egg and that victory felt better than any ooey, gooey, sweetness could.

Heather - February 21, 2013 6:53 AM

When I try to explain the battle, I have never felt but one person ever understood. To read this perfectly worded struggle, and then all of the following comments was wonderful. It is inspiring to know that so many DO understand, and in fact, feel the same. Thank you.

John - February 21, 2013 9:48 AM

Best Disease Proof article I have read to date without a doubt! Kathleen Callahan truly understands the daily struggle some of us face. Very well written!

Kathleen Callahan - February 21, 2013 10:06 AM

Oh my goodness, what beautiful comments! You have all left me in tears. I am in awe of your courage and determination to beat the food addiction monster. Thank goodness we finally have the science behind Dr. Fuhrman's work on our side, and thank goodness we have each other. It was difficult for me to let this piece out into the "real world" because I was afraid of what people would think of my experience. I am so blown away by your understanding, hope, and willingness to fight for yourselves. We are, each of us, beating food addiction. Bring on those nutrients! Thank you, all of you, for your wonderful comments.

CraveBalance - February 21, 2013 12:38 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this! It is so helpful and hopeful to hear others express their struggles and triumphs with food addiction. I have started exploring that I might be addicted to sugar after being unable to moderate it despite extensive therapy for an eating disorder. I have just started a blog to process and share my journey.

I hope to see more from you on this site. Your writing is powerful and accessible. I could imagine myself feeling the pain you are describing. I can remember when I have felt it in other situations.

Thank you!

Amy - February 21, 2013 7:58 PM

Here's one more thank-you to you, Kathleen. I am happy to be reminded that I am not alone in this all consuming struggle.

Liam Rubel - February 22, 2013 1:24 AM

Sometimes it's better to be realized by someone's that what's going on with you. It’s very much true that we haven't thought of our body when you are going for the fad diets or eating unhealthy things. We should always aim for staying healthy and fit.

Izzi - February 22, 2013 11:27 AM

Talk about hitting home! Just yesterday, I was in the nurse's lounge myself, starving, and let myself eat the graham crackers! I told myself I needed the energy to best care for my patients, as I tend to get foggy and absent-minded if I don't keep my blood sugar up. There's no fridge to store my own food, so it was the graham crackers or nothing.

And yes, I felt better. But it made it that much easier to swing through the drive-though on the way home. I had earned it, I worked hard, right? And here I am the next morning, feeling defeated and discouraged yet again. So sick of this cycle.

Thanks for your insight. I will be saving this article and reading it again!

Paul B - February 22, 2013 11:41 AM

Thank you for that. Well written.

Michael - February 24, 2013 11:47 AM

I would have to disagree with your statement that the cravings go away on their own. In my experience, the only way the cravings go away is to completely abstain from the foods you crave. It involves some discomfort and stress, but the worst of that is over in the first week. Coming from a lifelong habit of eating huge amounts of desserts, occasional slips have rapidly turned into daily indulgence in foods that halt or reverse weight loss, increase my risks of developing diabetes and heart disease, and harm my state of mind. I think it takes a certain amount of obsession early on to make sure you establish and stick to healthy eating. The easier, softer way of moderation you suggest won't work for some people, especially myself.

Kim - February 25, 2013 11:09 AM

REALLY good post! I've bookmarked this page so I can access it when I'm having a craving or about to binge.

Julie H - February 25, 2013 10:22 PM

Thank you for this article! Really great and spoke right to me. Thank you again.

Kami - March 6, 2013 5:44 PM

Now that I've read this post, it's making more sense to me why my body wanted to "give it all up" at once, and why it's important that I just stay away from all of it. I haven't really understood (my body did, but not my mind) why I needed to stop having any wine at all, any coffee at all, any cookies, any cheese, any fish at all. Why so extreme? I wondered, even as I abstained.

Now I get it. It's just easier for me to have the clarity, and to learn a new way of interacting with food and people. Keep it simple and stay grateful. That's how I'm doing each day. And I'm so very grateful for the information and support.

Angela - March 8, 2013 1:41 PM

What an incredible post! Thank you for sharing. I hope this speaks to people everywhere.

Angelique - April 3, 2013 9:14 AM

Thank you for this post. I fell off my nutritarian train because of a "just this once" recently and unfortunately just this once turned into a couple months of "just this once" moments.. luckily my body started signaling me to stop, and lucky for me I was eating nutritarian long enough to notice when my body signaled me. That was my reminder to stay away from "just this once" moments like those.

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