Food (and) sobriety: a conversation with Marc Azoulay
As an integrative nutrition health coach, my scope of practice does not include diagnosing, treating, or prescribing – instead, many clients with whom I work use my health and kitchen coaching services as a complement to the work of other practitioners, both conventional and alternative. Because my work focuses a lot on food and cooking, I often find myself asked (and asking!) questions about our relationships to food, especially with respect to food addiction and eating disorders.
Today on the blog, I’m happy to feature Marc Azoulay, a psychotherapist in Boulder, CO (one of my favorite places on earth!) who works with food addictions among other issues and who was gracious enough to answer some questions for us.
2. In your description of your work, you state, “The human mind is an addictive mind. We are not configured to deal with our modern culture of over-stimulation and instant gratification. There are so many opportunities to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of responsibilities and obligations that we have. We try to cope with this stress by using substances or numbing out. Early in our lives we develop patterns and habits that we continue to act on even though they no longer serve us. ” Let’s talk about food addiction specifically. Your statement implies that initially the pattern or habit does us a service – can you give me an example of that from the world of food?
That’s correct, initially an addiction or a habit serves a purpose. Sometimes we are trying to get a deep need met, or we are trying to cope with the overwhelming stress in the rest of our lives. Food addiction is an interesting subset of my work. Some old needs that I’ve seen met by food are the ability to feel in control, an activity that is self-soothing, and a way to feel valued by family and friends. Everyone needs to eat, so “sobriety” isn’t really an option. The goal instead is to help clients discover their relationship to food and to uncover any myths that they may believe about it or their bodies.
A few of my clients struggle with eating disorders, and with them I’ve found that their fear of consuming food comes not from disgust with the food itself but from a deep disgust with themselves. Many of these clients have been victims of abuse at a young age and were told or learned through experience that they were not worthy of nourishment or that that would be unlovable if their bodies look a certain way. My job is to help my clients get to the root of these beliefs and process the emotional charges around them.
3. And is there an exact point in time that the pattern/habit starts to no longer serve us, or is that more difficult to pinpoint? How can we identify it?
This is a great question, and I think it’s one that a lot of people in addictive cycles struggle with every day. There is a constant worrying about whether they’ve gone too far or reached a point of no return. One of the first things I do with every client is teach them mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention – on purpose. I help my clients develop a relationship with their bodies and their minds.
To your question, I’ve found that if we can tune in, we can get a lot of information about whether something is nourishing or not. There is just an innate knowing that arises if we take the opportunity to check it. An easy example of this is TV watching: I bet most of your readers can tell whether they are really enjoying a TV show or whether they are using it to numb out.
With food it is the same process. If we take the time we can determine whether we are really enjoying and experiencing a meal or whether we have tuned out and are just consuming mindlessly. What’s wild is that I’ve found that if I actually slow down while I eat and pay attention to the flavors, colors, and textures, I end up eating much less – but I enjoy the experience a lot more.
4. What is the most important step we can take once we realize that our habit no longer serves us?
The first thing I would recommend would be to simply study yourself and your habit. In the case of food addiction, I would encourage a client to start recording what thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations they feel before eating, during eating, and after eating. Sooner than you think, patterns will start to emerge. Clients will begin to notice certain things that trigger a binge or that help them to sustain it. They may also notice a similar pay off once they are finished. The payoff may be something like feeling full or accomplished, but more often than not it’s a feeling of guilt, disgust, or shame. In therapy, we would go into why these negative feelings might actually be serving them.
I think that it is unreasonable to just ask people to quit their addictive habits. I see on your website that you speak a lot about how restrictive dieting fails every time. It’s the same thing with addiction. A diet or sobriety that stems from self-punishment or self-aggression is not sustainable. Plus, it trains people to build hatred toward themselves instead of building compassion.
If you’re reading this and you are struggling with a food or substance use addiction, I would encourage you to seek out psychotherapy in addition to the coaching services that Liza provides – psychotherapy is a very powerful tool and support system for making significant change in your life.
In early sobriety, it is very important that my clients build mastery around something other than drinking or drug use. This serves two goals: first, it helps them to keep their mind busy while they are contending with addictive urges or cravings; second, it helps to build their self-esteem as well as introduces them to a new community of friends.
Cooking is an especially good craft to learn. It helps my clients shift from harming their bodies to nourishing them. This shift is massive! Self-love and compassion really are the cures for addiction. So many of my clients really struggle with deeply held shame. Learning a craft allows them to feel as though they are valuable and that they have something to offer the world.
6. Many of my clients struggle with their relationship to food. How do you feel about learning to cook/spending time in the kitchen around food when that is a source of pain for so many?
This is a tricky one. As I mentioned earlier, everyone has to eat. Asking someone who struggles with food to hang out in a kitchen would be similar to asking an alcoholic to hang out in a bar. My answer is to meet your clients where they are: work with them to design activities and experiences that are within their level of tolerance, and then perhaps push it a little bit. Patience is key in this process. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, recovery is not a linear path. People relapse and fluctuate in their levels of use and their relationship to their substance of choice. Usually, this is more confusing for the client than it is for the treatment professional.
In longer term treatment, I would say it’s important to help clients build the emotional tolerance required to be around food or their substance of choice. So often our addictions are tied into nearly every facet of our lives. If a client were to ignore food, they would most likely suffer losses in friendships. True sobriety is a willingness to say no in the face of a substance, not to just ignore it.
7. Tell me about your own experience learning to cook and how it has changed your relationship with food and with your body and mind.
As we spoke about before, I’m currently in recovery. Learning how to cook helped me to learn how to care for myself in a simple yet profound way. Early in my sobriety process, I dove into learning recipes from all different cultures and styles. As I started to value my own health more, I noticed that my taste in food changed. I used to love heavy meals that included a lot of cheese or fat. I got a lot out of the experience of gorging myself after a night of drug use. After eating a meal like that, I would be ready to crash.
But as I healed, I learned to appreciate subtler flavors as well as the energizing effect of food. Currently, I’m a vegetarian and I appreciate a nice nourishing curry or stew. I like that my food intake now creates more energy in my body instead of sapping it. I don’t really eat desserts, candies, or soda because they don’t seem to really nurture me.
As my diet changed I came to value exercising as well. I’ve been practicing yoga daily for over 8 years now, this helps me to deepen the connection with my body and mind as well as keep me fit a present during my work with clients.
8. What’s your ultimate comfort food, why, and how do you welcome it into your life?
My ultimate comfort food is a big breakfast scramble. I love the combination of potatoes, eggs, and vegetables. It’s very nourishing and warming. Although I do feel ready for a food coma after that meal, I really don’t get hard on myself for it. I usually will eat that meal after a long day of work or after a hiking or camping trip. It feels more like a reward and less like a binge.
9. Finally, cheese or chocolate, and why?
I’ve always been more into savory foods. I like a meal that feels substantial. I was actually never into chocolate – I’m one of those weirdoes 😉
10. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. I love how your work goes hand in hand with my kitchen and health coaching – tell my readers how they can get in touch with you!
Thanks for the opportunity to be featured on your site. Like you, I believe that holistic care is the only effective form of treatment, people are beautifully complex, and we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore facets of ourselves. If you like what I’ve had to say here and want to read more, check out my website at www.marc-azoulay.com – I have a blog that I update every Sunday. Additionally, you can follow me on Twitter at @MokshaMarc or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/marcazoulaytherapy/ for daily messages of inspiration.