This Post May Contain Traces of Gluten

I’m giving up gluten for a month. Maybe longer.

Many of my earliest posts on this blog are about my 30-day challenges: behaviour changes I undertake for a month. I’ve been on a hiatus for awhile, which initially was for the purposes of installing some new habits but then later was just because I forgot to restart.

Last week at work, I realized that I’d nearly stopped eating gluten. The cafeteria at Twitter (where I’m interning for my penultimate co-op placement) has a lot of very healthy food, including grass-fed beef and many gluten-free options. Since I try to eat a kind of “relaxed paleo”, I gradually started eating fewer and fewer of the dishes containing gluten. I haven’t been a huge fan of bread for years, so this was a fairly easy transition to make.

I hear, however, that for many people the biggest changes result not from severe reduction of gluten intake but from complete elimination. This is obviously true for those with coeliac disease or a wheat allergy, but various bits of evidence (google for this if you care) suggests that there’s a decent probability of having some effect occur for me anyway. New models suggest that there’s a spectrum of gluten sensitivity.

At any rate, since this is an relatively very easy experiment for me to perform right now, with potentially very valuable results, it seems like something worth doing. I’ll decide later in the month if I want to continue being gluten-free or not. It strikes me that most gluten-sensitive people notice a pretty sudden and dramatic effect when they start consuming it again, so maybe I’ll do that just as a further experiment.

The official box for my Gluten-free Challenge:

For all of October 2013, I will not consume gluten.

Small text: I will try very hard to avoid products that say “may contain traces”. I’m going to disprefer products made in the same factory as gluten, but not avoid them outright. I reserve the right to drop this challenge in life-or-death / starving situations.

Accepting my present chocolate addiction

I’ve had a chocolate addiction for a few years now, but I’ve only recently started looking closely at it rather than just joking about it. Part of what has facilitated this is a framework called the Living Room Context which I relate to in several ways. One way is the house I’m living at, which is full of other people familiar with the ideas and is designed to be a microcosm within which to develop a new culture. The other is a group called CoCoA, which meets Monday evenings to talk about the LRC, and our own personal and collective growth.

In relating to a member of our community with a serious addiction, I reflected that my only personal experience I had to empathize with was this chocolate addiction. As we spoke, it became more and more apparent how similar our addictions were. We both…

  • had a rather naïve view of it at the beginning
  • use it as a coping mechanism in times of stress
  • find it hard to stop once started
  • had a moment when it clicked about how harmful it was

This connection, along with some recent events, caused me to acknowledge my addiction more meaningfully than before.

Talking about it

One interesting property that a chocolate addiction has is that there’s no particular cultural stigma around it. This is true of several chemical addictions, notably caffeine, but less true of most psychological addictions, such as alcohol, smoking, self-harm, and pornography. The chemical/psychological distinction I’m making hinges on stress-based cravings: like many alcoholics and others who are psychologically addicted, I have experienced severe cravings when stressed, and have often used chocolate as a coping mechanism. This cultural stigma can make it hard for addicts to speak up, so since I have relative space in that regard, I’m going to take advantage of it.

When, last week, I mention my addiction to my parents, my dad said something like “well, you know, sometimes I have a bit of chocolate to take the edge off” and I felt misunderstood, so I asked if he would say the same about wine if talking to an alcoholic. Then my parents got really serious (which I could have anticipated but hadn’t really thought through). I do believe that the extent of my cravings is serious, but I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively harmless addiction. That is, while I have eaten myself literally sick on a couple of occasions, no reasonable amount of indulging in this vice is going to cause serious short-term harm to myself or to others, unlike alcoholism. I suppose it’s a bit more like a nicotine addiction—long term damage to my health in exchange for temporary relaxation—except far more socially acceptable indoors, not to mention delicious. The freedom to experiment without doing serious harm is perhaps a second property to take advantage of, in trying to understand and transcend addiction.

Initial behaviour-change attempts

The aforementioned deliciousness has vexed me, as it means that I don’t want to go cold-turkey on chocolate (although I have done that sort of thing temporarily as a challenge). What I want to do is reduce my chocolate consumption to healthy levels, while not setting any explicit restrictions on it. I have tried explicit restrictions, cutting down my sugar intake from around 80-200g/day to 40g/day, but then, well, midterms. And stress. And then I ate 200g of chocolate during one midterm. Then another. And besides, I found myself frustrated by the restrictions, because some days I just want some ice cream, cravings largely aside. I tried 4HB Slow-Carb-Diet-style “Cheat” Days, but some days I don’t know in advance that I’ll have the chance to try someone’s homemade torte. Opportunism is important to me!

A picture of the cookie monster from sesame street, with the caption "Today me will live in the moment unless it's unpleasant in which case me will eat a cookie"

I found this after I made the post, but had to add it because it’s just so relevant.

Some of my recent introspection supported by the Living Room Context is related to motivation, and it prompted me to think of a new approach. Perhaps, rather than balancing my “I want” with an “I can’t”, I might try relaxing the “I can’t” to see if my “I don’t want” would strengthen itself. I think I did this too quickly, because days later I ate about 300g of chocolate during about 20 minutes. Turns out the “I don’t want” wasn’t ready to handle such extreme stress. I relayed this to Jean (one of the people who started the LRC) and she pointed out the retrospectively obvious point that psychological addiction is driving by patterns of thought—typically shame and anticipation. Anticipation is normally quite a valuable thing (research has demonstrated that people would pay much more for an awesome experience in 3 days than 3 hours) but this becomes toxic when the anticipation is tainted with dread and shame because the anticipated activity feels akratic (against one’s better judgement).

Noticing these urges

A bag of two-bite brownies.

About a third of my attention was in this bag, in my cupboard.

I didn’t really know what to do with the anticipation point for awhile, but during the most recent CoCoA meeting I had an idea. I had been sitting there finding myself spending about 30% of my cognitive energy on dealing with the urge to eat a two-bite brownie. I ultimately revealed this to the group when we were talking about sharing our own experiences, and after that the intensity relaxed somewhat, but it was still there.

My train of thought went something like this: the anticipation becomes intense when thoughts spiral and become obsessive. What do I know about obsessive thought spirals? They are also a key part of depression. What else do I know about this? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – Wikipedia, a simple meditation practice I’ve taken workshops on at University of Waterloo, has been shown to seriously help people with depression escape their downward spirals.

Entering the Present

Then I recalled my earliest experiences with mindfulness, which were reading Eckhart Tolle, and I recalled one potent principle from one of his books. He spoke of stimulus and response. Stimulus: a dog barking, or a car alarm outside your window. Response: anger? frustration? As an alternative, he proposed using this potentially annoying cognitive interruption as an invitation to enter the present moment. I tried this at the time and found it a profound shift in perspective. I still do it today sometimes and it remains very powerful.

(I showed a draft of this post to some people, and one of them asked what “entering the present” means. It refers to not being caught up in thought patterns. To be experiencing and noticing, rather than thinking mindlessly. Directed thought, such as problem-solving, is very valuable, and meandering thought can be valuable and enjoyable as well. Persistent negative loops, on the other hand, are not, and so by returning to what’s happening in the here and now (in this case, the urge itself, and my friend speaking) I can break free from them. Meandering thoughts can be undesirable in situations like this too. Presence also implies a kind of acceptance: that reality is as it is, right now. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. This is what the title alludes to.)

My addiction as a resource

I realized during the meeting that I could do the same thing with my intrusive urges to go eat another piece of chocolate: treat the urge as a cue to relax into the present moment. This appears to be way more powerful than just thinking happy thoughts, because the entirety of the urge is a “wanting something else” which is by its nature nonpresence. So becoming present here does several things:

  • it diffuses the intensity of the urge by taking me out of anticipation mode,
  • it offers an alternative way to achieve the underlying need of stress-reduction,
  • & it changes my relationship with the urges from one of shame, frustration, impatience and anger, to a relationship of gratitude and delight.

Quoth I during the closing round of the meeting:

I have this thing that reminds me every few moments to be present? AWESOME!

This is a profound shift. I’ve wanted for awhile something that might remind me periodically to become present to what’s happening. Turns out I already have one, I just wasn’t using it. This is part of a larger pattern in the community I’m presently in, which is recognizing our patterns (both in thought and behaviour) as resources in the work we’re doing, rather than resenting them.

An analogy: imagine standing on a slippery cliff with an endless train of lemmings walking toward you. You can try to stop them by pushing back, but you’re unlikely to be able to hold them off forever, especially since the ones you repel will double-back with increasing pressure. Consider that you also have the option of simply stepping aside and watching them pass. Now, in most actual cases, the lemmings/urges are slightly more responsive and will change their route to again try to push you off. Step aside again. Not only is this more effective than fighting them, it’s a lot more enjoyable. Maybe you can even push off them as they pass, to gain momentum to get off the cliff altogether.

Beyond noticing

I know I said in my recent post on noticing that I’d write a report my progress in noticing my urges and thoughts. Well, what I’m realizing is that I didn’t focus on actually installing the habit of practising noticing. I also didn’t take my own advice about starting with one. I think the act of writing the post brought the noticing itself close to my attention, but then shortly thereafter I forgot. For the immediate future, I’m going to hone in on just using my chocolate urges as a cue to become present. I may delight in noticing other urges, but I think for now I need the clarity of focus. We’ll see how well it holds up under extreme stress. I expect it to work really well for the other half of the addiction, which is when I’ve had a small amount of chocolate and then I go back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc…

One final note on addiction:

Depending on how it’s defined, it can be estimated that over 90% of Americans have at least one “soft addiction” or “behavioural addiction” that they indulge in to unwind, to ultimate negative effect. We live in a culture of addiction, as Jean pointed out. So if you’re willing to admit it, chances are this article is personally relevant (and hopefully valuable) to you whether you identify as an addict or not. Be it chocolate or reddit, the first step is to be present to whatever your reality is.

Delicious Cognitive Dissonance

A Creme egg, in its foil wrapper.

This is it. This moment will decide the future.

Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as being “a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously”. It lists several possible kinds of cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions. I would like to add “intents”.

There’s a Cadbury Creme egg sitting on my desk. It looks positively delicious.

I had told myself when I bought it that I wouldn’t eat it until I did something substantial. I’m being rather loose with substantial: essentially, I just need to have done something for I can say “I did that.” This is my latest strategy for keeping myself a) focused and b) from eating all chocolate within my grasp.

And yet I sit here, staring at this egg.

I believe I’m experiencing acute cognitive dissonance.

Oddly, the intense sensation I’m feeling—the experience of my urges waging war against my self-control—is not in my brain, where the actual cognition is taking place. It’s actually located somewhere in my chest.

I find myself surprised that it’s such a tantalizingly rich experience. I’m not acting, to accomplish something substantial or to eat the egg, but just sitting. Being present to my conflicted intentions. I find myself taken in by the sensation in my chest. Enduring. Like a cold shower.


I wonder: how long I would have to sit with this urge before it would lose the battle? Could I break the urge by refusing it for long enough? I feel like I can.

Time to experiment.

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