THE BLOG
08/10/2015 01:11 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2016

How to Stop Sugar Binges Using Psychiatric Treatments for Drug Addicts

Like many people using benzodiazepines, I got addicted to Clonazepam (Klonopin). When I first realized it I simply quit cold turkey. That didn't work out so well. I started sweating, shaking and felt so disoriented I thought I was going out of my mind. I went back on Klonopin and all the symptoms disappeared.

My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist who put me on a routine "step down" schedule to wean me off the drug. In three months I was completely off of Klonopin without suffering a single negative symptom. It worked so well I decided to use the psychiatrist's strategy of "habituation" and "systematic desensitization" on my sugar binges. I figured if these processes got me off of Klonopin I couldn't imagine how well they'd work on getting me off Oreos.

It worked beautifully. I went from eating 16 Oreos at a sitting to zero without ever having "withdrawals" or exerting white-knuckled willpower.

Easy Does It.
As I said, systematic desensitization and habituation are the principle methods psychologists and psychiatrists use to treat prescription drug addiction. The body resists sudden, dramatic changes but adapts easily to small, almost imperceptible ones. Think of your body's response to "cutting back drastically" as if it were a jet plane that makes a sudden 90 degree turn at 600 MPH -- the people in the cabin scream, panic, cry, and pray as everything that isn't bolted down flies across the seats (including the passengers). Even after the plane straightens out, panic remains. Compare that to the plane turning one degree at a time. Yes, it takes a lot longer, but you'll get there in time and the passengers are calm, happy and look forward to the next trip.

While I am a little leery of equating my craving for sugar with my addiction to Klonopin, there is no question that systematic food desensitization works through the same principle -- "habituating" the body to smaller and smaller dosages of the craved substance without triggering "withdrawal symptoms."

So here's how I did it.

Using Habituation & Desensitization To Stop Sugar Binges
The first step is knowing how much of the substance I was taking in. My psychiatrist couldn't have gotten me off of Klonopin without knowing exactly how much I was taking so that he could step me down. But the thing was, I didn't know how many Oreos I was eating at a sitting. I just kept eating until I didn't want anymore. I'd reach into the pack as I was watching a game and hoover them. All I knew was that the package looked like a linebacker hit it when I was done.

This was my first lesson in using systematic desensitization to get rid of sugar binges: Know thy number. You can't reduce your intake if you don't know what you're taking in.

So here's what I did. I counted the number of Oreos I was popping into my mouth. I was shocked when I realized that I typically ate 16 Oreos at a sitting. Shocked. Because I never really paid attention -- especially when my team was at the 10-yard line with one down and two to go. I just assumed I ate, well, not a LOT but you know, a lot-ish. Well, there is no "-ish" in 16 Oreos. That's Type 1 diabetes arm-wrestling Type 2 for a shot of insulin.

Be that as it may, I had a number to measure progress from: 16 Oreos.

The Step Down Method
I knew from my experience with the psychiatrist that I had to "step down" in such a small way that my body wouldn't perceive much of a change. So the next time I binged on Oreos I counted out 14 and ate them. And I continued eating 14 for the next few times that I binged.

Habituation and desensitization have been likened to deep-sea divers descending to the ocean floor. Once you descend to a new depth you must get your body used to the pressure or you'll start getting the bends. It's the same with reducing cravings. Once 14 Oreos became my "new normal" I reduced the next feeding to 12 cookies.

I repeated this process without any problems until I "descended" to eight cookies at a sitting. For whatever reason, my anxieties (and urgency to binge) shot up, so I did what the psychiatrists had me do when he cut back the Klonopin a little bit too fast -- I raised the amount of the substance I was taking. I went back to 10 cookies per feeding.

Of course I felt like a complete failure because suddenly my downward trajectory was derailed. But I remember what my shrink said when it happened with the Klonopin: "Nonsense," he said. "Divers get the bends at different depths. Just because somebody's tolerance level is higher or lower doesn't make them a better or worse diver. They just have to acclimate themselves better. You got the 'bends' at a depth you hadn't expected. All that means is that you need to go to a shallower depth, stay there to acclimatize yourself, and then drift downward."

So that's what I did -- I went up to 10 cookies and stayed there for the next few feedings. In a couple of weeks I went down to eight cookies with almost zero level discomfort. Getting stuck on 8 cookies illuminated a central premise about desensitization/habituation: When in pain, extend the habituation and slow the descent. Time is your friend; impatience is the enemy.

From there, it was only a matter of a few more weeks before I got down to three Oreos. And from there it wasn't much longer before my cravings for Oreos went away altogether.

I had taught myself the secret to dramatically cutting back on problem foods: A slow, gradual descent from one "depth" to the next without triggering "the bends."

What About Harder To Measure Foods Like Potato Chips?
Getting rid of food binges through habituation and systematic desensitization is fairly easy when the food comes in defined units like cookies or candies. But if your problem food is potato chips (and really, whose isn't?) then conducting a desensitization/habituation "descent" will be more difficult. What are you going to do -- count out potato chips? I think not. There isn't enough space here to detail the process but you can click here for my step-by-step formula to stop binging on potato chips.

In the meantime, I invite you to try this process not just on foods but on beverages. I used this system to cut back on my Diet Coke consumption from 10 cans a day to one. I just wish that I had known about habituation and desensitization before I quit Klonopin cold turkey. I would have saved myself a whole lot of grief.

Michael Alvear is the author of Eat It Later. Mastering Self Control & The Slimming Power Of Postponement.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.