Cold turkey — the classic, all-in method of quitting something suddenly and totally — is a term supposedly coined by heroin addicts. It takes its name from the combination of goosebumps and “cold, clammy skin” during withdrawal that makes people feel like a slab of turkey straight from the fridge.
While you hopefully won’t experience anything quite that drastic this Thanksgiving, the holiday does often require us to suddenly — if briefly — give up things when we stay with family. Maybe you’re a gym rat who’s spending seven days far from the nearest workout spot; maybe you’re a habitual smoker who’s going to have to go without while staying at your puritanical in-laws’ house; maybe you’re just suddenly on a health kick after seeing how ripped your cousin is, and trying to give up fat.
Whatever the case, we asked addiction therapist Matthew Bruhin, CEO of Apex Recovery, for the best ways to do so cold turkey.
Going cold turkey from carbs can be rough, according to Bruhin. “You’ll absolutely go through a period where you’re not feeling too good,” he says. That includes headaches, feeling listless and even peeing more as your body gets rid of the excess glucose and sodium it’s been storing. One way to combat this is to start exercising — the more you exercise, the less you’ll crave carbs, he says. This is because carbs and exercise can both elevate your levels of serotonin and endorphins (your body’s natural anti-depressants). So if you’re getting them from exercise, you’re less likely to go searching for them in a bag of chips or candy.
If you’re only cutting out sugar or sweets, going cold turkey is no problem, but if you’re totally going off of carbs altogether — no mashed potatoes, no corn bread, no joy in general — Bruhin recommends only doing so with the help of your doctor or a nutritionist.
Giving up burritos or cheeseburgers is one thing, but cutting out all fats from your diet is generally a bad idea. It’s obsolete science, in fact: The anti-fat crusade of the 1980s and 1990s, in which people subsequently binged on carbs, was a catastrophic milestone in the nation’s obesity epidemic. Nowadays, most research attests to the crucial nature of healthy fats — nuts, fish, avocados, olive oil, etc. “Fats are extremely important for brain function and brain health,” Bruin says. “Also, hormones basically live off of fat. I usually encourage people to never go off of all fats.”
If you’re mainly interested in cutting out the unhealthy fats — red meats, dairy, lard, tropical oils, fast food — the best method is the same as carbs: Start exercising. The more you exercise, the more you aim for personal improvement in other areas of your life. Eating unhealthy fats sabotages your hard work and defeats the purpose of exercising, so cutting them out is an important part of developing a new lifestyle and set of habits.
Caffeine is “extremely addictive,” Bruhin explains. “In its purest form, it’s more stimulating than cocaine.” With that in mind, he recommends taking three to seven days to detox yourself: Cut back to only one coffee a day, and swap it out for some green tea on all your other regular coffee breaks — it has less caffeine, but has plenty of other benefits (antioxidants and other nutrients), minus the anxiety that caffeine can bring on. Just be ready to deal with headaches and agitation for a few days.
Just set a date and do it. Bruhin says you could use medications — e.g., gums or patches — to come off of smokes, or you could draw down your daily number of cigarettes slowly. But in his experience, cold turkey seems to work best. “Withdrawals from nicotine aren’t so bad; they seem to deal more with just irritability than the physiological symptoms of withdrawal from caffeine,” he says. In other words, if you’re planning on quitting cigarettes and coffee, maybe do one at a time.
Are you spending time at a teetotaler’s house this Thanksgiving? Good luck with that. Alcohol is a very difficult substance to quit, and if your tolerance or addiction to it is strong, Bruhin doesn’t recommend going cold turkey at all. “Alcohol is a lot different than other substances — you gain a physiological tolerance such that, if you go cold turkey from alcohol and you’ve been drinking long enough and in a great enough volume, you’ll go through an alcohol-induced seizure and you could die,” he says. “That happens relatively frequently.”
Of course, not everyone has an actual addiction, but if your body’s literally telling you that you need a drink — as in, you experience shakes or tremors — Bruhin says it’s alright to have one. He explains that he’s told people to bring an airplane-size bottle of liquor for these situations, or to have a beer in the morning if you must. Detoxing from alcohol is an extremely serious business and is best done with the help of professionals. “If you start to experience shakes or tremors, that’s an indication that you’re physiologically dependent; do not stop drinking. You’ve got to have medical supervision in order to do that,” he says.
Bruhin — and plenty of physical trainers — recommend time away from exercise every once in awhile to let your body rest and recover, and prevent you from burning out on working out. If you must, though, you can do other things to either get your blood pumping, or just give you some headspace: Going on walks, doing yoga or meditating are all decent substitutes when working out isn’t an option. You might even be less stressed, knowing you don’t have to get your workout in. “Let your body rest, and you’ll probably gain more from your exercise afterward,” Bruhin says.
If you want to get rid of your actual cold turkey, take this advice on Thanksgiving dinner sandwich-creation from Chicago chef Ashlee Aubin, a six-time Michelin Bib Gourmand winner:
“Thanksgiving leftovers actually make the best grilled cheese sandwich,” he says. “Layer swiss cheese, pulled turkey meat, stuffing and cranberry sauce between buttered white bread. Grill until the cheese is gooey. Then dunk the sandwich in hot gravy.”
Good luck trying to go cold turkey from that.