I love sugar, and I need to give it up. Doesn’t everyone say that?
I am intolerant to wheat, cow and goat and sheep dairy, eggs, soy, potatoes, chicken, and pork. Possibly oats and corn as well, although I’m denial and still eat those occasionally. I am intolerant to yeast, both the kind in bread and the kind in hard cider or GF (gluten free) beer. I am allergic to all nuts except for almonds and coconut. I’m allergic to all stone fruits, to raspberries, to clams and scallops, and to some fish.
I do my best to avoid all these foods, while at the same time eating a healthy diet. I eat a lot of lentils and quinoa and salads. I eat beef and lamb and bison, but I also try to eat more turkey and tuna and salmon. I eat almonds and berries regularly, but I try not to eat too many sweet fruits each day. I drink mostly decaf coffee, which I cold brew at home and add unsweetened vanilla hemp milk.
So, after all that, I feel like I’m entitled to some treats. A bowl of GF cinnamon cereal. Chocolate with no soy or dairy. GF vegan cookies. Coconut ice cream. An occasional non-alcoholic ginger beer.
I might consume a few too many of these treats, but probably no more than the average American. However, because I’ve worked so hard to get healthy, I can’t ignore that my body is telling me it’s still too much.
My gut still flares up sometimes. Some days I wake up with stiff joints, even in my hands, a sign of inflammation. After I have a lot of sugar, I get sleepy, a key sign of food intolerance for me. And the cravings for more sugar are constant, especially later in the day when one of my medications wears off.
I try to argue with the facts. Look how healthy I eat! Don’t I deserve an occasional treat? Why is this happening to me?
Let’s face it: American advertisers are really good at playing the “You deserve this!” card. Why do we fall for this so easily? Because we deny ourselves what we need and then cave for things that are more attractive.
Health isn’t a point system of “good” and “bad” things balancing out. Perhaps it works that way for a while some people, but at a certain point it stops, and when you have a chronic illness, that system breaks down.
Sugar represents many things in our society. A treat. A rite of passage. A naughty ritual that bonds us together. A way to take care of someone, to spoil someone, to reward someone.
Some nutritionists argue that sugar is actually poison. That our bodies were never meant to eat this substance refined to remove all the the fiber and vitamins and other trace elements that occur with it in nature.
Writing this is hard for me. Like St. Augustine, I think, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. Give me a life without sugar, but not yet.”
I know I have bacteria that are making me sick that are flourishing in the high-sugar environment of my gut, and that one of the ways to kill them is to stop eating it. No sugar or fructose, even limiting fruit for a while.
I’ve given up sugar before for an extended period—several weeks, I think, or maybe even a couple of months. After the first three days, when the cravings are the worst, they faded quickly. (And oddly, if I have some health issue that reduces my hunger, like a cold, even the first three days aren’t bad.)
The next step is to overcome the eating habits. When I would usually seek out a sugary treat, I need to substitute something else that also feels like a treat: decaf coffee with unsweetened hemp milk, unsweetened coconut yogurt with berries, almond cheese and GF crackers, yeast-free rice loaf with unsweetened sunflower seed butter, celery with almond butter, unsweetened rice cereal with hemp milk. These things help.
Over time, I settle into a rhythm. I notice the natural sweetness of things like almonds and turkey; baby carrots and cherry tomatoes become ridiculously sweet to me.
And here’s what makes me crack every time: Life doesn’t feel special enough.
There is some kind of thrill that rushes through me when I know I’m going to eat sugar, and when I’m actually eating it. Some sparkle that sugar gives my life that can’t be replaced, really, by anything else. Life without sugar feels flat and ordinary. It’s calm for a while, and then the calm gets… not monotonous, exactly. More like I find myself crying, Is this all there is? Don’t I deserve more?
So then I decide to try a little sugar. And for a while I’m able to moderate my consumption and eat very little each day. The specialness of it satisfies me quickly.
And then something will happen. I’ll have a bad day, a day when I tell myself I deserve to splurge and have more sugar. The next day I might do better, or I might continue on that same path. But eventually eating many grams of sugar per day once again becomes my norm.
There is a kind of frantic grasping I feel in my soul when I am hooked on sugar. I fear I will never get enough. I am always limiting myself, always holding back, because my cravings are insatiable, and some part of me is afraid of the day that I finally put my foot down and say, No more. Some part of me is terrified of what it would mean never again to eat sweetened chocolate or cookies or coconut ice cream. How can I live without chocolate?!
What is it that I’m really afraid of losing? Of course, food is a coping mechanism for me. When I give up sugar, I begin to confront the messages that I tell myself unconsciously when I reach for another treat.
Don’t get frustrated with your son. Just eat another cookie.
You’re a good person. You’ve worked hard today. You deserve this ice cream.
You don’t have time to put your feet up, but this chocolate will perk you up and keep you going.
Food is a convenient coping mechanism because it is fast. A couple of bites and your body is flooded with a sense of well-being, the message that calories are coming, the reward of a tasty treat flooding the taste buds. What other rewards can I replace it with? A cup of tea takes time, doodling in my sketchbook takes time, reading a book takes time. I may need to hark back to elementary school, get myself a sticker book and some stickers and write up my accomplishments. (I have actually done this before.)
Yesterday was my birthday. I enjoyed some lovely birthday treats, and I also (at my request) received a Fitbit. I got it to track my new hobby of taking long walks, and to give me the accountability to go to bed on time. Of course, if you want it to, you can also use it to track your weight. Right now my weight is high, because when that medication wears off every day, I’ve been eating a lot of sugar.
I have lots of reasons for not giving up sugar right now. I still need to get my medications tweaked to be more effective. Halloween is coming, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas. The political arena is stressful and horrible.
That said, I know it needs to happen soon. I want to release this hold on my brain, on my body, on my moods, on my soul. I want to stop craving the next fix.
Dear Sugar, I love you. I hate you. I wish I could quit you. And some day, I will.