Quitting Sugar – Accepting Addiction and Kicking It
I’ve done this before. You’ll hear that from people quitting smoking, too. In fact, my father quit smoking when I was a kid and I remember how difficult it was for him, but that was actually a few separate times that my brain consolidated into one time and I’m sure he’d tried before I was even born as well. Quitting is a process, but having quit is a more permanent state of that same process. That’s what freaks me out. That the choice to say “no” to something is not something you did once but rather something you keep doing for the rest of your status as a non-[insert verb that you’ve quit here]. So, while I’ve gone a few weeks or one time a full month without eating sugary things, I always go back. I’m used to the feeling of the hook, I guess.
I’m quitting sugar. To be more specific: I’m quitting fructose, the sugar found primarily in fruits and what you’d consider “natural sugar” if you were reading nutrition labels or telling yourself that you’re eating “healthy sugars.” From the resources that led me to this path I’m following right now to quit sugar, there is no such thing as “healthy sugar,” although there are tolerable doses of it.
Before you stop reading because it’s so obnoxious to read about someone else’s health kick and I’d rather listen to a practicing drug addict than someone on a diet, let me just clarify one thing: this isn’t a diet in the sense of my food choices being a reflection of my values or status. In short, the way I consume sugar has been and continues to be a problem, for me, and I want to change that because quite frankly I think it will make me happier, less stressed, less irritable and generally a nicer person to be around. Like your college buddy who finally realizes he’s an asshole when he drinks and decides he can cut down on that practice by cutting down on his drinking. Like that.
I eat sweets in a non-crazy way. If a person unfamiliar with me were to read my daily habits or watch my daily diet there would be no, “holy crap, you eat a ton of sugar!” I put a little sugar in my coffee, I eat fruit daily and I enjoy candy and cookies and sugary drinks on a slightly less-than-daily basis. It seems pretty normal. Besides actually looking at the content of sugar – in tablespoon measurements – that I’m consuming in all those seemingly innocuous treats, what really makes me want to quit is that I eat sugar when I’m tired and it makes me more tired; I eat sugar based on emotional impulses, which is not so of any other food or substance that I ingest; and it turns me into an asshole. Seriously – I have a crap attitude if I’ve eaten a lot of sugar and it took me a long time to figure that out, but when I did find the correlation, it was strong.
What the Experts Say
Below is a lengthy but very informative and interesting talk by Dr. Ludwig on the chemical toxicity of sugar in the human body. I won’t go into it in too much detail, but I do strongly urge you to watch the video. You can put it on the in background while you do other things or you can watch it in 10-15 minute installments but it’s good information regardless of how you choose to integrate or ignore it for yourself.
The part that jumped out at me – more so than the “we’re not designed to eat this much sugar”, which is identical to the very popular Paleo/Primal thinking that “we’re not designed to eat this grain” – is that the liver digests ethenol (alcohol) in a way that is identical to how it digests fructose. But the brain gets involved in metabolizing ethenols, which is how you get drunk, but fructose is handled entirely by the liver. So basically eating a bunch of fructose has the exact same impact on your body as drinking a bunch of alcohol does, but without the buzz. You can get fatty liver syndrome without touching alcohol; you can have the disease of a drunkard without drinking. That’s not something I consider lightly. Ironically, the “juice cleanse” diets that sweep through the west every few months are actually, according to what this lecture reveals, incredibly damaging. Imagine doing a whisky cleanse, but actually believing that it’s healthy. (Fruit does have vitamins, minerals and nutrients that whisky doesn’t, I’m not daft – but the trade off is slight given that you can get those nutrients from vegetables without the toxicity that comes with the fructose in fruit.)
So my process is basically following the program laid out by Sarah Wilson on her PDF and website “I Quit Sugar”. She references another author David Gillespie quite frequently, a fellow Aussie who seems to take the Gary Taubes approach to sugar and avoids it entirely in the way that a recovered heroin addict or alcoholic needs to avoid their substance wholesale. Wilson, however, does still eat some sugar but limits it to what science says the body can handle, which is about two pieces of fruit per day if you are also avoiding incidental sugars, those added to sauces, dressings, drinks, processed foods, etc. I don’t believe I’m going to be nixing sugar in an abstinence-only approach, but I am using her 8-week program (which eliminates fructose and sucrose entirely for that period of time) in order to reset my habits so that when I do return to fruit and the occasional treat, it is with the mind that it is something unusual that I am making a choice toward.
It hasn’t been easy. I’m 5 weeks in and I’ve not touched a single piece of fruit no fruit juice, no honey, no sugars other than glucose in grains and vegetables. And it sucks. It sucks. I miss sugar and I think about it all the time. I think about it when I’m finished eating because as a kid we always had dessert – always – and I honestly don’t feel like a meal is finished until something sweet punctuates the end of it. I drink my coffee black, which I actually really enjoy now, and milk tastes amazingly sweet – as does cinnamon, which I add to yogurt or on top of unsweetened peanut-butter as a stand-in for something actually decadent. But even though I’ve found ways to kind of cope with not eating sugar, things that I enjoy that take away the oh-my-god-give-me-something-sweet impulse, they are not a replacement for what I love about sweet things. It’s like how vegans will tell you that something tastes “exactly like cheesecake” that people who have actually eaten cheesecake in the recent past find tastes more like cardboard or carob or something your dog wouldn’t eat. (I’m not ragging only on vegans – I was vegan for 10 years, so I am speaking about myself, but health-nuts will do this also. Fitness freaks actually believe protein bars taste like candy bars because they never eat candy bars.)
But I’m being strong about it. I can’t give advice because I’m still in the middle of this process and I don’t know what the outcome looks like. I don’t know if I’ll be a reformed sugar-addict, happily enjoying my one or two pieces of fruit and dutifully only eating a candy bar or piece of cake once in a blue moon. I know I can do it, I haven’t had alcohol in over a year and a half and don’t miss it one lick, but I also don’t crave it the way I crave sugar – it’s not my fix. But I enjoy the ritual of it, the way smokers miss the act of smoking far longer than they miss the buzz from nicotine. I’ll have to rediscover the enjoyment without it being a reward because that’s too much of an emotional attachment – I don’t feel that way about butter, for example.
For what it’s worth, I do handle emotional burdens better when I’m “off the sauce.” Since ceasing to eat sugar in large quantities (a whole kilo of mangosteen in one sitting, for example) I’ve discovered, much to my relief and delight, that I’m less moody in general and when I have an emotionally charged experience like working drills with Kevin in the ring, which usually gets me super angry and ready to break all his teeth. I’m much better at handling the pressures and stresses of training and returning to an even-keel feeling, though I still get angry, frustrated or irritated but I can let it go. And I think that’s really the thing I’m after: letting go.