It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday. You are at home but you feel the cravings coming on. You jump in your car and head over to the spot. You get out and go inside. Other people are here loading up, but you are here for just one particular thing. You head straight to the back, you know just where it is. You pause at the case, which one will it be today? You open the case and grab the one you want the most. You calmly walk over, pay, and head to your car. Before you open the car door, the container is out of the bag and you have the lid off. As you slide into your seat you take the first bite you’ve been craving. Then another and another. You are eating right out of the carton without a spoon, gnawing right at the frozen hit you’ve been craving: Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie Swirl. You hold the frozen container in one had and put the car in reverse with the other, and head home.
I was hoping to take you by surprise with the scene above. Ice cream is probably not the drug you were expecting this person to crave. But sugar is just as potent a drug as the others, and the above story is real: I saw someone eating Ben & Jerry’s straight from the carton without a spoon as they got into their car at the grocery store. It was the only thing they bought. And it’s likely that they are addicted to sugar, like so many of us are.
Sugar releases dopamine, the same chemical the body releases in response to drugs which make people feel happy. This dopamine hit is part of the reason why sugar is so addictive. In fact lab rats prefer sugar to cocaine. Of course, humans are not rats, but it is logical to assume that sugar has at least some of the same addictive affect on us. And getting someone “off sugar” can be just as hard as getting them off of any drug. The process can be very hard; the person might go through withdrawal symptoms; and the temptation to go back is high.
I was there too. I grew up ‘mainlining’ sugar as I like to say now. Waffles with maple syrup and ice cream for breakfast (that is when we weren’t having Rice Crispy’s with sugar sprinkled on top), cookies as mid-morning snack, Wonder Bread sandwiches plus juice, cookies, and granola bars for lunch, and so on through to ice cream before bed. Repeated — every single day.
But sugar caught up with me, and one day I was literally on the floor of the ER crying with pain. That day the pain eased and I went home, but with no idea what was going on. After a few tests and an ultra sound, they found ovarian cysts which had pulled my ovary down behind my uterus. I knew that I had some of the other symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and I also knew that it is thought to be related to insulin resistance. That was enough for me to quit sugar and I never look back. I didn’t want to be on the floor in pain, and quitting sugar really didn’t seem like a bad trade.
It has now been over 6 years since I quit sugar. At the beginning it was tough. I craved sweet things, and I continued to bake sweet treats, but with honey or maple syrup instead of refined white sugar. Over time I was able to eat less and less sweetened food, and the cravings went away. Now fruit is my only sweet food, and I find it plenty sweet enough. I no longer have ‘a sweet tooth’ — I don’t crave sweet food at all any more.
For me, quitting sugar was a no-brainer. But I know that for a lot of people quitting sugar just isn’t that cut and dry. More and more people realize that sugar isn’t healthy, but the reasons to quit just aren't that compelling — they haven’t (yet?) been on the floor crying with pain. And sugar is everywhere. The grocery stores are full of sugar — not just the white stuff (processed refined sugar), but hundreds of foods have added sugar — even foods that have no business having sugar at all in the first place, like sausages, tomato sauce, and lunch meat. Then there are all the foods that claim to be “healthy” and are full of sugar: yogurt, whole-grain cereal, whole-grain bread. On top of all of this, every social function or gathering, especially if it involves children, is guaranteed to be full of sugary foods — cookies, cakes, popsicles, candy. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the ways in which you can drink your weight in sugar each day. It’s enough to make you sick. And that is literally what sugar is doing to all of us. It is making us sick.
Sugar is pro-inflammatory which means it causes inflammation in the body. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne explains sugar’s inflammatory process like this: Sugar causes inflammation by increasing the production of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) also known as free radicals; whilst ROS are produced as a natural by-product of eating anything at all, higher refined carbohydrate consumption causes more inflammation than lower-carbohydrate consumption. She concludes, “Put simply, the more glucose we eat the more inflammation we have.” (Paleo Principles p. 268)
Inflammation is known to be a leading player in many many diseases and symptoms from depression to joint pain to eczema to autoimmune disease and Alzheimer’s. In fact, Dr. Dale Bredesen a leading Alzheimer’s expert says, “Our bodies recognize sugar as poisonous.” (The End of Alzheimer’s p.49). So more and more people are quitting sugar in order to avoid the many, many ill effects it has on the body. And I agree that these are compelling reasons, but there are other reasons to quit sugar.
When you quit sugar, you find that your taste buds adjust and food becomes more flavorful. Raw carrots are surprisingly sweet. Roasted Delicata Squash is like pudding. Even the bitterness of kale is not so bitter any more. Beyond enjoying more foods, you also feel better. You feel awake and energetic all day (instead of crashing after lunch), you lose weight, you find it easier to move more and do more. You sleep better. In short, instead of just avoiding illness, quitting sugar can actually make you feel more vibrantly well.
So the question is not so much why quit sugar, but given that it’s everywhere, how do you actually quit sugar?
The answer to this question depends a lot on the person asking it. Some people find that they can go cold turkey. They strip sugar out of everything they eat and make the through the week-or-so-long withdrawal symptoms. Other people wean off: trade out one sugary food a day for a no-sugar food, and keep going from there. The withdrawal won’t be as bad, but the benefits will be harder to see because it will be a gradual shift and might take a long time — depending on how much sugar you eat and how much you give up at one time.
Another option is to start with the heaviest hitters: sugary drinks. Sugar in liquid form has the worst metabolic effects on the body. So start by giving up sugary drinks: skip the sodas, fruit juice, and sugar in your tea or coffee. Replace your sodas with water, coconut water, or mineral water if you miss the bubbles. If you prefer fruit juice, trade it out for a piece of fruit: instead of orange juice with breakfast, have an orange or a grapefruit. For your tea or coffee add more cream, or even butter or coconut oil to up the fat content and give you a perceived sweet taste without the sugar. Aim for no sugary drinks for month and see how you feel.
And if you want someone to help you figure out the best way for you to quit sugar and support you through the process, I’m here to help. Let’s talk.