Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Preparing to be Sugar-Free

Today is the start of my journey of giving up eating sugar.  Hopefully, for a very long while, if not forever, I am going to remove sugar from my diet. Giving up sugar is something that used to be unfathomable to me.  A totally and completely ridiculous idea and utterly impossible to imagine.  Who would have thought I would actually set out to do it?

I definitely consider myself to be "sugar-sensitive" or a "sugar-addict".  My drug of choice throughout my life has been sugar.  Not all foods, just sugar.  Simply put, when I eat sugar, I want more sugar.  I have no "off" button for my sugar appetite.  This has been true for my entire life.  As I think back over the years, I remember going trick-or-treating on Halloween with my sister ever year, filling our pillowcases or plastic orange jack-o-lanterns with candy.  My sister would get home, sort her candy, and eat it sporadically piece by piece over the next three months.  I would get home, sort my candy, and eat it all within a week. If there was any candy in the candy jar at home, it was never sufficient for me to have just 1 or 2 Hershey's Kisses.  I needed to eat a handful, opening one right after the other.  To this day, if I have sweets in the house, in a matter of days, they are gone. Just to be clear, I am not a binge eater.  Binge eating is not my affliction as I am not someone who is driven to eat ALL food.  My affliction is only caused by sugar.

I have managed to keep my weight relatively stable throughout my life, given 10-15 pounds here and there, due to consistent exercise.  I am pretty disciplined about working out 30-45 minutes 5 days a week, although some days and weeks are better than others.  I am not a hard-core workout junkie, but I work out hard enough and frequently enough to counter some of that sugar.  I also have been careful to remove from my diet foods with hidden sugars like certain brands of yogurt, spagetti sauce, soup, and also "white" bread, rice, crackers, and so on.  I never wanted to waste my calories on hidden sugars or white flour, as I wanted to  allocate my calories to sweet foods I really enjoyed like ice cream (my favorite!), pizza, M&Ms, and candy.  Since I wanted to leave room in my diet to eat "sweet things" every day, I certainly wasn't going to blow my "sweet" calorie allotment on boring white rice or white bread!

I first realized I am sugar-sensitive when a number of years ago, I read an amazing book by Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons called "Potatoes Not Prozac".  Dr. DeMaisons explains that some people have a biochemistry that predisposes them to reach for sugar when their energy is low, they are stressed or depressed, or they are unhappy.  It is much like the same biochemistry that causes alcoholics to reach for alcohol in times of stress.  In fact, alcohol breaks down in the body into simple sugar, so alcoholics and sugar-addicts are very similar on a biochemical level.  We crave sugar because sugar is one way to increase our "feel-good chemicals" and neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and beta-endorphins. For people who may have naturally low levels of these neurotransmitters, our bodies send a signal that we want sugar. The problem is that when people who are sugar-sensitive eat some sugar, we want more sugar.  Then, a few hours later, when our body has processed that sugar and our blood sugar has dropped, we want more sugar.  It is a never-ending cycle - and it is not fun.

Most people are not sugar-sensitive. This means that when people like my sister eat a piece of Halloween candy, they fully enjoy the candy they have eaten and they are satisfied.  They don't need any more.  One piece will do.  They have had enough.  However, when sugar-sensitive people eat sugar, our bodies scream for more sugar, and as a result, we have a hard time not eating the entire bag of candy in one sitting.

As someone who truly enjoys sweet foods and at times physically feel my body NEEDS sugar, it is hard to face the fact that I am sugar-sensitive, because the only treatment for this malady is to conmpletely remove the sugar from one's diet.  I have been aware for the past 10 years or so that I have needed to eliminate sugar and I have had my head in the sand for many of those years. The last thing I want to do is give up sugar completely.  I wish that I could just "reduce" my sugar consumption and just eat a little here or there, but, it doesn't work that way.  Sugar-sensitive people can't just have "a little" sugar, or eat it "now and then".  Just like an alcoholic, even the smallest amount of the offending substance can compel us to want more.  This is not a character flaw - it is simply a biochemical difference from other people.  It is not to be judged.  It's just the way it is.  It's a bummer, but it is my reality.

Knowing all of this, I set an intention to not eat sugar starting shortly after my 40th birthday. Because sugar is a drug (and, believe it or not, it is likely it would NOT be approved by the FDA if it were released today due to it's dramatic physical and emotional effect on our bodies), sometimes, our bodies go through a type of "withdrawal" when we stop eating sugar all of a sudden.  It is not as dramatic as an alcoholic going through detox, certainly, but you still can suffer from headaches, irritability, crankiness, skin eruptions, fatigue, anger, and depression.  As a result, most people, including myself, recommend easing sugar consumption down over a few weeks before stopping altogether.  This allows the body to adapt a bit as you start to wean off sugar.  So, as I am going on vacation next week, and it was my birthday this week, I have given myself 2 weeks to engage in sugar consumption before going completely 100% cold turkey.  While it is a little scary, I know I am on the right track of this very new, exciting, daunting, and exhilerating challenge to myself to dramatically improve my health and my mental well-being.