For exactly two months now (since January 1st), I have been striving to cut refined sugar and processed foods out of my diet completely. This decision came about for a number of reasons: discomfort with my body; concerns about my health and fitness (the amount of sugar I was regularly consuming was DEFINITELY not good for me, and I felt that my body wasn’t healthy enough for me to exercise the way I wanted to); OD’ing on a jam-filled Christmas bread that I felt like I could. not. stop. eating… You get the idea.
For years before then I had struggled with what I ultimately recognized as a sugar addiction. I would come home from high school, make a pan full of Pillsbury cookies, and devour them all by myself. I regularly ate multiple times the amount of sweets as my friends, and at social events where sweets were present, the sugar was all I could focus on. I would be talking to a group of friends, and in the back of my head all I could think about would be how soon I could make a socially acceptable excuse to cruise by the snack table again and grab three more cupcakes.
The need for sugar was constantly on my mind. It swarmed in my brain like bees around honey, and it seemed like I would never make it stop.
The funny thing is, it took me a long time to realize that these behaviors were abnormal. Somehow I never became overweight, and so I didn’t face the horrible stigma of people telling me to “put down the cake.” My affinity (or obsession) for sugar was seen as an endearing or amusing personality trait by most of my friends, who knew me as someone who loved to decorate cupcakes, baked amazing gingerbread cookies for everyone at Christmas, and would drop everything to go spend the afternoon with friends at Sweet Frog.
The fact of my addiction didn’t really sink in until I left for college. When I traveled to Chile in the summer after my freshman year, for the first time I experienced not having sugar. The host family I lived with very rarely ate sweets, and my withdrawals and cravings became so bad that I would spend afternoons (when I could have been exploring! when I could have been learning Spanish!) Googling pictures of cookies and ice cream and fantasizing about what I would eat first when I arrived back in America. At some points I even snuck into the kitchen to take mini-cartons of chocolate milk from the refrigerator and drink them guiltily in my room. I knew I had a problem, but I felt like I couldn’t stop.
Later I wised up, and I realized that I had to make some changes to my lifestyle. The change certainly did not come quickly. During one of my first sugar “interventions” during which I stripped my apartment of all things refined and fructose-filled, I got so desperate on the eve of exam week that I drove to the grocery store at 10:00 PM, bought Cocoa Krispies, came back to the apartment and ate the whole box, along with a nearly-full carton of orange juice. Sitting there afterwards with blood pounding in my ears and my stomach stretched fit to burst, I knew that this wasn’t funny and it wasn’t cute; it was painful.
That was a year and a half ago. Since then I’ve been trying in various ways to limit my sugar intake. I’ve learned to cook healthy and (mostly) good-tasting meals, stopped buying processed foods and snacks, and learned to sub out unhealthy foods for better versions (like dark chocolate–before I couldn’t stand it; now, the darker, the better). But always, I stopped just short of eliminating sugar completely. It seemed too much a part of me to give up. What about those adorable gingerbread cookies at Christmas? What about Girl Scout cookie season, or sharing ice cream with friends on hot summer afternoons?… I wasn’t ready to give up those parts of my life, so I continued to indulge in sugary treats whenever a special occasion (or something I convinced myself was a “special occasion”) came up. And every time that I happened, I would binge. I ate way more sugar than I needed or intended to, and that set me off on a chain of bingeing that lasted for days.
So, to circle back to the beginning of this post, at the end of 2016 (and after the aforementioned jam-filled-Christmas-bread incident) I decided, finally, that I needed to really make a change. I realized that as long as I was eating sugar, I would always want more. The way my brain is on sugar, “moderation” is a no-man’s land; it’s all or nothing. If I wanted to win the battle I’d been waging with my addiction, I had to choose “nothing.”
Ultimately the decision came down to a desire for health and self-ownership. When I binged on sugar, I felt horrible for days afterwards, not just mentally but physically: Yes, there was some of the guilt and anxiety that many health bloggers connect with thinking about certain foods as “bad” or “off-limits,” but the real problem was that when I had stuffed myself full of sugar, I felt like a heavy blanket was weighing me down; I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to, or jump as high, or even move as much in general without having to catch my breath. I felt like I was chained inside my own body, by my own decisions. And when the voice of sugar was constantly in my head, always telling me to seek it out, I could hardly focus on anything except for how soon I could get the next treat. How much brain space, I wondered, did I waste on sugar, when I could have spent it on any number of other things–on creating art or writing, on getting to know people, on just taking in the little details of the life going on all around me?
Quitting sugar was therefore a much bigger decision than wanting to lose weight or even wanting to be healthier; it was about wanting to have a better-quality life. Sugar was dulling my tongue, numbing my brain, and weighing down my limbs, but I wanted to experience life with all of my senses unchained.
And for the past two months… Honestly, it’s been great. The change came slowly and the improvements weren’t as dramatic for me as some people have reported (my skin didn’t miraculously clear up, I didn’t suddenly get a superhuman burst of afternoon energy, etc). This was disappointing for me at first, because I was excited about experiencing the kind of sweeping changes that other people had raved about on their blogs. But after about five weeks I realized that the biggest change in my life wasn’t some amazing feeling of a high; it was the absence of the once-frequent lows.
No longer did I overdose on sugar late at night and wake up the next day feeling sluggish and bloated; I rolled out of bed every morning feeling reasonably well-rested and ready to start the day. As I ate a little less and exercised a little more, I began to feel like I could do all of the hiking, swimming, and running that I wanted to do, and I enjoyed it a lot more. I didn’t experience the thrills of bingeing on sugar followed by the awful feelings of regret, anxiety, and self-loathing, which meant that I spent a lot less energy worrying about my body and a lot less time feeling miserable. My mood and my ability to concentrate both went up. And I wasn’t tortured anymore by feelings of missing out. Whereas my sugar-addled brain would have screamed at me to swallow a whole box of Girl Scout cookies, I passed an offer of Thin Mints the other day without thinking twice. It was awesome.
Put another way, it was freedom.
Unfortunately, that streak was interrupted last night. I’m currently student teaching, and I’ve been planning an activity for my 120+ students that involves cookies, so for the past week I’ve been coming home after school and mixing up six huge batches of chocolate chip cookie dough to freeze. Yesterday I was in the kitchen from 2:30 until 9:00, assembly-lining trays of frozen cookie dough lumps into the oven, putting out the finished cookies to cool, and then breaking those up and putting them in plastic bags. (Side note: I am never, ever doing this again. Ever.) It was the first time I had made anything “unhealthy” in the kitchen in months, and when the first fragrant, golden batch came out of the oven… Well…
I decided–despite my resolution to the contrary–that one bite of sugar couldn’t hurt.
And once I had eaten that first cookie, I downed six more before you could say “inflammation.”
(These were not small cookies.)
Despite my progress, despite my two months of being in control of my body and feeling like I didn’t need sugar at all, immediately once I got a taste of it again I felt like I had to have more. I probably ate way more than that before it was all said and done–I don’t really remember. The weird thing is, although the first bite tasted incredible, after the first two or so I felt like I couldn’t really taste them anymore. I just needed them in my mouth, needed that sheer animal feeling of stuffing them down, whether I was really enjoying it or not.
Later that night the familiar sugar headache was back, along with the dull achy feeling that my limbs and my senses were restrained. This morning (despite a full night’s sleep) I woke up feeling horrible and tired, and during the five hours between breakfast and lunch (which usually pass by without a problem) I was craving snacks like crazy. I even snuck some miniature candy bars, just to get another sugar hit. I ate them secretly and way too quickly, and even now, as I write this, I want more.
It’s that same old pattern, over and over again: Overeating. Regretting. Feeling lousy. Eating in secret. Always hiding, always ashamed, always harming my mind and my body, never free to do what I really want to do, which is just live.
So, here we go. I took a step back, but this isn’t the end. Falling back into my old habits has just made me realize how much better my life is without them; now I’m going forward to get back to a place where I don’t need sugar anymore, where I can enjoy the awesome feeling of truly being free again. It’s a tough road for anyone with any kind of addiction to follow, but I know that it’s worth it.
One day I’ll be able to run, and travel, and spend time with my loved ones without the need for sugar distracting me or holding me back.
And that is the sweetest feeling of all.