Hope you’re having a great weekend! Recall back in June when I announced that I was going on another 30 day no sugar challenge with my friend Erica. Well she was kind enough to document and share her experience with my readers.
Learning to Ignore the White Bear
by Erica Onda
I’ve done this before.
Last June my friend Nicole had an idea to cut sugar from our diets for one month. I’d told her I wasn’t particularly ecstatic about where my weight was, and in having quite a sweet tooth, I knew sugar was one of the primary problems. I’d done something similar before, on a less structured, more extreme scale—I didn’t buy or would keep hidden all sugary treats from my sight and would only eat a modest portion of what I genuinely craved. But this was different. We would be going sugar-free together, so this time I had the support and feedback from someone on the same page. It also had a set time period: one month, whereas before I’d just tried to cut sugar in general. This time I could have treats as well, but only one treat once a week on a designated day, so this time I put more serious thought into what I was putting in my body.
And much more than last time, I learned a lot about myself.
But how bad was my problem if I seemed to spend so much time worrying about the sweet stuff? Not terrible, really—I wouldn’t put away a family sized bag of Milky Ways or pint of Haagen Daaz in one sitting, but it did occur to me as a bit of a horrendous habit to crave and indulge in something sweet any time I wanted, whenever I wanted it, which was usually after every meal. Yeah…I’d literally trained myself to crave something sweet after every meal, not just after dinner dessert but a post-breakfast cookie or an after-lunch bit of candy. Then ice cream after dinner because, well, I felt like it. Certainly it had occurred to me that this was not a way one should be eating in the long-term, if one didn’t want diabetes or irreversible weight gain problems later on in life. I could see myself as out of control and feel bad about it and yet feel like I was so used to it, so literally addicted, that I didn’t know how to break the sugary cycle. Then Nicole’s idea came up.
When you’ve eaten a certain thoughtless way for most of your life, it’s hard to learn that there is often a Grand Canyon-sized difference between wanting what your emotions and taste buds want you to eat and what your body needs to operate at its most healthful level. Plus, this is America, Land of Plenty, and it’s hard to tell when there’s been enough of too much. As a kid it was Sour Patch Kids, Rolos, Starburst. As a bored teenager stuck in suburbia I distinctly remember a period of obsession with those chewy fruity Mamba things. In college my “study buddies” were Hershey’s Cookies and Cream Nuggets and these Chuckles jelly candies I first discovered at my university’s cafeteria. Then there’s the candy that appears only around holidays-candy corn, caramel-covered apple lollipops for Halloween, mint M&M’s and candy canes for Christmas, conversation hearts and tons of chocolate for Valentine’s Day (all this variety of sugar available year-round…clearly, I’m not the only one madly in love).
The rules were: no sugar in the form of my most common offenders, primarily candy but also cookies, cake, ice cream and regular soda, the only exceptions being one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee pot (equaling about two cups of coffee), diet soda and Vitamin Water Zeros at times (I know, still not great), and granola bars. I could still have my vitamin gummies, but not fruit snacks. In fact during the month I purposely stayed away from even fruit-flavored sugar-free gum, afraid the taste would temp me too much. To start out, I threw out whatever random open candy I had laying around and kept, but put out of sight sealed candy I had for when my impulses were under more control. Next I informed the people around me that I was doing this, although they did occasionally forget and would tell me horrible things like “there’s some Trader Joe’s taffy in the kitchen” and would I like some? (Hi mom!)
I thought I should gradually wean myself off of sugar, eating less and less until I was eating only when I really craved it. Nicole pointed out the flaw in this approach that I knew all along to be true: the more often you eat it, the more you want it. Like fatty food, if you don’t go cold turkey you will never really lose or at least be able to control your craving for it. So I agreed we’d go cold turkey starting Sunday, June 24th. That did not happen. I hadn’t really mentally prepared myself for the coming drought, so we decided to make it a more even July 1st. Starting July 1st was more perfect: I could have my Last Treat that last Saturday night in June, and start out anew Sunday. I had a mini Haagen Daaz chocolate ice cream into which I put chocolate and peanut butter chips; knowing this was the last sweet thing I could have for a little while made me appreciate it that much more.
The first week was a bit rough…or, as my mother put it, I “reminded her of when she quit smoking.” Ouch. This is clearly scientific proof that sugar is as addictive as a drug like nicotine, right? I already knew there was other, perhaps more professional science on the subject: in an article on the dangers of sugar in the July 2012 issue of Marie Claire the author cites research done by substance abuse researchers showing that the same area of the brain lights up in the brain of someone eating sweets as an alcoholic drinking gin. (http://www.marieclaire.com/health-fitness/sugar-effects) I know I’ve certainly felt what the researchers demonstrated; when I’ve eaten a chocolatey dessert it literally feels like the seratonin and dopamine are bouncing around in my skull. If I ever decide to give up carbs, I’ll try to remember to lock myself in a room alone the first week (or two).
Part of the reason it was so difficult starting out on a diet like this, apart from not being able to have candy, of course, was that when I suddenly couldn’t have any sugar, I of course couldn’t think of anything else. It reminded me of the white bear effect: when someone tells you not to think about something, say a white bear, all you can think about is the white bear (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-mishaps/201007/inception-the-science-creating-dreams). I learned just how much the habitual, unconscious thinking revolving around sweets controlled me. For the first time, I saw that the main problem was how my brain was wired: it would constantly, automatically focus on something to nosh on, as if I had a sugar-focused version of ADHD. No matter what I was doing, if I were somewhere where I knew I could get my hands on some sugar, at some point I would think about it, constantly. For example, “I’m gonna go read now—what can I snack on?” “I’m gonna go watch a movie, are there any Twizzlers?” I also started to really understand the other reasons for my sugar habit/addiction: to some degree it was also emotional eating. We all associate certain foods with happy times in our lives. I guess Sour Patch Kids remind me of simpler and in some ways happier times.
The second week was much better; I was starting to get the sense that I didn’t really need all this junk anyway. Part of it was as if I’d temporarily lost my need for it and replaced it with a disdainful puzzlement as to why these food items had been so necessary in the first place. I started to really think about a craving: did I really need it? What would happen if I didn’t get what I craved? Would the world actually end? I feel good now, but I know if I put that sugar into my body it would make me feel sluggish and my mind hazy. Was momentary enjoyment worth feeling that? It was interesting to notice that when I ate junk food all the time, I was used to the crappy feeling so I didn’t think twice about going for more. I noticed this in my previous experiment as well: when I stopped eating sugar I felt better and as soon as I ate it and felt bad again the difference was striking.
The other part of it was that my willpower muscles were getting stronger. Nicole said it would take about a month to reset my taste buds, but in the rest of the month despite my newfound willpower there were certainly some moments more painful than others when I couldn’t have some candy. I remember Vicki Woods’ article in Vogue from a few years ago about quitting smoking; when she took a smoking-cessation class one of the questions they asked was, “what are your favorite cigarettes of the day?” As in, what/where/when did smokers tend to associate with smoking? That first cigarette of the day, with coffee? That cigarette at their lunch break? It was kind of the same thing for me-there were certain times and habits of the day I most associated sweets and therefore missed them even more when I cut them out. For example:
1) Hands down, when I have my coffee. When I have coffee having something sweet with it goes hand in hand. Particularly chocolate or cookies.
2) At the movies. For obvious reasons. Who doesn’t associate the movies with snacking? As a child I loved Rolos and Sour Patch Kids with Sprite, as a teenager I loved Twizzlers and Reese’s Pieces with a Coke. As an adult I’d sneak in M&M’s of all sorts of variety, Mentos mint and fruit flavors with a Vitamin Water.
3) Lazy Sundays—when the arduous weekend fun is over and you just need to recover and sit around watching movies all day with your significant other eating junk food. Obviously this is not a long term habit. At least, it shouldn’t be.
4) Did I mention chocolate? Anytime, anywhere.
The Lesson Learned
It’s funny, while writing this during the last week of No Sugar Month I Googled a lot of the candy I wrote about to double check the names and spelling as I haven’t had a few of them in years, which was a bit masochistic to do, unfortunately I only realized this after the fact, as I was searching. But it also made me realize how much I really do love sugar—particularly candy; I know I won’t ever be able to fully give it up but I can treat it as just that: a treat, not an every day, regular part of my diet. Therefore, I’ll follow the new rule of not regularly buying it (even if it’s on sale) unless I actually have a strong craving. If I still have some left over in the house, I’ll give it to someone else or keep it out of sight for when I crave it or can treat myself again. And as with all the good things in life, moderation, while not fun, is key. Now onto my iTunes addiction.
Lastly, here are some hard-won suggestions for the brave who want to try out giving up something like sugar:
1) Get a friend to do it with you, the support will encourage you and you will want to keep going knowing that someone else is in the same boat. Also tell the people you see every day that you are giving up a food item (or bad habit) in order to gain more support and avoid any awkward situations.
2) If you are expecting to lose weight and don’t see results right away, don’t be disheartened. Throw in exercise in addition to cutting the bad habit—then you are bound to see results. Added bonus: it will distract you from your longing.
3) Look for healthy alternatives to your bad habit. In my case, fruit and herbal teas satisfied a longing for sweet flavors. But don’t overindulge in the healthy alternative! Measure out your portions, particularly for fruit.
4) Whenever a craving became particularly terrible, I’d drink a full glass of water or chew minty gum to satisfy my body’s boredom. Another way to fight cravings are to distract yourself with an active—not passive—activity, such as taking a walk or any form of exercise, meeting up with a friend, a hobby, sex—whatever! Just get yourself out of your own head.