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THE SPLENDA THIEF

Posted Mar 06 2010 11:19pm

She was in her twenties, dressed to the nines in size 4 Armani, made up for the office, and hunched over the sidebar at my neighborhood Starbucks, shoveling packets of Splenda into her purse.

I’m not proud of my response.  I watched her for several long seconds recalling the various articles and listserv notes I’d read recently about people with eating disorders consuming huge quantities of artificial sweeteners, sometimes to the point of experiencing “aspartame poisoning.” At best, this young woman was stealing the equivalent of two boxes of Splenda because she didn’t have the time or money to buy it at the grocery store.  At worst, she was stealing and poisoning her body in order to taste “something for nothing.”  I should have shown her compassion.

Instead, when the packets were overflowing from her Gucci handbag and she would not meet my gaze, I said in a regrettably snarky tone, “Think you’ve got enough of that stuff?”

She threw me a stony look, clenched her bag to her chest and fled, wobbling down the block on her too- high heels.  It wasn’t exactly shoplifting.  It was worse.

“Something for nothing” is the name of the game in eating disorders. Zero calorie food. Purged binges. Perfection without connection.  Sublime starvation. Size zero fashions. Cadaverous beauty. Status without substance. Oxymoron is too kind a term.

Do I sound angry?  You bet! Because this is all a huge, sad, inexcusable con that’s rooted in personal terror and encouraged – and exploited -- by our culture.

I’ve no idea what specific demons were chasing that woman in Starbucks, but she was so intent on her mission to steal fake sugar that she had no idea she was stealing in plain sight of everyone in the store.  I was the only one to call her out, but the store was full of witnesses.  And we all could see that what she was stealing had no meaningful value.  It didn’t supply energy, or protein, or nutrients.  It had a price, all right, but so does cyanide.

Splenda is 600 times sweeter than sugar. More than 90% of it cannot be metabolized by the body.  In large quantities it can cause cramping and diarrhea. And according to recent studies, it does not satisfy the craving for sweetness. Instead, it appears to SUBVERT attempts to lose weight.  Scientific American   Rats fed artificially sweetened yogurt ate more and gained more weight than rats fed yogurt sweetened with real sugar.  Eating Disorders Review   This may explain why people who drink diet sodas seem to be at greater risk for obesity than those who drink regular soda.

So the Splenda thief wasn’t even stealing “something for nothing”… she was stealing single digit calories that would just keep stoking her craving for more, more, more, until she finally ate something that would satisfy her brain and body.  In the meantime, she’d remain in that same driven stupor she’d been in when I caught her with her hand in the fake sugar jar, able to think of nothing except where and how she was going to get her next fix of imitation sensation. I wouldn’t want to be her boss, her client, her partner, or her friend when she was in that state.  She’d have nothing more for them than she had for her own body.  But she’d be costing them energy and frustration just as she was costing herself.

“Something for nothing” is a lie our culture loves to perpetuate with its zero-calorie drinks and size zero clothes and zero-financing credit scams, and now, thanks to reality TV, even zero-talent celebrities. You don’t have to have an eating disorder to get caught up in the con, but you’re a prime target if you do because everywhere we look we’re told that perfection depends on mastering the art of weightlessly having it all. And who pursues that ideal more doggedly than people with eating disorders? Meanwhile, the hidden costs of chasing this ideal just keep mounting.  As long as our society continues to buy into the lie, we are all, like the Splenda thief, stealing from ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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