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Breaking Out of Sugar Hell

Posted Jul 26 2008 10:19am


I was recently in New York City, standing in line at Starbucks when my friend pointed out this sign to me: “Make Yourself Happy - Choose a Sweet Indulgence or a Non-Fat Option.”   As initially tempting as all the treats in the case behind the sign looked, I had to laugh at the irony of the words on the sign. 

Nothing against Starbucks (I’m a huge fan of their chai tea mistos), because they are only a small part of a huge industry that sells false messages about food, but I have got to set the record straight. Low fat will not make youhappy. Neither will a sweet indulgence. Temporarily, maybe. Long term, never. 

We are born into a world where we are given mixed messages about food, especially sugar.On the one hand: don’t eat sweets -they are bad for you! They will make you fat! They will cause your teeth to rot! They will give you diabetes! And on the other hand: Eat sweets - they will make you happy! Or creative! Or inspired! Let’s celebrate with cake! Here’s a piece of candy, now please stop crying! Or here’s a cookie because you were good! I love you - here’s chocolate!

Pretty powerful - and confusing - messaging that is infiltrated into our brains from practically the time we are born (and then compounded a hundred times over by advertising). The message is this: That although sugar might be bad for our health, it can make us oh, so happy and, without it, our lives might feel depleted, depressing, loveless and lonely. 

Although we all know that too much sugar is not good for us, many of my clients, readers, friends and people in the audience at my talks find this white substance (or another form of sugar, like alcohol, white flour, or other quickly absorbed carbohydrates from processed foods) addictive and compelling.Despite our best efforts at “willpower,” almost everyone has experienced the “I NEED SOMETHING SWEET OR CRUNCHY OR ALCOHOLIC NOW” syndrome. . . that intense craving for some substance that will bring us comfort or relief or cheer. And the reason is: it works! It really does. . . that is, it works temporarily. 

Like a drug, sugar (and its partners in crime) literally affects our brain so that we feel immediately relieved, calm and happy. Problem is, this feeling does not last and we often find ourselves later feeling equally - or more - down, upset or irritable. No amount of willpower works when our brains are working against us.

And here’s another crazy thing: Many of us are so used to feeling irritable, anxious, mildly (or intensely) depressed, tired, unfocused, and full of cravings, that this state of being feels almost “normal.”But let me assure you: this is not normal. When our brains and bodies are balanced, our normal state is to feel good. Energetic. Calm. Focused. Satisfied and fulfilled and nourished by our food and by our lives. 

Now I am not blaming sugar for every emotional or physiological problem we experience. Anxiety, depression, irritability, lack of focus and cravings are often multi-determined and complex. And I must admit, I am hesitant to even write about this because I don’t want to perpetuate the “bad food/good food” mindset that you may have. But, as a therapist and as a person who struggled with some depression, anxiety and eating problems myself, I am convinced that sugar’s affect on our brain chemistry must be understood if we are to break out of some of these painful cycles. 

Let’s use my day yesterday and my initial descent into “sugar hell” as an example of what could - and often does - happen when we eat sugar.I started off my day as usual - some protein, fat and complex carbohydrates (a big dose of peanut butter on a sprouted wheat bagel), which kept me pretty full and satisfied until lunch. At that point, my husband made the kids grilled cheese which looked so good that I couldn’t resist. This is not my typical lunch and, although filling physically, did not feel at all satisfying. I knew I needed more protein and some vegetables, but we were busy so I skipped it.

I had an amazing slice of cake at my daughter’s birthday party and enjoyed every bite of it, but afterwards, found myself nibbling at the snack food that was out. And nibbling. And more nibbling. (Still hungry from lunch, and triggered by the sugar in the cake). I really couldn’t stop which, these days, is quite unusual for me. When we left the party and got home, I found myself searching cabinets. I munched on the popcorn my husband made for the kids. I noshed on some left over cake (just straightened out the edges several timesJ). I picked at some leftover Chinese food.

I was in quite a state really, searching, physically full, but unsatisfied, and noticing my mood shifting from calm and stable to mildly irritable and jittery. And because I have been in “sugar hell” before and am quite familiar with what I need to do to get out of it, I was able to stop. It is in these moments that I ask myself what I need to do to “right” my body’s chemistry. Although I was physically full, I knew I needed real fuel for my brain in order to get off the rollercoaster I was on. I knew, for me, that fuel had to come in the form of protein (and I wanted red meat) and fat. I ate a good meal, watched a funny movie with my husband, and got into bed, finally satiated, physically and emotionally. 

Had I not been in tune with my body, or had I not really tuned in and listened, this “sugar hell” (or cycle of craving and munching and dissatisfaction with elevating irritability and anxiety) could have continued for quite a while (and let me assure you, it has in the past - in fact, I used to LIVE in this place!). When we eat sugar, our blood sugar temporarily rises and we feel good, leading later to a drop in blood sugar levels and an intense craving for MORE. Sugar may also temporarily increase our serotonin levels (our “feel good” brain chemicals). But again, these feelings don’t last and ultimately, the sugar and fake foods (like a drug) deplete our bodies and our brains so that over time, we feel less good (and feel like we NEED more sugar to feel better). 

Unfair, I know.And I am not suggesting we never eat sugar again or never feed it to our kids. We need to balance our psychology and emotional response (the word NEVER tends to throw us into a state of feeling deprived) with our biology and physiology (the physical effect of these foods on our body and our brain), so that we can find a way of relating to sugar (and its counterparts) effectively. So that we can become aware of the effects of these foods on our bodies and arm ourselves against intense and continual cycles of fatigue, irritability and cravings. 

Here are a few tips that may help either prevent “sugar hell” in you or your children, or help pull you out of them if you happen to find yourself there:

1)     TUNE IN to your body. Figure out what works for you (and your children) and what keeps your blood sugar levels and brain chemistry stable. Notice what foods trigger cravings, difficult behavior,fatigue or irritability, and minimize them.

2)    Notice what emotional states might trigger sugar cravings- loneliness? Stress? Boredom? Fatigue? Begin to address them with non-food solutions and get help if you need to.

3)    Most people benefit from some combinationof protein, fats and high-quality carbohydrates at each meal and snack to stabilize blood sugar levels.

4)    If you are going to eat sugar or processed carbohydrates,arm yourself by eating protein and/or fat(a piece of cheese, some nuts, some sliced turkey, for example), beforehand.

5)    Do NOT skip meals- ever.

6)    Avoid fake sweeteners(like NutraSweet, saccharine, Splenda, etc), which just “whet” your appetite for more sweets.

7)    Avoid packaged foods that are labeled low fat.In fact, don’t be afraid of fat at all - most unprocessed fats are GOOD for your body and your brain (more on this another time!).

8)    If you find yourself in the middle of a sugar binge or “sugar hell,” stop and ask yourself:“what is the next thing I can do to shift this cycle?”Then DO IT. 

9)    Don’t beat yourself up - for anything.Especially for not having “enough willpower.” Remember, your cravings are not about willpower, but about your body’s way of trying to tell you that you are out of balance somehow. 

10)Stop thinking of sweets as a reward.Find non-food treats for yourself and your children.

If you find yourself struggling with ending the sugar cycle, I’d love to see you at one of my classes in the coming month. Clickhereto register and learn more about the March 31, 2008 Workshop.  Clickhereto register for the Sugar Blues April 15, 2008, 8:00 pm EST - 9:00 pm EST Teleconference.

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