So I’ve decided to do a little piece on sugar and stress, since it is SUCH a big aspect of my life and I see a lot of the effects of s&s everyday with myself and others. One benefit of having this affliction AND being a nutritional counselor is that I get to experience the impact of food and mood or many levels.
I’m gonna do this in 3 parts because I have a lot to say about this topic, and I think its worthy of a few posts.
Here’s where I’m going to start: WHY do I emotionally (people) crave sugar when I am stressed?
When I was young , the only thing I ever wanted was sugar, sugar, sugar. I obsessed over Halloween candy. I was glued to mom’s side when she was baking, so that I could score some free licks off a spoon or spatula. I always voted for “The Sizzler” when we were picking restaurants, exclusively for the strawberries and whipped cream at the salad bar. I was a junkie.
How did this all begin? First off, did you know that sugar is the first taste we develop? Mamma’s milk is sweet. We are held when we are fed. We feel safe. It goes on and on. Sometimes new mom’s and dad’s are told to bring sugar water to the doctor’s office when their baby gets an immunization, to help calm the pain. Sugar numbs us out. It makes us high. Physically, we do not need sugar to survive. We need carbs, but not necessarily simple sugars. We might then speculate that some of us are not so equipped to handle the impact of sugar. More on that in post #2.
For as long as I can remember, sugar has been a best friend to me. It is always there, in so many shapes, colors, sizes and textures. Its cheap, its socially acceptable, and it makes me feel SOOOOOOOOOOOO good….or does it? I went years harmoniously co-existing on this continuous sugar buzz without a hitch. I bragged about the fact that I could eat a pound of red vines while grocery shopping and not gain any weight. I think I kind of liked being the candy girl. It had a certain charm. My ego devoured the attention I got over sugar. “How cool is this?” I would think to myself. Turns out, not so cool.
But, like all good addictions, it catches up. It turns out that my physical and mental body don’t like being fueled by fructose and glucose 24/7 and that as I get older, my tolerance for sweet is much less, yet my attachment to it is much greater.
The past couple days I’ve been wanting for sweet because I am afraid of change. What? How do sugar and change relate? Well, when you are trying to heal the body-mind from something that was like an old friend (sugar) in your life, and then new variables (like possibly moving to California, and making major life changes) pop up, it sends me running back to mamma’s arms: AKA hot chocolate, oatmeal raisin cookies, or anything warm and sweet.
This desire to soothe is so deeply imprinted in me, and others (I think?!), that it almost seems like the right thing to do . My brain is so good at taking the path of least resistance that I trick myself into believing that I actually need sugar to survive. When uncertainty triggers feeling of aloneness, I need security. It feels deeply carnal, like a survival instinct. My emotional body actually thinks that I will not survive without it.
In the past few years, I’ve done a lot of soul searching and book study about this crazy, wacky phenomenon of sugar-stress. Here’s what I know:
- Sweet is the first taste we experience, and nearly all people find “sweet” palatable. Sweet includes breads, pastas, fruits and even meats, such as red meat or lamb.
- The average American consumes 140 lb/ year of sugar in some form. That is 44tsp/day. That means we pretty much get it all the time, so it becomes a major physical and psychological habit.
- Most kid’s can identify brands like “McDonalds”, “Starbucks”, or some sugar cereal characters before they can actually read. When our sub-conscious mind is wide open, we are bombarded with messages that these companies will provide us with fun, friendship, love and excitement if we just eat what they are peddling.
- As a kid many of us develop the association of sweets with reward, soothing our pain, celebrating and drawing attention to ourselves (ever have mom bring in cupcakes on your b-day? Didn’t you just feel like the cool kid at school, even if just for that day?)
- When white sugar was first developed, European conquerers used it to over-power the people they were invading. They claimed that it made wise, motivated men “stupid and lazy” (from the book Sugar Blues).
- Sugar depresses the nervous system. If you’re a nervous nancy, like I am, you want to stop those neurotic thoughts. What a better way than some cookies and milk, or a piece of favorite cake, or some candy, or whatever…..
ARE YOU EMOTIONALLY ADDICTED TO SUGAR?
- Do you find yourself going for breads, cookies, cakes, candy, Starbucks ‘stuff’, fruit, honey, granola bars, power bars, etc when you have had a long day, are over tired or bored?
- Are your favorite foods in the dessert category? Would you rather skip dinner and have dessert first?
- Do you get edgy or cranky if you don’t have sweets/fruit/breads for a couple of days?
- Do you fantasize about sweets, or did you used to do so?
- What’s in your cupboard? Lots of boxed, processed foods? Refined cereals? energy/granola bars? Dried fruit? Do these items tend to get eaten first?
- Does the thought of never having those favorite sweet treats again feel really sad or scary to you?
- Is the concept “portion control” non-existent when it comes to certain, refined carb-based foods?
- Are you turned off to bitter or sour foods, like dark green veggies, lemons, saurkraut, relish, etc?
- Do you hide stashes of sweets in your car, room, desk or anywhere that nobody can see you eating them?
I’m certainly no expert on your life, but for me, I can answer “yes” to far more of those questions than I’d care to admit to. However, when I do face my truth, I can release the guilt, shame and frustration and move forward. There is life after refined sugar, and I’m learning how to make friends with it, one day at a time.
For those who are curious about unrefined sweeteners: I use them in my life, but they are still sugar. If I’m spooning agave syrup into my mouth, I’m still getting high on sugar, it just doesn’t take as much of a toll. It’s really about why I am seeking out sweet stuff to fix my life. It never works. It never makes me feel better, but my brain has 31 years of conditioning to release.
If you are just starting out your sugar-free life, I have some insight and advice, based on what has worked for me:
- Get SUPPORT! Friends, special groups, spiritual groups, blogs like this, etc
- Be gentle with yourself and realize it is a process
- Begin to replace as much refined carbs with veggies, protein and water. Protein is your friend, as are anti-oxidant rich veggies. more on that tomorrow.
- One day, one meal, one moment at a time. Progress, not perfection.
- If it’s serious, talk to your alternative health practitioner about getting food allergy or GI function tests done. I learned a TON about the physical reasons I crave sugar when I had tests done by Diagnostechs. They rock!
PS: for the curious – yes, I did have some sugar today. I made hot chocolate w/ rice milk and cocoa. I used sucanat instead of stevia. Not the best choice, but could have been worse.