Today, I went off sugar. Or I should say, I went off sugar again. I’ve said goodbye to sugar several times in my life, most earnestly during four stretches between the summer of 2009 to now. Most recently, I quit sugar and all sweeteners last June for eight months. Then, about six weeks ago, I had a breakdown and, in the course of one day, pretty much ate every type of sweet I’d been daydreaming about. It started with a giant banana split at the local diner, followed immediately by three doughnuts from the nearby doughnut shop. I can’t remember what happened after that, but I know the day ended with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and some Girl Scout cookies.
I have nothing against sugar. I don’t think of it as evil. I know there’s a lot of new science out there that reveals that sugar is more addictive than crack. I’ve never had crack, so I can’t make a comparison. All I know is that, for me, it seems like as hard as I try to eat sugar in moderation, so I can keep up a friendly relationship with it, once a dessert hits my body, I’m off to the races, planning and plotting my next sugar item before I’ve finished the one I’m currently devouring. My world gets very small because I’m driven by the quest for the next item. I tend to like to alternate a sweet item with a salty meal. By meal I mean a bag of chips or giant bowl of popcorn. The salt seems to cleanse my palate for the pie I’m planning to eat later.
But I have several friends who can eat sugar in moderation. They can have a dessert at every meal, sometimes opting for fruit in lieu of a piece of cake. When I worked as a baker at a restaurant in San Francisco, I often saw parties of three order one dessert and share it—and not even finish it. I’ve tried every which way to be this kind of sugar-consumer, but I have found that, for the most part, I am a volume sugar-eater.
But who will I be without sugar? I’ve worked on and off as a professional baker since 1992, even garnering a listing in the Huffington Post as making one of the six best apple pies in the country. My alter-ego, Sweetie, is a baker who teaches science to children through cooking—primarily, baking—demonstrations. Do I have to give up baking and Sweetie if I give up sugar? I have baked for others when off sugar and enjoyed it, but not as much when I’m eating sugar.
During this last sugarless run, many things changed in my mind and body. Within two months, I was feeling really drugged, so I tried going off my psych meds and immediately felt better. (I was on an anti-depressant, a mood stabilizer, and used another medication on occasion for panic episodes. I stayed even-keeled the whole time I was off sugar.)
My efficiency skyrocketed. I work as a college writing instructor and was able to grade my papers more quickly, getting them back to students within a week. I wrote a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, plus packed my house and moved the last week of that month. I wrote and received a grant for Sweetie presentations. In December, I graded final essays, submitted grades, and hosted my whole family in my house for an early Christmas, cooking several meals and desserts.
But I missed my old friend, sugar. I guess I wanted one more go-around. But the situation quickly devolved. I was sick to my stomach most days, had trouble fighting off a cold and sore throat, found myself too full to fall asleep on time most nights. My work and performance in general suffered. Plus, I got depressed and my self-esteem plummeted as my weight bounced back up. I’d gotten back into a whole lot of other bad eating habits about a month before the return to sugar, but sugar was the item that most triggered a battering of my self-esteem.
So, there’s lots of good reasons to go off sugar for me, but why write about it?
Recently, several other people have told me they are newly off sugar. Many others have shared their struggles with sugar. I think we need to talk about this openly, and ask each other for support. Before I decided today was the day, I made agreements with two of my friends to bookend today with them. I wrote them texts in the morning, they wrote me encouraging notes, and then I will tell them of my success (or lack of success) at night. Their encouragement, and admittedly, my pride, has helped me get through this day so far. Why not create a whole team, through going public, to help shepherd me forward into the unknown? I hope to help others and be helped in the process.
Another reason I wanted to put this in writing is that I’ve struggled with food issues since I was about four years old, but even though I’ve written about all kinds of personal struggles, I’ve never written about my food problems. It’s as if I’ll tell you any kind of embarrassing thing, so you don’t have to see what I consider the most embarrassing thing—the way I consume sugar. If I don’t say it out loud, I can keep doing it, in my own private world of misery. If I bring it to the light, and show you this secret place—then maybe, just maybe, it will have less power over me.
If we start a community dialogue about our struggles with sugar and food, then maybe we can stop the cycle: I eat, I feel ashamed about it, so I eat some more. That doesn’t have to happen if we all look at these issues together in the light.