It has been a month unlike any month that I have ever lived and that’s because of a new, sensible diet, as well as an exercise regimen that my partner & I have started. I have lost some weight, gotten stronger but most importantly, my mind has been made fully aware of the concept of sugar addiction. The first week of going from daily intakes of Swiss chocolate, random pastries and late-night ice cream binges to a strict diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meat, meant that I would go through sugar withdrawal symptoms that I thought only recovering drug addicts suffered from.
Just this week, a new study came out from the journal Nature Neuroscience stating that eating sweet and fatty foods can be just as addictive as cocaine and the effects of the withdrawal, even moments after you’ve just consumed sugary and fatty snacks, can spike and tell your brain that more is needed. If you’ve ever done cocaine and wanted more shortly after doing some, they basically proved with lab rats that this same thing can happen in your brain with a Snickers bar.
But I didn’t need that study to know this first, because I am that exact experiment, right here, right now, in my own body. On March 25, three and half weeks after I gave up sugar (and all processed food) I was in a grumpy mood and decided to break down and eat something sweet. I knew exactly what I wanted.
It’s called a “Whoopee Pie” and it usually comes in two varieties: the Oreo kind and the pumpkin spice variety. I chose the pumpkin version, which I have always loved; it’s bigger than a grown man’s fist and has about a one-inch layer of sugary whipped cream between its cakey layers. This dessert, which is actually a small-batch, vegan delicacy often found in independent delis and stores in my North Brooklyn neighborhood has been a favorite and I remembered the sugar-high as a delightful and indulgent experience. But this time was totally different. I even called my partner and told her that I was having a huge moment of weakness and really, really wanted this thing! She told me the right thing and told me to go ahead and get it, but to not allow it to kill the program we are on for safer, healthier bodies; basically, “Get your damn treat, don’t freak out, eat it and move on and that’s sort of how it all went down. Well, okay, not really. I held that Whoopee Pie in my hand like some golden treasure I just discovered. I looked at it and smiled. I carefully opened it from its plastic wrap and with my biggest mouth, took a big bite of the forbidden dessert. I chewed and swallowed and immediately felt like I was eating something that wasn’t food. My second bite was less exciting, but I ate it anyways because I already broke the rule and I might as well try to enjoy this thing. But soon enough, I wasn’t enjoying it. I instantly felt hyper and intoxicated and before I ate half of my cake-pie, I was done. I even spit my last bite out into the trashcan and thus began a new era in my life.
I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t enjoying this and felt a series of emotions ranging from disappointment for breaking my own set of rules, still in shock that I wasn’t enjoying myself, excited that I wasn’t enjoying it, and confused because I have had such a long albeit gluttonous affair with sugar. My childhood was based on daily candy consumption and although I grew up, my need for daily intake just became more “refined”, with Lindt chocolate superseding Mars bars. I think it’s worth noting, that I have always had a “healthy” diet in addition to my sugar addiction. I eat big salads almost every day. I love almost all fruits and vegetables and always have. And I’ve been very mindful of portions when it comes to the less healthy stuff. I’m not addicted to soda and have spent at least 15 years paying for the more expensive organic variety of foods while simultaneously sabotaging my body with sweet processed foods. It also seems like a decent justification to eat sweets if the rest of my diet was based on grass-fed meat, organic plants and cage-free eggs. We have a share with a local farm and almost all of our food comes from small-scale farms and not from the mass production of animals and plants that most Americans eat. But all of that takes a back seat to your health when you are sending your blood sugar into insulin shock on a daily basis.
I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that people in my demographic are making with what they are putting into their bodies. There has been a big foodie revival in the past half-decade that focuses on healthier, more sustainable cooking and preparation practices and it’s a real movement with some great ideas. But when you go to one of these smaller markets that are comprised of locally made foods, although it’s not mass-produced, it’s still for the most part junk food. Cupcakes, cookies, chocolates, candy, specialty drinks, even home made beef jerky are all better for you made with real sugar than high fructose corn syrup which has been finally proven to kill you faster than pretty much anything, but I feel like this really misrepresents what healthy eating is all about. When you go to these local markets, even the famous farmer’s market in Union Square, past the fruits and veggies are endless booths of sugary treats that really do not belong in the arena of green living and the sustainability of your own physical body. It’s still going to make you fat and put you at risk of heart disease and diabetes no matter how fair-traded that sugar is. Your own blood doesn’t know the difference. Critics will say that the point is to eat sweets in moderation, but it’s a lot easier said than done, especially after scientists can prove that the “jones” for more sugar or fatty foods can occur within minutes of eating some. Often times, this jonesing is simply stronger than your own will power to fight it, I mean, it’s not like it’s really crack cocaine, right? Possibly.
So back to the Whoopee Pie.. It’s a little less than half gone and I’ve stopped chewing and I’m just kind of in a state of denial that I am not enjoying this treat at all. I close it back up in its plastic wrap and put it in the trash for about an hour. After this hour, a side of me that I am just learning about, revisits the trash can, with my left foot on the lid’s pedal, my eyes are affixed back on the uneaten half of the pie, I am totally jonesing for the other half, even though I can totally remember the fact that I didn’t enjoy the first half. Like when Seinfeld’s George Castanza reaches for the “perfectly good” chocolate éclair from someone else’s trashcan, I realize the full magnitude of this addiction. If my partner, who works very hard and doesn’t have time to read all of what I post, happens to read this, then she will learn the awful truth of what transpired next. Yup, I broke down, put my hand into the trash, unwrapped this sugary concoction and stuffed it into my face without any enjoyment or satisfaction whatsoever. Sorry, honey, I was too embarrassed to tell you at the time, but now feel like I have to get it off my chest.
This was an incredible learning experience for me and will never forget this. I was so cracked out on sugar for that hour and immediately went into withdrawal from the sugar crash, that I ignored my best judgment and ate a half eaten pie from my kitchen’s trashcan. Even though I knew I was alone, I remember looking around, like some squirmy rabid squirrel with a treasured acorn in my grasp.
This is the power of sugar. This is the power sugar has over all of us. Until you can take a long enough break from it and can reset your body’s chemistry to not go in and out of sugar overdose and withdrawal, this is what happens. I’m 36 years old and besides the very first years of my life, I have pretty much been on a sugar high for three decades. Am I done with sweets for good? No. Actually the way this new diet works, it allows a cheat meal once per week where you can eat a sweet or another processed food and it won’t destroy all that you’ve worked for on this new system. Whether or not I will actually enjoy the cheat meal remains a mystery until that time comes, which is in another few weeks. I will never see sugar the same way again. How could I? And even if I do give up and cannot stick to this new way of eating, I will always know just how powerful a drug sugar can be.
Please check out my more recent essay, “30 Days Without Gluten” where I learn a bunch of very interesting things about myself from my diet once again.