Sugar as a drug?

Now that I’m back to going to an office every day, I can settle into a routine and return to tinkering with my body and seeing what happens. Several months of cheap processed foods and not enough vegetables has left me nostalgic for the days when I had the stable routine that made it easy to isolate the variables for fasting and other dietary experiments. I’ve also missed the physical wellbeing I felt, and the paradigm-destroying realizations I had as a result of bucking conventional wisdom and measuring what my body told me was true.

154811I have recently begun listening to The Obesity Code Podcast to get myself inspired for the drudgery of re-acclimatizing myself to discipline. If you haven’t heard Dr. Fung interviewed, or read any of his books, then I highly recommend you do. He has a way of stating things so simply that sometimes the understanding that everything you know is wrong hits you like a bolt of lightning. Example: “If you want to lose weight, skip a few meals.” Holy shit! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that! Other times I have needed to puzzle over one of his analogies all day to disassemble all of the assumptions that need to be undone before I can understand something that in my gut I know to be true. Example: “The reason that humans store fat is because we are supposed to go through periods without food.” Wait, what? Hold the phone. Are you sure? What about… Oh…

cathychocolateThis morning’s lightbulb moment was hardly about food at all, and when it switched on, it nearly stopped me in my tracks. The episode in question (Addicted to Sugar) wasn’t saying anything that I hadn’t heard before, namely that sugar is an addictive substance. I’d been convinced of that since I read Sugar Blues a decade ago and believed… about half of it. But I always thought of sugar as a benign addiction like caffeine or Chapstick. Sure, caffeine is addictive, but the negative effects are practically nonexistent. Sure, I get grouchy and have a headache if I can’t get to a Starbucks within an hour or two of waking up, but I wouldn’t let my dog go hungry or risk my job to drink it. It’s not like I have one sip and then I must drink a bathtub full of the stuff; usually I can only drink about half the cup. And caffeine’s benefits are awesome: increased productivity, improved athletic performance, improved mood, and the warm and fuzzy feeling of having something hot and milky to tell me it loves me first thing in the morning.

If you or someone you’re close to has ever been addicted to a drug of abuse, you know what a powerful force addiction can be. Once the addict starts, they are powerless to stop. It makes no rational sense to keep using. They lose everything for a drug that just makes them sicker and sicker until either it kills them, or they break free.

giphyAs the podcast team gave their comments about the impact of sugar, they used subtle language that suggested that sugar was a drug of abuse more in line with alcohol or heroine than a cute little coffee addiction. Real addiction ruins your life, ruins your health, and hijacks your brain so that you can think about nothing else. But c’mon. Sugar isn’t like heroine. Right? We all know that. We give it to our kids, for heaven’s sake.

But what if sugar is like heroine?

Don’t roll your eyes at me! Put your skepticism aside for a second, and stop and think about it. Real addictions destroy your health. The high levels of added sugars in the modern processed diet have caused epidemic levels of obesity and type II diabetes. These are diseases where people lose limbs, go blind, carry around so much extra tissue that it forces their bones out of alignment and the extra weight tears up their joints. You would have to be delusional to not think that these outcomes are closer in scale to a caffeine headache than liver cirrhosis or having all your teeth fall out. In fact… sugar does make your teeth fall out, doesn’t it?

giphy1
I almost put a before-and-after heroine pic in this spot. Instead, I give you a chicken-like thing face planting in some donuts.

Addiction is also irresistible: the more it ruins your life, the deeper its control over you and the less you believe you can survive without it. How is this different from a Type II diabetic suffering debilitating symptoms who still can’t put down a sleeve of Oreos after a tough day at work. Anyone who would make that decision is no more in control of their behavior than an alcoholic who can’t push himself away from the bar until he needs to be carried home. Maybe if sugar weren’t ubiquitous then we would see more cases where people let their children go hungry, sell everything they have and then steal from loved ones, put themselves in dangerous situations to feed their habit. Even if sugar is “only” as addictive as cigarettes, that would still give it very powerful control over us.

The most insidious thing about addiction is that the drug makes you believe that you need it, that you’re worthless without it, and life isn’t worth living if you can’t have your fix. Watch a “chocoholic” give in to the donuts in the break room 4 hours into her first day of her 10th diet this year, then beat herself up about it, and tell me that behavior is benign.

giphy2The thing that makes sugar seem so innocuous is that (much like cigarettes) we don’t feel the high from it. But what if not feeling the psychoactive effects is just the result of a lifetime of habituation? Most of us have already gotten used to having sugar with every meal before we even form our first memories. Watch the chaos that follows a toddler eating a cupcake, and you can’t deny that the sugar dramatically affects their behavior. A hallmark of addiction is that you need more and more of it to get high. Maybe the fact that you don’t feel a reaction to sugar is because you are so profoundly habituated that you haven’t felt the high for years. Maybe you’re so addicted that even though you don’t get high anymore, you’re just going through life trying to avoid the withdrawal symptoms.  Sugar withdrawal doesn’t club you upside the head like caffeine, so it’s harder to notice what’s going on. Then again, maybe sugar does send you equally drastic and unpleasant signals, but you are just so used to those rhythms between jones and fix that you think that they are a normal part of life; or worse, a part of you? What if the symptoms of sugar withdrawal are things you expect to feel every day like hunger, fatigue, anxiousness, low self esteem, lack of concentration? Or to flip that question on its head, what if you don’t have to feel hunger, fatigue, anxiousness, low self esteem or lack of concentration anymore, and the solution also makes you skinnier and healthier?

What if snack isn’t actually something your body needs, but just the jones you get when your buzz wears off 3 hours after a bump?

What if the afternoon doldrums is just the smack wearing off?

What if you are actually a confident, bright, focused and vibrant person, but your diet has been sapping your energy, limiting your productivity and ambition your whole life?

What if the feeling that you think is hunger is actually the feeling of “kicking.” Maybe that feeling doesn’t have anything to do with true hunger at all. Maybe that feeling is just your body insisting that you chase the dragon with more sugar, and you always thought it was hunger because eating made it go away?

giphy3What if the reason why your skinny coworker can have half a Thin Mint and stop, while you can’t stop until you’ve eaten the whole sleeve is because she just isn’t predisposed to sugar addiction. Some people are predisposed to addictions, and others just aren’t. Just because a friend can have a single glass of wine and stop doesn’t mean that a confirmed alcoholic could learn to drink in moderation (without terrible suffering for the rest of the night, anyway.)

I know the insidious devastation of addiction. I am one of those people who cannot drink any amount of alcohol, no matter how small, without losing control. When I was drinking, I cared about nothing except where my next drink came from. My entire day was spent in anxious anticipation of when I could take my first drink. Being sober felt like the anxiety of being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re already late to a big job interview. Even from the moment I got up, nauseous, with a roaring headache, and filled with self-loathing and dread for what I might have done last night when I was drunk, as I promised myself I would never drink again, I was simultaneously planning how I could get my next drink. I started drinking alone so that I could get as shitfaced as I wanted without having to worry about making an ass of myself or dealing with people telling me to slow down. I started drinking in the mornings. I would sneak drinks into inappropriate places in other containers. I lost my appetite. I would throw up without warning when I was both sober and drunk; sometimes I would be talking, and puke would start spewing out of my mouth when I was expecting only words. My organs ached constantly. I spent all my money on booze. It was ruining my life, and still I couldn’t quit.

A few times I scared myself enough that I would get some significant sober time behind me. I would go a few weeks, or months and convince myself that I had dried out enough to control myself this time, but it was usually just a matter of days before I was back to daily black-out drinking. Once I had a drink in me, I simply could not stop, and I would ditch friends at bars, steal from parties, lie to or sleep with anyone I needed to to be able to keep drinking. When I was drinking, my Self was gone, I was completely taken over by the monster of addiction.

If I told that same story about sugar, would you recognize yourself in it?

I am one of those people who cannot have just one spoonful of ice cream without losing control. I think about nothing except my next meal. I spend my whole day waiting for when I can start eating. I get hangry, and the anxiety of getting my hands on some food gives me road rage. Even when I wake up feeling like garbage from eating too much junk the night before, I’m still thinking about the leftover cake that’s in the fridge and how it would taste with my coffee. Sometimes I try to sneak extra sweets when no one is looking. I like to eat sweet things for breakfast, and always have a candy bar or some other sweet treat in my purse. Sometimes I skip meals and go right to dessert. I know it’s affecting my health and my confidence. My doctor says that I’m prediabetic, and with all the weight I’ve put on I feel too unattractive and uncomfortable in my own skin to go on dates, but still I can’t stop.  

A few times I successfully dieted and lost a few pounds. Once I reached my goal weight, I would try to eat my favorite foods in moderation, but soon I would be back to my old eating habits and the weight would come back on. I simply could not walk past a plate of cookies at a party, or my favorite mini-doughnuts at the grocery store. When I eat sugar, I mentally detach from my health goals and my sense of responsibility to them.

Eventually I realized that I had to give up alcohol completely and permanently, or I would never have any kind of life. Quitting was a horrible experience, but I got through it and managed to build up some sober momentum as I built a life around staying completely alcohol free.

After about a year, I went on vacation with a friend. We had just finished a big project at work, I was now on vacation in a swanky hotel, relaxing with a good friend, and it was a time that The Old Me would have enjoyed a beer. So I ordered a nonalcoholic beer. Nonalcoholic beers still have a trace amount of alcohol, though, and even though it’s not enough to impair you, it was enough to wake up the monster. Half way into my “beer,” I was already mapping out my options to ditch my friend, order a couple of drinks to get me through my preparations, buy a couple of bottles from the nearest liquor store, and find a private place to drink myself senseless. This wasn’t a conscious thought, but an automatic program that, once initiated was unstoppable until it ended 6 months later with me sick, strung out and with my life destroyed. I managed to get a grip that night, but it was a powerful lesson.

Quitting alcohol was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. It is like the worst break-up, anxiety attack and diet you have ever gone through, all rolled into one awful experience. First, you have to deal with emotions for the first time in years, because until now even something as mundane as receiving a bank statement in the mail was enough to make me hide at the bottom of a bottle. You believe that you can’t handle giphy4anything, and it takes a few days to realize that that anxiety that you think is being triggered by everything you see, was actually just the monster spooking you from inside your own head. You think about your drug every few minutes, or every few seconds, and you have to resist the impulse to give in. I had to actually write a note to myself and post it next to my bed to remind myself that there was nothing to fear going to bed sober. And possibly the worst part of all was that after the physical detox had passed, I still had to face an entire lifetime where I could never have contact with my best friend and the love of my life ever again. It was a devastating shift to have to begin to think of myself even wanting to go on living a life without alcohol.

But eventually, once I got through it and could see that the alcohol was the root of all my problems. Although I never felt as good as I did  with a full beer in my hand, the sacrifice of not drinking was worth the relief from the anxiety of what would happen when that beer was gone. When the monster was no longer in control of my life, I could actually go out and have experiences that would have been impossible as a drunk. I still wish I could have a beer sometimes, but the idea of actually getting drunk makes my skin crawl, because I have never felt so repugnant, sick and worthless as I did when I was drinking.

That is the lens that I was looking at sugar through for the first time as I listened to the podcast, and I began to see the parallels:

  • My brain spends its entire day focused on getting from one eating opportunity to the next.
  • If I’m not eating, I’m thinking about what I will eat next, and how soon I can get away with eating it.
  • If I’m eating, I’m already scheming for ways I could get more! more! more! before the food in front of me is even gone. “I will have the salad for lunch, so that I can have a small scoop of ice cream (with maybe a few extra spoonfuls on the side, and some sprinkles on top) after lunch, and still have room for the cupcakes that we’re going to have in the break room for Rick’s birthday at 2.”

Even the fact that eating and emotions were so closely linked in my brain was telling. There are other natural biological processes that help with stress that I wouldn’t think of abusing. Sleep helps with strong emotion, but I wasn’t binging on sleep. Social connection can help relieve stress, but instead of seeking out a friend I would make excuses to stay home with Ben & Jerry and watching Netflix. So if I wasn’t addicted to foods, then why was I behaving this way?

giphy5As we all know, there are added sugars in everything. Remembering my experience with the “nonalcoholic” beer, maybe some of the trouble that I’d always had with sugar cravings, even days and weeks into “eating clean” was because I’d been “dosed” with some hidden sugar in some food or other, and it was enough to wake the monster. Remember how the nonalcoholic beer was enough to start the programmed sequence in my brain? What if added sugars in salad dressing triggered a similar reaction that made dessert practically inevitable?

The idea of a life without sugar seemed just as bleak and devastating as a life without alcohol. As much as I intellectually knew that it was possible to live without beer, it took me years to learn how to live that way. What if it were possible to leave the sugar addiction monster dormant, too? Could I live sugar free as long if I remebered what it did to me? Maybe by thinking of sugar like an addiction I could make the decisions that I would need to make to live without sugar indefinitely. How stupid is it that I couldn’t even imagine what a life without sugar would look like, and yet, as a vegetarian, I had given up a much larger class of foods decades ago? Today I can walk into a bar without any stress or temptation, could it be possible to do the same someday in a candy store?

I know from experience that as scary and difficult as it can be to kick an addiction, it does get better on the other side. Not just better than the detox, but better than life on the drug too. For the first time I could see what a life without sugar would look like, and it gave me hope.

I’m not quite to the point where I’m ready to cut out sugar (and the other processed carbohydrates that behave like sugar once broken down), but it was an interesting thought and I think someday I will play around with this idea.

Someday, though. Not today.

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