That’s a question I wish someone had asked me years ago before sugar took hold of me and brought on my health decline. I didn’t know it then, as I do now, but sugar was controlling my life. I was consumed with cravings that took me to eating more and more of the foods that drove my body into a health crisis that took years to overcome. What I didn’t know then was that sugar is in almost every single food that comprises the Standard American Diet (SAD). From the “healthy” breakfast of low-fat yogurt to dinners of creamy, cheesy, lasagna with whole grain noodles to round out the day. Plus, to start the day with a treat, I’d stop at the local coffee store (you know the one that runs America?) to pick up my chai latte and a sour cream donut. So much of what the American population “thinks” is healthy is really accelerating the already epidemic proportions of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and chronic health conditions that can be controlled by proper nutrition.
About a dozen years ago, I began working at a very stressful job that involved a friendly customer service skills and unending patience. In order to work in an environment where you must always be “on” and happy to help someone else, many of us need help. The atmosphere was additionally charged with expectations to meet certain “numbers” where we were judged as to whether or not we were doing an adequate amount of work. In some environments, that could lead to healthy competition. In this atmosphere, it led to worker dissatisfaction with no chance at growth that would lead to a job above this level. For many of us, we thought we were “stuck.”
The way to overcome the daily oppression of working in a place that held little to no real satisfaction was to have plenty of “snacks” on hand to get us through the day. It became our outlet. We’d all contribute to the array of treats to help make the day seems a little better by having that 15-minute break with a piece of cake or candy bar. There were times we would have pot luck meals to celebrate a holiday or someone’s birthday. Invariably, these meals were filled with lots of bread products, easy-to-make dishes that had many not so healthy ingredients, and lots and lots of sweet and salty snacks. The key to all of these foods is that there were “comfort foods” – foods that made us feel good, even if that was for a short period. After years of working in this environment, I began to get sick and gain weight – lots of weight.
In my mind, I felt the overwhelming fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and the chronic headaches were all due to the relentless stress of the job. Little one can do when working is necessary to afford living and not have the added worry about how would I keep my home, feed my family, or meet expenses if I left what was a rather decent paying job. I would figure out how to handle the stress. But stress was only one piece of the puzzle. It took me a while to piece it together but after five years of dragging myself out of bed each workday to go to a job that I now truly hated and putting all the energy I could barely muster to do the job as required, I had had enough. I was coming home every day, falling asleep on the couch until my husband woke me for dinner, then going to bed just so I could do it all over again the next day. I spent half a day in bed on weekends, trying to “catch up” but to no effect. But now I was in the cycle of cravings and needed more and more of the simple sugars that I had been eating to stave off the cravings. I was eating what I thought would help me overcome this cycle and feed the actual hunger I felt. More whole grains products and lower fat items, all causing my need for sugar to increase.
I did the normal things – went to my doctor for a checkup and followed her advice. She thought I was probably depressed so she wrote a prescription for antidepressants. Then she referred me to a specialist to check out why I had the unremitting fatigue. Then that specialist sent me to another, and so on, until I had seen maybe a dozen specialists who looked at me through their very narrow window of specialization, only to determine that what was wrong with me had something to do with a lack of whatever medication they prescribed. Now I was on a handful of medications (there were so many that I can’t even remember what all I was taking) but I didn’t feel any better. As a matter of fact, I got worse.
Now my body was rebelling, I was trying to excel at work so I could move on and eventually got a position where I was on call 24/7. How I thought that was an improvement, I have no idea! I was doing something I felt I was good at but it still had that unrelenting stress factor. Combine that with medications running rampant in my body, eating the SAD, and fatigue that wracked my body every day, I was ready to break. And I did.
At first, I didn’t recognize that my body was trying to make me slow down and I kept going despite the deterioration of my health. I pressed on even when I had symptoms of something really wrong with me. After these years of doctors just giving me medicines and telling me that they couldn’t find anything wrong with me but this pill will help, I was tired of doctors and pills! So, when I was hit with abdominal pain, I didn’t even pay attention. I pushed forward, hoping that it would just go away, like so many other pains I had in the past. After 5 days of this increasing pain, I relented and went back to the doctor – only to be told I needed to go to the emergency room to my ruptured appendix removed. You’d think I’d get the message that my body was trying to tell me. But I didn’t. So, after recovering (which took longer that it should have because I would not rest and recover but kept working from home on my Blackberry), I headed back to the same work, the same pressures, the same food.
After that, I experienced two months where I went through periods of migraines that were so debilitating that I was in the emergency room five times. And yes, I did see the doctors. I saw the eye doctor who said he didn’t see anything. I saw the neurologist who imaged every part of my head but didn’t see anything. Finally, with my husband acting as my health advocate, he managed to corral the specialist and persuaded them that I need more than tests – I needed a definitive diagnosis. At an age when most people do not think of these kinds of conditions taking over their lives because they happen to older people, here I was with glaucoma – narrow-angle glaucoma. This was the culmination of my body’s response to my “lifestyle” – slow down or I’ll break.
I tell you all this because I believe sugar is at the root of the issue. No, sugar did not cause the appendicitis or the glaucoma directly. But eating that much sugar every day in the SAD caused my body to react negatively. Although I ate mainly from the food groups recommending by the USDA, I only got worse instead of better. And that is because I feel some people, myself included, are naturally sensitive to sugars – both in natural form and in simple carbohydrates. Reviewing my diet, I probably ate the 6-11 servings in the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group – the foundation of the old USDA food pyramid. All of which are simple carbohydrates that break down quickly to sugar in the blood stream. even the newer MyPlate from the U.S. government features grains prominently. Even the listing of foods in that category do little to guide the individual towards healthy nutrition. Eating all those refined carbohydrates drove my blood sugar higher than my body’s tolerance but didn’t express it in type 2 diabetes, it took other avenues. High blood sugar can lead to problems with the eye. Mine expressed itself as glaucoma. Now there are doctors who will not agree with my assessment but my own experiences tell me another story.
The realization that my poor nutrition (even though I thought I was following proper guidelines) drove me to do my own research. I found wonderful sources of integrative and functional medicine on the web. Learning that what I ate had the biggest impact on my health, I revised my diet to remove all grains, reduce sugars to only natural sugars in food (nothing with added sugars), increased vegetables and moderated proteins. I was big on a high protein, thinking like most Americans that is where the most valuable nutrients are. It took six months of eating what was right for my body (and that’s the key) to lose the 55 pounds I had gained and regain my health. Change is hard but it helps when you have support.
I am forever going to be without an appendix and the peripheral vision in my right eye but I was now on the road to health. I no longer have sugar as part of my daily diet – no sweet drinks, no added sugars in food – now I was feeling better. This did not happen overnight. It took those six months of sticking with my commitment to getting better because I didn’t like living less than the life I thought I could have. I did change jobs because the fear of not getting well outweighed the fear of not having an income. I knew I could still work but if I got sicker I might not have a choice. My fear of not being able to eat foods that I had grown to love (I have an enormous sweet tooth) was overcome every day that I lost more weight without doing anything else other than eating the right foods for my needs. In those six months of reclaiming my health, I vowed that I would never go back to the way I had been eating because I would now listen to my body. And so far, it has kept me on course to healthy eating.
If I allow myself a splurge because of a holiday or special event, I am aware if my body sends me signals the next day or in a few days. Although I spent the first year on my new nutritional path documenting everything I ate and the results of the foods. It became a habit to recognize which foods provided me with a day of energy and good moods and what foods made me feel sluggish or less than what I wanted to feel. That’s why I feel it’s important to track meals while you are trying to lose weight or change eating patterns. Your memory is not as good even a day or two later, much less months later. If you have a written account of your food intake, you can refer to it and your notes on how it made you feel. Otherwise, you don’t learn (or it takes much longer to learn) what foods are right for your body. I’m glad I learned my lessons before it was too late – before my blood sugar got out of control and let to diabetes or became so overweight that I could no longer enjoy the types of things I like to do.
Those six months of what I consider my recovery phase, I did not exercise. Remember, I had joint and muscle pain (that had been diagnosed as fibromyalgia) and I was so exhausted (diagnosed as chronic fatigue) that I was unable to exercise. But honestly, the weight just dropped off without effort once I learned the right foods. Now that I have recovered from the conditions that were stifling my ability to enjoy life, I exercise – doing what is right for my body. I am not the type of person who enjoys going to the gym. So, I make my own spaces for exercise. I try to walk every day, I use a rebounder, and I prefer floor exercises to standing ones because I can bear more weight. I try to mix things up but I know that no amount of exercise can overcome a bad diet. Eating poorly and trying to make it up on exercise just leads to trouble. Your body needs the RIGHT fuel to work your muscles. Giving them short-term sugar to fuel workouts isn’t beneficial over the long haul. Eating the right foods, in the right amounts, at the right times for your body is the only way you can fuel your cells.
Now that I have reached a comfortable place, I don’t agonize on losing those few extra pounds or getting to a new size or those thoughts many women have even when they have lost weight or are already thin. We live in a society that idolizes thin and trim with 6-pack abs and slender body parts. But maybe that’s not how you are built. I am okay with not having a perfect body. I’ve had three children, surgeries, and some bumps and bruises along the way in life that have left permanent scars and I’m fine with that. It’s who I am. But I will NEVER let sugar take over my life again. I still have that sweet tooth but I won’t let it be the boss of me. I will take all my imperfections as who I am as long as I control my own destiny. The sugary sweet food of the SAD is gone for me. I won’t ever have another piece of pizza (unless I make my own with cauliflower), I will never eat another slice of ice cream cake (I will have a spoonful or two of homemade ice cream), and I won’t let myself be duped by the hyped media commercialism of what healthy eating is. I will decide what is healthy for me, not some high-powered media machine that is out for the almighty dollar.
As the public becomes more aware of nutritional needs, there comes an outcry for products to meet that need. Just when gluten became enemy #1, new gluten-free products came on the market. So, we traded highly processed white flour for highly processed gluten-free flours. They still are simple carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar. We need to get off this media-induced nutrition craze. Although I cannot speak for the intent of the person originally creating these products, it is a matter of money, not health, when it comes to the bottom line. What the public wants is what sells. But keep them hooked so they keep coming back for me – simple sugars are the cheapest way.
In my opinion, sugar should be classified as a drug. It has the same effects on the brain as drugs – stimulating the reward center of the brain – producing dopamine and thus requiring more and more to satisfy it. Review the video below to understand just how sugar affect the brain.
What You Can Do To Break The Sugar Hold
First and foremost, you must want to change. No amount of other people telling you what to do is going to break the habit that is all within you. You mind has to be prepared to rid your body of the harmful effects of sugar. As much as you might like it to be easy to make the change, it will take time, determination, and support. Too many people are food pushers, even after you tell them you have adopted a new way of eating. No matter how good their intentions, you are the one who is accountable for the change. Here’s are some steps to breaking the control of sugar:
- Get a blood test. Ask your doctor for a fasting glucose and insulin test and a hemoglobin A1C. These tests will access the levels of glucose and insulin in the blood. Elevated numbers indicate a potential metabolic disorder. Optimal numbers for fasting glucose are 70-85 mg/DL and less than 5.6% for HA1C. The lower the number, the better. Anything over 100 for glucose and 5.7% for HA1C puts you at risk for diabetes. Knowing these numbers is the first step in preventing sugar from ruining your life.
- Track your food. Even though it may seem tedious to write down every morsel of food you eat, you will have no idea what you are actually consuming when trying to determine what is causing sugar to be such an issue. Writing down every morsel you eat until your food habits change is a good visual clue to the amount of sugar you are consuming. It works.
- Identify your triggers. Eating certain foods will trigger the reward center in your brain. Over time, it will take more and more to continue to get that “feel good” sensation. That’s one of the main reasons some people will overeat. It just takes more of certain foods to reach that comfort level. If you eat certain foods when you are feeling down or lonely, they are likely to be your triggers. If you find yourself eating certain foods only when you are alone because you don’t want other people to know that you eat them or you don’t want to share that particular food, that food is likely a trigger. Whatever your trigger, it’s the first food to try to remove and replace with a healthy alternative.
- Find a healthy alternative. For many years, people have shied away from foods with fats. There are certain fats that are to be avoided at all costs, like trans fats. But healthy fats are to be consumed every day. Find a healthy alternative to replace your sugar trigger. Substitute nuts and seeds instead of candy or cookies. Have a half of an avocado on a leafy green salad with oil and vinegar before eating out to diminish your appetite and make it less likely you will head for the dessert cart. Incorporate meals with fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, and reduce the excess animal muscle meat in your meals. Healthy foods don’t have to be boring, but they should not drive the cravings meter off the charts like processed foods and sugar-laden treats. Eat foods that satisfy other senses, like crunchy or savory foods. When you remove the sweet-flavored foods from your diet, your taste buds will start to change and not require as much sweetness and other foods will taste better. Naturally sweet foods, like fruits will taste sweeter. But don’t replace one sweet flavor with another. Fruit (and other sweet-flavors) should be a treat and not the basis of a meal. Eat more nutrient-dense foods, like colorful vegetables, and save a piece of fruit for dessert. Opting to replace one form of sugar with another (removing glucose or sucrose found in many processed foods) for the natural fructose will still have a negative sugar imbalance. Too much fructose, which is metabolized by the liver, can lead ultimately to fat storage. If it’s sweet, even if it’s a natural sugar, limit your consumption. Sugar will ruin your life if it takes control.
- Drink plenty of filtered water. Drink half your body weight in ounces of clean, filtered water. Many people mistake hunger for thirst. Every time you think you’re hungry, drink water first. Water is vital for good health and there are many reasons to drink water as your primary beverage. Those daily lattes, (like I used to drink) do not supply your body with the hydration necessary for our cells.
- Get support. Change is hard when you try to do it on your own. Join a group of people committed to living a healthier lifestyle. Make certain they have the same nutritional values as you do or that they allow for individual nutritional needs so that you are not overwhelmed by anyone who has strong opinions that may differ from yours. There are online groups that support each other in their health goals. Find a health coach or practitioner that is well versed in the latest nutritional science and not foist decades old nutrition advice that has gotten us in this predicament in the first place. If you have the commitment to change, I have the plan. I invite you to contact me for a free consultation to evaluate your health goals and provide you with a strategy to get your started on kicking the sugar habit and living a full and active life fueled by optimal nutrition for your specific biochemical needs.