The time I gave up sugar and it pissed me off

Every time I’ve seen my doctor for the last four years, she’s asked me if I’m ready to give up sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Usually, I laugh. I mean, I’ve seen the articles that recommend giving these up to improve PMS, perimenopause, and menopause symptoms; they’re everywhere. But the advice was so ubiquitous it always irritated me – like telling depressed people to get more physical activity. It felt like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: no, this is BAD, stop talking to me about vegetables.

But this spring, Anthony and I read this article in the UK magazine The Guardian. It tracks the research on cardiovascular disease and obesity from the 1950s and lays out step by step how research was cherry-picked to make fat the bad actor in these conditions – and how some of the same researchers who were bribed to do this ended up in the highest levels of authority on nutrition in the US, and based our dietary guidelines on that faulty research. It’s a conspiracy worthy of Big Tobacco.

And then we read the book Fat Chance, by endocrinologist Robert Lustig. This book is mentioned in the Guardian article and carefully lays out exactly what sugar does to your body.  No, you’re not safe if you’re skinny, and yes, it’s terrifying. It explains how and why sugar is now in every-fucking-thing that you don’t make yourself, so we’re getting loads more of it than we even know. And how our (screwed up) metabolisms actually drive our behavior – until it’s no longer a matter of choice. That last part was important to me; it removes the shadow of judgment from people who are struggling with weight or health.

Both our families are rife with metabolic disease, and we are watching some beloved people battle through its final stages. It’s ugly and awful; you don’t just die, you spend years in misery (along with your family) and then you die. So we just….quit. We stopped drinking soda, mostly stopped eating sweet stuff. We looked at what we ate that was processed and contained sugar (spaghetti sauce, bread, yogurt, cereal, frozen meals) and, if we really liked it, found lower-sugar alternatives or made homemade versions without sugar. But that’s all we did. We didn’t go crazy; I eat dark chocolate almost every day. We still have some kind of treat or dessert about once a week, we just do it intentionally instead of mindlessly after every meal. Pizza still finds its way into our house about once every week too. And we didn’t address (yet) the quality of our other carbohydrates – we still ate white bread, white rice, pasta.

So what happened?

Anthony happened. I mean, he HAPPENED. Doing nothing else but avoiding sugar, he lost about ten pounds but looks like he lost more. A few weeks ago I came across a photo of him from a year before we gave up the white stuff. I was shocked; right now he looks ten years younger than he did in that photo. He’s sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic, and it happened to him fast – by the end of the second month.

I complained to Anthony that I wasn’t seeing any visible changes (dammit, I want to be sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic!). He blurted out, “Oh my God, your moods are so much better when you don’t eat sugar.” And then looked like a deer in headlights. (Fortunately for him, he said this to post-sugar me, so he lived to tell the tale. Poor man.)

At my annual physical, when I had been at this a little over three months, I weighed in about four pounds lighter than I was a year ago (my weight was within normal limits when I started), and all of it seemed to have come off my midsection. My cholesterol had dropped to 162. And the perimenopausal breast pain that was no longer controlled by medication and would wake me up in the night for two solid weeks every month, was gone. (Premenstrual bitchiness still solidly intact though; I guess one can’t have everything.)

Are we imposing this on our kid? Oh hells no. Primarily because we’ve always just offered what we thought were reasonable food choices and let her make the decisions on what and how much. But also because she’s an adolescent, and demonizing or forbidding sugar would pretty much guarantee she’d be shotgunning Mountain Dew every time she was out of our sight. I figure her sugar consumption is being reduced simply because there’s less of it in the food we eat at home, which is something. And, fortunately for us, she’s an adventurous kid who loves to cook and try new things, so she’s getting interested herself in finding new recipes and new ways of eating things we love.

I admit, part of me is pissed that the benefits were so clear. I kind of wanted it to be bullshit so I could just go back to eating the way I did before. To believing I was doing pretty well, and that if I’m not significantly overweight I must be healthy. But the farther in I am, the less I want to go back. I was surprised at how relatively easily this has become a way of life. I still have days where I crave sugar (especially after I’ve just had some – a little seems to turn on the switch and I want more), but really only the first few days were difficult. I take L-Glutamine as needed; it usually makes a sugar craving go away in about ten minutes.

My doc is thrilled and a little smug. But she better keep her hands off my coffee and wine.

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