by Laura Barcella
Is refined sugar addictive? Researchers have debated the issue for years, with the ayes increasingly drowning out the nays, although last month a big study suggested the addiction isn't to sugar but to eating itself. But ask me that loaded question and you'll get a sheepish nod in between teeming mouthfuls of sour gummies and frozen yogurt. The sweet stuff has been my biggest vice and source of insta-comfort since, well, forever, and I honestly can't remember the last time I didn't have dessert after dinner.
It's not like I always go overboard -- but those instances, every few months, when I do catch myself in the swell of a full-on sweets binge? It can get ugly. Because not only do I feel helpless, bloated and ashamed afterward, but the ensuing crash makes me super-irritable and ill-equipped to be around other people. And yet... I continually do the whole deranged dance over and over again. Why? Because... addict.
I've long flirted with the idea of quitting refined sugar (the really bad kind that's in all my beloved treats) for good. With the help of a 12-step program, I gave up alcohol years ago -- I'm still off it, although I'm no longer in program -- so I know it's possible to live without the substances that seem to fuel your very core. I've managed to cut out sugar for short stretches in the past, usually with the help of a nutritionist, but my passion for candy has always lured me back into its grip.
Recently, after a grueling cross-country move and a prolonged period of stress-fueled food fuck-its, I realized my sugar dependency was raging unchecked. It didn't feel worth it any more. So I decided to make (another) serious effort to give it up for real -- and to record my experience. This is my diary.
Around 7 a.m., feeling groggy and glum after a days-long gummy-candy binge (my last hurrah!), I head to the kitchen for breakfast. In a misguided attempt to prove to myself that not only can I live without sugar, I can live without sweetness altogether, I forgo the usual stevia (a non-caloric natural sweetener made from the plant Stevia rebaudiana) in my coffee, opting only for half-and-half. Said coffee tastes incredibly sad and lonely; by the mid-cup mark, I've dumped the damn stevia packet in. Life's too short, you know?
After driving myself crazy with bingey eating patterns and overall obsessiveness when it comes to the sweet stuff, I'm about to sacrifice my beloved sugar, too -- an addiction I've been battling since infancy (True story: My dad fed me Kool-Aid from a baby bottle). Am I really expected to give up goddamn naturally sweet herbs like stevia, too?
I eat some Greek yogurt with no-sugar brown rice cereal (yes, I am now reading labels very carefully) and throw in some fresh mango and pineapple. I'm hungry again two hours later. After lunch I'm slumping big-time, and desperate for some Diet Dr. Pepper. I'd intended to avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Splenda (stevia is natural, so it's OK), but my craving gets the better of me and I hurriedly snatch a bottle of the carbonated goodness from a corner store. The soda's swift kick of caffeine and sweetness make me feel... something. Not something good, necessarily, but something.
Meeting a friend for dinner, I mention that I'm trying to quit the white stuff on my own, but I don't make a big deal of it because in our social circle of program types, every third person you meet is perpetually jumping on and off the sugar, gluten and/or dairy bandwagon. Dinner is fine, but I have a hard time staying focused on our conversation because I feel so spaced out. When I get home, I'm fiending to do my usual pre-bedtime routine (i.e., numb out with some frozen dessert in front of the TV); instead I scarf a sugar-free chocolate protein bar. It's mildly satisfying and though I'm tired, this whole no-sugar deal doesn't seem too miserable... yet.
I start off with the same breakfast I had yesterday. I feel bloated from last night -- probably due to the protein bar, which contained a sugar alcohol/fake sweetener called maltitol that can cause excessive gas and diarrhea.
By noon I'm ravenous, with a gnarly headache. My sugar withdrawal symptoms are finally kicking in. My friend Sarah comes by with take-out lunch (salad with spicy grilled chicken). I use oil and vinegar instead of store-bought dressing (a common source of hidden sugars).
By afternoon I'm feeling foggy, tired and morose -- the idea of not eating sugar for five more days (not to mention, weeks and maybe months and years beyond that) sounds almost literally unbearable. I find myself thinking almost laughably dramatic thoughts like, "What's the point in living if I can never eat sugar again?"
Before attempting my big sugar boot, I spoke to David Katz, M.D., a leading doctor/researcher/public health expert in nutrition and obesity, who warned me that I might feel shitty. "If you're relieving stress with sweets or providing yourself sugar as gratification to brighten your day, the initial effect may be psychological -- your day might feel like it's missing its bright spots," he'd said.
Dinner is microwaved mac-and-cheese from Trader Joe's. By 9 p.m. I am outright desperate for something sweet, so I have a little sugar-free frozen yogurt (I know, I know -- artificial sweeteners). I immediately pass out and dream of Willy Wonka.
The alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and though I usually have no problem getting moving in the morning, today is... different. I find it all but impossible to leave the cozy confines of my bedroom, despite my dog's increasingly urgent pleas to go outside. Another long, empty, sad, sugarless day stretches before me. Again, I remember something Dr. Katz told me -- "You might have a little less energy, you might feel a little more run down" -- and keep it in mind as I trudge through the day.
To be honest, quitting sugar feels a lot like what it felt like in my early days of quitting drinking. Sugar, like alcohol, had become such a psychological, emotional and even social crutch for me that without it, I just don't know what to do with myself. What's a sane, "normie" way to reward myself for finishing an article or working out or whatever that doesn't involve getting drunk or feasting on sweets? Seriously, these are life's Big Questions for me at the moment.
At night, I catch a movie with a friend. Setting foot into a theater usually serves as my free pass to excessive candy consumption, and the theater we're at has bulk candy bins, my Favorite Things on Earth. My entire sugar-free project almost takes a flying leap out the window as I feel myself powerfully tugged toward the clear plastic containers, overflowing with happy multi-colored goodies. I white-knuckle my way through the lobby without stopping.
"You get to reward yourself for that later," I think, before remembering I have nothing to reward myself with.
I drag myself out of bed without too much protestation. It's Saturday, but I work on the weekend and I somehow manage to feel over-the-top stressed, anxious and exhausted at the same time, all day long. I have a healthy no-sugar breakfast and lunch, but after that, things start spiraling downward. I don't eat any actual sugar, but I come close. Anything even remotely sweet is calling my name, so I go to town with whatever I can find in my kitchen: dried mango, cocoa powder, shredded coconut, peanut butter, sugar-free popsicles, cereal...
By the end of the day I feel squishy and repulsed at myself, but I give myself a pat on the back for not eating any of the refined white stuff. Sure, dried-fruit sugar is still sugar, but it's, like, from fruit. That's got to count for something, doesn't it? It's better than the crap from a Domino's box anyway.
I manage to stay awake until 11 p.m. without passing out on my couch from misery and/or lack of sweetness to the brain. Go, me!
Good morning, food hangover! I feel vile from yesterday's snack-a-thon, and "nauseous" comes to join the party, too. I vow to eat real meals instead of cheap snacks today. I do OK until another mid-afternoon slump threatens to derail me. I have tea, which helps, and a banana and almonds to help fuel my afternoon errands. By the end of the day, I'm on the upswing.
For dessert I nosh on dried mango while reading a magazine. But those "what's the point" questions begin creeping in again when I make the mistake of looking at Facebook photos from a friend's picnic wherein carefree guests happily chowed on platters of cakes, cookies and other delicacies, seemingly without an addictive inkling in the world. I spiral down a 30-minute compare-and-despair K-hole and crawl into bed.
Will my low moods ever go away? Or are they part and parcel of a sugar-free life?
I wake up feeling passably alive and refreshed. My discontent from the night before has mainly evaporated. I'm perfectly OK with my egg-based breakfast, and I manage to stay in this good place all day.
I snack on a few sugar-free chocolate almonds (I toss the remainder of the box lest I eat the whole thing -- doh!), but other than that, I eat reasonably healthfully throughout the day, and I don't struggle too much with cravings.
"The less sugar you get, the more sensitive you become, and the less you need," Dr. Katz told me. Am I starting to need less sugar?
I reward my new-found sense of stability with some fruit salad before bed. It tastes naturally sweet. And delicious. And perfect. Who needs ice cream? (OK, I miss ice cream, like, a ton, but fruit will suffice for tonight.)
DAY 7 -- & BEYOND
The end of my first week is... today! Overall I'm feeling more balanced and less depressed. But in the afternoon I meet up with a well-meaning friend who has no clue about my new-found sugar-free plight. Said friend brings chocolate. When she offers me a chunk, I feel my mouth start to water and my resolve begin to melt. "It's been a week, why not treat yourself?" my insidious addict brain urges. Instead I go steely, tell my friend I'm avoiding sugar right now, and try to change the subject to avoid thinking about delicious, delectable chocolate for even one measly second longer. Progress?
Though one week seems to have been long enough to reset my compulsive gears and shift my tastes to the point that I'm not, like, fixating on my nightly dessert the instant I step out of bed in the morning, I want to feel even better -- I want to be as free from the desire to overeat sugar as I've finally grown of the desire to drink. So I solemnly pledge to soldier on.
The next three weeks feel like maintenance mode. It's not like I've fully conquered my sugar dependency -- I eat tons of fruit and rely on boxes of stevia to quench my insatiable urge for sweetness. But because I'm meeting that need with healthier, less-addictive substances (is anyone really addicted to apples?), my cravings for Sour Patch Kids don't have as much room to take root.
But just like an alcoholic's trigger situations, certain places are hard for me navigate sans sugar. Like the movie theater, where eating candy is as much a part of the entire cinematic experience for me as the smell of popcorn, or the sticky floors, or the volume inevitably being one notch too loud. So now I bring something I can eat with me -- Lily's Chocolate is my current favorite (it's stevia-sweetened; you can get it at Whole Foods). It's less thrilling than a heaping bag of gummy candy, but I don't have a painful crash afterward.
I also have a hard time at picnics, weddings, that sort of thing. Anywhere there are cupcakes I'm in trouble. And to be honest, I don't always bother resisting in those circumstances. I write it off as a special occasion, try to limit myself to one serving, and then do my best to avoid letting it lead to a sugar overdose (which admittedly can be incredibly hard -- try turning down a second glass of wine, and you'll get the picture).
I want to live a balanced, healthy, sober and sugar free life, but I also want to live a human one. I don't expect myself to never make mistakes, and I don't want to never make them. I know it sounds sad, but I still feel like a life without sweetness (the edible kind) isn't worth living. Thankfully, there are ways to meet that drive without succumbing to actual sugar, and stevia brownies taste just as good to me as the real thing.
I'll probably always grapple with my reliance on sugar as a tool for self-soothing, pleasure and comfort. But if I try to temper those urges with self-compassion and a modicum of discipline, as I've handled other addictions, I have faith that I'll be just fine.
Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, DC. She is the author of the apocalyptic pop-culture book The End (Zest Books, 2012) and the editor of the anthology Madonna & Me (Soft Skull Press, 2012). She is also a contributing editor at xoJane and has written for Salon, VanityFair.com, Cosmopolitan, Esquire.com, Refinery29 and ELLE.com. She'd be so happy if you followed her.