Sugar surrounded by sugary treats

Are you old enough to remember the “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs” commercial in the ‘80s? If not, picture a public service announcement that first showed a whole egg with the voiceover “this is your brain” and then showed it cracked and sizzling in a frying pan with “this is your brain on drugs”. The sponsor was Partnership for a Drug-free America. If a “drug-free America” was the goal, the PSA obviously did not have the intended impact. But I have to confess – it did on me! The whole prospect of a fried brain was beyond terrifying. I stayed away from drugs. I became a sugar addict instead.

Confessions of a Sugar Addict

The reality is that I was always a rule follower and also never had any interest in drugs in the first place. What I know now is that I really needed a Partnership for a Sugar-free America telling me “this is your body on sugar”. I fear that I will not ever be able to fully reverse the damage I’ve done to my body by consuming ridiculous amounts of added sugar in candy and baked goods and more over the last 57 years. I’m working on it. I commit daily to minimizing my sugar intake. I don’t always succeed.

Years ago, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans called out fat as the enemy. In response, low-fat and fat-free products sprung up everywhere. Yet, in the years that followed, obesity and diabetes ran rampant. It turned out that copious amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates were added to processed foods with reduced fat loads to make them tasty so consumers wouldn’t miss the fat. The new villain became carbs. Low-carb and no-carb diets ruled and people became afraid to eat bread and pasta. 

The thing is, villainizing carbs without understanding them doesn’t make sense. They’re an important source of energy. There are carbs in nearly all foods and not all carbs are created equal. Some are in foods that are good for you, containing vitamins, minerals and fiber that make and keep you healthy. So swearing off them entirely or in mega-low doses is potentially harmful. A supervillain in the vast world of carbs, though, is added sugar. Sugars are simple carbohydrates and they are the proverbial  “nightmare dressed like a daydream”. Nod to Taylor Swift because why not? It’s her year.

The average American consumes 22 tsp of added sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their intake to 6 tsp per day and men to 9 tsp. We should be so much sweeter than we are given the amount of sugar we regularly consume, right?!

Sugar is the key to making many foods taste delicious. But that’s not all it can do. It causes the brain to release dopamine, which makes us feel good and leaves us wanting to feel that way again. Sugar also releases endorphins in the body and combines with other chemicals, resulting in a surge of energy. It reels us in. Seems like a good friend but then it turns and we’re hooked in an uncomfortable way with no easy way out. Curiously, it brings to mind (my mind, at least) the Borg from Star Trek Next Generation saying, “resistance is futile”. Research on rats has found that there can be withdrawal symptoms such as depression and behavioral problems when people try cutting out sugar completely. 

Sugar has been my drug of choice for a long time. I’ve always had a serious sweet tooth and it’s how I self medicate. I’m an emotional binger so my sugar intake can be through the roof at times. Although not generally considered as serious as many other addictions, sugar addiction can cause a number of severe health effects if not addressed. The long term consequences of too much added sugar include elevated risks of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, overweight or obesity, fatty liver disease, chronic inflammation, heart disease, stroke, and pancreatitis. Scientists are also learning that sugary, highly processed foods may have a profound effect on the brain (as in Alzheimer’s). I’m aware of this but the hold sugar has had on me is demonic.

Fighting Sugar Addiction

So I made the difficult choice to cut back on sugar several months ago. I suppose I should have written “easy choice”, “difficult execution”. Quick fixes don’t usually last and I’m really most interested in sustainable behavioral changes these days so I’m taking it slow and building myself up. I try to limit my added sugar intake and put no limits on natural sugar in fruit. The treats I love are not off limits, just seriously moderated.

I don’t want to live a life devoid of sweets and I’m never successful if I try to eliminate an entire food group anyway. If I quit sweets cold turkey, I’d be miserable. I’m also well aware that if I quit or even dial it back a bit and then slip with one jelly bean, I’ll disappear and resurface several pounds of Jelly Belly’s later, craving more. You get the picture. You may even relate to the picture. As much as I’d like to get to a point where no jelly bean fiascos happen, I think I’m more determined to get to a place where if they happen, I can be ok with that and I can then move forward.

I’ve started making changes that are manageable. Small steps, big change. My wellness journey is about the whole self and I’m working on several changes, always beginning with small, actionable, measurable steps. I find it helpful to log what I eat throughout the day using a food tracker that tracks sugar intake. If my sugar intake during the day is low, then I might happily indulge in something sweet in the evening, guilt-free. If my sugar intake during the day is not so low, I may still indulge but when I do, I try to be very aware of what’s happening. I’m looking to strike a balance between being kind to myself and also feeling enough self love to make sure I’m taking care of myself. 

I also limit the candy, cookies and other high-sugar foods I keep at home now. For me, willpower is not a strategy. I’ll always have something lying around but I’m trying to only have one something lying around at any given time. Otherwise, on any particularly emotional day, I’ll storm eat my way through all of Trader Joe’s finest snacks (and at times, I’ve had and eaten ‘em all in one sitting).

Finally, I now read labels differently than I did before. In addition to macro and micronutrients, I read ingredients. Consider the many different sneaky codenames for sugar, including brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, confectioner’s sugar, corn sweeteners, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, granulated sugar, honey, invert sugar, lactose, levulose, maltose, maple sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, turbinado, and white sugar. If any of these come first in the ingredient list, I will put the food item back on the shelf (possibly tearfully). The same holds true if several of these are included in the ingredients list, in any position.In general, I’m trying to eat more and more whole foods that don’t come with a nutrition label at all but that’s a post for another day.

As it stands, I am a recovering sugar addict who would like to maintain my sugar sobriety. The changes I’ve made have led me to a place where I no longer crave and don’t always like super sweet things. I know my fondness for the super sweet can easily return if I indulge enough. When I indulge, as I do sometimes still, I don’t consider it a slip. It’s just life in the sugar lane and I’ve already shown myself I can handle this road.

Something to think about: “You can’t beat a good doughnut. It has to be a jam with light pastry and caster sugar on the outside. If I’m really tired, I have to hunt one down because it gives me that sugar rush to keep me going.” — Paul Hollywood

Something to try – Date caramel! If you think you don’t like dates, hear me out. Date caramel is a luscious, blended mix of dates, coconut cream, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and salt and it tastes like caramel (not dates, not coconut). But it has no added sugar! It’s a delicious dip for apples or pretzels, can be mixed with peanut butter, and can be used as a sweetener in baked goods. In addition to the recipe, which follows, I’m including a recipe for chickpea cake, sweetened with date caramel and just 3 tablespoons of pure maple syrup. My sugar addiction extends to a love of baking. I enjoy the activity and I love how my home smells when I bake. Chickpea cake is packed with protein and fiber, has minimal sugar, and makes me feel good about baking and eating. Both the date caramel and chickpea cake recipes come from Melissa Ben-Ishay, co-founder of Baked By Melissa, home of the delightful bite-sized cupcakes.

Date Caramel

  • 15 pitted dates
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream or milk (full fat)
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp salt
  1. Add the dates to a small bowl and cover with boiling water for 15 minutes to soften
  2. Transfer the waterlogged dates to a blender with the coconut milk. Blend until smooth, adding more coconut milk if needed, and pour into a jar.
  3. Stir in the vanilla, salt, and cinnamon. 
  4. Cool completely, then cover and refrigerate.

Snickerdoodle Chickpea Cake

  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup date caramel 
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla paste 
  • ¾ cup coconut cream
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or oat flour if you’re opting for nut-free)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line an 8×8 square pan with parchment paper.
  2. Add all of the ingredients to a blender and pulse until smooth.
  3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. 
  4. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the cake is golden and springs back lightly when you push on it. (It actually takes closer to 43 minutes in my oven so check!)
  5. Let cool before slicing and store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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