If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that it takes 28 days to change addictive behaviours. You know the scene: Loveable F***-Up has cleaned up his act after a stint in rehab, and is being seen off into the sunset by his warm and fuzzy mentor, to live a happy life free of booze/drugs/sex/whatever.
It’s not my intention to make light of struggles that can be devastatingly real, but I’m pondering addiction today as I’m trying to kick my own sweet habit. Yes, I’m an addict. Admitting it is the first step, right? I’m fully addicted to a substance that society not only sanctions but throws in our faces with almost every bite of packaged food we take. That substance is SUGAR.
As a kid, I was always on the bony side, and never had a huge appetite. I remember feeling stuffed after eating pretty minimal meals, but I also remember always somehow finding room for dessert. Like most of us, I had a sweet tooth, but my eating habits were controlled by my parents, who didn’t stock tonnes of treats in the house.
On into the teens and twenties, I didn’t have healthy eating habits, but they weren’t fast-food-daily-horrendous either. I think. It’s hard to remember at this point. Back then I wasn’t so worried about sugar, firstly because I had no clue how damaging it is as a substance, but also because I smoked like a fiend, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry. After many, many attempts over many years, I finally managed to quit smoking permanently nine years ago. Smoking now has no place in my busy life with small children, and most of the time, when I encounter people smoking, which isn’t that often, I think, Ugh, can you smoke that thing somewhere else? However, there are STILL times when smoking seems like a good idea. (Hello, wine!) On the occasions over the years that I’ve given in to the impulse to have a cigarette, I’ve seen the reality of looming addiction again. Nicotine is so addictive, that after all this time, I could potentially slide back down that slope. Obviously, I won’t. I no more want to be a smoker than I want to be a rhinoceros.
Despite the difficulty that quitting smoking posed, it’s pretty easy for me to remain a non-smoker. As in, it’s not hard to refrain from a habit that makes one a stinky social pariah. However, my sugar addiction is a different story. Sugar is food and it’s in so much of it, that it’s increasingly hard to avoid, especially when it arrives in disguise. I needed to be making better choices.
Six years ago, shortly after my son’s diagnosis, I read a truly inspiring book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life. The book gives solid, evidence-based advice on diet and lifestyle changes to make when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis. There were many recommendations that were revealing, but the thing I found most sobering was the information on sugar. Basically, the suggestion here is to avoid sugar like the plague. I’m sure we’ve all been aware for some time of the role sugar plays in obesity, diabetes and other conditions – but cancer? I thought that as a family we were pretty healthy, and we were, but I needed to go deeper.
These were not just changes I had to make for myself, but for my kids’ habits too. The first step was an easy change: drinks. I was never much of a pop drinker so soft drinks were no hardship to give up completely. Next up, juice. On the rare occasion, we will buy juice or juice boxes, but it’s as I say, rare, as in a couple of times a year. Taking a hard look in the mirror though, I realized that I was putting a teaspoon of sugar in every cup of coffee and tea that I had. The WHO’s daily recommendation for sugar intake is no more than 50 g. That’s 12 teaspoons a day. Sounds like a lot, right? Except that they then amend that to: actually it would be even better if you only had 25 g – 6 teaspoons. If you’re drinking 3 hot drinks a day and putting a teaspoon of sugar in each time, that’s half your daily dose. I cut that out. Easy.
Then, that’s when I had to really start reading ingredients, double-checking the labels on my bread and crackers and yoghurt.
I eventually gave up buying almost all children’s snack food, and almost all packaged foods except for a few acceptable brands. Why? Because, all of those cute, individually-packaged things that are so easy to throw in your kid’s lunch pack an insane amount of sugar – organic or not. Yoghurt tubes, granola bars and fruit chews masquerade as healthy options, but many yoghurt cups have as much as 26 grams of sugar per serving. The whole daily allotment in one go, and as much sugar as there is in a Twinkie. Sadly, the cheapest foods are the worst foods, which makes good choices even harder for many families.
I wanted to know when we were eating sugar and do it consciously, as when we go to our local ice cream shop for a cone, pick up a cookie from the bakery, or have a piece of birthday cake.
I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds very pious, right? I’m going to stop cantering around on my moral high horse for a moment.
I made all of these great changes. The meals that we eat as a family are on the extreme side of healthy. But I am still a complete junkie who goes to sugar when I’m tired or cranky. When I’ve had a bad day. Or had a good day.
Whilst I’m in confessional mode – when it comes to eating sugar, I don’t have an off switch. I’ve been guilty of buying one of those large Lindt chocolate bars, and eating the whole thing. In one go. On autopilot. I’ll buy ice cream, eat a bowl of it, and then think, That’s unbelievably delicious! and then go back for ANOTHER one. Who needs two bowls of ice cream? Certainly not my liver. I seemed to be giving myself free rein in the sugar department because I was eating so well all the rest of the time. Clearly, this kind of logic isn’t working for me, or for my family, as the repercussion is that I expose my kids to more sugar as I feed my own demons. My 19-month old has recently discovered the joy of ice cream, and asks for it with appalling regularity. I don’t want my kids to never get to indulge in a treat, but reasonable limits must be set, not just for them but for myself.
Of late I’ve felt the need to make more changes, but half-hearted efforts always seemed to end in a binge of some kind after a couple of days. So let’s loop back to the beginning. I’m currently in the middle of my own 28-day program. I’m on Day 8 of no sugar, caffeine or alcohol and I feel great. I needed something totally prescriptive, to help me out of the what’s-for-dinner vicious circle and to break my unhealthy evening sugar-binge ritual. I am really enjoying being told what to do for once.
Will I ever eat sugar again? I would say that it’s likely. It just feels really good to take a break from things for awhile and press the reset button. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you updated.
For more information on the evils of sugar, check out these documentaries:
That Sugar Film – by Damien Gameau
Sugar Coated by Michele Hozer