Eight years ago this month I walked away from King Sugar. I was at an addiction conference on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin and had stepped into the hallway for a cup of coffee (no need to point out the irony!). I wasn’t there to shake any monkeys off my back. My own separation from alcohol had played out thirty years earlier. One of the organizers thought I might be a good presenter – about what, I’m not sure. I preferred to watch and listen. That way I could decide if I’d have anything useful to offer for the next year.
One of the presenters, Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, was talking about sugar and addiction. Her main thing was sugar sensitivity. She made a big distinction between those who have it – and are subject to the blood sugar rollercoaster, mood and energy swings and possible alcoholism – and those who don’t. I don’t know if the distinction is so sharp but I did know that diabetes and hypoglycemia lurked around my family tree and were likely related to my mother’s struggle with liquor. I stepped into the hall and poured my coffee. No sweetener.
It was pretty much a cold turkey thing. I had recently gotten into yuppie drinks; sweetened, flavored coffees. Mocha was my fave (what’s to not like about coffee and cocoa together?) I never had another one. There was a precedent for this. My parting with booze had been kind of unorthodox. Besides, of all the ways to improve my health, I felt I had a chance against sugar. I’m not sure my will power could have stood for long against the persuasions of crunchy, grease-laden carbs. You fight the battles that you can.
When people learn that I don’t sugar-up, they want the details. I can write all I want about colonialism and ecology and prisons but to get attention – mention quitting sugar! So here are the answers to my sugar FAQs:
For me sugar is what the body thinks is sugar. That includes honey, sorghum, molasses, maple or corn syrup, agave and so on. True, a more complex delivery system, like honey, will slightly slow the rate of flow into the blood, but in the end it’s just sugar on a longer chain. The pancreas and adrenals aren’t impressed by earthy-colored packaging.
Sugar has come a long ways since it was treated as a high-priced medicinal in ancient Greece, or since John Gerard observed in 1597 that “Sugar Cane is a pleasant and profitable reed,” adding, it was “exceeding sweet.” It has become something like air, massaging our organs and bloodstream and brain like soft background music we no longer notice; a subliminal soundtrack to our lives. If all the sweetened products were removed from grocery shelves there wouldn’t much left besides the eggs. “Food” corporations enlist brain science to find the “bliss point” for each new product: the perfect balance of sugar, fat and salt to trigger an addictive response in children. Throw a few million into an ad launch and you’ve got masses of kids hooked up (and hooked), dripping sweet green profit into the hungry veins of stockholders. No surprise there. Sugar and slavery go way back.
The boundaries for sugar aren’t as sharp as with alcohol. Sweet fruit juices – apple, pear or grape – might as well be corn syrup because of their degree of concentration, but an orange or apple can be processed by the body without shocking the system. Dried fruit are nature’s candy, no mistake. I’ve been known to nab a dried apricot or handful of raisins on rare occasions. I’m not trying to go monastic.
My transition to a sugar-free world was guided by my prior breakup with drink. Starting with beer at fourteen or fifteen, I was soon imbibing rum, gin, grain alcohol liqueurs and wine (in both its wine glass and paper-bag-by-the-train-tracks varieties). Around me, though, I could see the costs of the destructive big three – alcohol, tobacco and heroin – of my generation. Cocaine was just starting to enter polite conversation and the angel dusts and other random concoctions remained always on the margins.
To shake myself free I had to rebel both against booze and my peers’ futile rebellions. My friends would stand up boldly declare to the world that they were done forever with their self-medication of choice. Two weeks later they’d be back to it, sulky and saddened and no longer talking so big. That wasn’t an appealing model. Besides I was too shy for big pronouncements. I’d heard a little about twelve-step programs but couldn’t see their gears meshing with mine. Admit that I’m powerless and that I need to ask a higher power to get me out of trouble?! It made more sense to me to admit that no one was going save my butt and the power was in my hands alone. It was up to me.
I made my vow in silence. No one knew but me. I promised myself that I wouldn’t drink again unless I wanted to. That was it! There was no rule to push against or cheat on. There was no community behind whose back I could sneak. Every time I had the urge or the opportunity I had one simple obligation: to answer the question “do I really want this?” It kept coming up “no.” It still does.
There was both a cliff and a slope to this process. Hard booze disappeared immediately in the rearview mirror and so did wine. Except for once. On my eighteenth birthday I hitched into the New Hampshire mill town I lived near and picked up a flask of Portuguese wine (the fall of the dictatorship earlier that year had put an end to an international boycott). I just wanted to do it legally one time. No more making fake IDs for me!
The trail that had led me away from booze was still there when the time came to walk it again. I had nothing to prove to anyone so I could guide my own withdrawal. When my co-workers surprised me with a mango birthday flan from the Puerto Rican flan queen herself I had to be a good sport- I know better than to anger the flan spirits! At first I’d dress up my potatoes with some ketchup. Soon, though, it started to taste like corn syrup to me. Sugar had stopped being invisible to me.
What difference has it made? Good question. I no longer nod off in a three PM blood-sugar slump. My doctor says I’ve got low systemic inflammation. That’s a good thing. High inflammation gives rise to all kinds of chronic trouble. It even makes your cholesterol all gooey so it gums up the arteries and makes the heart work extra hard. Sugar is a big player in the inflammation scene.
OK, last call for questions. No, it doesn’t bother me to be around drink or pastries. I’m cool. No, I was never interested in the chemical wonder- sweeteners. I hate cancer. Stevia? Hey, that’s one cool herb, isn’t it? I’ve only discovered it recently and it is nice to have around, I don’t have constant sweet tooth I need to cater to, though. My weight? No, dammit! It hasn’t made my belly shrink! It’s just not fair!
April, to me, is Glycemic Liberation Month (feel free to have a cookie in my honor). I may have chosen to go all obsessive with this, but sugar isn’t meth. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Cutting back a little will bring a little health benefit. Cutting back more will bring more. As for me, I told myself I’d try this for ten years and then evaluate how it’s going. I’m almost there. I don’t expect any big changes.