Look around you… what do you see? There is something there that is so pervasive and present that we no longer even really realise it’s there. But our brains do. The posters that tell you to drink this, eat that; that the way to end a good day is with sugar and the way to end a bad day is with sugar. Our brains absorb what the posters, the adverts, the pop-ups and the pictures all around us say, and those subtle, subliminal messages have a continual effect on what we do and the choices we make.
It starts when we’re small. At the doctor’s when we’re offered a chocolate button for tolerating an injection, when we’re handed sweets to calm us down after a tantrum, when we’re given sugar to celebrate a birthday. We are taught that sugar soothes and also celebrates. It’s a socially and culturally reinforced norm: a distorted version of the feast days and celebrations that would have been held only periodically in pagan and pre-industrial times. We all deserve a treat, says the dominant narrative. And, in that version of the story, self-care involves sugar. And the sofa. Or a spa. This idea of particular kinds of reward is so ingrained in our culture, in our society, that we are as unlikely to question it as we are to question whether the sun will come up in the morning.
Sugar is pleasurable. A slice of cake, a bar of chocolate: delicious. But most of us do not consume sugar like this. All too often, the way we consume it leaves a bad taste in our mouths and minds. We have all had that moment when we realise, usually after the binge, that the chocolate has not taken the pain away or made a difficult situation any different or better. Now we feel nauseous, weak-willed and guilty, on top of however we felt before we started eating. And so we say never again… and then it’s the ‘detox’ and the ‘month off’ – a period of socially endorsed misery where everyone has to hear about how ‘good’ we’re being while simultaneously watching us be more miserable than ever.
The sweet sell
The first thing to ditch is the guilt. You think it’s your fault. You think it’s you who is weak. It is not you. Repeat: it is not you. It is your environment. It is the stories we have been told about what is good for us that are at fault. These are things we need to question.
We are trapped in an environment that does not really want us to grow up. Our society, managed in the background by a toxic combination of Big Food and Big Pharma, feeds our desire for ease and comfort, but hides from us the true cost to our emotional strength. Our environment is sugar-saturated and, overwhelmed by choice and opportunity, dictated to by habits that are usually as unconscious as they are deeply rooted, we struggle to resist the endless chances and choices we are given to buy sweet snacks and treats. On one journey into central London, I passed four corner shops and train station outlets. In two cafés I counted nearly 30 sweet choices in each… Behavioural psychologists know that we only have so much energy for saying no. We might be able to walk past that first shop, the second, say no to the first offer of a biscuit or cake – but the fifth? The seventh? Decision fatigue is a very real psychological phenomenon, and we can all get worn down by our environment.
And it is not just our physical environment. The mainstream media reinforce the pendulum swing of good/bad cycles, with their diet plans and exercise diagrams, but then their cake recipes and seasonal incitements to indulge as well as the very pervasive message that being too healthy is somehow dull or even ‘dangerous’ (my favourite recent headline: Yoga Might Kill You). We all know that the pendulum-swing of stuffing or starving ourselves is not a healthy way to be, but, when we are surrounded by images of thinness, never more than a few feet away from sugary snacks, constantly under stress, and most of our choices are based on an emotional response to our environment and circumstances, how can we be expected to manage what we eat?
We are told that sugar can form a valid part of our diet, but who tells us this? Not nutritionists but Big Food, an entity so large and so powerful that we fail notice it is there…like the weather, ever-present, ignored until it is noisy, and affecting everything from our health to what is happening to the planet…
Who wants us to eat sugar? Big Food.
Who feels bad and gets sick when we eat sugar? We do.
The addictive properties of sugar
We are told we are hardwired to want sugar and need it, but our body can survive without it. It likes it, yes, but it does not, as John Yudkin outlined as long ago as 1972, need it. But again, as with the environment and Big Food advertising, the fact that you find a sugar habit hard to break is also not your fault.
In my novel Appetite, the character of David, a teenage boy with weight problems, struggles with the impact of emotional eating and with the ever-present availability of sweet and unhealthy foods; but he also learns a huge amount about how the body reacts to sugar and tricks you into keeping the supply coming. This knowledge finally gives him the power he needs to make changes.
The most common and simple forms of sugar are glucose and fructose, and, while we were always told that sugar was just pure energy, mere empty, harmless calories that could just be burnt off, it is now very clear that the way our bodies react to sugar is not the same as the way it reacts to other foodstuffs. Our bodies are designed to handle the occasional few weeks of seasonal fruit that our primal ancestors would have enjoyed, not a high, daily intake of sugar.
The last ten years have seen a huge rise in medical awareness of the impact of sugar (fructose in particular) on our bodies, specifically in relation to our liver and our hormones.
Leptin and ghrelin are the pair of hormones that regulate your appetite. Leptin is released by your fat cells and tells your body when you have had enough, and ghrelin is released by your stomach when your body is genuinely hungry. The body needs homeostasis – for things to stay the same – and it is increasingly evident that energy management is the most complex thing our body does and that the links between our diet and that management are more complicated than we ever thought possible.
Not only does fructose fatten your liver and affect these delicate hormonal balances; it is also not something that the body can resist: leptin is linked to dopamine. It is part of the process whereby we know we have been rewarded and when to stop. Insulin clears the dopamine away and cleans you up ready for next time, but if you are insulin-resistant this clean-up can’t happen. Insulin resistance leads to leptin resistance. If you are overweight, you are leptin-resistant, and this means that your body does not know when it has had enough. You feel constant need, at the hormonal level, and in a way that you are not in control of. It is the combination of this need, and living in an environment where there is always someone happy to sell you something to fill that need, that makes obesity such a complex issue.
The key realisation for David is that it is the hormones and not him that are the problem. The tiredness and constant hunger are not, as he has always been told, due to his greed and laziness but are a consequence of leptin resistance. Too much leptin being released from too many fat cells means that there is no way for the body to ‘tell’ that you are full: it thinks you are starving and so prompts you to eat, and it also prompts the body to assist in energy management by making you want to do less. Appetite, and David’s story, helps to release us from the personal guilt and shame and shows how, once we fully understand what is happening, we can begin to change.
Scientist Dr Robert Lustig talks about this in detail, as does health journalist and co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative Gary Taubes. The most recent research into the gut has even seen links drawn between fructose and mental health issues such as depression.
My sugar story
I will be talking in more detail on my website about my childhood relationship with sugar, but, as an adult now in my early forties, the only clue to my very well hidden sugar habit are the occasional skin breakouts. I am fit and eat well but the habit is there. A biscuit or three at 10 a.m., a cereal bar (or two) before lunch and again before the school run. A dessert. A home-made cake. A treat. A few truffles at bedtime. A whole bar of organic vegan chocolate eaten square by relentless square while working at my desk at night. And don’t even get me started on what I used to eat in the car…they call them grab bags for a reason.
When I faced up to the truth about my eating it was a very powerful moment. I realised that I was ‘saving’ calories in the day by not eating when I should so that I could eat sweets later (and not even hidden sugars but the real stuff – cookies, desserts, bars and bags). I also realised, by observing my behaviour, that I was eating this stuff when no one else was around…in the house during the day, in my room in the evening, in the car late at night. I saw what I was doing, and I also began to see the sadness and pain that was driving so much of that behaviour, and the shame and guilt I was adding to it. Just writing that makes me cry…
I decided I wanted to make a change…
I had tried to stop eating sugar before, and had always failed after a few days, but, this time, the one word I did not say to myself was should…
There is a counter-intuitive response to the word should. The moment we use it we resist… you know what I mean. I should take the rubbish out/send that email/do the housework; I should eat better/drink less/cut back… The moment we start talking in shoulds, we have already set ourselves up to fail. The brain hears the command and rebels.
These counter-intuitive ways in which the brain works can lead us very far down the wrong path. We think that our thinking is linear and straightforward, that telling our brain we should do something will lead, inevitably and surely, to action…but it rarely does.
The key to all change is acceptance of where you are now. But this seems disappointingly passive, and so we reject it. How can that be? I cannot accept my bad skin, my bad habits, my fat thighs…I cannot accept that… And yet the fact is, we cannot get anywhere without first accepting where we are right now.
We need to truly see where we are. Only then can we begin to see where we need to go.
What I said to myself when it came to eating less sugar was: I am curious about what not eating sugar will be like…how I will feel, what it will do, the changes it might effect, the things I might learn…
When you look closely you may see, as I did, that you are caught up in a good day = treat / bad day = treat cycle. You may see, as I did, that you can go a few days and then you go delving into the biscuit tin every Wednesday, or after dinner every night, and that a few squares always end up being a whole bar… And you might notice that your skin is always red, and ask, why the constant flare-ups, the pervasive tiredness…what is that all about? Questioning is key, and we need to be curious about the journey, not just focused on a distant goal – an attitude very much echoed by Sarah Wilson in her best-selling book I Quit Sugar…
It is not about never having sugar again; it is about making a conscious choice to eat something that nourishes not depletes. Something that adds to the goodness. A handful of nuts and raisins. A few cheese and carrot sticks. A pitta stuffed with humous and salad. A cup of herbal tea or hot lemon water. Low-fructose fruit such as raspberries, blackberries, cantaloupe, kiwi and blueberries. It’s about awareness. About seeing what you are eating and why… Maybe you can call a friend rather than stick your hand in the biscuit tin; maybe you could give your friend a book rather than another box of chocolates for their birthday.
The way to start taking back our self-power is to begin to look. Start to see the adverts, the narratives all around us and within us. Observe and then begin to ask why? Why am I being told that? What do I really need? What am I really hungry for?
And we need to disconnect sugar from the idea of both reward and comfort. It may sound extreme, but my experience is that sugar robs us of the ability to feel and truly experience our lives. It does this by making us think that a sugar rush is real happiness – that we cannot and do not feel anything without the experience being accompanied by something in a shiny wrapper, or glistening with icing… But you can enjoy the great moment or celebration without it. You can survive the bad day or even month without it. And only by experiencing our feelings without the sugar dummy in our mouths can we begin to know our true emotional power. When we are having a bad day, simply have a bad day. That’s it. When we are having a good day, simply have a good day. It is not about never having a dessert again. It is about knowing we do not need it, to either enjoy or to cope with the moment. The moment is enough. We are enough.
As the evidence mounts against sugar, as the links between not just sugar and leptin resistance and metabolic syndrome and obesity but also dementia, ageing and cancer all become clearer, the food industry will fight harder and nastier than ever to keep selling it to us. The only people who can change what we eat and how we feel is us.
Let’s make this change and journey together…