I am breaking up with sugar… At least I’m trying to. It’s been well over a year since I started thinking about this but it was my appointment with a holistic nutritionist in May that helped me take the plunge. Specifically, learning about my gut microbiome and how it links to my hormonal history is what gave me the WHY for tackling my greatest vice. I felt prepared and excited by this challenge when I had the appointment about a month ago. If you want more details about the visit, please see the post I wrote about it here. But as with everything, the motivation that I had at the start has faded and the real work has set in. Breaking up is hard! Breaking up any relationship, whether that’s with a partner, a friend or a vice, is hard! When you think about it, your relationship to food and to nourishment is as old as your relationship to your mother – your oldest relationship. Breaking ties with something that in some way has been part of your ENTIRE life, is not going to be a linear process. Now, I realize that I am making this a little more dramatic than it has to be; obviously I’m not cutting ties with all food entirely – that would be a completely different and dire situation. No, I am only trying break, or at the very least, loosen my ties with sugar.
What does that mean exactly? Well, it means that I am trying to forego all added sugars in my diet, and severely limit my intake of sugar alternatives like honey and maple syrup, and high sugar fruits like dates, bananas and grapes. I’m also trying to eliminate gluten, which in and of itself, hasn’t been as difficult for me – only as it pertains to giving up sugar, as in having baked goods like cookies or donuts. But giving up gluten on it’s own, like breads and pastas, hasn’t been a huge adjustment for me. And fortunately, there are some decent gluten-free/vegan pastas and breads that I can have when I am feeling like “I NEED SOME EFFING TOAST!” (…is that just me?)
I’m going to write an overview of my relationship with sugar; how was it formed and what has it given me in my life? How is it no longer serving me and why do I want to give it up? What are my triggers? And what are the solutions? I’m hoping that by sharing my personal story, it might be helpful for you, even just to know someone else’s perspective and challenges, and to hopefully provide some support and ideas to anyone else on a similar journey.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that ate quite healthfully; sugary foods were viewed as a treat or sometimes a reward. We would generally have to go out for things like cake or, our family favourite, ice cream – we didn’t have candy, chocolate, or sugary cereals in the house (at least not where I could find them…) My mom would sometimes bake cakes or cookies for special occasions but for the most part, I consumed less insidious forms of sugary foods, like toast with honey, or homemade pancakes with maple syrup. As I got a little older, starting around the age of 9 or 10, my feelings toward sugary foods changed from special treat to coping mechanism. When I was feeling bored, lonely, depressed, anxious, it was easier to eat and distract myself, rather than feeling those feelings! Obviously, most 9 year olds wouldn’t know how to identify the feelings of anxiety or depression, so I don’t fault myself for this in anyway. It was the best way my subconscious knew to self-sooth and to try distance myself from painful emotions. When I was old enough to start buying my own food, going to the corner store and buying sugary foods in particular became a way of bonding with friends. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would go to the coffee shop near our high school and get cinnamon buns, or go to the grocery store and buy donuts. It was a treat that we could enjoy together. It was also a break from the mundane – somewhere to go, and something to do that wasn’t at home or at school. In many ways, emotional eating, whether they were inspired by positive or negative emotions, served as an effective tool in certain situations when I didn’t have the awareness, or knowledge to address the deeper needs and desires. I know this story is probably very familiar to many other people, particularly women; using food and sugar in this way is a normal and our culture encourages it from a young age.
The reason why I am giving up sugar now is to try and sort out the root cause of my acne. I go into this a little bit more in my post “What I Learned From A Holistic Nutritionist” so please check this out for more details. Acne is something I’ve struggled with on and off for a loooooooooooooooooooooooong time… since I was about 11 or 12… and I’m almost 29… so getting close to two decades. Turning to sugar for comfort and for celebration is not serving me anymore because I know how it is negatively impacting my digestive system, my liver, and my skin, and frankly, my quality of life. My acne issues effect my self-esteem, and that in itself is something worth sorting out. It seems as though the acne issue in and of itself would be a great enough motivator for change. However the problems arise when the cravings hit and my willpower to make habit changes are really challenged. No amount of knowledge and rational thinking makes the cravings for chocolate go away… The next step is understanding my triggers and trying to find some solutions rather than giving way to my ingrained habits and go-to self-soothing foods.
The most obvious trigger for me is hormonal. I am far more likely to crave sugar (chocolate in particular) before my period, as most women do. A less obvious trigger that I have been noticing over the last few weeks is transitional time (i.e. going to work, coming home from work, traveling to meet someone, etc). I haven’t exactly figured why this is, but I am guessing that I must have some low-level stress/anxiety during these times that I don’t even realize I am experiencing, hence the subconscious need to self-soothe. The trigger for sweets on my way home from work is a little more obvious because I recognize that I want something to enjoy at the end of the day, sort of as a reward, or just something to look forward to. This is partly to do with the fact that because I teach in the evenings, I usually don’t get home until about 10:00 pm. Because I get home so late, there isn’t really the opportunity to go out and do other things, like see friends, go to a yoga class, whatever else I might want to do for self-care as a non-food related “treat.” Another big trigger is feeling bored or lonely; an old feeling/habit combination from when I was a kid. Oftentimes if I’m feeling low, and I don’t have much energy (particularly in the evenings) my go-to is to grab a sweet snack and veg out. This coincides with another trigger for wanting sugary foods: watching TV. It’s hard for me to just sit and watch TV without something else to do. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s better to acknowledge the boredom and get up the motivation to do something more fulfilling, rather than just trying to fill the void with food. I realized recently that often I’m not even aware that I’m feeling low until I’m hit with a major sweets cravings. It’s not until I feel the craving or want to sit around and watch TV and snack that I realize “hey, I’m feeling kind of _______” (fill in the blank: bored, lonely, depressed, worried, disconnected). I become aware of my feelings not by feeling them, but through the behaviours that I want to indulge in.
Just don’t eat sugar. Ok, this one isn’t super helpful in and of itself, but I did find that when I was particularly stringent with myself around refined sugar AND sugar alternatives, that my cravings for sweets really lessened. The less sugar I consumed, the less I craved it. I believe this has to do with re-calibrating my gut micro-biome. The bacterias and yeast that feed off of sugar start to die off and are replaced by the healthier bacterias that feed off of fibre. Obviously, I don’t have a ton of knowledge in nutrition or biochemistry so this is my elementary understanding and assumption.
Acknowledge your feelings and your subconscious: Sometimes abstaining from having something that you reaaaaally want feels impossible, especially when it’s being triggered by stress, anxiety, boredom or loneliness. During those moments, it’s important to have so much love and compassion for yourself. Your subconscious is triggering you to consume sugar as a means of alleviating some of those uncomfortable feelings. It’s trying to protect you and help you feel better. It’s important to acknowledge the feelings, and to acknowledge your subconscious for trying to help. It may be helpful to actually say to yourself/to your subconscious “Thank you, I’m aware of the feelings now, and I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but today I am going to choose something else.” (To be totally transparent, I am still at the stage of learning to acknowledge my feelings, so this advice is coming from a place that I aspire to get to, not from a place that I currently am operating at. I aspire to be able to have the awareness and courage to speak to myself/my subconscious with peace and compassion.)
Find something else to do that feels soothing to you: I’ve decided that my non-food related soothing behaviours will be reading, writing, yoga, meditation, playing piano or guitar, calling a friend or a family member, or asking for a hug from my partner. When none of these feel doable, my next go-to behaviour is simply taking five to ten deep, low belly breaths and telling myself “in this moment, everything is fine.”
Have some healthier go-to snack options: When I’m really feeling like I need a treat or something to snack on and doing yoga or reading a book just ain’t gonna cut it, then I’ve got some new go-to’s to curb my cravings. My first and new favourite is making myself a homemade hot chocolate. I warm up some oat milk on the stove and when it starts to simmer I pour it into a big mug with a tbsp of unsweetened cocoa, 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract and a couple of drops of liquid stevia. It’s quick and easy to make, it’s pretty cheap, and it’s a chocolaty treat that doesn’t steer me into a sugar spiral. Alternatively, I also really enjoy making a ginger turmeric latte. You can find a recipe for my Chaga Turmeric Latte here. If I’m really feeling like I need to eat something sweet, my go-to healthy and sweet snacks are apple slices with all-natural peanut butter (no added sugars), unsweetened plain coconut yogurt with strawberries or blueberries, or Dark Cherry Chia Pudding.
Another thing to take into account is that sometimes when your body is craving sugar, it really just wants extra energy. It’s good to ask yourself when was the last full meal you had? Maybe your body is just looking for a quick fix, when actually having a full balanced meal is what you really need. Another good tip that I heard on a podcast recently, is to pay attention to how you are breathing before you are about to eat. If you’re feeling frantic and stressed and taking very shallow breaths, chances are you are going to inhale your food without even realizing it. Take a beat before you eat to have a few deep breaths, slow yourself down, and savour what you’re about to consume. By taking a few deep breaths, you are taking yourself out of that fight-or-flight mindset, where we often live when we’re stressed, and are more likely to really enjoy the food you’re eating and to feel full and satisfied, rather than clocking the next thing you’re going to have after you’ve gotten through whatever is on your plate.
A few final thoughts and words of encouragement:
A lifetime of explicit and implicit programming around how to think about food and how to consume it is very difficult to parse through and rewire, not to mention the fact that often we are doing it on our own. It takes a lot of self-awareness, forgiveness, compassion, time and energy to sort through all of the feelings and the related habits that have developed over the course of your lifetime! If you are feeling overwhelmed by making changes or are feeling discouraged, I feel you! I have been there many times. We also all have differing life circumstances that make changing our diets and lifestyles potentially really difficult, so I think that is important to keep in mind. And on that note, I would like to take this space to acknowledge my own privilege. The fact that I have time and resources to dedicate to my health is a privilege in and of itself. I am privileged to have easy access to grocery stores and health food stores and to have time to cook for myself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some extra income to see a nutritionist. I have time outside of work and social commitments to read books and listen to podcasts about. And I am privileged to have a somewhat irregular schedule and and to work from home a few days a week, making it possible for me to do things like write these blog posts! I have to give props to those of you working long hours who are carving out time to cook meals at home; to parents to trying to juggle personal eating changes while feeding a family, to those of us on a tight budget who can’t justify spending extra money on seeing a nutritionist or buying expensive health foods, etc. I am hoping that by sharing my own experience and some of what I’ve learned, it hopefully cuts down on some of the work you have to do, or at the very least lets you know that I support you, for whatever that is worth. We all have our own learned behaviours and habits to contend with, our triggers, and the lifestyle perimetres that we are working within, so please don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having a hard time with it. I’d like for all of us to take a step back and realize that we’re doing a good job – no matter where we are in our journey to health; we owe ourselves some love and compassion for the challenges we’ve faced and overcome already.
If you’ve come this far, thank you so much for reading, I really appreciate it! Please leave me a comment and let me know if you’ve kicked the sugar habit, if you’re trying to kick a habit, food related or otherwise, or if this has inspired you to tackle an old habit that you’ve been wanting to let go of. Let me know if you have any tips, or if you have any triggers or tricky situations you’d like to share.