I know two things for sure about sugar. One is that it is toxic (I'm not being hyperbolic -- that's really the word health experts are using these days), and two is that I love it and need it after every meal (until recently, anyway). My parents, both of whom are certified holistic health coaches, just returned from Montpelier, Vermont, where they conducted what they call a "Sugar Blues" workshop. The workshop was, as always, a great success, and some of the stuff they said about sugar was entirely new to me, and has been more helpful than anything else I've ever learned about how to break a sugar addiction. I want to share it with my readers, so here goes.
Sugar Is a Ubiquitous Toxin
I'll get through this quickly because I feel like we all know that sugar is bad and how it's in everything. Frankly, it's kind of a downer to hear about just how bad it is, so here is just a quick reminder of some of the diseases to which refined sugar contributes: weight gain, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's, cancer, depression, and a generally suppressed immune system.
As for their ubiquity, refined sugars are found in an amazing number of products. Did you know that there is sugar in pasta sauce? Bagels? Salsa? Beer? Most foods marketed for babies and toddlers? Bottom line: Sugar is in everything and it's really, really bad for you. Moving on.
Sugar Isn't the Problem
According to the Sugar Blues talk, sugar isn't really the problem, but rather a short-term solution to a legitimate need. Humans have evolved to desire the taste of sweet because natural sugars provide us with energy. We did not evolve, however, in an environment as abundant with such a wide variety of refined sugars as the world we now live in.
Grains, beans, vegetables and fruit all contain sugars, and when we eat these the sugar enters our bloodstream slowly. Refined sugars do not work in the same way, and that's why they are so problematic. So how do I stop myself from drooling over the chocolate croissants every time I enter Le Pain Quotidien?
How to Preempt Sugar Cravings
I am so sick of the "grab an apple when you want chocolate!" advice about sugar cravings. This obviously doesn't work -- when I want a brownie, a freaking handful of raisins just simply is not going to cut it. Although my mom definitely advocates adding in more fruits and sweet veggies (e.g., yams) to your diet, her reasoning is different and makes a lot more sense to me. I'm totally oversimplifying, but here is the basic idea: In Chinese health theory, all foods fall on a spectrum from Yin to Yang, with sugar being on the most extreme Yin end, and animal foods (meat, eggs) and salty foods on the extreme Yang end of the spectrum. As our bodies try to maintain equilibrium, if we eat too many foods on the far end of this seesaw, we then crave foods from the other end. So, when you are having a sugar craving, your Yin-Yang seesaw is all out of whack, and you actually probably need to just go ahead and eat sugar to really feel balanced (if you do this, make the brownie with maple syrup or honey instead of white sugar). If, however, you consistently eat foods that are naturally closer to the middle (like grains and vegetables and beans), you won't have cravings of items from the extremes. The idea is that adding, say, sweeter veggies (carrots, roasted onions) to your meal will help stave off a sugar craving to afterwards. Similarly, if you limit the super sweet foods (Yin stuff), you won't crave as much Yang food (e.g., red meat), which would then send that side of the seesaw plummeting and make you want more sweets to come back into balance. Of course, determining which foods fall right in the middle of the Yin-Yang seesaw isn't totally intuitive, and that's why you need a health coach! (Shameless plug!). One hint: A meal of kale and quinoa would land you smack dab in the middle of the seesaw. Shocker.
There are other ways to approach a sugar addiction that were covered in the Sugar Blues talk. Sometimes we eat because we are bored or anxious or lonely. Have you ever found yourself staring into your refrigerator only to realize that you are not even hungry? The talk stressed the importance of other kinds of nourishment besides foods. My mom often creates a "Nourishment Menu," which includes no actual food items, and encourages her clients to nourish themselves with items from this list (a hot bath, a hug from a spouse, etc.) every day. It sounds super cheesy, granted, but as a client of hers, I can attest that it actually works... sometimes. More effective for me, personally, is learning about Yin and Yang foods and balancing the seesaw before I feel that I must consume a Starbucks' apple fritter the size of my head.
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