Physical health – emotional health – and how sugar relates to it

UteChristmasIf you’ve followed my blog and Facebook page for even just a little while, you’ll know, that about a week ago I would have told anyone, that sugar addiction is real, and that it was absolutely vital for me to avoid the stuff. Have you ever been in a situation, where your entire belief system about something got shattered, and you had to re-evaluate your position? Sometimes this is a painful process, as you let go of what accompanied you for a very long time, and you thought of it as true and real. And now you have to let go, and embrace a new reality. My realization was not painful per se. It was an eye-opener though.

A few days ago, Sean FlanaganΒ posted something about sugar, and how he actually added more sugar to his diet (though he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth to begin with) and he feels much better now. He craves a little bit of sugar post-meal, he eats it, and then he’s done. I made a comment about my own sugar addiction, and that there is no way I could do this, because, if I started eating anything with processed sugar in it, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself, and I’d just keep eating, until the whole chocolate bar was gone.

Then, Antonio Valladares chimed in… and nonchalantly declared that there is no such thing as sugar addiction.

Science Facts for Suckers: Sugar is therapeutic. It supports thyroid function, liver function, reduces stress, supports metabolism and increases pleasure with eating. Sugar is NOT addictive.

Arrogant dude, I thought to myself. Who does he think he is, making such a bold statement to “suckers” like me. Sheesh! I pointed out that honey and fruit don’t cause the same kind of addictive behavior in me as refined sugar does. He said something about false claims, and that it was possible that something was metabolically wrong with people who can’t control their sugar cravings. I decided to be done with the conversation… for the moment. As I was mulling over his statements, I kept wondering, what the hell was wrong with either him or me. And then I decided to contact him directly and ask him about what he had said earlier… because maybe, just maybe this Antonio dude was on to something. Not that I was convinced or anything… but just for the heck of it, ask.

His response was this:

There are usually *several* things going on metabolically – the stress response (cortisol, adrenaline) is going haywire and there may be signalling or other hormonal issues at hand (dopamine, leptin, grehlin, etc) – these hormones may be out of balance and it may have NOTHING to do with our choices or desires, it can be epigenetic – meaning we were born with some of these metabolic disturbances…

so it is true that sugar itself is not addictive, even tho many ppl believe it to be true, but there are other underlying issues. There are also strong cultural and personal belief issues involved in these scenarios …

There are also various degrees of eating disorders. They are not only anorexia or bulimia, there is a spectrum of disorders and many of us can have ED tendencies along this spectrum … Many of us do not know we have these issues, but they are real psychological issues, not ‘made up’ stuff…

I have worked w addicts and yes it is difficult to discuss as emotions are strong, but at this point, what we know is that sugar is not addictive – there is no difference between white sugar and fruit (as it is digested down to fructose or glucose and utilized by the body.

Beliefs – Once we believe something is true it is very difficult fo the mind to get around that, even when presented with evidence to the contrary…

Most likely, your stress response is out of control and this is affecting your appetite, satiety levels and what not

If what Antonio told me was true, then this meant I was wrong. I’m 38 years old and I’m wrong about sugar? Inconceivable! I mean, I literally had decades of experience in this department. Weight gain and weight loss were usually directly related to how much sugar I consumed.

A couple of days after this short exchange, I participated in a discussion group with some homeschooling moms, and we just so happened to talk about food, and our relationship with it. One of my friends talked about something that I have no recollection of now, but it triggered something in me… it brought back a memory that I had buried long ago. One of my all time favorite sweets was nutella (the hazelnutty chocolate bread spread). Because candy was very limited at our house, and because I craved sweets, I would secretly sneak spoonfuls of nutella to the point where I finished off half the jar in one sitting. One day I actually was too embarrassed to return the leftover jar. So I finished it off completely, and because I could hardly throw it in the trash where it would be seen, I hid it in a secret place in my room. Of course my parents were on to me. They discovered the nutella, and I was in more trouble than I am willing to share.

Eating candy became a shameful business. I spent my entire allowance on candy, which I then hid in all kinds of secret places, only to devour it all alone during a quiet moment. I loved my candy. I loved how it made me feel. Remember the quote from Antonio above. Sugar is therapeutic. It was! And it is! To this day I find no food quite as pleasant as a sugar treat, with milk chocolate being my absolute favorite.

I spent many years living like this, eating sugar and hiding the evidence. This did lead to an addictive behavior after a while, and I will not make any excuses or will accept any arguments to the contrary on this fact. I acted like an addict. After years and years and years of being ashamed, of hiding, of wanting to feel better about myself, my relationship with sugar became warped. Add in the various diets I subjected my body to, and you have a recipe for disaster. When fat is the enemy, then sugar is the enemy, then meat is, then carbs are, what are you supposed to believe anymore?

My days consisted of sweet breakfasts, lunch, dinner… and snack time when the afternoon crash hit me. What makes a great snack? Chocolate! Cake! Cookies! Just don’t tell anyone…

Is it any surprise that all of this led me to believe that I was a sugar addict? So, how does the science fit in with all of this? Well, the fact is, that sugar is absolutely vital for the human body (hence our cravings for it!). Am I saying that refined sugar, soda, and Snickers bars are the way to consume sugar? Certainly not! But natural sugars like honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup (Grade B), and of course fruits all are converted to glucose in your body and used for energy, thyroid function, liver function (see quote above), among others… Take away that sugar, and you may experience increased stress (because your body suddenly has to run on adrenaline and cortisol), increased fatigue, and overall blahs.

As a result of this depletion you will start craving sugar… and this is where the addictive behavior comes in. You deprive yourself of sugar, then you crave it, binge on it, then feel guilty, and deprive yourself again… It’s a vicious cycle, one that I was stuck in for most of my life!

Recently, after my “falling off the bandwagon” episode (remember?), I decided to do a Whole30. I also increased my CrossFit workouts. I started going 5 days a week, ate mostly meats and vegetables, some fruits, and NO other sugar. Well, I was not entirely honest with you about the results back then. I had lost 2lbs! TWO! After 30 days of working my butt off and eating completely “clean” I had nothing to show for. Well, I had something to show for… My husband made it clear that he was so happy that I was done with this challenge, because I was “so miserable all the time”. I didn’t know what to say in response to this. He was right. I had been miserable. And within two days of finishing my Whole30, I had eaten about a week’s worth of sugar.

I was pissed off at myself! How was it possible that I could not lose this weight? I’d wanted to lose 12lbs. I lost 2lbs. Within a week I gained back 5lbs. I reprimanded myself, I played the guilt game, had a nervous breakdown, because I was a sugar addict. My jeans felt tight, my fitted workout tops showed a roll of fat underneath.

Since starting my paleo/primal journey I lost 35lbs and gained back 17, and I had no idea why… until that fateful day a week ago.

Here is another quote I came across, although I have no idea who is the author of it. Let me know if you know, because I’ll be happy to credit the source:

(UPDATE: the author of this quote is Melkor!)

Paleo and Crossfit, a marriage made in hell. Because nothing predisposes you to injury quite like high-intensity, high-skill exercise performed at high speed in a carbohydrate-depleted brain fog that impedes concentration and thus correct performance of high-skill exercise.

I love CrossFit and I am passionate about Paleo/Primal. I want the best of both worlds. I want to eat clean, and I want to train hard. What I don’t want is to keep tricking myself into thinking that what I have been doing is right. Because it is not!

After last week’s conversation with Antonio, I decided to do an experiment. First of all, I made the conscious decision not to hide it when I ate sweets. This destructive behavior would eventually be discovered by someone, and then I’d feel ashamed. No more hiding the wrapper under a pile of trash.

I increased my carb intake, especially before my CrossFit workouts. Also, I tend to crave a little sugar after a meal. So, instead of going against this craving, I gave in to it. I’d have some chocolate or a small cup of ice cream. Interestingly, I found that I did not crave more after eating just a little something after lunch or dinner. As a matter of fact, after a couple of days I was able to have a mid-afternoon brownie (for everyone to see) and not crave more.

A week later I still do have to remind myself that it’s okay to eat sweet things, and that I don’t mind when people see me doing it. This is a huge deal to me, as I’m changing a behavior that is almost as old as I am. Having to let go of it, proves to be a challenge, but it is one that I don’t mind taking on. I haven’t lost or gained any weight during this week, and ideally I’ll drop at least 15 of the 17lbs I’d like to get rid of. But it’s not my primary focus at the moment. The fact that I’m maintaining my weight with this increased sugar is thrilling.

And finally, I absolutely love how I perform at CrossFit. I am working out better, and I don’t feel as exhausted as I did before.

My plan is to keep track, once a week, of my progress, and I’ll share with you. I’m still scared. I’m still not sure I can trust myself. After all I’m undoing damage that has been done decades ago. But I will cautiously announce that maybe sugar in the form of maple syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura, honey etc… may in fact NOT be my enemy. I’m not going to declare it my friend quite yet, but I’m willing to call it a friendly acquaintance.

27 thoughts on “Physical health – emotional health – and how sugar relates to it”

  1. Like you, I have thought myself a sugar addict. I discovered a few yrs ago that after eating alot of sugar things (candy, cookies, ice cream, etc) that the next day, I would have brain fog and no energy. I am certainly willing to add sugar back but the brain fog and no energy? No way. Just 2 wks ago, friends brought ice cream over for dessert and the next 2 days, I suffered with no energy and brain fog. So if it isn’t sugar, what is it that causes this?

    1. This is an excellent question, and I will do some homework on it. I hope to have an answer for you very soon. πŸ™‚ You could also look into Antonio’s page and explore the hormones and metabolism question.

  2. Holy cow, you described my life. I’m 52, and thyroid deficient…and also Diabetic, so clearly (refined) sugar IS the enemy…right? Definitely food for thought (no pun intended), as now I don’t have to feel like a total failure for winding up with diabetes. I was born with a defective heart, so whose to say my hormones aren’t faulty too? The yo-yo’ing probably didn’t help either, though. Now I’m thinking out loud and probably babbling… All this to say Thank you for arguing with Antonio, and for sharing what you discovered about yourself (and me!). Much appreciated!

  3. Good read! epigenetic is a term that refers to the environment, one’s diet, and lifestyle and the affect they have on our genes. It happens in the womb and throughout our lives!
    I feel like a sugar addict too, I’m glad someone finally shed light on this subject! I have tried to explain to people a piece of fruit and a piece of pizza have the same affect on the body, of course the concentration of glucose is much higher in the pizza, so most of it will be stored as fat., but its hard to understand without studying the entire metabolism. After all, The ONLY fuel the brain uses is glucose! Now let’s eat chocolate!!!

  4. Yes – low carb paleo and crossfit is the stupidest combination. A recipe for adrenal fatigue.I see this problem often:
    I eat sweets. A few – not a lot. ocassionally. I eat carbs, carbs make me feel better. Not by themselves though – that is a blood sugar crash waiting to happen. I also apart from a little sugar eat a pretty tight paleo diet for auto-immune issues.

  5. Oh my God, Ute – thank you SO much for writing this!! Your raw honesty and openness to “being wrong” or mistaken was really touching, I swear you’ve almost brought tears to my eyes. I feel like I’m going through similar revelations at the moment (though on a slightly different issue), and this really spoke to me. I feel like I leave this comment on every one of your posts – but thank you, so much. And congratulations on taking this massive step towards health and balance πŸ™‚

  6. Hi Ute, thanks for the interesting article. I have a sweet tooth as well. Many months ago I did a sugar detox for a month, excluding all sugar, even fruit. I can’t even tell you how weak and lousy I felt the whole month. I was so tired and sore, I could barely work out. I slowly introduced fruit back in and immediately felt better. However After the detox was over I fell off the wagon ,and ate an entire large bag of gummy bears. So, now I include small amounts of fruit, honey, or unprocessed sugars. I am still somewhat low carb, but not super low. I did lose weight on extreme low carb, but felt crappy and weak.
    You are awesome,

  7. Hi,
    While I think everyone is different in their food journey, this is a big reason I’m starting to feel weird about the paleo diet. I’m so crazy about food now. Saying some foods are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. For me it’s not like a sugar addiction, it’s more of an emotional problem. I’ve been following some real food blogs recenly who really push the message to eat enough calories and just try to eat real food. I find it incredibly hard to get enough calories on paleo. When I eat things like white potatoes and rice (things that are carbs) my cravings for fruit and sweets almost vanish. My chocolate cravings go away with bone broth (magnesium in particular). I have been crossfitting now for 6 months and I’m also nursing my almost two year old girl. I personally feel that I need carbs, and grains. It’s not about the weight to me, it’s about my energy, my moods and most importantly my happiness. Thanks for writting this post. A lot of what you said rings true for me.

    1. I think, it really is important to constantly re-evaluate what is good, what is better, and what is garbage. As I’ve said before… paleo is not the end of the journey, but just the beginning. πŸ™‚

  8. Wow, thank you for being so honest. I think that my own journey with my body image and how I eat, came to the fore front when I had a baby girl. She is now 13 and reminds me every day to say to the mirror, “I am awesome! I am amazing!”.

    Because if you think about it, we are awesome and amazing.And her attitude (and now hopefully mine) is contagious.

  9. im trying to recover from a restrictive eating disorder because of all this. granted, ive been struggling with an ED for about 6 years, in various disguises, but when I went paleo it got progressively worse due to the severely restrictive nature of the diet. i really dont believe that food makes you fat. dieting makes you fat. i was really skinny eating what i wanted for most of my life, then i found paleo and did a 180. i gained 25 lbs. i am recovering from EDNOS. forget paleo, forget all of the diets, ill eat what i want when i want it. there is no such thing as good food or bad food when youre recovering. and honestly, even normal people will benefit from the complete halt to labelling food good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy. good food means food i actually like. bad food means food i do not like. it is that simple. we are all obsessivelying try to control our bodies and our weight with food and diets/”lifestyles.” really, the most “paleo” thing you could possibly do for your body is stop trying to control it because your body is smart and knows how to control itself. have faith in your body. it knows what it wants to eat, how much, and when to stop. all of these diets and lifestyles only prevent us from listening to our natural hunger cues and we start basing our food decisions off of the restrictive tiny list of what we tell ourselves we are “allowed” to eat, the meal plans we have designed days/weeks in advance, our self-imposed fasting schedules, and for the counters, daily calorie goals or restrictions. there is such a thing as intuitive eating and diets dont fit in this category. if you truly want to nurture your body, start intuitive eating. you dont need a diet or a “lifestyle” to be healthy. just listen to your body.

  10. Just found your article through PrimalToad and it’s SHOCKING! I have a similar relationship to food, assume that sugar/carbs are the enemy. Love paleo, but secretly sneak sugar. When I’ve managed to stick to ketogenic-paleo eating I’ve lost weight and felt well, but quality of life was so restrictive and limiting! I’m truly not sure about sugar and my body, but you’ve definitely inspired me to be honest and open about wanting/eating something sweet.

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