The Unexpected Thing That Happened When I Gave Up Sugar:
A Public Service Announcement
This isn’t a lecture about sugar danger, a testimonial about a product or an enthusiastic program for weight loss. Rather, it is about how I finally unearthed a buried personal goal and gave it some light. The result changed everything.
The story begins nearly forty years ago when I could finally read cursive writing and was able to decode what my pediatrician wrote on the instruction pad after each yearly well visit. Even though it was in a messy scrawl, I could make out my weight, height and one particular phrase, cookies, one weekly. Some years, the doctor added other instructions that were more specific — “no junk” or “no candy, soda or chocolate.”
My mother held this particular doctor in very high regard. Dr. Cummins was one of the first female pediatricians in the area and was also the mother of five. It was the early seventies and my mom, an ardent Gloria Steinem fan, appreciated all the challenges this doctor likely faced in her career. Nearly everything Dr. Cummins instructed my mom to do, my mother did. She quoted her often. I even ended up graduating from the same college. I am sure it was not a coincidence.
One of my mom’s favorite things to do was to bake; cookies and cakes were as much a part of our kitchen as were vegetables and fruits. I spent a good deal of time in my childhood wondering what Dr. Cummins would think of us if she knew the secret truth about the amount of sweets we consumed. A cookie once a week? I often thought to myself, Was she serious? My mom never talked about why she so blatantly ignored the cookie instruction and I didn’t ask — because I was mostly relieved. I didn’t want things to change. But a background sense of guilt accompanied all the treats I ate; I often wondered what bad thing was imminent because of not following her advice. Surely something would get me.
My proclivity for sweets remained with me over time. Chocolate, in particular, served an important role. A piece of it was really the only way my brain knew that the meal was over. Like the credits at the end of the movie, I only seemed to stop eating if I sent the specific ‘sweet’ signal to my brain. Even if I was on a diet, I kept my pleasure of a little ice-cream after dinner.
There were other things I gave up or added in to be more health conscious. Or to solve mysterious ailments that I am not comfortable admitting publicly. It’s still hard to go into detail because I was raised to keep such vivid imagery private. If my dad, for instance, heard any of us ever mention some bodily fluid he would go white as a sheet and nearly pass out. It is easiest, therefore, for me to give you a metaphor. Imagine my stomach as the haunted room in an otherwise normal house; weird shit happened in there.
I tried all sorts of things to fix the room short of exorcism. Most recently, I gave up gluten. Before that I gave up dairy. Sometimes I gave up all alcohol or uncooked vegetables. I added things in, like capsules of psyllium seed, black walnut tinctures, daily fresh eggs or Turmeric. My friends just took it for granted when we ate together that I would be on a new health plan.
“What are you cutting out now?,” they’d ask. Of course, I would get defensive and they would be subjected to all the details that I am sparing you, the reader, in case you are my dad. My ad hoc remedies often worked for a while and I would think I had solved the problem. But ultimately, the ghost came back.
In early spring, I woke up to find a tick attached to my arm. Before I was even fully awake I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. It was as if I had just gotten a tetanus shot, which of course I had not. I get a lot of tick bites and so I have developed a habit of sending them in for testing to see if they have Lyme. This tick did and so my doctor gave me a round of Doxycycline.
Antibiotics are commonly known for causing stomach upset. On my ten-day protocol of taking the Doxycycline, however, my stomach never felt better. I decided to do some research and Googled this unexpected side effect. I stumbled on a possible reason. To give the layman’s understanding — the antibiotic was killing off some strain of small intestine bacteria that was causing my discomfort. It had a name, SIBO.
My heart sank upon reading the recommendations. Sugar was the main food upon which the bacteria fed. The SIBO diet would be a strict one indeed, stricter than any self-imposed diet I had ever tried. I would never be able to do it.
Some people collect shoes, or wooden bird figurines or even miniature salt and pepper shakers. The only thing I have collected over the years are fabric covered journals. All of them have something in common, I discovered, when leafing through them to remember different parts of my life. It is like variations on a theme, this same pesky sentence.
I should give up sugar.
I really need to give up sugar.
I’m going to try to give up sugar.
This one sentence, this one failure, spans decades. Decades.
I liked the ten days of my life on Doxycycline. I disliked reading the same impotent sentence in my journal. I researched SIBO some more. I added an app on my phone about permitted foods. I mulled over my depressing future of a sugar free life. Ultimately, I knew what I had to do.
Grapefruit was suddenly critical when I started my sugar free experiment. It was the only thing that could replace the craving I had after dinner for something sweet. For the first few weeks of giving up sugar I ate grapefruit with such desperation that I reminded myself of someone lost in the wilderness who, upon finally catching a fish in the river with bare hands, eats it immediately without even cooking it.
It was so hard to give up sugar that I could not follow many of the recommendations. I kept eating my morning home-made granola that I made with maple syrup. And I used honey, which was allowed, in my apple-cider salad dressing. I kept eating fruit. But I did follow two basic rules: total elimination of white granulated sugar and waiting four to five hours between meals.
The first few weeks were a challenge. I had terrible cravings — hunger cravings — even though I was eating regular meals. I was shaky and cranky. But, for the first time in four decades, I was determined because something else was happening. The ghost had gone silent even though my nervous system felt fragile.
By the end of the first month, I had firmly found my footing. I discovered an incredibly helpful addition to my daily smoothie –flaxseed oil. I have known about its benefits for years and had used it for diets in the past. But now it was crucial. Flaxseed oil is known for stabilizing insulin levels and hormones. It is satiating and helps promote brown fat. Another good thing happened. I found out that I could eat bread again without any ill-effects. My diet of foods actually broadened. My cravings had disappeared, I felt great and I no longer felt compelled to snack between meals. After a few months I found myself occasionally trying a treat with sugar to see what would happen. Just a little — not too much –and I found out I was fine. I remembered Dr. Cummins rule: a cookie once a week.
Although there is a little research that I have found that links white sugar to digestive upset, it is not as championed as a solution as are so many of the other heavily researched foods. Wheat and dairy are consistently linked to intolerances; there is a lot of research out there about both. But over the years I cannot even count the amount of times people told me or that I read that there is no difference between fruit sugar and table sugar. I believed it. But, in my case, there was a huge difference. I wonder if it is because all the lobbyists in the gigantic sugar industry do not want the us to know this. Sugar is, after all, in nearly all processed foods.
Besides feeling great, having diminished cravings and even losing an annoying five pounds, something even bigger happened. I finally did something that I had struggled to do over the entire course of my life. Finally finding the discipline to do this has helped me accomplish another non-food related goal. More on that later. This installment is long enough.
In the meantime, here is my magical smoothie recipe:
One banana, one half-scoop of protein powder, one TBS of natural peanut butter, about a ¾ cup of almond milk , One TBS of Flaxseed oil, some ice cubes
Blend together. Enjoy.
Thanks for reading. I hope my experience helps someone as much as it helped me.
Update: May, 2020
I no longer use flaxeed oil on the advice of a practitioner who suggested flaxeed oil goes rancid quickly. He also recommended to cut back on bananas (high in sugar)— so I only use ¼ of one banana. Instead of peanut butter I use almond butter but have added frozen blueberries. It’s just as delicious.