On Sugar (or, On Not Eating Sugar)

I confess: I have a sugar problem.

(Along with roughly, what, 92% of the world, yes?)

I love to bake. Not just because I like to eat desserts, but I enjoy the baking process. The transformation of butter and sugar into that pale, beaten yellow texture. The smell of fresh lemon zest, vanilla, almond. The almost-crisp sound a measuring cup makes when you squish it into the cocoa container. The soft rush of chocolate melting; the crack of an egg into a bowl, the ting of the whisk against a glass bowl.

At almost every family party I go to, I bring the dessert. (I hope my little great nieces and nephews remember that, that Aunt Amy always brought a good dessert. Someone can say that at my funeral. In, oh, forty years or so.)

sugar cookies
Oh, sugar cookies! (The soft kind, with cream cheese frosting.) How I love you!

Sometimes friends even call me to ask for baking advice. Sometimes my sister asks me to bake a cake for her kid’s birthday party, and I am just fine with that.

But it’s not only the baking; I love sugar. I’ve grown more particular over the years: I like dark, dark chocolate and I like caramel that is not too sweet. I don’t love ice cream and I can skip cheesecake, but a good chocolate chip cookie, when it’s the exactly-right soft-crisp texture and has chunky chocolate and just enough salt and a buttery flavor: that is heaven to me.

Some of my best memories have dessert in them: coconut cake in Lake Powell, my mother’s caramels on Christmas break, the plate of sugar cookies a friend brought to me after I had Kaleb which were, in my nursing-starving state, the most delicious cookies I have ever eaten. Easter is synonymous with chocolate, isn’t it? Halloween is for candy. Fourth of July? It tastes like saltwater taffy thrown from the parade floats, warm and sticky and stringy.

Everything has sugar in it.

As I’ve struggled with my depression this winter (which I am beginning to think of as the Jadis Winter: always winter but never Christmas, even though there was a Christmas), I have reached, over and over, for sugar. Sugar like it was a torch in the darkness, sugar like it was a life raft I would drown without. Sugar like it could save me.

Of course, when you’re in a state where all happiness is found in sugar, it’s not a good place. My jeans are reminding me that I need to lay off a bit.

So, on Sunday night just before midnight, Nathan brought me a donut (strawberry glazed, from Krispy Kreme) from a party he’d been to. Kendell couldn’t believe I’d eat a donut and go to bed, but I did, as it was my last little bit of sugar for awhile.

Or, hopefully it will be.

I had a little slide on Monday, when I was running errands with Kendell after we’d exercised, and he was hangry so I got out a granola bar from my granola-bar stash (everyone has one of htose in the cubby of their minivan, right?) and I took a bite before handing it to him. But as it was a Kind bar that’s mostly nuts, and it was only one bite, I’m not counting it. (It does illustrate, though, how pervasive sugar is. It’s not just a craving and a desire, but a thing that’s ingrained in my way of doing almost everything.)

But otherwise I’ve been dessert and treat free.

I’m trying to see if I can make it till Easter before I eat anything sweet again. I’ve gathered up all of my chocolate stashes and put it all in the basement storage room, in a ziplock bag behind the snowman decorations. I know where it is…but just not having it where I can habitually reach for it will hopefully help.

If I am honest I will confess: I don’t want to live my entire life without sugar. I still want to bake and to be the Dessert Aunt. But I also know I need better coping strategies than clinging to chocolate as if it were my only rope.

As of this writing I’m about 87 hours without desserts or treats or snacks.

I can do this, right?

I can do this.

(For a while!)

My No-Sugar Experiment: the Start of Week 4

I'm eating a cookie while I write this post, which might tell you something about how my no-sugar efforts are proceeding.

For the first sixteen days of this experiment, I was so strong. Literally zero, nada, zilch—no cookies, candies, cakes, snacks, or sugary beverages passed my lips. My goal was to make it until Easter weekend, when I would give myself a reprieve to enjoy the holiday. I did have fruit, but not an excessive amount. I started to retrain my snacking tooth, so I was reaching for easy veggies (grape tomatoes, snap peas, baby carrots), almonds, and the occasional cheese stick for a snack, instead of candy. I was doing OK and absolutely on track to make it to Friday afternoon.

In actuality, I made it to the Thursday before Easter. That day, I went to the gym and then I had to go grab some things at Target that Nathan needed for his track meet. Maybe it was not eating after I worked out, or maybe it was the weather, but I got the weirdest headache. I took 4 Advil and then, two hours later, four more, but it didn't budge. What's worse was how I felt: spacey and unattached to my body. Actually, what I felt like was the same as how it feels when you're about 17 miles into a 20 mile run, and you're entirely out of energy and, what's more, motivation.​ You have no idea what compelled you to run that far.

My headache made me question what I was doing, pushing myself so hard not to eat sugar.

Plus, sometimes sugar does help my headaches. (Sometimes it makes them worse, though. I didn't say it wasn't a gamble.) So after everything else—a relaxing bath, a nap, and a neck massage—failed to touch it, I crumbled.

I ate some sugar.

Some lemon almonds, to be precise. They sounded the best. Of course, they didn't make the headache go away either. (I ordered pizza for dinner because I could.not.stand. the thought of cooking that night, and after I ate a slice I finally felt better.)

They did unleash the hounds of hell my previously restrained sweet tooth.

Well, sort of. I didn't eat any sugar on Friday, and I held myself back until Saturday night, when, I confess, I ate some jelly beans and caramel eggs while I arranged the Easter baskets. We had pancakes and buttermilk syrup for Easter-morning breakfast and I made my two traditional Easter desserts:

IMG_9292 easter 2015 cakes

(lemon cake and berry pound cake)

I ate Reece's peanut butter bunnies, more caramel eggs and some cookies 'n cream eggs I got for Jake (who's allergic to peanut butter) and a piece of each cake and then more lemon cake just before I went to bed. Then I took a deep breath and resolved to restart my resolution. I actually was sort of looking forward to it, since I was feeling that icky, I-ate-too-much-sugar feeling, the one that makes you need to eat some buttery popcorn or salty potato chips just to balance everything out.

And I did fabulous for two and a half entire days.

But today, I just wasn't feeling it. I can't tell you why. I just felt full of the despair and anxiety that nearly begs for sugar. And I didn't even try to restrain myself. I didn't try to distract my craving with a salad or a big glass of water or cleaning the kitchen. Instead, I sat in my bed, reading Brave New World​, and I ate candy. The eight little caramel eggs I had left. Then four Ghiradelli salted caramel dark chocolate squares. And a raspberry dark chocolate square.

And now I'm eating a cookie.

I'm not sure what tomorrow will bring, sugar-wise. I think part of what's making me feel listless about this project is that I haven't lost one single, solitary pound for all of my efforts. My clothes don't fit any better. I have felt a little bit more energetic...but not a whole bunch.

Yep. It's probably discouragement, plain and simple.

Hence the cookie. Since today is already shot to hell, why not finish strong? (And by "strong" I mean "maybe I'll eat another cookie. Or that last raspberry dark chocolate square.") Maybe I'll feel better about this tomorrow.

My No-Sugar Experiment: Week 1

I was buying some fabric today (I must finish Nathan’s quilt this week, as the quilter I use is having a sale; nothing like 15% off to get you motivated!), and I could hear the store clerks talking in the back. One of them was telling the other about the amazing breakfast burrito she’d had that morning, and the other one was like, “Ugg, I hate anything like that for breakfast. Nothing salty or spicy. I only like sweet things in the morning.”

I had to chuckle and nod my head, even though she couldn’t see (or hear) me. Start the day off with sweetness has been my life motto for as long as I can remember. I try to not go overboard—I’m not having cake for breakfast. (Usually. Although, fruit pie or apple crisp is totally acceptable breakfast food, yes?) But honey in my oatmeal, hot chocolate in my mug, or at the very least some orange juice. I can eat eggs, but I don’t love them. (I wish they tasted the way they look like they taste.) I like a sweet breakfast.

But here’s the deal. In October, my hamstrings started hurting when I ran. Only when I ran, at first. I finished the two little races I had signed up for (the library 5k and the 2 mile fundraiser for Kaleb’s school) and then I gave myself some time off. First I didn’t run for two entire weeks, but my legs still hurt. All the not-running (and, hence, not stretching) had made them tight, too. After I tried again, my hamstrings didn’t just hurt when I was running. Instead, they hurt if I sat too long. When they flare up, it feels like someone is injecting them with some kind of molten acid. So I took longer and longer breaks, and they just didn’t get any better.

Sure, I exercised a bit. But seriously: I hate the gym. I like to run not exactly because I like to exercise, but because I like to be outside, going somewhere and experiencing nature. Forty-five minutes on the elliptical is mental torture to me. It’s just so boring. So I let exercising sort of slip out of my life.

And started gaining weight.

I now weigh 15 pounds more than I did in October. Fifteen pounds. That’s a lot. And really, I’m not doing that self-hatred, self-shaming thing. I just don’t like how I feel in this new, softer, chubbier body. I don’t like how my clothes feel or how my face looks. I don’t like jiggling.

So finally I decided to do something about it.

I am finally going to a good physical therapist to get my legs happy again. (It is a slow process, but on the other hand, my back hurts less than it has in years.) I’m making myself go to the gym even though I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I’ve been lifting weights and going to the sculpting class at the gym.

But it’s also really hard for me to lose weight. Ever since I turned thirty and my thyroid got unhappy, I struggle. If I’m running, I can maintain pretty well. But to actually lose weight? It’s a struggle. A two-pound loss in a month is a success for me. So, in addition to turning up the cardio, I decided I needed to give up sugar.

Because during all those months of not-running, I’ve developed a different habit: snacking. Snacking all the time. While I’m watching TV and scrapbooking and reading. Whenever I’m at the computer. At work, even. I had little sugar stashes everywhere. When I was eating dinner I’d be thinking about how I couldn’t wait to eat dessert. And I wouldn’t just eat something small, I’d eat a lot of candy, or five cookies, or a big piece of cake.

My goals with giving up sugar are to get my snacking habit under control, to kick-start my weight loss, and to find a new normal. I love to bake. I love chocolate. I think a life without any sugar is no life at all.  So my goal isn’t “I’m never going to eat sugar again.” It’s “I’m going to create a healthier relationship with sugar,” and I think to do that I have to eliminate it entirely for a while. No sugar for me until Easter weekend, and then again until my birthday, and I’ll see how it’s going after that.

I started last Monday, March 16. I ate a last little bit before I went to bed, and then I was done. Which means I’ve successfully managed an entire week without sugar! Here is what I’ve learned so far.  

  1. For me, it’s hard to give up sugar in a different way than I thought. I have (mostly) avoided any super-intense sugar cravings. Instead of being a physical struggle, it is psychological. What I crave is that little happy lift you get right after eating sugar, even though I know it’s only created out of chemicals, not real happiness.
  2. It is partially about changing my habits. It’s a habit to reach for that bag of lemon almonds (oh how I love the lemon almonds!) while I’m reading, it’s a habit to have easily-accessible sugar in every room of the house. It’s not completely about hunger or even cravings. It’s about a bad habit.
  3. I’ve forgotten what hunger really feels like. By eating treats all the time, I never really felt hungry. I’d just eat meals because it was time to eat them. I am learning again what my body’s cues are to eat, and what is just an emotional or stressful I-must-stuff-my-face-right-now reaction.
  4. But, I am less hungry. Or at least, I have been during the last week of no sugar. I’m not taking anything else out right now, but it felt easier to stop at one and a half slices of pizza (instead of three!) or five or six nuts instead of a whole handful.
  5. I can substitute fruit—but only up to a point. When I’ve tried to get sugar out of my diet previously, I still ate a lot of fruit. I’m not one who believes you should take all fruit out of your diet, but I do know that eating fruit instead of chocolate (or those lemon almonds!) isn’t exactly teaching myself to tame my sweet tooth. So, if I need it, I can have one piece of fruit in a day.
  6. Having easy veggies to snack on makes it easier to snack on veggies. I know myself: if I have to cut it up, I probably won’t eat it. So, I stocked up on pea pods and cherry tomatoes. I’ve also got cheese sticks and lots of almonds, cashews, and pecans.
  7. I am starting to feel better. Honestly, the first three days, I felt like crap. Not in a way I can explain directly. I wasn’t nauseous. I just felt…icky. Drained and tired and off. With zero scientific evidence, I think that is the sugar leaving my system. During the last half of the week, I felt better. More energetic and less fuzzy-minded.
  8. I am thirsty all the time. I don’t know what that means, or why, but I haven’t had to force myself to drink extra water. I haven’t been able to get enough. I am hoping my body wanted the liquid to flush out the sugar.
  9. You have to round up all the treats and chocolates and sugar sources everywhere. Put them all in a bag and then put that bag somewhere that’s hard to get to. It’s much easier to resist what isn’t there.
  10. Grocery shopping is hard, so prepare yourself. You can’t buy any new sugar sources for yourself. Even if they’re on sale! But you are barraged by items containing sugar, the whole time you’re shopping. You have to be strong!

Today I start week 2 of my no-sugar goal. I’m feeling much more confident in my ability to keep this up. This week, I am going to try to rely on fruit less, by not eating any on my busy days. I haven’t weight yet so I have no idea if I’ve lost any weight yet, but I am drawing strength from the fact that I am feeling better.

What about you? Have you ever tried to give up sugar?