Identifying the Problem – It Wasn’t Sugar Addiction
Transitioning from my last diet to intuitive eating required me to take a long, hard look at a highly debated topic: sugar addiction.
I really was convinced that I was a sugar addict. I went so far as to give up sugar, all sweeteners, and flour of any kind for over 6 months.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to say that I absolutely felt better. My constant cravings and my insatiable hunger basically disappeared. As a scientist though, I know that correlation and causation are not the same thing. The absence of those symptoms as a result of removing those ingredients from my life doesn’t mean they were the cause.
Be On the Look Out
Before giving up sweeteners and flours, I would say I was out-of-control around food. One potato chip turned into non-stop munching. And chocolate? There is no way I could have just one. I would finish off a box of Andes Mints or a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies in one day to ensure that I could start fresh the next. Moderation was NOT in my vocabulary.
If sugar wasn’t the actual problem, what was?
Giving up those things and following some other VERY strict rules about food portions and meal times led me to some very disturbing realizations.
- I was completely out of touch with my hunger and fullness cues.
- I turned to food all the time to cope with challenging emotions.
- I wasn’t meeting my body’s nutritional needs in a consistent and reliable way.
In order for my transition out of diet mode to be successful, I NEED to not fall back into those three patterns. Although “normal eaters” certainly do those things occassionally, if they become a regular occurrence it’s going to prevent my body from maintaining a weight that is comfortable and easy for it to maintain.
Hunger and Fullness Cues
Before I start rambling on about hunger and fullness cues, I need to say this:
I am NOT a doctor or medical professional.
If any of what I’m about to say resonates with you, please talk to your medical team.
Because of the way I was eating previously, my hormones were ALL out of whack. I’m convinced that my body was insulin resistant and not processing my food well. My blood sugar was all over the place.
I would eat to beyond comfortably full but then feel like I needed to eat again a couple hours later. According to Tracy Brown’s hunger/fullness scale, eating to an 8 out of 10 would mean I shouldn’t need to eat for 5-6 hours. Hunger after just a couple hours would be a sign that something wasn’t working.
I wish I would have known that because I likely wouldn’t have gotten my hormone levels checked.
Cutting out sweeteners and flours helped me stabalize my blood sugar levels and heal my insulin resistance. This was a major win as far as my last diet was concerned. This doesn’t automatically mean that I need to keep those things out of my diet forever.
As I’m reintroducing sweeteners and flours back in to my diet, I need to pay close attention to how I’m feeling. Does my time to feel hunger again match up with my post-meal fullness level? Do I eat the “better” foods first or jump right to the ones that are most likely to cause a blood sugar spike? Eating the nutrient dense foods before a cookie, for example, is the better option.
I’ve been taking this approach for almost 7 months now and my constant cravings haven’t returned. My blood sugar is still stable.
Turning to food when things are tough has been a default behavior for me in the past. Following a diet that only allowed eating a meal times, and my desire to be a rule follower, resulted in me breaking that physical habit even if the mental tendency is still there.
Ali Shapiro, came up with a super helpful acronym that I use daily to identify my emotional eating triggers: TAIL.
T – Tired
A – Anxious
I – Inadequate
L – Lonely
As I go through my day and have urges to eat, I check in using that acronym. If I’m not physically hungry, I am guaranteed to be dealing with at least one of those emotions. This tool has been a game changer for me.
Episode 8 of my podcast is with Ali and I highly recommend checking it out.
Fundametally, our body needs the fuel our food provides to function. Some fuel is more easily accessed than others. Glucose, which comes from sugar as I understand it, is often most easily utilized.
When I wasn’t eating a balanced diet, my body was going into starvation mode even though I was eating more calories than it would need if it were as simple as calories in and calories out.
When the body is starving, it is going to want a fuel source that is easy and quick. Sugar solves that problem.
This is another place where I think the constant cravings came from. My body wasn’t getting what it needed so it always wanted something it could use quickly.
Following the diet I did, somewhat ironically, reassured my body that I was going to be getting a variety of nutrients and no longer starving. Yet another reason why my body could quiet the “I need sugar” chatter.
Physical Concerns and Mindset Concerns
Rather than a sugar addiction, the real issues were hormone imbalances and malnutrition (physical concerns) and emotional triggers (mindset concerns).
Cutting sugar out of my life helped me address the physical concerns but the mindset work is an ongoing battle. That is where the REAL work of intuitive eating comes into play. If I’m not addressing my thinking about food then it would be way to easy to fall back into the diet trap that led me to feel addicted and out of control in the first place.
So What About the Rats?
There are studies that have documented experiments performed on rats. Some have concluded that the rats were more addicted to sugar than they were to cocaine.
Here are my fundamental problems with those findings based upon the limited research I’ve done on them.
First, as I understand it, the rats were restricted access to the sugar for only a couple hours per day. Anyone who has ever dieted knows that restricting something is a sure way to make ourselves want something more. If the sugar were always available, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
Second, sugar is glucose and glucose is fuel for our bodies. As long as our bodies need food to survive, putting a food source up against a non-food source seems like an unreliable test.
There are definitely people whose bodies are more sensitive to the impacts of sugar. There are also certainly people who will feel better when they don’t have any sugar. That is NOT the same thing as being a sugar addict.
If we grew up in a world where meals were nutritionally balanced and sugar was just an occassional part of a joyful life in which folks fix the root causes of problems rather than trying to “feed them”, I think there would be a lot less people calling themselves sugar addicts.
Want to be a part of the conversation? Check out the Intuitively Intermittent Facebook Group. You are welcome even if you don’t fast. All of us are intermittent eaters, after all.