Timing is everything.
This past Sunday, I had an idea: To see if I could go without sugar for an entire week.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that I looked at the calendar and realized with horror: Withnail-style, I had embarked on Lent by mistake.
Right now, around the world, millions of Catholics – in particular Catholic children – are undergoing a forced sugar break. I was raised Catholic and, for most of my childhood, I observed Lent by quitting sweets and chocolate, as did most of my friends. I’d keep a “Lent box” on top of our fridge at home, to place all the candy that I was unable to eat in March and April. Then on Easter Sunday it was open season.
If I could deny myself my only vice for that long as a seven year old, surely I could do it as an adult. The accidental timing was, in its way, like a message from God: Seven days? Seven days! Pffft. If you really want to see the benefits, it’s a month and a half or nothing.
So here I am. Five days in and craving Twixes like they’re the very bread of life.
Quitting something for 40 days is an odd experience for an alcoholic. If something is unhealthy, aren’t you supposed to quit it forever? Doesn’t going back = failure, described in terms like relapse, and falling off the wagon?
I know that sugar – specifically, added sugar, and sugar found in cakes and sweets – is really bad for me. Books with titles like Murdered By a Donut and Sweet, Sweet Cancer* outline the gruesome specifics: Sugar causes bloating, insomnia, bad skin, kidney issues, heart disease and can even increase your risk of some cancers.
Even the Oompa Loompas get it…
What do you get when you guzzle down sweets?
Eating as much as an elephant eats
What are you at getting terribly fat?
What do you think will come of that?
I’ve written before about the link between sugar cravings and alcoholism. I know several recovering/former alcoholics who can easily devour an entire cake in a single sitting, and who can’t leave a restaurant without ordering dessert. Most of them aren’t overweight – zeroing out the booze frees up a ton of calories – they just really, really like sugar. Or, rather, their bodies really like sugar.
The science is pretty straightforward: Drinking alcohol causes a spike in blood sugar. After quitting, the body misses that sugar spike and our brains tell us to replace it with candy or dessert. At least in the short term. The problem, at least in my case, is that after ten years of sobriety I’ve become quite separately hooked on that sugar jolt.
This past week, even as I neared my lowest ever body weight (thank you Orange Theory Fitness), I realized my sugar intake had reached unhealthy levels.
I always eat some kind of sweet after lunch – a candy bar, a muffin – and then a dessert after dinner. Ice cream is my absolute favorite – the more toppings the better. In recent weeks though, perhaps because of my increased calorie burn at OTF, I’ve been snacking between snacks. A second muffin, a handful of chocolates after dessert, a huge bag of jelly beans on my walk home. It doesn’t help that, in February, I finally finished 18 months of Invisalign treatment (more on that in a future issue) so no longer had to remove a plastic gumshield to snack.
So between that, and the accidental Lenten overlap, there really was no alternative.
For forty days I’m going to avoid sugar wherever I know its present in food: No candy or cakes, no sugary sodas; nothing where sugar has obviously or plausibly been added (no sandwich bread). The only exception: I can eat sugars found naturally in fruit. I’m not going to deny myself an apple or a banana for breakfast, or as an evening snack to keep the cravings at bay.
I’m already hammering the fruit loophole. On Wednesday night, Sarah and I went out for Prime Rib. We had some work stuff to celebrate, and also were feeling in dire need of cow-meat after a week of workouts. Two hours after we got home, there came a shout from our kitchen: Hey! Did you eat all the bananas?
“Yeah,” I called back, “sorry about that.” I had eaten four bananas in a single day. And some strawberries from the fridge. And a little thing of blueberries with my lunchtime quiche.
On the upside, I’m down a couple of pounds since Monday, which is good news as the number on the scale had plateaued, despite five OTF workouts a week. I’m not smart enough in matters of nutrition and exercise to know if the plateau was down to an increase in muscle, or something to do with water weight, or if it was just the sugar causing my weight loss to slow – but the sweet stuff definitely wasn’t helping. More interestingly, I have a lot more energy this week than last. I’ve also been sleeping better, and thinking sharper, and my blood pressure is down.
As we get closer to Easter, I’ll update you on my progress and whether I’d recommend a sugar fast for my fellow recovering drinkers. Of course I’ll also tell you if I find myself hunkered down on the kitchen floor mainlining Snickers at 3am. So far so good.
Which reminds me, at some point I want to write an issue of the newsletter about religion. It’ll have to wait a few days, though – Sarah and I are about to head to the airport for a three day mini-vacation to Palm Springs.
We both love Palm Springs, as do the kids (although they’re with their dad this weekend), — and we’ve told ourselves that in the unlikely event we become rich, we’re going to buy a house here. For now, we’re just going to hang out by a hotel pool, go on a hike maybe watch some tennis, and have dinner at a couple of our favorite restaurants.
No dessert, though. Just desert.
* Neither of those books actually exists