This morning I was reading an article from Mika Brzezinski about how she has had a lifelong struggle with sugar. Her words resonated with me, I could have written them too based on what my relationship with sugar used to look like. As Mika works to change her relationship with sugar by “pulling herself back in” with mindfulness, I am cheering for her, but I also want to share some insights from someone who has been there.
Dear Mika -
Oh how I can relate! Right down to eating the tops off of a half a dozen cupcakes! That was the moment when I too realized I had a problem several years ago. And yet, what I came to discover is that my problem had nothing to do with sugar.
I was really intrigued while reading your article because I find that so many people get close to understanding sugar but don't quite get all the way there.
The most telling statement in your article was this: " the more I denied myself, the more I suffered - and the bigger the binge. And I was always dreaming about the next sugar fix."
That is the root of the problem with sugar. The denial! Nothing makes us want something more - something we aren't even enjoying, then telling ourselves we can't have it.
So I'd love to take your relationship with sugar back a few steps. When did you find you first started having this relationship with sugar? What else was going on in your life? Why do you tell yourself you can't have it? What do you think will happen if you have as much as you want?
Most of us think that we will gain weight if we eat "too much" sugar and this fear of fat puts a double whammy on our attempts not to eat sugar. Now we are "trying not to eat it" both because it doesn't make us feel great and because we are afraid of what it will do if we eat “too much”.
But we can't change behaviors from a place of fear and restriction, change needs to come from love. And we can’t change our relationship with sugar by going after the sugar, because it’s not actually about the sugar.
For example, you also said in your article that "my candy binges and sugar urges were all emotionally related, and it played out physically every day."
So it's not actually about teaching your mind to control your urges, it's about finding out why you have those urges in the first place. What emotions are you trying to soothe? How can you speak to yourself with more love and compassion about this issue as well as others?
This is where the mindfulness practice becomes useful - not to deal with the sugar, but to deal with what is creating the desire for the sugar in the first place. This is where we want to breathe and find space and allow what we are feeling without trying to numb it or push it away.
Another thing I noticed in your article is that you recognize that you will probably not let go of sugar 100% forever. So why try to do that now? That part is likely only going to backfire eventually. Our bodies and brains run on sugar and being drawn to it is only natural. What you are doing is doubling down on the restrictive denial part and that is the part that leads to bingeing.
It sounds like you are so very close to really understanding your relationship to sugar. Most people misunderstand this relationship - it's really common. Our culture has us….. oh just a little brainwashed when it comes to anything to do with weight or health. (And we are all told that if we eat sugar it's going to affect our weight which is really the fear that drives most of our decisions around sugar.)
Ultimately, we want to get back to the place where we listen to and trust our body to tell us when we want some sugar and when we don't. Our body is really smart and it can do this for us when we learn to listen.
We also are under the false notion that sugar is physically addictive, but there is no scientific data to support that claim conclusively.
People run with certain arguments to say that sugar is addictive. For example, they say our brains light up in the same places as cocaine when we eat it - but the places that light up are our pleasure centers, and they also light up when we listen to music or hug a baby. For more information on the notion of sugar addiction, check out this article by SJ Thompson, (the Resilient Fat Goddess), or this one by Marci RD Nutrition.
Here is what is important to understand; regardless of whether or not sugar is technically addictive, you can create the relationship you want with sugar. You don't have feel at the mercy of your relationship with sugar. You can loosen sugar’s grip and reclaim your power over sugar.
How? Start at the beginning - look at how this relationship began. What is or was sugar trying to do for you? It sounds like you already know that it's a stress release and a coping mechanism - (that's great awareness), but now, instead of trying to control the sugar - why not go after the root of the problem? Then the problem with sugar will become a non-issue.
The day that I ate the tops off of 6 cupcakes and hid the box in the trash several years ago was the day I knew that something had to change. I took the radical and highly effective step of allowing myself to eat sugar with full permission while also facing my internalized fat phobia (fear of fat and weight gain which EVERY woman on the planet has been exposed to by multiple external sources). I also investigated what was missing in my life that made me want to add some sweetness. After much reflection (and less restriction) I can now take sugar or leave it.
Actually, I have a drawer full of candies and chocolates, from family and friends who buy me these things as gifts and while I enjoy a piece every once In a while, sugar is NOT all that it's cracked up to be. I find that now I am most drawn to eating it when it's really really satisfying (think warm chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven).
Thank you for sharing your story and giving me the chance to spread the word that you do not have to deny yourself the pleasure of sugar to lessen it’s grip. With denial, it’s too easy to land facedown in a plate of cupcakes for the rest of our days. I know because I’ve been there and I’ve found relief and other people can too.