The New Year is full of resolutions and good intentions to do away with old, bad habits and replace them with healthier, more productive ones. I would place a bet that giving up sugar or alcohol are two of the most popular resolutions with the lowest long-term success rates.
“Habit” takes on a whole new meaning in regards to substances like sugar and alcohol. While moderate and occasional drinks and treats are harmless if you’re healthy, the reality is that moderation with sugar and booze can be a slippery slope. Many of us out there cannot stop consuming these tempting little items, even though it may be costing us our health or even our jobs and families.
Why? Because they are powerful stimulators of the reward pathways that light us up like the Vegas strip and make habit-forming and over-consumption a virtual guarantee.
If you do really happen to be one of the lucky people out there that can enjoy one glass of wine or one cocktail, or have a sweet treat just now and then without finishing the whole sleeve or bottle, then you probably don’t have a “problem” and are ok to continue to enjoy these things from time to time.
These people are termed Moderators by a woman whose work I’m very fond of, Gretchen Rubin. She categorizes people based on their tendencies in order to help us all understand how to be happier and more productive. She has oodles of categories, but the pertinent ones in this case are the Moderators and the Abstainers.
Moderators are as mentioned above. Abstainers can’t really handle themselves around a plate of cookies or an open bottle of wine. While anyone can fall prey to a nasty wine and chocolate habit, Abstainers will tend to moreso than the Moderators.
This post is probably more relevant for us Abstainers. We Abstainers do better avoiding binge trigger items altogether and are much healthier and balanced in our daily lives without them. In consistent and slightly overindulgent quantities, these substances become very damaging to our health. It can be a slow decline we barely notice, or it can turn into Leaving Las Vegas. (Boy, Vegas is sure coming up a lot).
While alcohol takes the obvious rap for its role in addictive behaviors, sugar really is the cheapest white drug on the street. Some think it’s as addictive as cocaine and nicotine, but harder to turn down when the cravings set in because you can’t as easily see the damage it’s doing. Plus you can still manage to hold down a job if you’re a sugar junkie. And everybody’s on it, everybody has a stash at their house and we feel polite and friendly when we offer it to people and impolite and unfriendly to turn it down.
Sugar seems to be the gateway drug to derailing your healthy eating intentions. It makes you hungrier, it makes you CRAVE, it gives you hypoglycemia and makes you hangry. It’s one of few foods I know of that have people making deals with themselves in their heads (you can eat this now if you skip breakfast tomorrow. Done!). The likelihood of bingeing in the presence of sugar is really high and you can be sure you will be consuming tons of extra and empty calories.
Our bodies have a sophisticated hormonal team hard at work to make sure our food and subsequent energy intake matches the demands of life. When this system works and is not messed with, we maintain a healthy body weight. A hormone called Leptin communicates energy status and the other little guys are awaiting it’s commands (to make you hungry, or tell you to not take one more freaking bite). Hormones can’t peek at the pile you swiped from the buffet and they can’t peek in the mirror and say, “um yeah, she’s good”.
Foods that are hyperpalatable have been shown to bypass this system, allowing us to over-consume energy. Kind of like looking at your amazing credit card limit and mistaking it for your pathetic checking account balance. Sugar is the reigning champion of hyperpalatability.
Items that are sweet, or sweet and fatty, or crunchy and starchy and salty and fatty- all can bypass these hormones. You will most likely overeat them. Most processed foods fall into this category. Also having unlimited access to a selection of new foods can cause this to happen. It’s much easier to consume more calories from a selection of seven foods than one.
This regular and prolonged overconsumption, consistent with a bad sugar habit (or other hyperpalatable food habit), is what opens us up to physically breaking down. It will likely lead to to weight gain, inflammation, insulin resistance and type two diabetes. Type two diabetes is crippling the country and has the potential to bankrupt the healthcare system. Every 10 seconds in this country, a person dies from complications related to diabetes, 90% of which is type two and preventable with dietary changes, and it is estimated that ⅓ of people born today will develop diabetes. One percent of the population in 1960 had diabetes, as compared to ten percent today.
A bad sugar habit is no good for you and alcohol is basically bonus sugar; it’s the same thing to our bodies in many ways and a lot of us prefer that to a straight-up sugar habit. It’s no coincidence that many recovering alcoholics replace that addiction with sugar, usually in the form of many cans of Coke a day. Alcohol has a whole other list of side effects as a trade off for its mighty fine buzz, including severe and potentially irreversible liver and nerve damage. It also dehydrates you and makes you a little dumber and slower day by day as it messes with your central nervous system in a way that sugar cannot. Alcohol is also the riskiest of the two in terms of helping you to make bad decisions, like a shitty friend who’s out to make you look bad.
If you’re really hooked on routine sugar dosing, or if you “need” to get your drink on every night, you might consider just giving it up. Or at least giving it up a few periods each year to let your body try and recover from the damage being done.
If you do decide to give it up, or already have, please expect this to suck. Please understand there’s a wee addiction taking place and you don’t get out of addictions easily. Don’t beat yourself up for having a hard time, it’s normal. The more convicted you are, the easier it is. If you really, really are sick and tired of it and just want out, you’ll do better than someone being nagged by their doctor or spouse. Hopefully some of the details laid out here will help with that conviction to clean it up for a while.
The good news is that if you can just suck it up and get through a few weeks without sugar and or booze, it will get much, much easier. And if you can manage to go a few months, you won’t even miss it. Just be wary of the odd occasion where you would normally indulge- out with friends, stress, etc. Being unrealistic about these triggers will likely land you back in the cycle. As soon as you light up that reward pathway with that familiar stimulus… you’re right back where you started.
I’ve quit cigarettes (many times), alcohol (many times), sugar (many times), coffee (many times). I have multiple family members that have died, lost everything, or are sick and medicated for these addictions and yet still won’t give it up. Therefore, I have my street doctorate in this topic, ok people?
As such, I know that with addictive habits, it’s really important to set yourself up for success by changing things up. Don’t just leave yourself high and dry, find something that can replace or mimic your old habit that is a healthy substitute. For example, try Pellegrino or a probiotic beverage as a replacement for evening cocktails. Try a piece of fruit for your sugar. True there is sugar in fruit, but it’s attached to fruit fiber and is handled well by your body. Be creative; a lot of times doing something physical can override your craving for a drug. Eventually, you can steer clear of some of the substitutes that may be holding you back, like stevia or too much fruit. Let’s call that phase 2.
Avoid scenarios that you firmly associate with treats or drinking, just for a few weeks until you have it under better control. This behavior alone will go a long, long way to improve your chances of success.
Also beware of the withdrawals! As these are items that act on your nervous system, if you consume them regularly, you can bet your sweet biscuits that you will notice when you pull them out. You may even feel like you are being punished with headaches, brain fog, or lowered performance. You may also find yourself with a raging case of non-gender-specific PMS. These are all things to consider when planning to cut out sugar, and alcohol. For example, don’t time it to start in the middle of a vacation or stressful work week.
Good luck with breaking these old habits and forming new ones- they can be the hardest of all to break, but it can be done and in a few short weeks you will be free and probably feeling better than you have in a while!!
If you’re curious about other negative implications connected with sugar, google Nancy Appleton, PhD. She’s been researching sugar for over 20 years and has a lot to say about it.