Why sugar addiction is so hard to beat
Of all the changes one might try to make to improve one’s nutrition, eliminating or reducing the intake of added sugar is probably one of the hardest (but also one of the most crucial) things to do. Here are some reasons why:
- Sugar is everywhere. It is ever-present and very socially acceptable, being used as part of every gathering, food treat, or celebration. Children get candy as a reward for good behavior. Almost every occasion, from birthday party to wedding reception, is impossible to imagine without cake. Furthermore, many alcoholic drinks – another social convention – are heavily sugar-laced.
- The love of sugar is biologically ingrained. On a biological level, sweet taste allows one to assess the ripeness of fruit, therefore helping choose the ones which offer most nutritional benefits – as in nature, sugar is a component of nutritionally dense foods. The consumption of sugar is chemically rewarded by the brain – it acts on the pleasure-center and triggers the release of serotonin, which in turn floods our bodies with pleasant sensations. The problem is, this kind of biochemical high is also addictive – when the consumption of sugar is over-indulged, on attempting to break it one might literally find oneself feeling and behaving like a junkie on withdrawal.
- Commonly used in food industry – sugar is one of the favorite ingredients of food industry, and do you have to ask why? It’s cheap, has a pleasant taste and an almost infinite shelf life. It is used, therefore, to entice innocent people, cover up for bland taste inferior ingredients are responsible for and, in short, to line the pockets of the food conglomerates.
I have stated before that I am an acknowledged sugar addict. I’m not saying “recovered” or “former”; I will probably struggle with this affliction for as long as I live, but eating well, resting well, and being aware of the problem helps quite a bit. One interesting book I am reading now is The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet. It isn’t a new book, and some of the things they recommend and/or allow are outdated, but overall they have an interesting approach. Their attitude, in a nutshell, is reducing hyperinsulinemia by limiting carbohydrate-containing meals to one per day. Other favorite reads of mine are Sugar Blues and Beating The Food Giants.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration
I would like to thank the several readers who sent me a link to the book of Dr. Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. You can read the book – which I highly recommend – online if you follow the link. This was the first time I heard of Dr. Price’s research, and I must say his findings are striking, not to mention highly convincing. The facts speak for themselves.
For those who are unfamiliar with Dr. Price, he was a researcher in the 1930’s who traveled all over the world and collected data on how the contact with modern civilization and modern food impacted the primitive cultures who were exposed to it for the first time. That unique point of time made the research possible – finding truly primitive communities would be a lot more difficult today.
Dr. Price was a dentist and originally his research focused on the condition of teeth, but it soon becomes very clear that teeth problems are just the tip of the iceberg when we come to deal with trouble brought on by the de-vitalized nutrition of modern age.
Even though Dr. Price’s research was conducted such a long time ago and science has marched a long way since, I believe his findings are still and probably even more relevant today. When I think of why his conclusions weren’t widely publicized and the entire approach to nutrition wasn’t revolutionized, the only reason I can come up with is that it would be so inconvenient to many people. Dr. Price offers no easy solutions, but clearly states that it takes a great strength of character to give up the food that is bad for us.
This strength of character is something that the establishment thinks we lack. They view us as a complacent herd. When I was a student, our professors clearly told us that most people don’t have the willpower to change their lives and improve their health. Therefore, we were to focus on the easy, temporary solutions, not the truly effective ones.
Furthermore, the food industry clearly doesn’t want us to put too much thought into what we eat. It’s far too easy for them to toss a handful of artificial vitamins and minerals into junk food like sugared cereal, and market it as health food. It is especially maddening to think that many of the junkiest foods out there are directed towards children and parents of young children – and many parents don’t hesitate to give their children highly sweetened and processed foods, thinking they are healthy because some synthetic vitamins were thrown in.
Nourishing Traditions and breastfeeding
Disclaimer: this post focuses only on the section on infant feeding in “Nourishing Traditions”, which is just a small part of the book.
As I approached the section on infant feeding in Nourishing Traditions, I was looking forward to a detailed survey of breastfeeding practices in traditional cultures, including perhaps a comprehensive list of foods which are thought to be beneficial for nursing mothers, plus detailed suggestions of milk-boosting diets, meals, beverages etc.
I was disappointed. At the beginning of the chapter, the author says that the importance of breastfeeding your baby “cannot be overemphasized.” However, I felt that the rest of the chapter contradicts this statement by concentrating mostly on recipes for homemade baby formulas, and by providing some advice which is outright detrimental to successful breastfeeding.
Are homemade “natural” formulas better than commercial formulas? Perhaps. Let’s even assume so. But no formula will ever come close to breastfeeding, either in nutritional content or otherwise. Mother’s milk is the food God designed for babies; cow’s milk is the food God designed for calves. It’s as simple as that. Cows’ or goats’ milk protein is unlike the protein in mother’s milk and is less well suited to human infants. Yes, it is possible for a baby to grow up just fine on formula, but on all points – nutritious, emotional and immunological benefits, protection from exogenous diseases, convenience and price – the score of breastfeeding is way higher. Therefore, as I see it, it’s definitely worthwhile to do everything possible to ensure that the baby is breastfed.
The author flatly and unequivocally states that the optimal duration of breastfeeding is “six months to a year”. This essentially means that some babies should be completely weaned as early as six months of age – which is just plain wrong, both according to the current position of the WHO, which states that
“Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond”
– and according to wisdom of most traditional cultures. As a matter of fact, I find it astonishing that a book which takes such an obvious stance of learning from traditions of various people around the world blatantly ignores the fact that in traditional cultures, breastfeeding normally continues well beyond one year and certainly beyond six months! In the Jewish tradition, the standard length of breastfeeding is two years.
The statement, “remember that babies should be chubby” (page 601) really grated on my nerves. Is there no room for diversity, no role for heredity to play in the baby’s body build? This expectation from two tall lean parents to produce a fat little butterball baby, makes mothers anxious about their milk supply when in fact they have plenty, and causes them to rush to supplement with formulas and artificially fatten up their babies.
When I came to the final page, titled “Tips for Successful Breastfeeding”, I was dismayed to find much of the same counter-productive advice you often hear from doctors whose knowledge on breastfeeding comes close to zero. Yes, good nutrition and proper rest play an important role in maintaining adequate milk supply. But the author neglects to mention that the most important factor in boosting milk supply is nursing on demand, which usually means often. Again, where is the analysis of traditional practices such as attachment parenting, baby-wearing and co-sleeping, which all encourage frequent nursing?
It isn’t that I think everyone should go the attachment parenting way. Parents are perfectly within their right to offer pacifiers and insist that the baby should sleep in their own room from day one. But if we’re talking about optimizing the chances of successful breastfeeding, people should make their choices with open eyes.
How about this: “If you have any qualms or fears about not having enough milk, assemble the ingredients for homemade formula…” not “check if you really have cause for concern”; not “contact a lactation consultant and/or a La Leche League representative”, not “nurse more often.” Prepare to give formula!! According to the author, “having the supplies on hand can be enough to give you the peace of mind that allows your milk to keep flowing”. Well, you know what? This very strongly reminds me of the well-meaning doctors and nurses who tried to persuade us to keep a can of formula at home, “just in case”. Does having formula around help to keep the milk flowing? I’m sorry, but I’m not buying that.
Supplementing may be necessary sometimes, but it is just about one of the most critical steps towards diminishing milk supply.
And this: “Lack of adequate milk supply sometimes does occur, especially as baby grows and his appetite increases.” Yes, sometimes during a growth spurt it may seem as though the milk supply is inadequate. However, by nursing more often, eating well and resting, milk supply can usually be increased. Mother and baby are hormonally tuned in to one another. Infant suckling stimulates milk supply. Lack of adequate supply doesn’t just “occur” (it’s maddening that a serious author implies that a basic bodily function like lactation just stops or decreases out of the blue). It has reasons which can often be traced to things like abrupt night weaning, introduction of solids, spending time away from your baby, giving a pacifier, a new pregnancy, etc.
I’m not saying that mothers who couldn’t breastfeed, for whatever reason, should feel guilty. But I do think that authors should feel guilty if their advice might have undermined breastfeeding for thousands of women.
My final conclusion? Eat the apple and spit out the seeds. “Nourishing Traditions” is a fascinating book with lots of insightful material and valuable advice, and it is kept at a place of honor on my shelf and often referred to. However, on this matter of breastfeeding I quite plainly disagree with a lot of what the author has to say.
Food that makes you hungry
While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was strongly emphasized. We did some obsessive calculations to make sure our menus do not contain more than 30% of calories from fat (this may not seem very low, but it is when you consider that fat contains twice more calories, per weight unit, than protein or carbohydrates). Cholesterol was to be feared, hated and avoided at all costs: thus, low-fat meat and dairy products, yolk-less omelettes, and not a word about cream and butter.
On the other hand, there was a surprisingly lenient attitude towards sugar and refined carbohydrates, and in general the outlook on food was very skeletal, taking into account primarily the basic units of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The underlying message was that it’s acceptable to eat an overprocessed, nutrient-deficient diet and compensate for it with supplements and artificially enriched foods. Some of our professors went even as far as to say that in the modern world, it’s virtually “impossible” to get all the essential nutrients without a multivitamin supplement.
My attitude is vastly different today, years after I first came across Nourishing Traditions and other literature that emphasized the deficiencies of modern nutrition. I am now an advocate for wholesome foods prepared in the home kitchen from basic natural ingredients and consumed in their whole, unrefined state. I quit being a vegetarian, we eat a lot more animal fat than we used to, particularly more butter, and in about five or six years since starting this dietary change, we haven’t seen an increase in either weight or cholesterol levels.
The low-fat dietary trend does seem to be sputtering out in the professional circles, but decades of propaganda aren’t so easy to ignore. A lot of people are still wary of eggs and think margarine is superior to butter because it doesn’t contain cholesterol. On the other hand, there is little discussion of how to avoid refined sugar, and the prevalent opinion is that a bit of indulgence in that quarter is harmless unless you are a diabetic. What people don’t seem to realize is that type 2 diabetes doesn’t just spring out of the blue; it takes years of unhealthy eating and insulin imbalance to get there, and if you indulge in sugar, you are at risk.
Reading Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, made me acknowledge two important facts: one, sugar really is addictive, and two, I’m one of the addicts.
For many, many people, eating one square of chocolate, one cookie or one scoop of ice-cream isn’t enough. They want more and more, until they feel sick. There are two reasons for this. The first is that eating sugar causes an upsurge of insulin, which makes sugar enter the cells quickly: thus, the blood sugar level peaks and then quickly drops, making you want to eat more sugar. When your blood sugar is low, you feel hungry; sugary foods will never make you full and satisfied in a healthy, wholesome way.
The second reason is that sugar acts upon a reward center in the brain. “Normal” food acts upon it too, making us feel satisfied after a good meal, but sugary food has a more powerful effect. And when you get used to sugar, it gets more and more difficult to stimulate the reward center with normal food (just like in Narnia, when Edmund wants nothing but Turkish Delight after tasting the enchanted sweet). It takes a period of detox to rewire your brain and make it possible to appreciate and enjoy simple basic food again.
Sugar addiction is not of a kind to make you crouch in a dark alley, looking for a dealer. It isn’t about to send you into rehab or make the social workers take your children away. The stuff is waiting for you everywhere – at supermarket aisles, coffee shops, family dinners, children’s birthday parties. It looks innocent and inviting and is socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, if you spend hours thinking of and longing for the dessert you are going to eat, or battling your sweet cravings, that is addiction.
What I find really helpful is to have alternative “reward foods” around in place of sugar – fresh and dried fruit, unsweetened fruit leathers, nuts of all kinds, good cheese, very dark chocolate with no added sugar. These take away the emotional aspect of feeling deprived when you can’t have your favorite treats. I do hope that my husband will become, in time, as convicted about the issue of sugar and refined carbohydrates as I am, and that these unhealthy foods will disappear from our pantry shelves forever.
Because of early conditioning, I am probably going to continue fighting my sugar cravings for the rest of my life. But at least now I know what I’m up against, and also how important it is to win this battle. A chocolate bar is on one side of the scale. On the other side are my health, strength, well-being, energy and mood. Put this way, the choice really is obvious.