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.