When Cutting Sugar Isn’t The Answer
Or: how I’m gut-checking my relationship with food.
A few weeks ago I felt like I’d finally had it. After shoving the fourth piece of candy down my throat in one day, it was finally time to cut out sugar, permanently. I called a nutritionist, and she told me to keep a record of everything I ate for three days. This is what a normal day looked like for me food-wise:
8:00 Breakfast: green smoothie from Juice Generation
11:00 Snack: two mini cakes
11:30 Snack: white chocolate Kit-Kat
11:45 Snack: 2 Starbursts
1:00 Lunch: small vegan cucumber salad
1:30 Snack: dehydrated fava bean snacks
2:30 Snack: lollipop and more fava bean snacks
3:00 Snack: another mini cake
5:00 Snack: bag of SkinnyPop popcorn
6:30 Snack: puffed rice cakes with jelly and almond butter
6:45 Snack: one pear
7:30 Dinner: small vegan arugula salad
8:00 Snack: yogurt with a little cereal and jam
8:45 Snack: another pear
To me, it looked like a lot, but when I met with Lisa Brown, a nutritionist at Brown & Medina, she scrunched up her nose and asked me how I’m feeling...generally.
“Good,” I began, “I mean, crazy, and sometimes I wake up with a really intense anxious feeling, like most mornings that happens—and then usually all day I have nervous energy, and I’m pretty anxious all the time, and my brain doesn’t really stop ever. I like to have my routines, I like to walk in the morning and do everything exactly the same and eat the same things every day, and I don’t like feeling full because it means I have to slow down. And it feels like I have all these straws in my fists and they just keep popping out and I really just need to hold them tighter, like I just need to have everything under control all the time. If I had to describe my life I’d say I’m like a Ferris wheel trapped inside a tornado.”
All of that was met with a meaningful, heavy silence on her part. Can you guess where this is leading? Basically, I have anxiety. A lot of people in my family have trouble with anxiety, and I couldn’t see it before, but I use food to deal with it. When I get too worked up, I’ll pop something in my mouth, but if it’s not part of my plan for that day it makes me spiral out a little more, and then I feel out of control, which makes me anxious, so I eat more garbage, and on and on until I decide I’m no longer eligible for dinner that night. It’s not good.
When I asked Lisa about how I can go about cutting sugar out of my diet (because that’s what this story was supposed to be about, and doing something for a story means you’re more accountable, and you actually have to do the thing, rather than just say you’re going to do it), she calmly explained to me that I do not need any more rules. I need to try and allow myself to slow down, eat a real meal, and let myself feel full. I couldn’t articulate why I don’t like feeling full, but I know it’s tied up in my nervous, frantic energy, and also, obviously, in my body image ish. The amount of time I spend every day thinking about food and how much I’m eating is honestly fucking exhausting.
If I could free up all that time I spend looking for snacks, feeling bad about snacks, trying to find the least-filling, saddest lunch possible, then wanting snacks again, I’d be a lot more productive, and I’d also probably have a lot less anxiety and be happier generally. The anxiety, you guys. No bueno.
So, my story is changing a bit. I’m not cutting sugar, I’m cutting crazy. Lisa told me I need to have three full meals a day with a protein, fat, and starch in each, and that I need to let myself get full. She gave me a shopping list, because I’m such a helpless child I literally have no food in my fridge ever. If I’m being honest, having food in the house also gives me anxiety.
She told me it would be hard at first to re-train my brain, but that after a week or so I’d probably feel a lot more calm, and not so guilty about everything I’m eating. So far, it’s sort of working. Some days I feel much better and eat like a healthy person, but then other days I spin right back out and end up in the shame spiral of candy and emotional eating. It’s a process, folks.
I’ve pulled together some of Lisa’s guidelines for eating healthfully (from both a mental and physical perspective) here. If you would like to work with her, or get some general guidance for how to eat and behave around food like a healthy adult person, she’s available on the on-demand health and wellness app TRN—it’s so cool, sometimes I have to pinch myself and say out loud, “The Future is Now!” Here are the basic guidelines she gave me.
Eat real food
Have three meals per day, that all contain protein, fat, and starch (as in: carbs). Good starches to look for are quinoa, farro, rice and the like—not white bread.
Eat them a few times a day, but let them be real snacks, not just picking. And no snacks when you’re on the phone, working on the computer, or distracted in any way. Enjoy them!
Stock your fridge
Keep things like yogurt, cottage cheese, regular cheese, veggies, some fresh fruit, and lots of fresh herbs and spices on hand so when you feel like cooking you don’t have to buy everything you need.
Don’t go more than three or four hours without eating something, but be mindful when you eat. Don’t let yourself be distracted!
It’s okay if you don’t like drinking water, but try it with a little lemon juice or cucumber. Try to have a little more than the previous day, every day.
Nothing you haven’t heard before, right? Right. But now the tricky thing is actually doing it. Wish me luck...