Breaking Free from Sugar Addiction

BY Parvati

Image credit: Vox Efx

Hello friends,
We are in the midst of a rare natural phenomenon: a “supermoon” (a full moon that is closer to the earth and appears larger than usual) that will experience a total eclipse tonight. This is an ideal time to intensify spiritual practices such as meditation or mantra. You can read more here about spiritual practice during an eclipse.
I have heard back from many people since I published last week’s post “You Are Sweet Enough”. Many expressed how difficult they found it to stop eating sugar. It is true! For the very reasons I articulated last week, sugar can be an addiction and hard to quit.
There are five predominant flavours that our palate tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent. Just as we are lucky to have four seasons, which we need to sustain the health of our planet, we need to balance our diet with a variety of tastes. There is a whole world beyond sugar that is waiting for you to explore and enjoy – and feel fabulous while you do it!
My friend Pranada stopped eating sugar a year and a half ago and has been doing well on a diet with greatly reduced carb intake. I invited her to share her experience here with you to help you stop the sugar cycle in your life, if you so choose, and to know that you know you are not alone!
Pranada says,
I have been a long-time carb addict. While I stopped eating most white sugar at the time I went vegan fifteen years ago, I still enjoyed turbinado sugar, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave and dates; and I baked a lot of treats.
In 2008, I discontinued veganism (but remained off dairy), and also discontinued eating wheat and nightshade vegetables (including potatoes) after being warned that their inflammatory nature would likely contribute to arthritis in my future. But my carb intake still remained high. There was a year or two that I would eat as much as a third of a loaf of homemade kamut bread every day. My favorite comfort food was white basmati rice with lentil curry. My second favorite comfort food was sweet potato fries. I stopped many a morning at a cafe on the way to work to grab a gluten-free treat with a sweetened non-dairy latte and call it breakfast. I rationalized that since I was not eating gluten or dairy, it was an ok treat. But gluten-free items are often even higher in sugar and carbs than their glutinous counterparts. I knew this, but chose not to dwell on it. I had been warned in 2010 that even unrefined sweeteners were not great for me, but I shoved that knowledge away. I had been warned in 2009 not to eat chocolate, but I still splurged on brownies and chocolate chip muffins. This is just the insidious way the addict mindset works to convince us of the acceptability of something that is not in our best interests.
I enjoy running. In 2012-13 I greatly increased my mileage, completing races of half marathon, 30km and full marathon distance. Yet, I actually gained weight through this period. Are you surprised? It happens more often than you might think.
The conventional wisdom is that runners need nutrition during races longer than 60-90 minutes. I had made a habit of putting sport drink in the bottles I took with me even on shorter runs, and consuming sport gels on long training runs. Even if I didn’t need them, I justified it as “training” my stomach to deal with them during a longer race. Then I would come home from my run ravenous, inhaling protein bars and sweet potato fries and huge helpings of every meal – whatever I could get to satisfy my hunger. I didn’t realize that I was contributing to the problem. I had no true aerobic base, was running in an anaerobic range and had taught my body to burn sugar instead of fat. I was just digging myself further into carb dependency (and getting fatter in the process). And I am not the first marathoner to do so. Just google “marathon weight gain”.
In April 2014 I got the wake-up call from a holistic practitioner: no more sugar. They saw the addiction. It was clouding my mind and feeding Candida in my gut. A few days later, I completed a long-planned 10k race with my usual fuel, then came home and quit sugar cold turkey.
From my eight years as a vegan, I already had a sort of willpower muscle where food was concerned. I could simply look at something and recognize that it was not food for me. So in the same way I once took all animal products off my radar, I now simply took items like bread, cookies, rice, pasta, etc. off my radar. I encourage you to find this clarity. You don’t eat cat food because you are not a cat. You don’t eat the grass in your backyard because you are not a cow. You don’t eat your wool sweater because you are not a moth! You know these things are not food for you. It is possible to reprogram your mind to see those donuts as not being food, not an option you consider.
Parvati has witnessed my journey off sugar. Some days were harder than others. At first, I felt hungry most of the time, and dealt with my cravings by eating a lot of nuts. After a while, though, it became second nature. I found options that worked for me, and made sure they were always available. I have found that if I indulge or slip, I need to be extra mindful, because there is a slippery slope. A little extra carbs today can lead to a little more extra carbs tomorrow and more the day after that.
That said, something interesting happened a few months ago at the wedding of a couple of dear friends. A beautiful gluten-free and dairy-free dessert was served. I thought I would at least taste it since it was a special occasion. But I took one bite, and felt my whole being say NO! Everything in me said I needed to stop immediately and get the dish as far away from me as I could. Not because I felt desire for it. Rather, because I felt almost electrified with the knowing that this sugary treat would be harmful for me. Even remembering it now, I remember the strong surge of NO! as my body sounded an alarm about what I was considering putting into it.
Since I do best without large amounts of animal protein, I need vegetarian sources of protein. But I dislike eggs, can’t eat dairy, most plant-based protein sources like beans and lentils also include carbs that mean they are best kept to occasional use, and I don’t do well on tofu or any kind of protein powder, so nuts and hempseeds remain go-tos for me. I just try to keep them to moderation because they are dense in calories, and I can find myself mindlessly eating nuts by the handful if I am not careful – the addictive personality! I limit my fruit intake to a handful of berries, which are lower in sugar than other fruits, with a bowl of nutrient-rich, filling chia in the morning for breakfast. I cook seeds such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, teff or wild rice instead of rice or grains, because they have a much lower proportion of carbs, and even then I don’t make them the backbone of more than one meal in the day. I use a spiral shredder to turn fresh zucchini into noodles instead of buying pasta of any kind. I grind amaranth seeds into flour to lightly dredge my fish, instead of resorting to a grain flour. I enjoy lots of greens and sprouts. I enjoy avocado with just about everything! If I can make this diet work within my many restrictions, you can too.
I indulge my sweet tooth occasionally with stevia-sweetened treats. As Parvati mentioned last week, stevia is an herb that naturally contains potent sweetness with no caloric impact, so I can enjoy a sweet taste without sugar’s impact on my body. (For those who think they don’t like stevia, it’s partly a question of finding the right brand that doesn’t have a bitter edge to its flavor, and partly a question of being off sugar long enough that you don’t compare the taste.) I’ve started to find my rhythm as a dessert maker again and have developed some delicious, raw, stevia-sweetened desserts for friends to enjoy. I am in the process of beta-testing some of these and look forward to sharing them with you!
If you are not sure whether your fondness for sugar and carbs is an addiction, start by considering these questions soberly and honestly:

  • When I am feeling upset by something, do I feel the need for a sweet treat to make me feel better?
  • Do I need a sweet pick me up to help me focus in the afternoon?
  • Can I imagine starting my day with a meal that isn’t sweet?
  • How many times a week am I splurging on sweet treats at the convenience store or coffee shop?
  • Do I end up eating far more of something sweet than I intended?
  • Do I feel anxious, unsatisfied or irritable if I don’t get carbs with every meal?

You can also try this reality check: Start logging your food intake for a week or so and check to see how often you are taking in sugar and carbs and how much you are really consuming compared with how much you are telling yourself. Do you say it’s just a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, but really you heap up the spoon as high as you can and then put in a little more? Do you say it’s just a quarter cup of rice when it’s really half a cup? Do you say it’s just one cookie when you have been having that cookie every day and actually it’s more like two sometimes? How many timbits do you REALLY have when someone at your office buys a box? One of the warning signs of addiction is an increasing gap between the stories you try to tell yourself about what you are doing, and what you are actually doing.
Finally, addiction tends to run in families. If members of your immediate or extended family have had addictions of any kind, be extra cautious around any addictive substance, sugar included.
When trying to get clear of any addiction, be mindful of the danger of replacing it with another one. When I went vegan and stopped refined sugar, I didn’t slow down my sweet intake at all. In fact, on a plant-based diet, I was eating even more carbs than I had been as an omnivore. Then when I stopped sugars last year, I started consuming more and more caffeine. I got to the point where I was drinking four or five servings of stevia-sweetened energy drink every day to give me the boost I felt I needed to stay awake and be productive. This past August, I got another wake-up call: quit the caffeine too. That has changed my rhythms dramatically, but has also made for a much calmer and clearer me.
Understand that quitting sugar is not about deprivation or punishment and such an approach is not sustainable. In fact, that is just trading the addiction to sugar for an addiction to self-punishment. Frame it as simply and neutrally as this: If your horse were getting sick from the feed you were giving him, you would change his feed.
I know that when I consume sugar, I feel revved up and high, while simultaneously feeling disconnected and spun out. It makes me less able to perceive and engage with what is, and more entrenched in my ego’s story of what is. It increases my mental agitation in a way very easy to notice when I meditate – but when I am on sugar, I am also more likely to rationalize skipping my meditation and denying how far off I am going. As such, I think the sugar rush is not much different from getting drunk. Deep down, beneath the fleeting sense of pleasure at sugar’s taste, I feel unwell when I consume it. I understand that sugar harms my body and mind. When you understand that sugar is affecting your brain and gut and distorting your reality, you know that removing it is a way to feel more happy, not less so.
I encourage you to re-read Parvati’s blog post and take in the reality that you are sweet enough. If you are dealing with intense cravings or brain fog, you may also need to address a Candida imbalance in your body with probiotics, antifungals and/or digestive enzymes. Ask for them at your local health food store, or speak to a naturopath for a custom prescription. I also find that a teaspoon of organic turmeric powder in a glass of warm water, first thing in the morning, helps me feel calmer and clearer all day, and less prone to cravings. Give it a try!
If you need some more tips to get started, stay tuned to Parvati Magazine. In the next issue, going live soon, I will share a Thanksgiving dinner makeover, and a recipe for a richly satisfying sugar-free dessert.
Wishing you the true sweetness of your life,