Friday, May 31, 2013

My Take On Sugar

Everyone, it seems, is obsessed with sugar - consuming it OR avoiding it. While we Americans DO consume a bunch of the stuff, IMHO, this obsessing keeps it constantly at the forefront of the mind of the obsessor.

In a prior life as a homeschooling marm, I did this little exercise with my kids as part of a critical thinking lesson:

     For the next 60 seconds, think about anything you want, EXCEPT a white polar bear. You can think about all kinds of other things, just don't think about a big, fluffy white polar bear with its black nose, frolicking about in the snow or swimming around in icy water. Whatever you think about, just don't think about a WHITE POLAR BEAR, ok? Go.

Of course, all they could think about was the white polar bear. Duh. Try replacing "white polar bear" with sugar (or sweets, or treats...).

I can't remember what the upshot of the exercise was, except for the fact that often the very thing we obsess about NOT obsessing about is what we end up obsessing about.

I use this exercise with audiences when I speak about dieting or about changing other unhealthy patterns of behavior. They are often amazed about how difficult it is to NOT think about the thing that you are trying to NOT think about.

We do this with all kind of actions/behaviors, day in, day out, and wonder why our patterns never change. Einstein called this "insanity"...

There are other ways of dealing with your sweet-tooth. Electric shock therapy or wiring your mouth shut aren't among them.

Sugar is one of those things that everyone seems to be obsessing about these days. Yes, Americans consume way too much sugar. Current estimates are that the average American consumes between 140 and 200 pounds per person, per year. In 1900, the amount was 8 pounds (you read that correctly: 8; EIGHT ... pounds).

Not only are we obsessed with consuming it, we are equally - if not more - obsessed with finding sweet substitutes. We want to find new ways to satisfy our hunger for the ever-increasing sweet flavor that we LOVE. Marketers know this and constantly find new ways to present sweets to us. Old sweeteners are renamed. New ones are invented. "Healthy" alternatives are revealed. 

We've got all kinds of sugar substitutes to assuage our sugar addiction: Aspartame, Splenda, Truvia, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, agave, brown rice syrup, xylitol, etc. But no matter where on the sugar-scale you fall (from 100% artificial chemically-derived formulations to those deemed more "natural"), failing to address our ACQUIRED taste-preference for more and MORE sweetness is what is perpetuating this obsession. 

Some of us view candy and other sweets as a form of recreation. Others, as an ingrained habit. Someone I know stocks up on candy when traveling so their family doesn't get bored. While visiting a friend, I witnessed her preschool-aged son get up after watching a PBS show, wander around the kitchen opening cabinets and drawers, repeating, "I want sumphin..." over and over until he'd found a box of Little Debbie's to satisfy his boredom until the next distraction came his way. At a coffee shop I worked at, I was often amazed at the number of people who would pour upwards of 1/3 of the contents of the sugar container into their morning cup of coffee.

While humans are born with a natural craving for sweet flavors (this is what encourages babies to want to nurse/drink from a bottle), the preference for an increasing intensity of sweetness is acquired over time. My oldest kid shuttered at the taste of a pinch of frosting from her first birthday cake, then shook her head "no," to indicate that she wanted nothing to do with it (we'd managed to keep her "pure" [tongue-in-cheek] up until that point... not so with the next two kids...). 

Many of us have been building up our taste-preference for extreme sweetness for decades (this also happens with salt). The interesting thing is, what we can ACQUIRE, we can also DEQUIRE (not sure if this is even a word, but it gets the point across). By gradually using less of our sweetener of choice, we can reduce the amount of sweetness that we need in order to feel that something is satisfying our 'sweet-tooth.' Rarely is this approach attempted. We just want to find newer, BETTER ways of getting our sweet fix.

I personally use vegan organic sugar (yes, VEGAN. While sugar comes from plants, it is often whitened by filtering it through charcoal filters which include animal bones in their composition. Yuck. Vegan sugar isn't whitened.), and from time to time, grade B maple syrup, brown rice syrup or apple juice for sweetness. The thing is, I just don't use very much of any of it. In fact, the only time I add sugar to anything, it's to my morning cup of tea (which I am in the process of tapering off of). Other than that, I rarely add/use sweetener to anything. I don't eat baked goods or candy. My smoothies contain fruit, but never anything to sweeten them - the smoothies are plenty sweet on their own.

Rather than obsessing about how much sugar you NEED, or how to replace sugar with artificial or alternative things, why not aim to reduce your tendency to crave sweets and the intensity of your sweet-preference?

Tips for reducing your dependency on sweeteners:
  • Eat naturally sweet vegetables at most meals. Carrots, sweet potatoes (WITHOUT brown sugar or maple syrup or marshmallows!), winter squash, other root vegetables and onions satisfy our natural cravings for sweetness, warding off the drive for that post-meal treat.
  • Move. Sometimes we gravitate towards sweet snacks when we actually need an energy boost. Movement can get your blood flowing without the spikes in insulin that sugar brings.
  • Drink (water, that is). Thirst is sometimes confused with hunger. When we crave a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack from the vending machine, we may actually be in need of fluid. Water is the best first-defense against these cravings. If your habit is to drink a soda and you absolutely cannot imagine life without your soda breaks, try diluting your favorite soda with club soda - replacing just 1/4 of your soda with sparkling water the first week, then 50/50 for a few weeks after that before attempting straight club soda as your bubbly beverage of choice. You'll still get the cold fizz, minus the high amount of sugars or without having to poison yourself with the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas.
  • Make a commitment to yourself that you will not bring soda into your home OR purchase it with meals out. A 16-ounce serving of soda typically contains the equivalent of 14 teaspoons of sugar. Add a free refill or two to the meal, and without intending to you've added 42 extra teaspoons of sugar to your meal.
  • Find non-food ways to indulge and pamper yourself. Many times, we have certain go-to foods that make us feel special. Perhaps they are associated with childhood memories: holiday cookies, celebratory cakes, pastries from Sunday family breakfasts, favorite after-school snacks... We gravitate toward these foods when we are stressed, lonely or feeling neglected. Find ways to ward off, or address these feelings without food - get a massage, take an exercise class, go for a walk with a friend, write in a journal, take a warm bath while surrounded with candles.
Addressing ways that you can feel FULLfilled prevents feelings of emptiness that commonly get filled with sweet treats. Find fulfillment, find satiety.

Experiment with making sugar a non-issue. Stop making it a focal point of your meals/beverages. Stop trying to find "good" substitutes. Instead, look for ways to crowd out this menace that takes up more space in your head and around your gut than it deserves. Treat yourself well and enjoy a more satisfying life!

Elly Haddad of Elemental Fit is an IIN-Certified holistic health coach. She works with groups and individuals to help people understand the relationship between diet & lifestyle and their health, happiness and overall wellbeing. She is also a public speaker and freelance writer.

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