Sugar and Spice – Confessions of a Sugar Addict

A big part of eating a healthy, delicious diet has been figuring out what to do about my “sweet tooth.”  I might as well face it, I love sweet stuff and I am always going to.  However, since the dentist has yet to pinpoint and extract the exact tooth responsible, I am going to have to figure out another plan!

smoothie and cupcake

The sweet life: Smoothie and cupcake

Confession time:  I used to consume a terrifying amount of sugar on a daily basis.  If you looked at how much food I ate overall you might have a hard time understanding why I had such a weight problem.  But if you looked at my sugar in-take it would all become clear.

I am convinced that Lustig is correct that a common feature of all successful diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber.  I say this both because I find his arguments persuasive but, more importantly, because I find the results of such a diet breathtakingly impressive. See the list of benefits I have experienced here.

Here’s the summary of my current understanding:  Sugar is a problem and needs to be greatly restricted if not eliminated.  Alternative sweeteners aren’t necessarily the answer and caution is needed until further research is done.

In The Skinny Rules, Bob Harper forbids all added sweeteners, including artificial ones (Rule 10).  His reasoning is that the sweet taste is so addictive that any added sweetener exposes us to the risk of relapse.  His goal is to break people of their desire for “hyper-sweetness.”  He might be right, but of all his rules, this is the one I break just a little.  However, I very much agree that we need to dramatically decrease the “sweet” component of our diets, and one of the reasons I think I have done this successfully is that I can no longer stomach any commercially sweetened beverage or food product.  Foods I used to consume in large amounts are now so sweet to me I simply can’t eat them.

But how can I live as a real, sweet-toothed human in a sugar-filled world?  If I’m honest I must admit that I have more “sweet” in my diet than either Bob Harper or Robert Lustig would think prudent.  They are probably right, and maybe I am in dangerous territory, but for what it’s worth here’s my strategy:

 1) No sweetened beverages, either sugar sweetened, or artificially sweetened.  This means soda, diet soda, fruit juice, energy drinks or sweetened iced tea. I am convinced by the arguments that a) there is no fiber in these drinks to buffer the sugar b) our brains seem unable to detect that we have taken in calories in liquid form and therefore don’t compensate by reducing overall consumption following the intake of a caloric beverage c) when our brains taste sweet they expect calories and if no calories are present this sets us up for problems with appetite regulation.  Also, I want to use my “sweet allowance” on more satisfying options, so sweetened beverages are an easy target for total abstinence.

2) Cane sugar: severely restricted.  My only source of cane sugar is my block or two of dark chocolate a day, and because I go for 70% or higher of cocoa, this works out to very little.

3) Coconut palm sugar:  It has some nutritional merit and I love the taste.  Although it is reported to have a low GI (35), I am skeptical as it is mostly sucrose.  I therefore treat it as a sugar and only use it occasionally in baking that contains a substantial amount of fiber.

4) Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin): No thanks – can’t stand the taste and not comfortable with the possibility that they may increase my risk of cancer.

5) Honey, maple syrup, dates, agave:  Again, some nutritional value but all high in sugar and if I use them at all it is in baking with a high fiber content.  They basically belong in the same category as coconut palm sugar.

6) Fruit:  A favorite source of sweetness in my diet, but I am very careful about preserving the fiber by eating the whole fruit.  Berries deserve special mention as an “added sweetener”:  They easily release some of their juice and can be used to sweeten food without damaging the fiber in the fruit (eg: over cereal or in plain yoghurt).  As an added advantage they are low GI and full of anti-oxidants.  Berries are therefore my most “guilt-free” and liberally used “sweetener.”

7) Berry smoothies.  Related to the above but they deserve special mention because they are a bit complicated  Let me begin by saying that my smoothies are so good they should be illegal.  However, smoothies are controversial among those concerned about sugar.  Some say they are fine, others say that the blades of the blender destroy the insoluble fiber in the fruit and they are therefore no different to fruit juice. They are also wary of smoothies as “liquid calories.”  Here’s how I approach it: a) my smoothies are very thick and I find them super filling.  I therefore don’t believe that they suffer from the same “liquid calorie” danger as juice and soda.  They are either barely drinkable or have to be eaten with a spoon. b) The fruit content of my smoothies are from berries, therefore low GI c) I add in additional fiber in the form of Chia seeds and coconut flour so I have both soluble and insoluble fiber covered d) I believe that the protein and fat from the whey, yoghurt and coconut milk also help to buffer the sugars from the fruit.  e) As an added precaution I first blend up the other ingredients (greek yoghurt, whey powder, coconut milk, chia seeds) and then gently muddle and fold in the berries so that some of their juice is released but the whole fruit is still in there without the fiber being obliterated by heavy processing.  Phew, all that effort for a smoothie!  I wonder if Lustig or Harper would give me permission to enjoy it under these conditions.  Maybe not, but I am taking my chances for the time being because they are such a delicious and easy way to get a nutritious breakfast on the run.

8) Whey powder: I use a sweet vanilla whey powder with no added sugar.  However, it is really delicious and sweetens whatever I add it to very effectively, and I can only conclude that the sweetness comes from the lactose, which has none of the dangers of fructose.  I started using whey for protein, and the sweetness came as an added bonus.

9) Lacuma or Maca powder:  Nutritious and tasty in smoothies or homemade chocolate or ice cream.  I use these for their health benefits, or as a variation on other sweeteners.

10) Xylitol:  I love using it because it tastes just like sugar and can be used with a 1:1 conversion in baking.  Having said that I always reduce the sweetener on a recipe just because I don’t like things too sweet anymore.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables and also made by the human body.  Dentists love it because it protects against tooth decay.  You have probably already encountered it in sugar-free gum. But is it ok to use as a sweetener?  The worst thing I have read about Xylitol is that it can cause stomach upsets if you overdo it.  This is because it is not fully broken down during digestion.  The funny thing is, if I buy commercial sweets with Xylitol, Maltitol or Sorbitol I get a violent stomach upset after eating just two or three.  However, if I use Xylitol in my own baking or cooking I have no ill effects whatsoever.  My theories are that either I am using it in sufficient moderation or there is something else that’s nasty about those sweets and causing the mischief.  Xylitol is slowly absorbed and metabolized and has a negligible effect on insulin.  I am not about to go out and eat it by the sack load, but I think it’s ok to use in cooking and baking as I am doing.  I am prepared to take my chances with this one for the time being.

Warning:  If you have dogs, don’t ever let them eat anything containing Xylitol as it is highly toxic to them!

11) Stevia: It has mixed reviews.  I have some in the house and use a little in my herbal teas if I want them slightly sweetened.  Because it is so intensely sweet a little goes a long way.

To sum up, here are my own “sweet” rules:

1) No sweetened beverages.

2) The body expects calories when it tastes sweetness, so give it some.  In other words use sweeteners in cooking or baking of real food, not as a way to “cut calories” .  This approach will actually help you consume fewer calories overall because you aren’t playing tricks with appetite regulation.

3) No artificial sweeteners or “diet” food products – highly processed and bad for you on so many levels, besides just tasting lousy.

4) Require any caloric sweetener to have some nutritional value, not just be empty calories.  However, don’t use their nutritional merit as a way of conveniently forgetting that they are still to be treated with caution, especially if they consist primarily of sucrose and/or fructose.

5) Eat any caloric sweetener with plenty of fiber to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate.

6) Diversify:  Don’t consume large quantities of any one sweetener, at least until further research is done into its safety.

7) If it’s sweet, make it yourself.  You can then ensure that you use the minimum sweetener and that you buffer it with fiber, protein and/or fat.

8) If you find that you are naturally choosing to eat less rather than more, you’re doing it right.  If you are just swapping one sweet addiction for another, you might need to reassess your approach.

This might seem like an overly complex strategy but it works for me.  I wish I could just go “cold turkey” and cut out the sweet stuff, and I have certainly tried.  It usually lasts for a while and then I regress back into my old ways.  This approach is sustainable, therefore better in my opinion.  I have been doing it for 6 months and I know I can do it forever.  It may work for you or it may not, so find your own way of navigating the sweet stuff in your life.  Whatever works to keep you eating “low sugar, high fiber” is an excellent start!

Advertisements

I took my money – and I left!

Local, organic produce

Fresh, organic produce from the Blaauklippen and Route 44 Markets in Stellenbosch

You know how it goes when two kids play together.  It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child.  Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry.  For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic.  There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left!  Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!

I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer.  Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.

Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues.  They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing!  But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”.  To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you.  But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.

The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate .  Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels!  The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body.  “Make healthy choices”  we are advised.  Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section.  But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!

These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood.  The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!”  Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it.  When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave.  No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”

For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area.  I then prepare everything from scratch at home.  I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety.  I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory.  Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!

I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject.  Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better!  It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013.  Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness?  If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time.  The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then.  Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals.  I am really playing catch up here.  It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.

The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry.  They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.”  Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public.  I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet.  I would choose taste and convenience over health every time.  Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option.  The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply.  This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people.  So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do.  For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!

In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.”  What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product.  I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products!  I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food.  Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.

Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now.  And that’s politics too.  That’s voting with your fork.  Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy.  People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan

That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep.  I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

More about calories: They do count, but not the way I thought

When I started caring about calories, I was unprepared for how complex, and at times confusing, my exploration would become!  Yesterday I wrote about some myths (or at least gross oversimplifications) around calories and weight loss.

I was particularly hard on health professionals that perpetuate these myths.  In their defense, I know that the real experts do understand the complexity but are faced with the challenging task of trying to modify behavior in their clients, and therefore find oversimplifications like “calories in, calories out” a useful starting point. And this may work well for some people.  I just haven’t met them yet, and I am definitely not one of them!   Instead of starting me down the road to health and lean living, this dictum is apt to send me round and round in circles, chasing my tail until I inevitably end up collapsing in a heap under a great big pile of food!  My problem with “calories in, calories out” is that it sounds like a judgment-laden injunction to simply try to “exert a cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. ” (Dr Robert Lustig)  I have finally had the sense to realize that, for me anyway, this is: Just. Not. Possible!

I am not looking for an easy way out of this, believe me.  In fact I would LOVE it if there was a simple formula for me to follow that would result in guaranteed, permanent and sustainable weight loss.  If anyone discovers one, I will be the first to sign up! But so far it has proved to be anything but simple.  Therefore, for my own benefit, I thought I would use this post to summarize my current understanding of calories and where they fit in to nutrition and weight loss.  Anyone reading this, please take note that this is a lay person’s understanding and subject to re-evaluation and further learning on my part.  Also, I think that everyone should study and understand this topic for themselves, examine how the issues around calorie intake play out in their own lives and reach their own conclusions.  I am open to correction and further guidance, but this is what I currently believe:

  1. There is such a thing as an “energy balance” in which a healthy, lean individual takes in the right amount of food to support their energy requirements. In simple terms: they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.  However, calculating exactly what that energy balance is, is not achieved by a simple equation that a primary school child could understand (Calories in = Calories Out).  It is infinitely complex, highly individual and achieved most successfully by the workings of the body’s own hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage: leptin, ghrelin and insulin.  When these hormones are in balance and functioning correctly, and the brain is sensitive to them, then the individual knows intuitively how much they should eat.  When they are out of balance, or the brain is resistant to them, then the individual is incapable of an appropriate caloric intake regardless of how much theory they know and how much will power they attempt to exert.
  2. From #1 it therefore follows that the first objective of anyone concerned with weight loss, be it: the overweight individual, doctor, dietician, personal trainer, therapist or researcher should NOT be trying to control behavior and somehow getting the starving fat person to “eat less.”  Instead, it should be figuring out how to bring those hormones back into balance and to restore sensitivity to them.  A great deal of research is going on in the area of leptin resistance in particular and I am following this with great interest.
  3. The continual, ready availability of calories is possibly one of the greatest environmental challenges that modern humans have to navigate. We evolved and adapted to an environment of scarcity and now live in one of abundance and excess.  In other words, we are hard-wired to take in as many calories as possible during times of plenty and store excess for the coming famine.  The fact that the famine never comes is irrelevant.  To be human means that if you are hungry and food is available, then sooner or later you will eat.  If you did not have this drive then your ancestors would have died out long ago and you wouldn’t be here to have this conversation!  The disaster is that if you are always hungry and food is always available you will become obese and the very drive that would have ensured your survival in an environment of scarcity could be your undoing in an environment of abundance.
  4. The source of the calories matters as much, or more, than the calories themselves.  In other words you can eat a 2000 calorie a day diet that will promote metabolic syndrome, addictive eating, excessive hunger and obesity, as well as making you disposed to eat more and more calories over time.  Or you can eat a 2000 calorie diet that promotes health, a lean body, balanced hormones, appropriate appetite and a consistent calorie intake over time.  Because a calorie is only a calorie when you are burning food in a bomb calorimeter.  As soon as you put it in your body, however, the source of the calories matters very much indeed! I would even go so far as to propose that the first goal of any weight loss program should not be calorie restriction but calorie replacement.  In other words if you simply try to get the fat person to eat less they will yo-yo diet for the rest of their lives (how much more proof do we need of this?) but if you get them to eat different (whole foods instead of processed junk food) it may be possible for them to gradually move back towards an energy balance, appropriate food intake and a leaner body mass.

Anyone still with me?  You’re a hero!  Given my current thinking on calories, I actually do keep a food journal and I do (sort of) count calories.  But not in an effort to force myself to stick to a daily calorie limit by pure discipline.  I do it to observe which eating behaviors result in the most consistent, economical overall intake that promotes gradual, healthy weight loss.  Not the way I intended to approach this when I started out at all!  I started out by trying to figure out the least number of calories I could eat to lose the greatest amount of weight in the shortest possible time. The outcome was:  I couldn’t keep it up long enough, I felt miserable and, worst of all, I stopped losing weight! I have now wrapped up that experiment and stored it away in a large box marked “FAIL”    I have started a new strategy, as outlined in my post A Bold Experiment.  So far so good, check back in a year or two for the thrilling conclusion 🙂

Fat people are hungry – The Science!

When I wrote that fat people are hungry I had no idea that I was shortly to discover the science to back this up.  I had read bits and pieces and was already aware of the problem of leptin resistance, but last night I was aimlessly browsing around YouTube, looking for some random entertainment and I found a series called The Skinny on Obesity, thanks to YouTube’s ability to suggest content that you are interested in.

I was absolutely riveted and watched the whole series in one sitting.  Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, takes us through his research on sugar and it’s effect on the body.  The “Skinny on Obesity ” is a great introduction, and Dr Lustig’s full lecture “Sugar – the Bitter Truth,” will change the way you think about food, diet and exercise forever! Watch for yourself, but in summary he explains scientifically what I already know to be true experientially!

Here are some key quotes from the “Skinny on Obesity” series:

“No one can exert cognitive inhibition [will power] over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”

“Everyone wants to tell people to eat less.  I wish I could tell people to eat less.  But they can’t.”

“Our drive overrides our volition.”

“Currently in the store 80% of the food has been laced with sugar. That limits consumer choice. If you have no choice, how can it be personal responsibility?”

The conclusion?

“Public health officials consider regulation when 4 criteria are met:
1) Unavoidablity
2) Toxicity
3) Abuse
4) Negative impact on society

All the criteria for societal intervention are met.”

Is soda a drug?  Should it be regulated?  Watch and judge for yourself.