He knew he had a problem with the white stuff, so he decided to stop eating it before it buried him. Except quitting is never that easy
I am a man of appetites. Men who ingest one cube of cheese, two olives, and a half glass of chardonnay at a cocktail party baffle me. I tend toward three beers, an armload of Cheddar, countless almonds and olives, and a cord of summer sausage. Then I go to dinner. My habit of walking to work and doing pushups to stay awake in my office is probably the only reason I manage to avoid obesity.
Or at least that was the case until this past winter, when a combination of professional upheaval (I moved for a new job), personal stresses (my best friend died of cancer), and bad luck (a back injury) knocked me off my already pathetic game. See, when I’m alone, worried, and overworked, I turn to sugar, and so I quickly became a man with a saber-size sweet tooth. And it showed: I’d always been a barrel-chested 5’7″, but I became barrel-bellied as well, reaching a once-unthinkable 190 on the bathroom scale.
Then a few months ago, while holding an Arby’s Jamocha shake in my hand and wondering how it got there, I decided that something had to change. It was time to face the beast. After all, I had some willpower. At that moment, I vowed to go on a 30- day fast, eliminating all sweetness from my diet except for whole fruit. I banned sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, stevia, aspartame, cane juice, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, and fruit juice.
I mean, I just had to give up one thing. No sweat. Except that one thing was everywhere.
What I saw on the scale was scary enough, but I decide that an extra dose of fear might help motivate me. So on the first day of my fast, I head to the Livewell Clinic in Des Moines for the “before” blood work, the quantitative data that may prove that I’ve been eating more chocolate than Oprah’s book club.
I blame my blinding headache this morning on a lack of caffeine, since I had to fast for 12 hours (no coffee!). I arrive at the clinic in a bad mood; I’m edgy, hungry, and stressed-out by a huge to-do list that begins with “blood test” and skips over “cookie break.”
Turns out, my HDL (good) cholesterol is a bit low at 36 milligrams per deciliter, and my triglycerides are sky-high: 359 mg/dL. My blood-sugar level is also slightly elevated (104 mg/dL). Two other key blood numbers– C-reactive protein and LDL cholesterol–are okay, though not outstanding. My blood pressure is a solid 118/77. I’m not a total mess–yet. The elevated blood sugar and soaring triglycerides confirm that I’m on the road to some scary places, including heart disease and diabetes.
“Well,” I say to myself, looking over the numbers, “the proof is in the pudding.”
God, I’ll miss pudding.
On day two, I drink three cups of coffee, but the headache–a dull throb that grows worse as the day drags–remains, along with a twitchy left eye and a sour, sluggish mood. Could I actually be in sugar withdrawal?
At one point, a colleague comes over and talks to me while noshing on a Mounds bar. (He keeps a file cabinet full of candy, and he’s skinny; I hate him, and he finds my experiment laughable.) As he chews the fluffy coconut and the rich, velvety chocolate shell, exaggerating its awesomeness to torture me, I think about slugging him. In fact, off sugar, I have violent fantasies a few times each day. I’ve heard smokers talk about a rage that comes over them while they’re trying to kick their habit, and I think, Maybe I am a wee bit addicted.
And in fact, I come across a few studies indicating that mice, given the choice, pick sugar over cocaine even after they’ve shown signs of addiction to cocaine. My whiskers twitch.
I share my fears with Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., the director of the interdisciplinary obesity program at the University of North Carolina. “Mice react to sugar differently than humans do,” he explains. “And while sugar affects the human brain in some of the same ways as alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine do, there are no conclusive scientific studies that prove that sugar is truly addictive. However, we do know that up to 98 percent of the human population has a sweetness ‘preference.’ We have also seen that in countries like China, where sugar consumption was almost nonexistent a few decades ago, we can introduce sugar into the nation’s diet and they absolutely move on it.”
The average American now consumes about 500 calories of the sweet stuff daily, Popkin says. For many busy, professional men like me whose work takes them on the road a lot, those calories often come in beverage form. “Men consume a great deal of sweetened energy drinks, sodas, vitamin water, iced tea, or coffee, most of which also contain caffeine, which we do know is definitely an addictive substance,” Popkin says. “Limited research suggests that diet sodas may condition people to crave high levels of sweetness. To this extent, they’re also part of the overconsumption problem.”
The truth is that humans were not designed to eat all this sugar, and certainly not to wash it down with even more sugar.
We evolved drinking mainly water. We have never, in our long evolutionary history, looked to liquids as a source of calories (except as infants, when we drank breast milk). We’re simply not wired to fill up on beverages.
As proof, Popkin points to a 2007 Purdue University study. The findings show that the calories we consume in carbohydrate-rich beverages don’t satisfy our appetites the way the calories we consume from food do. So the 300 calories’ worth of soda we drink with, say, a meal at McDonald’s don’t result in us eating 300 fewer calories’ worth of food. Soda drinkers don’t have a Coke for dinner; they have a meal and add a Coke. Then they have refills.
“I see the effect of sugar on obesity rates every day in my practice,” says Aaron Dunn, M.D., my one-time family physician based in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, who also runs a community free clinic. “I’ve had several patients lose 10 pounds or more just by eliminating regular soda.”
week two is going to Test my willpower. I’ll be on a family vacation in Washington state, a mission rife with the possibility of failure. To reach our destination, we’ll be driving 3 hours and then flying another 4. Sugar is in nearly every convenience food sold at airports. And traveling with two toddlers is stressful. For starters, my daughter is afraid of the airport auto-flush toilets, and my son breaks into a mad sprint at the sight of the moving walkways.
In the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, I eat a Cobb salad (hold the dressing, ham, and bacon bits–i.e., all the stuff that makes airport salad edible). Up in the air, restless and about to break into my kids’ animal crackers, I’m served some peanuts. That levels me out a bit. In Seattle, we stay with friends who shop at a natural foods co-op and manage (the saints) to provide me with sugar-free meals.
Restaurants are the biggest challenge. I’m now the high-maintenance diner who bothers waiters about ingredient lists and the use of sugar in pizza dough. And while I skip the sauces and dressings, some trace amounts of sugar probably sneak into my gut, since I am not preparing my own food and often deal with baffled chefs. (At one point, the daughter of the chef at an Asian restaurant tells me, exasperated, “We cook with sugar! It’s in everything!”)
Still, something is working: On day 10 of my fast, my sugar cravings subside entirely. One night on vacation, with the kids in bed and the wine flowing, our hosts set out dark chocolates. I barely care. Two weeks ago, I’d have had a half dozen of the suckers, easy.
Most noticeably, I feel my stress levels receding. Normally I’m not a fun dude on vacations. Travel logistics frustrate me. I worry over our itinerary, and I live in fear that our children will hurt themselves or become sick or lost. I can’t sleep in somebody else’s house. But on this trip, despite sharing a queen-sized bed with my entire family and trying to negotiate a high-stakes deal in L.A. without reliable Wi-Fi or cellphone coverage, I sleep like a champ. And when a texting-and-driving 16-year-old rear-ends our rental car on the Olympic Peninsula, I actually remain fairly calm. For me, that’s as close to Zen master as I’m ever going to come.
On an emotional level, I feel better than I have in months, maybe years. Part of me wonders how much of this is the result of a placebo effect. Perhaps I am simply so proud of myself for breaking free of junk food that I’m just in a much better mood overall.
So I check in with Dr. Dunn, who has seen me at my moodiest. “Sugar can give you a quick burst of energy and an upswing in mood,” he says. “However, this is followed by a fairly sudden and dramatic drop in blood sugar as your pancreas overshoots with a spike of insulin. These cycles manifest themselves in the form of mood swings, feelings of agitation, fluctuations in concentration, and energy crashes.”
Yep, that sounds like a typical day at the office before my sugar fast. It reached the point where I had trouble functioning without a midday cookie or candy bar. It’s almost as if I had trained my body and brain to expect the cookies, and they sort of boycotted the afternoon work session until they had them.
My workdays are different now. I’ve been brown-bagging it–pieces of cheese, a few slices of turkey, salad greens, raw vegetables, almonds, and fruit (typically, blueberries in my morning yogurt and an apple at lunch). Since the food is sitting in my office, I tend to snack all day long instead of sitting down to one quick and often sugar-heavy meal. Maybe this is why I no longer crave a nap 45 minutes after lunch or battle drowsiness all afternoon.
Instead I feel energetic and have an amazing ability to concentrate. Tackling the work that has accumulated on my desk after a week’s vacation seems easy. I do my taxes. My to-do list evaporates before my eyes.
I no longer want to punch Mounds boy.
By the end of week four, I have to admit I feel really good, but I have no idea if my fast has changed my sad little lab numbers.
The results are in. My good cholesterol is a bit better at 39 mg/dL, but my triglycerides have dipped a substantial 56 points to 303 mg/dL. Dr. Dunn isn’t surprised in the least
“Triglycerides are, in essence, sugar-coated fats,” he explains, “and so they’re the kind of cholesterol that respond more dramatically to the amount of sugar in your diet.”
My LDL cholesterol is down from 101 to 90, and my blood pressure is 112/68, versus 118/77 a month ago. These are all improvements in some of the biggest health indicators out there.
The numbers on the scale look good, too: I’ve lost 6 pounds in 4 weeks. (A few days later, in fact, I’m down another 2 pounds, to 182.) My BMI has dropped a point, from 30 to 29, taking me out of the “obese” range. My body-fat percentage has dropped nearly 2 percent. All of which makes me wonder: What if I also started exercising regularly?
I leave the Livewell Clinic feeling like a guy who might yet live well. The relentless slide toward middle age feels a little less steep. The patches of snow and the bone chilling dampness of March are gone. It’s warm and sunny.
During my first sugar-free days, I fantasized about this moment, the breaking of the fast. Where would I go first? Would I buy a frosted pumpkin scone at Starbucks? Or simply hit the nearest gas station for a Pepsi and a KitKat?
In fact, I follow neither of those impulses. I pull over at a coffee shop, its display case bursting with cinnamon rolls. I order a black coffee and go back to the car, where I open my lunch box and eat a hard-boiled egg and some carrot sticks dipped in nut butter.
I feel too good to stop now.
The Secret Ingredient in Soda
It’s obvious America is addicted to soda. What isn’t so clear is why. We assume it’s the sugar, but that doesn’t explain why so many people down the diet stuff. The next most likely culprit is caffeine–except we also quaff caffeine-free sodas. So what’s left? The ingredient that makes soda soda: carbon dioxide, a.k.a. carbonation. When the CO2 bubbles in a beverage hit your tongue, they “pop” and react with an enzyme on your tastebuds to create carbonic acid. Like most acids, the carbonic kind hurts, but it’s a good hurt. One theory is that the mild pain makes your brain counter it by releasing endorphins, neurotransmitters that improve your mood, says E. Carstens, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at the University of California at Davis. This mood boost outweighs the initial pain, so you want to experience it again and again. Now you have the answer to one of life’s great mysteries: why people drink seltzer.