Sugar: White or Black?

I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal.  If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing 110%.  And if I can’t give it 110%, then more often or not, I blow it off completely.  Sometimes, I’ll tell myself I’m a failure in the process of doing so.

As I get older, however, I can see where this all-or-nothing thinking has not served me so well.  If I’m not at the top of my field, it doesn’t mean I’m a fuck up.  It simply means I might have to settle for being second-best.  I see how my younger son’s perfectionism causes him (and us) more stress than he needs to experience, and while my older son’s lackadaisical attitude toward his obligations sometimes makes us grind our teeth, he usually winds up doing fine without killing himself in the process.

Someone whose opinion I trust advised me to move toward life’s gray areas and away from black and white thinking.  This means that when I eat something that’s not on my plan for the day, I don’t have to let it ruin my eating for the whole day.  When I have a bad workout or injure myself, it doesn’t mean that I have to bail on the gym for a week to recover from my psychic trauma.  And sometimes, it’s okay to say “no” when you want to, even if it means that you risk no longer being the perfect wife or mother or daughter in someone else’s eyes.

I’m having trouble figuring out where sugar fits in here.  There are two camps that have taken up residence in my mind.  One, espoused (ironically) by the person who advised me to shift into my gray areas, equates sugar with the devil and recommends banning it completely from one’s diet.  Another suggests moderation, enjoying it in small amounts so you don’t have to go through the insanity, obsession, second-guessing, rationalizing, and ultimately the (inevitable?) nose-dive into the chocolate.  When you allow yourself any food, at any time, the theory goes, the glamor and/or shame of eating “bad” or “forbidden” foods loses its power and allows you to eat in tune with your innate physical hunger, not your crazy emotions.

It’s confusing.  I get in big trouble when I draw lines in the sand.  I didn’t eat sugar for fifteen long days at the beginning of the month.  Yes, I felt great physically.  My yoga practice exploded.  I woke up feeling clean and refreshed most days, and my eyes were large and clear, not hidden by those bruised looking bags of skin that have started to take up residence on my face.  I’m not lying when I say that after a week or so, I begin to lose my taste for sugar.  Carrots are almost too sweet and I’ll save cherry tomatoes for dessert.  At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about sugar.  I thought about eating it, not eating it, when I might eat it, what I should eat it in, how much of it I should eat, and what it would taste like.  I wondered whether I’d be able to stop, whether I’d be able to resist, and whether I’d have to go through my whole life wondering about these things.  I read cookbooks and dog-eared dessert recipes that looked interesting.  And my ultimate downfall?  I started baking again.

My kids were coming home from camp.  That was my reason.  I feed people as an expression of love, and since my kids love sweets, it seemed to be an appropriate gesture.  At first, the cookie dough and pie held no appeal for me.  But an unplanned Bloody Mary in the middle of the day (drunk because “I just wanted to feel like a normal person”) weakened my resolve and set the sugar jones in motion.  The first day on sugar wasn’t that bad;  I was able to control myself and stop before things got too out of hand.  Unfortunately, as the anti-sugar article recognizes, once you get off the wagon, it’s damn hard to climb back on.  It takes three or four days of complete abstinence for me to move away from the white knuckle feeling, and during those days, I feel like shit.  I feel fat, puffy, tired, and generally awful about myself.  What I tend to do at these times is go right back to whatever made me feel that way–sugar–so I can forget about how shitty I feel for a few more hours.

Does this sound like an addiction?  Because it sounds that way to me.  The flip side of the coin, however, is what happens when sometimes everything works as it should.  I made a plum tart for my husband’s birthday the other night.  We had a good healthy dinner, and at the end of the meal, I cut myself a slice and ate it along with everyone else.  The tart was delicious.  But even better was the feeling of being “normal,” of being able to eat just a slice of dessert without making excuses or stressing over whether I should or shouldn’t, of leaving the table maybe a little fuller than I’d like to have been but not distended, lethargic, and nauseated.

I know that wanting to feel “normal” led me into trouble with the Bloody Mary and that this is a form of rationalizing.  But the idea of never having a moment like the one with the tart is more frightening and depressing than never eating sugar again.  It’s the energy that comes with the abstention or permission–is it given from a place of love and kindness or from a place of need and deprivation?

I don’t have the answers.  I wish I did.  I don’t know if anyone is going to read this, but thoughts would be appreciated.  I talked to a friend of mine about this yesterday and she pointed out that I do have an addictive personality and that sometimes, abstinence is the best choice for an addict.  But, as she recognized, a food addiction–even one to a single food like sugar–is a different beast from alcohol or drug addiction, since food addicts are faced with their demons on a day-to-day basis and every single meal brings along the risk of relapse.  And regardless of what the world should be like, we are faced with sugar constantly, hidden in lots of things and not-so-hidden in others.  A lot of this stuff is crap, but some of it is amazing and represents not only love but some of my life’s best work as a pastry chef.

What I’m doing now is trying to stay away from sugar again.  I’m going for October 31, which is Halloween, a perfect day to look forward to overconsumption.  I am keeping a detailed food log of what I eat and when and am trying to eat up to 2000 calories a day (I don’t count strictly, but a lifetime of dieting means that I get a little crazy if I eat more than 1400-1500 calories, which sets me up perfectly for a binge in a matter of four or five days).  I am not going to sweat the grains and artificial sweeteners for the first month;  I don’t go looking for them, but if they find a way into my mouth and can keep me away from the sugar itself, then that’s a victory in itself.  I don’t have to conquer the world all at once.  I’m going to take this step by step and see what happens.

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