Long before I stole a nearly full bottle of Finlandia from my mother’s pathetic excuse for a liquor cabinet and turned it into my first blackout, I was addicted to sugar. I have early memories of stacking phonebooks atop my grandmother’s stepstool in search of her After Eight dinner mints the poor woman tried to hide from me. My childhood focus was the search for candy, often stealing it from friends—even local stores—and hording it away until the next birthday party. For me, Halloween was a working holiday: a three-hour mission dedicated to stocking up for the six weeks until Hanukkah. I was the kid determined to hit every house in the neighborhood—twice if I could get away with it—aggressively scooping fistfuls of bite-sized candy bars into the plastic jack-o-lantern bag my mother lightheartedly gave to me because, apparently, Halloween was supposed to be fun. Not for this solider. I never felt like I had taken enough and I would get anxious if asked to divvy up my ration with my little brother. It was awful; my obsession with sugar made my eight-year old life unmanageable.
Three decades later, not much has changed. Thanks to the freedom of being a single adult with a mode of transportation and a small bank account, hoarding sweets or sneaking around is mostly unnecessary. In fact, I am no stranger to 2 am visits to Pavilions in my pajamas on the hunt for Chubby Hubby or a tub of red licorice. I used to beat myself up for this behavior but getting sober has a way of giving you some freedom to self-destruct in this way with less remorse.
I was surely at my worst, sugar-wise, during my second year of sobriety when I quit smoking and was quickly transformed into a six-year old whose parents mistakenly left her at Willy Wonka’s for the weekend. All I could eat was sugar and not some pansy cookies and cake run—I was into the hard stuff: Fun Dip, pixie stix, straight-to-the-brain white satan. I had to force-feed myself actual food so I wouldn’t go into insulin shock. Desperate for help, I ended up at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. But at 5’8” and 130 pounds, the narcissism of my early sobriety had me convinced that the whole room wanted to know where I got the balls to show up in size four jeans (the truth is that most of them probably know what I now do, too: those who suffer from unmanageability with food don’t always visibly appear that way).
But now I’ve got even more awareness. In fact after reading Tom McKay’s article in Mic, I feel like I have a head full of hard facts and a belly full of beignets. Complete with colorful comparative brain images and American sugar intake charts with graphics too nice to ignore, this piece shows us how similarly (and by similarly I mean identically) the brain reacts on sugar and as it does on cocaine; both release dopamine, a chemical in your brain that makes you feel euphoric. A study done at Connecticut College last year showed that lab rats consumed Oreo cookies at the same pace they consumed rice cakes laced with cocaine and morphine. That isn’t too surprising since last time I checked, morphine didn’t come in double-stuff. What was surprising was that the rats that ate Oreos showed a considerably higher amount of the protein c-Fos, a known indicator that the brain’s pleasure receptors are activated. In laymen’s terms, the rats appeared to have a sicker high on Oreos than on opiates.
I am really not sure what to do with this information. It must feel like it did for cigarette smokers in the 1970s when they were told that their favorite pastime was actually an addiction and totally deadly. It’s like, okay sugar is really, really bad for you but what am I supposed to do—quit?! That seems extreme. At least smoking is confined to cigarettes and the like, but sugar is in everything, pushed on us from all directions. The idea of trying to live sugar-free seems insurmountable—far more so than smoke-free, booze-free or drug-free. I have heard of people who don’t consume sugar but I always assumed they were an urban legend or some kind of weird species I didn’t share traits with.
So given the fact that most people in America are sugar consumers, what are we supposed to do now? McKay refers to a piece in Psychology Today about willpower (a word most 12-steppers don’t take to kindly to) that talks about studies done showing that chocolate intake was decreased by a third when people practiced out-of-sight, out-of mind; so instead of leaving a bar of chocolate out, you hide it in a drawer. I am not sure what kind of humans they used for this study but they clearly weren’t addicts. I can bury a Vicodin in the middle of the desert and even blindfolded, I will find it the next day. Forgetting I have a hidden pint of ice cream in my freezer would be like forgetting to have sex with Mark Ruffalo because he was behind a closed door in my guest room.
I don’t know how normal people operate but if sugar affects the brain the same way as cocaine, then suggesting that a sugar addict cut down sugar is as ridiculous as suggesting a cocaine addict cut down on cocaine. It just doesn’t work that way. If you happen to be someone who can consume sugar in moderation, good for you; I hope you now think twice about having that sliver of birthday cake. But let’s be honest, this scared-straight statistic-saturated article is not geared towards the sliver of cake people but toward the rest of us.
According to a new documentary by Katie Couric, Fed Up (scheduled to come out May 9), “the rest of us” is a rapidly growing number. The film’s intention is to create awareness about the junk food industry and its enormous (no pun intended) contribution to America’s obesity crisis. And while I recognize the laundry list of health problems associated with being vastly overweight and understand that obesity is typically assumed to be a visible manifestation a food issue, what I took from McKay’s article is that consuming too much sugar—which most of us do—is something we all need to be very concerned with.
So in light of McKay’s un-sugar-coated journalism, it seems the time has come for us to stop pretending we can eat whatever we want as long as we don’t get too too fat—and even if we do, we can just go on a diet…eventually. I know that thought process all too well. Even as I write this, I am suffering through my eighth day without sugar because I’m on the bandwagon of yet another fad diet. But eliminating sugar from my life shouldn’t be a fad. I don’t know how we are going to do it—I am fantasizing about a Snickers bar right now—but if we claim to care about our health (vegans, I’m talking to you), then we can no longer afford to treat sugar as the benign party favor or coping mechanism that we have for all these years.
I mean, I really want a Snickers.
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