Some reflections one week into a month-long sugar and alcohol fast.
Throwing down the gauntlet (January 16th)
About six months ago I started writing a reflection on how I was going to give up sweets for a month—recognizing it as a weakness and surely a source of shortened longevity in the long run (there’s lots of research on how sugar increases inflammation and “turns on the aging programs in your body.”)1 But for a variety of reasons I didn’t go through with it. Then, last month, my wife picked up the book Dopamine Nation and suggested it herself, actually raising the stakes by adding in alcohol as well.
I readily agreed. And read the book. Even as the impending fast (which started today) makes me trepidatious—will I be able to keep sweet-free for a month?—it also gets me excited: perhaps this will help me break free of my sugar dependency. And dependent I am. My family has a ritual of eating dessert after dinner plus I reach for a sweet in other moments—when I’m feeling low-energy, when I’m relaxing, and so on. It’s not to the degree of the stories I read in Dopamine Nation (where one person ate a pint of ice cream for breakfast and one for dinner) but I’m certainly not eating ideally—from a health or sustainability perspective.
First the why
Ultimately, as I’ve fasted and meditated and devoted myself to cultivating a more ecocentric way of being, I’ve already started to feel different. The little things like no longer adding sugar to my coffee—which I didn’t as much choose as much as tasted better after I started regularly fasting—and the bigger things like staying more in the moment: those evolutions I’ve valued very much. I’ve read, over the years, about the value of a big reset—this New York Times article for example—and hope that on the other side of it, I’m eating fewer empty calories (perhaps fewer calories altogether, again for health and ecological reasons2) and feeling healthier and more in control of my impulses. Worst case, I guess I could feel so deprived this month that I binge on sugar every chance I get once the fast is done but I hope reminding myself that I am choosing to take this month away from sweets (and alcohol—though that is not as much a loss for me) combats feelings like those.3
But I also want to live as spiritually rich a life as possible (even sacrificing tangible luxuries like sweets that may conflict). There’s an old tale about Mahatma Gandhi4 being asked by a mother to tell her son not to eat sugar. Gandhi says come back in a week. While annoyed, the mother does so and when she returns with her son, Gandhi says ‘don’t eat sugar, it’s bad for you.’ When she asks him why he couldn’t say that last week, he explains first he had to give sugar up himself or the advice wouldn’t be sincere.
I am still very much a consumer living a consumer lifestyle. If I don’t pare down the consumer excesses, why would I expect anyone else to? If I can’t find ways to vanquish, or more accurately come back into alignment with, my desires, or even probably more accurately adjust my brain chemistry to live a healthier and more sustainable life, why would I think others can or will?5
Now the how
Some ground rules if you’re curious about this sweet fast (or are interested in trying it yourself). First, what’s included: I am not foregoing all sugar. We eat few processed foods so the bit of added sugars used to make bread rise and such gets a pass (though I know many people without the time and skill to cook may eat more processed foods—so be careful to avoid highly sweetened “foods” or tricky foods like flavored yogurt and that kind of thing). We will eat fruit, but not huge amounts (as we never have) and we don’t drink juice (or any other sweetened beverage) and won’t start now. Alcohol in all its forms has been put on hold. Honey and maple syrup, sadly, will be put aside for the month. Basically, as we get most of our sugar from desserts, desserts are out. The rest is pretty self-evident.
Second, if I’m hungry (truly) it’s fine to eat other food to replace the lost sugar calories (which I’m guessing were a good 15-20% of my calorie intake). This is not a fast or a diet but a weaning off of added sugars, especially in the form of sweets.
Third, some self-binding is fine. In Dopamine Nation, the author, psychiatrist Anna Lembke, describes how people, in trying to restrict their addictions, often use self-binding strategies (pouring their drink down the drain, blocking certain websites, etc.). I certainly remember doing that with video games in college, mailing home Warcraft II so that I couldn’t play it until after finals. It worked. This time, we put away many of the sweets—though we kept some small ones in the cabinet as we thought our son would keep eating dessert (but so far—seven days in—he has been participating too). So the sweets are still accessible. But guarding the sweets is Kedi, my “totemic sweet.” Just before we agreed to this sweet fast, my son bought me a box of Turkish Delight for my birthday. I told him I’d break my sweet fast with that. And after reading about how some children beat the marshmallow test by stroking their marshmallow like a pet—making it too precious to eat (at least for the 15 minutes the experiment lasts)—and how one patient of Lembke’s kept a single beer in her fridge to focus on simply not drinking that one beer (calling it her “totemic beer”), rather than never drinking any alcohol—I asked my son to literally make my box of Turkish Delight into a pet (named cat in Turkish). It is definitely now too cute to consume and perhaps is guarding over the other sweets that are still easily accessible.
Fourth, as this recent New York Times article describes, urges (to smoke, eat sweets, have a drink, etc.) come in waves. The author explains that if you can surf this wave for five or so minutes without succumbing, you can ride it to the other side (versus if you fight it, the odds are you’ll be sucked under or the craving will persist). This makes sense. Rather than fighting, acknowledge the craving and ride through it or distract yourself with something different to break this urge (and habit loop).6 My thoughts are to try meditating for five minutes, doing some planks, or a karate kata. We’ll see how that goes!
And fifth, finally, and most importantly, I committed to “radical honesty,” as Lembke discusses in Dopamine Nation. I will admit to myself, to my family, and to you (in an essay after the fast ends) any sweets that I eat. I hope the desire to avoid “prosocial shame” will keep me extra honest this month. Radical honesty, as Lembke explains, is at the heart of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. This program demands radical honesty but in turn offers support and acceptance to those who ‘fall off the wagon,’ helping participants get back into a cycle of recovery. I think the desire to avoid having to list all cookies and candies—or worse that I killed Kedi—will keep me honest for the month!
A quarter way in (January 23rd)
It’s been a week since I started this fast and since I wrote most of this essay. In that time I have yet to cheat. The first day was easy. The second day—actually a Full Moon Fast—kept me distracted. The third I was a bit hungry and woke up dreaming of eating a piece of cake (though it was a small one at least). The fourth and fifth went by fine, though on the fifth night I dreamed I was serving (and eating) ice cream at a summer picnic! Truthfully, I haven’t had to ride too many craving waves so far—at least while awake—so I haven’t found myself doing planks all day. Whether it’s Kedi, the social solidarity, the fear of prosocial shame, or the fact I was ready to make a behavioral shift, it’s been quite manageable so far.
And one week in, the goal hasn’t changed. I hope, at the end of the month, with dopamine receptors rebalanced and with more mindful eating practices under my belt, to keep sweet consumption to at most once a day (and far smaller in quantity7) but ideally even just every other day or a few times each week. Not sure what’s realistic yet, but the goal is less. If that’s where I get, that’ll be ample reward for this somewhat restrictive but truthfully not-bad-so-far month.
1) An expert on sugar, Dr. Robert Lustig goes into detail on this, but this quotation sums it up: “The more sugar you eat, the faster you age.”
2) This fascinating study quantifies how many more people could live on the calories going to sustain our larger waistlines. If that food were redirected to undernourished people, the world could feed an additional 242 million people. That is not to dismiss the addictive nature of modern foodstuffs but offers a stronger case to recognize the importance of tackling the obesity epidemic, food marketing and industry influence, and our addictions to unhealthy foods.
3) In Dopamine Nation, Lembke describes two studies that showed that when a sense of scarcity was primed people want more immediate rewards, whether with children or adults (pp. 195-6).
4) Or possibly Mullah Nasrudin, or possibly it’s completely made up, but frankly the story, not the protagonist, is the powerful bit….
5) And naturally, I don’t think most will. I think most will suddenly be forced into a state of deprivation as systems fail. And from fear, they’ll hoard (see endnote 3), become less rational, and more volatile. But some might choose to make these shifts soon and while it’s in their control. And learning to live without now will be amply valuable in a real state of privation.
6) A bit on habit loops: essentially these can be both good and bad. Bad, for example, might mean reaching out for a Pepsi at the low point in the afternoon (which I used to do quite regularly twenty years ago—even as I wrote about the malicious nature of the soft drink industry). But as Dr. Judson Brewer notes in this New York Times article, habit loops can be triggered by all sorts of things, and “What’s tricky about habit loops is that the more automatic they become, over time you’re not even consciously choosing these actions.” A bad habit fast can help disrupt or even reset unhealthy habit loops.
7) Meaning a small chocolate after dessert or a small sliver of cake not a hand-sized piece that makes you lethargic for the next hour. I’m not sure that’ll satisfy, but I’m hoping that after a month fast it will.