Sugar Here I Come?

In mid-January, my family gave up sweets and alcohol for an entire month. Originally that was just supposed to be my wife, Aynabat, and me but without prodding my 9-year old son, Ayhan, joined us (yes, I’m still in awe of that!). I expected some cheating (at least by me), some jitters, some difficulties beyond just the inevitable whininess, but I have to admit it was far easier than I expected.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun. There were many moments of discomfort: the cravings—especially when smelling or seeing something delicious—though they did go away quick enough; the loss of those joyful moments when you gather over something sweet and tasty (or over a drink); and the dreams. In the first days of the fast, I first dreamed I ate a tiny sliver of cake. Later I dreamed I had a sip of beer, with the realization I was fasting dawning on me only as I was drinking. And toward the end of the month, I dreamed I hosted an ice cream party, serving everyone ice cream cones, including myself. The funniest part of that dream was that in it I decided since I already ate ice cream, I might as well have some chocolates, and it was at that point that Aynabat told me not to make it worse and I put the rest back.1

Perhaps the hardest part was the loss of the unplanned moments of joy and the disruption of traditions. If we wanted to stop by an ice cream shop on a whim, well, that was no longer possible. On a snowbound day, drinking a mug of hot chocolate with Ayhan became a transgression. On a slow morning, my son and I could no longer cook French Toast together (“Oatmeal? Again?”). But within a week, the cravings became much reduced, and the sense of loss muted. In our third week, we joined a party where the host passed around a tray of sweets and it barely phased me.

In some ways, this prohibition made life a lot easier. When I go to a grocery store, there are entire aisles that I ignore. But somehow in my occasional trip to a drugstore the candy aisle draws me, siren-like, to its many temptations, with their bright colors, manipulative discounts, and positive associations—Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Independence Day (ok, not that one, but there does seem to be a long gap between Easter and Halloween that the candy industry should find a way to exploit…). It was a relief to just walk in and simply buy the one thing I needed without coming back with a plastic bag full of corn syrup, low quality chocolate,2 food coloring, and additives.

I hear your call no longer. Even if your bright yellow tags cry out your incredible value…. (Image from Fastily via Wikimedia Commons)

It also made life healthier. At first I ate a bit less, simply extracting the sweets, but over time ended up substituting fruit for processed sugars. I ate a lot more grapes, apples, oranges, and pineapples, and some dried fruits too. Over time these became as satisfying as sweets—or perhaps as unsatisfying when I once again fell into the pattern of eating them mindlessly instead of savoring them (which remained a challenge after the first week or so of the fast).

By the end, I had fallen into some new healthier patterns, which persevered even as we traveled to DC during the last days of our fast. But what I missed most were those special desserts—the homemade ones and the out-and-about adventurous ones.3

Breaking the Fast

The last days, being in our former hometown, and coming across old spots I used to visit (and new spots that promised sweet novelty) made it a bit tough. But I can honestly report that I never cheated (and therefore do not have to ashamedly list what I snuck during the month—which was definitely a big motivator in not cheating).4

When the fast was over, we grabbed three cookies from Firehook Bakery, which I fondly remember eating a cookie and coffee at on slow days working at Worldwatch. As we were out of town, Kedi remained safe. And frankly still does, considering her cuteness. It’ll take a lot to kill Kedi (revealing the difficulty of promoting edible pets, even imaginary ones).

Your time has not yet come, Kedi. (Image by Erik Assadourian, Design by Ayhan Assadourian)

But I have to admit two of the three cookies were just meh. So too were the tea cookies from Whole Foods. And the cupcakes.5 Actually worse than meh: stale and overfrosted. It turns out that giving up sweets for a month made us really picky.

But the milkshake my son and I shared was delicious. As were the pancakes Aynabat made this past weekend. Which reinforces the discovery I made in the depths of the fast—skip the mass-produced sweets and focus on the adventurous and the home made.

And this leads me to a new mantra. Actually one I use regularly, borrowed from Michael Pollan and now refined to apply to sugar consumption as well:

“Eat sweets. Not too many. Mostly special treats.”

For those who don’t know the original, that’s: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

In this case, “Eat sweets” means: sure, indulge sometimes (don’t skip all sweets always) but it also means eat real sweets. Skip all the toxic candies and desserts that Pollan’s grandma wouldn’t recognize as food. And of course, eat them in moderation—like all food, but especially in this case, as sugar comes with consequences. Above all that means avoiding things masquerading as food but that are swimming in sugar: granola, sweetened dried fruits, muffins (unless you really like muffins, but that’s a different concern), and so on.

Finally, “mostly special treats” means skipping the impulsive purchases at the random store, but embracing those moments driving by an ice cream shop on a hot summer day or walking by a delicious-smelling bakery or trying a friend’s fresh baked cookies. And that especially means homemade goods—though keeping those to birthdays and holidays ideally, and not just boredom baking. But even if there’s a bit of spontaneous baking going on, above all, the impulsive purchases of low-quality store-bought sweets have started to diminish, and will continue to be replaced by fruits or nothing. And when these guidelines conflict—say trick or treating—well, Halloween is a special treat, and an occasional dose of PGPR won’t kill us (I think).2

Sweets taste better when ritualized, whether going out for ice cream, a homemade birthday cake, or even low quality Halloween candy. (Image from JESHOOTS-com via Pixabay)

Of course, that mantra, just like Pollan’s original, is to a degree aspirational. I’m sure I’ll still be tempted by half-price Easter candy, though perhaps less so. And hopefully overall I’ll find myself slightly less driven by sugar. Though I admit now that the sweet fast is over, I still find myself grabbing a sweet mindlessly (though about half the time that’s a fig instead of a cookie).

I have wondered if I’m not better off sticking with a more sweeping prohibition, but I’m not quite ready to commit to that. That said, this certainly wasn’t my last sweet fast. Aynabat is already talking about doing another week soon, and while I’m not excited by the idea, I know I can get through it and possibly even enjoy it.

Endnotes

1) Even in my dreams my wife is watching out for me! In Dopamine Nation, the author actually discusses this phenomenon directly. Once a person cheats, she sometimes just keeps going, deciding she’s already failed so might as well binge. Knowing that, one can be mentally prepared for that (at least when awake)!

2) Not exaggerating. If you look at the ingredients of a Kit Kat from the US versus the UK you see more fillers in the first—like PGPR, a nasty way to lower cocoa butter needs. And this definitely affects the taste.

3) It also drew attention to how much celebration has become wrapped up with eating desserts. A pattern that I admit to falling (or even boomeranging) back into already.

4) Perhaps the biggest—reinforcing the value of finding an accountability mechanism. But not to the extreme portrayed in “Quitter’s Inc.” in the old Stephen King film, Cat’s Eye. (Sometimes old horror flicks stick with you your entire life!)

5) Not all bought at once, mind you!

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  1. Tom Read

    G’day Erik,

    Sugar comes with consequences. What a concept! I’ve managed to substitute fruit for most sugar, but still struggling with chocolate, my utter addiction/downfall. A few chocolate chips a day can’t be all that bad, right? Until I read your Reflection it hadn’t occurred to me to do a sugar fast. Now I’m interested — thank you!

    –Tom

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