Tuesday, January 26th, 2010...9:21 AM

Ethan Moore’s Food Story: A Sugar Monkey on My Back

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Sugar, high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose: whatever your favorite delivery system is, refined sugars are wreaking havoc on our health. Sugar addiction is real, and its effects have severe health consequences.

Writer Ethan Moore follows up on his review of “Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days” for Libra Fitness by telling us about his own food story, especially his current struggle with sugar consumption. Let us know if you identify with Ethan’s story by commenting below.

Check out Ethan’s blog: Ethan’s Essays: Reflections on Life (Often Through a Funhouse Mirror). (While Ethan’s articles cover a range of subjects, many humorous, his blog does have one series of health related articles. Ethan is in fact soliciting reader input for this series.) You can also follow Ethan on Facebook or contact him via ethan@vesperfire.com.


I am not diabetic, but I do have three components of the Metabolic Syndrome, which is a frequent precursor to type-2 diabetes. My father had similar issues and eventually did develop type-2 diabetes. I am clearly at very high risk for becoming diabetic myself. I have become determined not to let that happen.

I became a Coca-Cola addict when very young; young enough that I can’t recall how and when that began. My mom did her best to limit my consumption, but I became extremely adept at circumventing that. I now know that I was using the caffeine to self-medicate for my mild Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The sugar came along for the ride, promoting the development of a gigantic sweet tooth. (This was well before the introduction of Diet Coke in 1982, and I can’t stand artificial sweeteners anyway).

Unfortunately, my mom committed many horrible crimes against perfectly innocent vegetables in the kitchen when I was growing up. OK, I exaggerate, but I certainly never developed any appreciation for vegetables and rarely included them in my diet when I started cooking for myself in my early teens. I got away with a high carbohydrate and high junk food diet throughout my teens and through college due to a high metabolism and high activity levels.

I gained a modest amount of weight quickly after college though. When I began seeing a new doctor in my late 20s, he found my triglycerides were astoundingly bad, with poor cholesterol levels too. I improved them a great deal with medications, but for over a decade they have remained borderline at best. During a period of higher alcohol consumption four years ago, I gained enough weight to cross the line into the Metabolic Syndrome (by most definitions).

(Amazingly, my doctor never told me of the clear correlation between alcohol consumption and high triglycerides. It has since become clear that alcohol changes my metabolism such that it induces much more weight gain than its calories alone would predict.)

For many years, doctors and dietitians have stressed limiting intake of fats to deal with high cholesterol and triglycerides. That is still the conventional wisdom. But limiting my fat consumption only led to modest improvements. No one ever suggested to me that high sugar intake by itself could raise those levels, especially triglycerides. I remember one period when I worked out a lot, tried to eat low fat, and lost about fifteen pounds, only to have my next blood test show no change in triglycerides at all (though my cholesterol was better). Now I realize that it was probably because I had started drinking Coke again and had more than doubled my sugar intake. Thus sugar has moved onto my radar, becoming my primary target.

I also want to lose weight, of course. I don’t like looking in the mirror and wondering who the person with the fat face is. That’s always been my personal threshold for weight and appearance; when someone’s face becomes fat, they become much less physically attractive to me. With the last round of weight gain, I crossed that line myself. Though I have lost weight before despite my sugar consumption, losing weight would clearly be much easier if I could curtail it.

I had to deal with many other issues before I could tackle my excessive sugar consumption. Because I got my caffeine from sweetened colas (and don’t care for coffee), the dragon of caffeine addiction had to be slain first. That is a huge story all its own, but it has now been over eight months since I last had caffeine.

I also have a mild hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormones) that was incompletely treated by the standard medical approach; I finally learned enough to realize that and get more complete treatment just late last summer. (Again, a story all its own.) I also discovered I was vitamin-D deficient (which is quite common) and have addressed that. Only after my metabolism and energy levels were addressed could I wage a battle with sugar.

I didn’t really think of it in those dramatic terms though. Last summer, I didn’t realize how big a problem sugar itself was for me. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I didn’t think my hands would start trembling during the third day of an attempt to go a week without sweets. (No, it wasn’t low blood sugar. I had just eaten half a pizza.) Sometimes, you can’t know the strength of the enemy until the battle is joined.

That episode re-framed the issue. Before, I wouldn’t have used the language of addiction to characterize it. Going brief periods without sweets let me see how they can affect me: how eating one cookie often spurs cravings that lead me to eat two more cookies, which lead in turn to still greater cravings in a cycle that echoes my struggle with caffeine. Many of the same psychological demons arise as well. The similarities let me draw strength from my successes with caffeine. As one wise friend said, “You know you have won such a fight before.”

Since I just can’t bring myself to cut sweets from my diet indefinitely, I’ve been waging my latest effort, begun in late December, in a series of what I call “junk food fasts”. (My definition of junk food is personalized to my particular food issues, but it basically means sweets plus drive-through fast food.) I first tried to go three days without junk food, then allowed them for three days. I managed that, though it was hard, so I tried to go seven days without junk food, followed by two days of indulgence. The second junk food fast was actually easier than the first, despite being longer, and I overdid it less afterward. The third, ten day junk food fast was easier still, especially towards the end. I allowed myself just one day of indulgence, which was actually rather controlled at first. But the spiral of cravings was clearly starting to kick in again before the end.

I’m now trying to settle into a repeating pattern of thirteen days off junk food, with one day of indulgence, which I’ll try to keep restrained. I’m currently in day five of the latest round. I’m actually struggling a bit more now, mostly because I haven’t had time to replenish my healthier food staples recently, leading to the temptation to grab quick and easy junk food. Time will tell if this is an effective strategy for me or not. I’ll post progress updates on my blog, using the tag “LF Follow-up”.

My approach clearly would not be effective for everyone. Some people have encouraged me to learn moderation instead, warning me that deprivation can only lead to greater binges. This is certainly the conventional wisdom regarding dieting. So far I’ve found the opposite. The fast breaks the pattern of abuse, so I can be moderate right at first. Only later does the downward spiral of cravings and over-eating begin. I hope I can learn moderation someday, but right now I cannot sustain it. (Chris recently posted an interesting link on Libra Fitness’s Facebook Page to an article contrasting “Abstainers” and “Moderators”. No question whatsoever: I’m an abstainer.)

(One friend argued that this strategy encourages an obsession with food rather than a healthy attitude. I see her point, but wouldn’t it be better still not to view being restricted to “as much as I want from a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and mostly lean meats” as a “deprivation”? I know people who can’t eat so bountifully because of severe food sensitivities; I should be glad all I have is an out of control sweet tooth.)

I think the key point is that I am not dealing with an addiction to food in general, but sugar in particular. That’s not a trivial distinction, at least in my case. I don’t binge on anything but sweets. I would eat an entire package of cookies, never an entire loaf of bread. And (once again) contrary to the conventional wisdom, I’ve found that high glycemic index starches (e.g., white bread, white rice, pasta) neither provoke nor satisfy my sugar cravings.

I haven’t discarded all conventional wisdom though. Increasing my consumption of protein, which dampens swings in blood sugar level, does significantly ease my sugar cravings. Thus having a lot of healthy pre-prepared high protein snacks and breakfast foods is essential. I’ve been hard-boiling a lot of organic, omega-3 rich eggs recently. (It is amazing how much better they taste than standard grocery store eggs.)

I have been slowly improving my eating in other ways too over the last six months, by moving as much as possible to organic foods, by increasing my consumption of fruit and vegetables, and by substituting lower glycemic index grains for higher ones. For example, I used to eat Mexican rice, from a frozen brand, as a filler in many meals at home; now I am experimenting with recipes for Mexican Quinoa instead, made with fresh organic vegetables. (I’ll post a recipe on my blog when I’ve finished revising it, and we’ll create a direct link from here when I do.) Even the sweets I eat are better: I now overeat home baked cookies made with all organic ingredients instead of store bought cookies filled with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. The main issue in the rest of my diet is money and time. You must invest a bit more of both to eat well.

I’ve had one other key tool for enduring cravings and temptation. If you read through my blog, you’ll quickly realize that I tend to view the world through a lens of humor. I deal with life through absurdity and exaggeration. If sugar is going to be a big, noisy monkey on my back right now, then I’m going to play “Mock the Monkey”. I can’t hear his protests when I’m laughing at him. It’s probably given my Facebook friends a very distorted picture of this struggle, since I’ve posted many exaggerated stories and comments there, but it let me cope without surrendering.

While doing that, I played around with the lyrics to the George Michael song “Monkey” and accidentally came across something more profound than funny. I inverted a pronoun and got: “Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I set my monkey free? Always giving into it: Do I love my monkey or do I love me?” Good question. So far, so good, but the final answer is still to come.

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9 Comments

  • What an absolute pleasure to read this food story! Thank you!

  • [...] wrote a pair of guest blog posts for Chris Heidel at Libra Fitness. The second was published [...]

  • Brigitte Morgan-Styers
    January 26th, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    Great article! I too have found that increasing my protein intake helps with sugar cravings, and it also helps with my carb cravings. Mr. Moore is right about the eggs, too; the super omega-3 eggs taste so much better than the regular grocery store eggs. (Now I’ve got that George Michael song in my head.)

  • Well said Mr. Moore!

  • How strict are you on the sugar? I’d have a tough time cutting out soup base and sweetened salad dressings–could maybe ditch the soymilk if I shopped every other day.

  • You can definitely ditch sugar in salad dressings. I only use olive oil and balsamic vinegar (most restaurants can bring this to you). For soups, I use vegetable broth that has only about 1 g sugar. I never add extra sugar to soups. As far as how strict to be, I think the key is to avoid eating foods with ADDED sugar (typically packaged foods), except for special occasions. Don’t keep that stuff in the house. Save cakes, cookies, white toast, cokes, etc. for parties or when you visit friends.

  • Brigitte, Michelle: Feel free to call me Ethan. (And if you really want to be formal, I do have a Ph.D., so Dr. Moore would be appropriate. ;) )

    Jenny: My list of “junk foods” is actually very specific, and narrower than some people might expect. Briefly, my definition includes:

    - Sweets, meaning anything whose dominant taste is sweet, except for fruit (though I do try to stick to the lower glycemic index fruits)

    - A few other idiosyncratic foods that I tend to consume along with excessive sweets (and are mostly very unhealthy): Cheetos, Pringles, Slim Jims, Ritz crackers

    - “Drive thru” fast food, e.g. McDonalds, Wendy’s. A cousin told me they’d once read “Never eat anything handed to you through a window.” Good advice. I include this not because it induces over-consumption directly, but because the “eat on the fly” mentality that goes with it makes giving in to sweets much easier. (And of course, they aren’t very healthy either.)

    Thus during my “junk food fasts”, I can still eat a number of items other people might call junk, including most potato chips, tortilla chips, and pizza. These aren’t sweet, so they don’t induce the spiral of cravings that leads me to binge.

    I have not been monitoring the sugar content of any food at all. I think in my case, the dominant factors are psychological and neurochemical. I do distinguish those two, despite their obvious overlap. By psychological, I am referring to using sweets as a comfort under stress. By neurochemical, I mean the sensation-reward pathways induced by the taste of sweets, which become trained by excess over time to respond abnormally. The latter were turned askew by the former, but they have persisted even as I’ve conquered my inner demons. And I experience them as a physical craving, not a psychological desire. That can sometimes be a very subtle distinction, but I think I’ve become adept enough at self-examination to make it.

    Digestive and blood chemistry seem secondary for me; if they weren’t, I probably would have to watch every last gram of sugar in everything. In that case, I would also have to avoid simple starches, because their effect on those systems is essentially identical. (The breakdown of simple starches to sugars begins even during chewing and proceeds extremely rapidly in the stomach.) The effect of blood sugar levels on my cravings is not negligible, otherwise protein wouldn’t help curtail them, but it doesn’t dominate them.

    I think a lot of literature on sugar addiction ignores the physiological sensations caused by maltrained, skewed neurochemistry that I’m describing here, classifying the issue as either one of psychology or of blood sugar.

    It may well be that my experience of sugar addiction is atypical, which explains why I’ve been able to disregard some nuggets of conventional wisdom (e.g., that simple starches will affect cravings essentially identically to sugar). Or maybe sugar addictions come in two types: one controlled by the entire body’s perception (via blood sugar) of sugar intake, the other controlled by the effects of the perception of sweetness. I’m sort of making this up on the fly here as I think about it, but this might explain a number of conflicting information I’ve read regarding sugar addiction. (In that model, I actually might be able to eat a fair amount of sugar without inducing a binge, as long as it didn’t taste sweet.)

  • Some additional self-promotion: The article (and comment) above are the real story of my struggle with sugar. If you want to hear the unreal story, check out: http://vesperfire.com/essays/2010-01/26-comedy-debut/

  • [...] I mentioned in my article for Libra Fitness about controlling my sugar intake, protein is important for maintaining steady blood sugar levels to reduce sugar cravings. [...]

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