Letting Go of Sugar

Link to the video above on YouTube. Link to the lyrics for the song "Now I Know."

An official designation that something is "addictive" is a very political matter. But the addictive, or at least psychotropic, quality of sugar is indicated by things like:

  • the way children's perception of their day revolves around the sugary treats they consumed,

  • the physiological and mental changes that loosen the hold of sugar after three weeks or so of avoiding it, and

  • the ease with which lyrics about romantic relationships can be reinterpreted as lyrics about sugar.

At the top, I have a video of Lari White singing "Now I Know." Try interpreting the second person pronoun "you" in these first two stanzas and refrain in the middle as referring to sugar:

I always wondered how I'd live without you
If you ever said goodbye
Would I just live in dreams about you
With tears in my eyes
Would I fall to pieces when you go
I always wondered how I'd live without you
Now I know

I'm doing alright
I'm strong enough to make it on my own
I'm not afraid of the night
I'm learning how to face it alone
I've been good at holding on
Now I'm learning to let go
I always wondered how I'd live without you
Now I know

I always wondered what I'd do without you
I found out today
I got up and made a cup of coffee
And time just slipped away
I dressed up and went out on the town
To places you'd never go
I always wondered what I'd do without you
Now I know

Let me offer some tips for escaping the thrall of sugar.

Three Weeks' Patience. The first is one I alluded to above: if you can go three weeks without eating sugar, it will get easier. It may still be hard, but sugar won't call to you quite as much. Foods that didn't taste that sweet to you before will start tasting sweet. And if you try again some of the foods you used to love, they will taste too sweet. 

What is more, if you can go three weeks without eating sugar, then if you do eat sugar again, you will be able to notice what it does to you: sugar makes you hungry. The calories-in/calories out identity is so misused in our society that I don't like to talk too much about calories. But there is one context in which I don't mind talking about calories. A key ratio for foods and beverages is the satiety to calorie ratio. If the satiety to calorie ratio is high, you will naturally want to stop eating before eating too many calories. If the satiety to calorie ratio is low, you will naturally want to eat too many calories. My experience is that sugar has a negative satiety to calorie ratio: eating sugar doesn't make you feel more full; it makes you feel hungrier, like subtraction soup in one of my favorite childhood books: The Phantom Tollbooth.  

Give Sugar Some Competition. It is hard to beat something with nothing. When you are going off sugar, especially in the first three weeks, always have with you a nonsugary treat to substitute for sugary treats you are tempted by. Unless you have an allergy, I view any kind of nut as very healthy. In a Ziploc bag, you can take nuts with you anywhere you would be tempted by a sugary treat. (See "Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That!") Besides nuts, chocolate with at least 88% cocoa (which has a little sugar but not much), good-tasting cheese, and coffee or tea (with cream if you like, but no sugar) can be a good competitor for much less healthy sugary treats. (See "Intense Dark Chocolate: A Review," "My Giant Salad" and "Eating on the Road.") At home, frozen cherries, fresh peaches or other fruit with half-and-half (but no added sugar) are excellent competition for sugary treats. If you crave carbs, plain oatmeal with half-and-half is one of the safest ways to indulge in something that seems carbolicious. (Lean away from instant oatmeal, which is likely to be more quickly digested and so have more of an insulin kick.) 

To prevent temptation before it begins, make sure to invent some very healthy, substantial dishes that you love to eat and love to make. For me it is "My Giant Salad." Also figure out some easy snacks that give you variety. One weird bit of variety for me is eating hearts of palm straight from the jar. They may not appeal to you. Find something healthy that does!

Know the Names of Sugar.  I found a useful page on the many names of sugar: "56 Most Common Names for Sugar You Should Know." Follow the rule that sugar is sugar. For example, honey, agave nectar and fruit juice count as sugar. The one exception is this: with a little poetic license, it counts as "going off sugar" even if you continue to eat whole fruit of all types. (To the extent that whole fruit is problematic because of the sugar in it, you can worry about that later, after you have successfully escaped from the clutches of all the other forms of sugar.)   

Avoid Nonsugar Sweeteners. Don't just replace sugar one for one with nonsugar sweeteners. It is a big help in going off sugar to get your sense of sweetness recalibrated. Avoiding nonsugar sweeteners is important for that to happen. I am not at zero in my consumption of nonsugar sweeteners, but they aren't a big thing in my eating patterns.

In addition to making it so that your sense of sweetness doesn't get recalibrated, the sweetness of nonsugar sweeteners can easily make you think about eating and therefore increase your appetite (the opposite of satiation). Not all of that happens consciously.

The third problem with nonsugar sweeteners is that all of the most common types have an insulin kick to them. I wish nutrition researchers had reached a consensus on the insulin kick from different kinds of nonsugar sweeteners. Based on what keto websites say, I consider erythritol and oligosaccharides the most nearly innocent nonsugar sweeteners. They are still sweet, but possibly only have a bad effect through sweetness itself. Stevia has a mixed reputation; I don't avoid it totally. 

Don't Prepare Food You Shouldn't Be Eating. My heart goes out to those who are trying to improve their own eating habits but are expected to prepare food for others who are content to eat badly. It is hard to resist eating food that you prepare if it is food that calls to you. Fortunately, people who insist on eating sugary food can usually be bought off with junk food purchased at the grocery store. Since you don't intend to eat what you are buying, make it easier for yourself to keep your resolve by buying things those you are buying for like but that you detest. Then you won't be as tempted. Similarly, if you really can't escape preparing some food you shouldn't be eating, see if you can't get away with preparing something you don't like very much. 

If You Bend the Rules, Eat the Worst Things First. I have read that, historically, the traditionally order of eating—appetizers, main course, dessert—was designed to maximize the appetite of guests at a party. One trouble with that is that if you eat a sugary dessert at the end of a meal, then you are likely to want to eat more after that. Or at a minimum, you will be able to happily get the sugary treat down when eating more of anything else would sound like too much. 

If the traditional order—appetizers, main course, dessert—encourages diners to eat as much as possible, reversing the order—dessert, main course, appetizers—should help you eat less.  An insulin kick or psychological effect from sweetness that makes you want to eat more isn't quite as harmful if the next thing you were going to do was sit down to a giant, healthy salad anyway.

Counter the Sugar Industry's Propaganda. The sugar industry likes to push two lines to divert people's attention from the harm of sugar:

  • A calorie is a calorie

  • Exercise can fully counteract any harm of sugar

Not so. Different calories are associated with dramatically different degrees of satiation. And while exercise will make you healthy, happy and smart, I don't know of any evidence that any amount of exercise below that of a competitive athlete can counteract the harm of a diet that is extremely heavy on sugar. There is some evidence that modest amounts of exercise can be protective against weight gain, but I wonder if that isn't related to exercise making people want to eat less sugar: if you are working so hard on the treadmill, are you really going to (under the conventional theory) undo all that effort by eating a lot of sugar?

One of the most effective ways to counter to the sugar industry's propaganda in your mind is to read Gary Taubes's book The Case Against SugarThis book can be an inspiration to anyone making a serious attempt to let go of sugar. I hope many of my other blog posts, flagged below, can also be helpful to those trying to go off sugar. (You might want to play "Where's Waldo?" with the word "sugar" among those links at the bottom.)

Help Us All Figure Out What Works and What Doesn't in Letting Go of Sugar by Sharing Your Experience. I would love to hear about your experiences—especially if you find going off sugar difficult. Even if I have the basic outline of the science of weight loss right in my contrarian views, the psychology and practicalities of implementing those contrarian views are still in their infancy. Hearing about problems people run into when trying to go off sugar is the only way I know to think about how to deal with those problems. And a brilliant solution you come up with might well be something I would never think of myself in a million years. So let us know about your experiences trying to go off sugar.  


Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Other Health Issues

VII. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography. I defend the ability of economists like me to make a contribution to understanding diet and health in “On the Epistemology of Diet and Health: Miles Refuses to `Stay in His Lane’.”