When I found out my husband was a Faithless Bastard after three decades of marriage, it was sugar, beautiful sugar, that pulled me through.
I felt sad all the time, but an entire container of Talenti gelato made me feel instantly better, and conveniently replaced my need for love and sex. “You deserve this,” it comforted me. I could feel it cocooning me in its chocolatey, coconutty love.
When I couldn’t sleep and dragged through the next day, I could hear the 42 grams of sugar in a Starbucks grande chai tea latte calling my name as I drove by the store. “Diana, you will never get through the day, so you NEED this,” it helpfully whispered. “It’s the only way you will survive. “ Like the Wizard of Oz exposed behind the curtain, it told me, “Do NOT pay attention to the 13 teaspoons of added sugar.”
I am a born nurturer and I never felt like cooking just for myself—I guess I didn’t think I was worth it– so I grabbed whatever made me instantly feel better. On a good night, a single baked potato and a glass of red wine felt like a reasonable dinner. On a bad night, it was a whole package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. An addiction born of grief had turned me into some kind of Sugar Sociopath—I rationalized every bad nutritional decision I made.
I eventually started eating fairly well again, but I quickly discovered my ex-husband wasn’t the only devil in my life. It wasn’t as easy to shake this new love affair as I thought. The Sugar Sociopath in me kept coming up with reasons it was OK to indulge just this one time. I was like a walking cliché—I was always planning to go cold turkey on sugar TOMORROW.
Five years later, my blood tests were teetering on the edge of pre-diabetic levels, and my tummy had ballooned to alarming proportions. My skin looked older, and I could take a nap at any time. My depression wasn’t completely lifting, and I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I used to. I constantly made promises to myself that I would stop, but deadlines came and went. Like a woman with a married lover, I wasn’t ready to cut sugar out of my life, even though I knew it absolutely had to be done. I felt like Jake Gyllenhaal when he tragically said to Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
I have a lot of company, because we are a nation of sugar addicts. According to the American Heart Association, the average American adult eats 22 teaspoons of refined sugar every day, and teens eat a whopping 34 teaspoons. Because of that, nearly 1 in 4 teens are pre-diabetic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC). Turns out, scientists are finding that sugar is even more addictive than cocaine, causing huge changes in the brain that make us want more, more, more. When rats hooked on IV cocaine were given the choice of sugar, 94 percent switched to the other white stuff, giving up sleep, food, and everything else to get more, reports Dr. James DiNolantinio, a Missouri cardiovascular research scientist who reviewed dozens of studies on the subject.
Sugar creates an appetite for itself by a hormonal cycle you cannot break by willpower alone, anymore than you could stop being thirsty by sheer strength of character, explained Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco who believes sugar is one of the most toxic ingredients in the Western diet. Experts now believe it is a risk factor in most major diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia.
When I decided to make a serious attempt to quit sugar, I thought it would be enough to just stop eating the obvious sources—ice cream, cookies, my beloved Starbucks chai tea lattes. I didn’t want to become one of those annoying anal-retentive label-readers.
But then I read about Damon Gameau, an Australian filmmaker who ate a clean diet for 3 years for the love of a healthy woman, and then ate 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for a documentary, all from nothing but hidden sugars in things like barbecue and hoison sauce, low fat yogurt, cereals and bars, sports drinks, juices and condiments. That amount of sugar is what many people eat every day. None of the sugar came from obvious sources. In just 18 days, he developed non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). By the end of his two month experiment he had also developed pre-diabetes, showed signs of heart disease risk factors , accumulated an extra 4 inches of visceral fat around his belly, and noticed an enormous impact on his mood and cognitive function. “That Sugar Film” was the result of his experiment.
Virtually unknown before 1980, NAFLD now affects 30 to 40 percent of Americans, and almost all of people who are diabetic or obese—and incredibly, experts are now saying it’s coming from sugar and starches, not fat. It turns out fructose, which has been added to many processed foods, is not processed by the liver the same as glucose, the sugar in fruits and vegetables that every cell in the body can break down for energy. Fructose is largely processed in the liver, and it turns into fat that is stored there, looking a lot like what happens in the livers of people who drink too much alcohol. In fact, Lustig calls fructose “alcohol without the buzz,” and he warns it is a toxin that will be the death of us.
Experts are at odds over just how dangerous NAFLD really is—some say it does not cause the liver cell damage that alcohol does, and others warn it may be just as dangerous. “The increased fat production that occurs when we consume copious amounts of sugar explains why these simple carbohydrates, especially fructose, can become the primary cause of liver disease and the leading cause of liver transplants across the nation,” warns Dr. Mark Hyman of the Cleveland Clinic, who wrote “The Blood Sugar Solution.”
Regardless, I don’t want a liver that is paved with fat. I want a liver that is working hard to get rid of all the toxins in everyday life, a liver that will keep me healthy and younger-looking for a long time.
Because I had failed so many times before at beating my sugar addiction, I decided to try a detox diet by Dr. Alejandro Junger, a cardiologist who got sick while doing his internship at NYU and ended up spending a year learning Ayurveda and other ancient practices in India at a meditation school while trying to heal himself. I knew I needed to completely reset my body if I wanted to break this addiction.
The diet cuts out refined sugar, grains, dairy, and processed food for three weeks. It calls for only one solid meal daily at lunchtime—usually fish, chicken or turkey with lots of veggies—and two liquid meals a day, usually a nutrient-packed smoothie or a homemade soup. My favorite is a soup recipe that includes 6 cups of mushrooms, an onion, a zucchini, a head of cauliflower and fresh garlic, sautéed and then pureed in a blender. It comes out looking like wet cement, but it is so life-giving that I crave it. There must be a metaphor for life somewhere in there, or at least online dating.
The idea of the diet is to get the body’s natural detoxification systems working again—systems that are severely overloaded by the toxins of modern life. Junger makes the point that our ancient forefathers were hunter-gatherers who went hungry for long periods, and humans evolved to need empty bellies to switch on those detox systems and liberate the body of waste products trapped inside. Our intestines, he says, did not evolve to process refined sugar, wheat, dairy, eggs, corn and soy in mass quantities, and toxicity damages our intestines first. He claims that by the third week of this diet, the aging process starts to reverse because the liver starts working better, which really got my attention. So did this sentence in his book, called Clean: “No wild animal eats for fun, or out of sadness.” That is exactly what I did for years. It’s helpful to know it isn’t natural.
This sentence resonated, too: “If you do nothing more in your life than to start eating lighter in the evening and leave 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, you will have more energy and improve your health.” Junger says people who live long healthy lives eat a lot of raw vegetables, spend time in the sun, move a lot, enjoy rich food and wine only occasionally, and have strong family bonds and treasured friendships.
It all makes sense to me. I am about to begin the third week of the diet, and I already feel I have broken my sugar addiction. My seasonal allergies, which Junger says are a sign of a toxic system, are almost completely gone. My legs, which have been swollen for years, are becoming slim again, and my belly is slowly un-puffing. Research shows that high blood sugar harms skin by making less collagen, and I could swear mine already looks less wrinkly and saggy. My cravings are gone, my mood is better, and I’m feeling less tired.
“By the third week, you are going to have crazy energy,” said my friend Kirsten Lynch, who followed the diet a few years ago and still eats healthfully. .Junger said he’s seen patients look and feel ten years younger after just three weeks. “The body’s ability to heal itself is amazing,” Junger said.
If you want to try to beat your sugar addiction, you don’t have to necessarily take the steps I did. But here are some handy tips distilled from Dr. Hyman’s blog on how to detox from sugar in 10 days, plus my own thoughts from my research:
- Make a decision to go cold turkey on sugar right now. Don’t wait until the time is right, because it never will be. I made my decision without considering my son’s birthday, Mother’s Day, a wedding, and several planned outings during my 3-week detox. I made it work. Once you decide you aren’t going to make exceptions, you get your mind right, and you just do it. As Dr. Hyman says, there is no way to handle a true physiological addiction except to stop it completely. “Addicts can’t have just one line of cocaine or just one drink.” Quitting completely for a set period will reset your body’s neurotransmitters and hormones. Hyman, like Junger, recommends also cutting out all flour products, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and all grains for the same time period.
- Don’t drink your sugar. Any form of liquid sugar is worse than solid food with sugar or flour, because you are mainlining sugar directly to your liver. It also turns off the fat storage machine in your liver, leading to belly fat. You don’t feel full, so you eat more all day and crave more sugar. It’s also the single biggest source of sugar calories in our American diet. Hyman claims one can of soda a day increases a woman’s chance of getting diabetes by 80 percent!
- Eating a good quality protein at every meal is the key to balancing blood sugar and insulin and cutting cravings. Eat nuts, seeds, fish, chicken, turkey or grass-fed meat at every meal– or if you’re vegetarian, beans, lentils, avocados or nut butters in addition to seeds and nuts. Did you know avocados contain all 8 essential amino acids and more protein than an equal measure of cow’s milk?
- Eat as many non-starchy veggies as you can, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, zucchini, fennel, eggplant, artichokes, cabbage, brussels sprouts, arugula, watercress , onions, and peppers. Eat a wide array of these liver-repairing super foods and you will supercharge your results.
- Fight sugar with healthy fat. Avocados, healthy fat from fish and fish oil, coconut butter, extra virgin olive oil, macadamia nut oil, grass-fed butter or ghee, and nuts and seeds all balance your blood sugar and combat sugar damage.
- Be ready for food emergencies. Hyman’s contains proteins, good fats, and good snacks, so he never has to make a bad choice. He carries packets of nut butters, coconut butter, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, salmon jerky, a can of wild salmon and sardines, and wild blueberries.
- Before every meal, and whenever you feel stressed, take five slow deep breaths—in to the count of five, out to the count of five. Deep breaths activate a nerve called the vagus nerve, which shifts your metabolism from fat storage to fat burning, and quickly moves you out of a stressed state that can cause a belly fat hormone called cortisol to go haywire.
- We often crave the foods we are allergic to, so both Hyman and Junger recommend quitting gluten and dairy – Hyman says 10 days, Junger three weeks. That’s because the most common sources of inflammatory foods—other than sugar, flour and trans fats—are hidden food sensitivities, and dairy and gluten are the most common. Even whole grain flours increase blood sugar levels, Dr. Hyman says, stressing your liver and resulting in the high triglycerides that promote a fatty liver. After just a few days, both Junger and Hyman say you may see relief from common symptoms and have renewed energy and feel released from cravings. It definitely worked for me.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation drives sugar cravings by affecting hunger hormones. You want more energy if you don’t sleep, so you go for quickly-absorbed sugars.
- Drink at least two quarts of water a day. I aim for a gallon, because that’s what other experts have said. Junger says the aim is to pee every hour. It’s good for the detox process. Flavoring with fresh lemon juice is even better.
- Keep moving. According to the American Diabetes Association, it has long been established that exercise helps the body process insulin better. I have been too tired to do any exercise except long walks and bike riding during this intense detox, but routine, daily exercise improves insulin resistance and reduces fatty liver.
Now that I know a sugary diet pretty much guarantees saggy, wrinkly skin and lots of belly fat, that yummy Talenti gelato and those delicious Pepperidge Farm cookies are a lot easier to resist. If Starbucks chai teas start calling my name again, I’m going to yell impudently back. I’m trying to think of a clever retort right now.