Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kicking the sugar habit

I mentioned in a recent post that scientists now think sugar affects your brain a little like cocaine -- in other words, it's addictive.  I don't know anything about the chemistry of controlled substances, but I can testify from my own past how difficult it can be to break a sugar habit.

When I was a teenager I started to drink tea and coffee because it seemed like the grown-up thing to do, and didn't like either one very much so I added sugar.  After a couple of years I realized I didn't like coffee even with sugar, so I quit drinking that, but the tea became my favorite drink. 

After a decade or so I decided that it might be a good idea to cut back on the sugar.  I seem to recall doing it gradually, and that it took a long time to get down to zero, but I hung in there, and am glad I did.  Today tea is one of my most comforting pleasures, and it's great to be able to down cups and cups of it without worrying about calories.

Similarly, I decided decades ago that I wasn't going to put syrup on pancakes or waffles.  I had always done this reflexively, just because that seemed to be the way everybody ate them.  But as I was tied to the stove making pancakes while everybody else was at the table eating, I would frequently eat one straight from the pan (without benefit of syrup, because the syrup was on the table) and decided they tasted better that way.  This habit was easy to break because pancakes weren't an everyday occurrence.

But my lifelong relationship with soft drinks is another story.  I never drank diet sodas, just industrial-strength.

At several times during my work life, I got into the bad habit of a sugar fix in the middle of the afternoon -- every afternoon!  It was good to take a three-minute break, leave my desk, go get a Coke from the machine, and come back to the delicious fizz of the first mouthful. The sugar/caffeine lift was great.  But occasionally I would decide to stop -- probably more for economic than health reasons.  I was amazed and chagrined at how hard that would be. 

I really did have some kind of withdrawal symptoms, whether entirely from brain chemistry or partly from the simple difficulty of breaking any habit.  (Interestingly enough, I never had those symptoms at home on a Sunday afternoon, only at the office.)  The symptoms would pass, of course, and I would be daily-Coke-free for months or years. But I often relapsed and got back into the same bad habit.

A similar problem came up sometimes when a co-worker would keep candy available on his desk for all comers, or when I decided it would be a good idea to keep candy in my own bottom drawer.  It was so easy to get into the habit of that afternoon sugar, and so hard to break it.

In my experience, it was easier to give up sugar entirely in a particular context, such as sugar in my tea, than to cut back the chronic/scheduled sugar.  I don't think this was so much a physical addiction as a very strong habit.  I could drink the occasional Coke with lunch or as a snack, or eat candy now and then, without problems.  But the combination of sugar plus a regular time and place was stronger than I could deal with.

I think a lot of America's self-destructive love affair with sugar has this element of habit.  People probably think twice about having a piece of pie for dessert, but they will stop every morning at the coffee shop and always get a muffin, or always drink Coke at lunch.  They place their orders automatically, without considering whether they really want ten teaspoons of sugar.

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