Last week I interviewed Mireille Guiliano, author of the New York Times bestseller French Women Don't Get Fat, about our psychological and emotional relationships with sweets.
My own book Stuck includes a chapter on what I called "bad habits," which includes not just chemical addictions but behaviors, such as overeating, that feel virtually impossible to quit. This month, while working on an article for another publication about sugar's effects on the human body, I realized yet again that regardless of how sugar affects us chemically -- although that's a big issue in itself -- most of us raised in this country are "stuck" on sweets in many ways. Usually it boils down to this: We love and crave sugar because, through a lifetime of conditioning, we know it soothes us, cheers us and celebrates special occasions. At the exact same time, also through a lifetime of conditioning, we fear and dread sugar because we know it fattens us and can lead to diabetes and heart disease, thus ruining our lives. As a former anorexic, I know this vicious cycle all too well.
All of us, eating-disordered or not, must learn to coexist with this substance -- a trigger for such good and bad feelings -- in a nation where it's virtually everywhere. The American Heart Association reported last year that the average American eats 22 teaspoons of "added sugar" -- meaning sugar that is put into foods during production or preparation by the manufacturer or consumer -- every day. (A regular can of Coke includes eight.) The AHA recommends that women cut down daily sugar consumption to only six teaspoons and men to only nine.
Guiliano's thesis is that "eating for pleasure" doesn't have to harm our health or our appearance, and that the French approach to food can teach us all.
"Is sugar really bad for us? Yes and no. It depends on what sugar we are talking about. The best and purest sugar is in fruit: Have two to three pieces a day," the author told me, "and it's good especially if you remember to eat the fruit rather than drink the juice." Even without added sweeteners, fruit juice is basically highly concentrated fructose, in quantities higher than the body can metabolize easily.
"We love sugar, particularly when it's associated with 'good fat' -- read dark chocolate, something we women crave. ... Learn to enjoy the first three bites. That's all you need. Eat slowly. Savor. The bad sugar is in sodas, cakes, cookies ... all the stuff with high-fructose corn syrup. ... It's poison," she says. "If you eat the bad stuff ... your body will go into a sugar crave that can last a few hours to a few days. So think before you eat, pay attention to how fast you eat and remember that once you start eating, your brain, not your stomach, will signal satiety. Twenty minutes is required for the stomach to feel full and since most people gulp down the sweets much faster, it wastes calories and makes you fat.
"The reason we love sweets is that we are actually programmed to love sugar; it's a question of survival."
Sugar was virtually the first thing we ate as newborns: Breast milk and formula are lactose-rich. Along with other sweet-tasting compounds such as fructose and sucrose (aka white sugar), lactose contains glucose, which is the human cells' chief source of energy.
"It's energy that's easy to use and our body loves it," Guiliano says. "Trying to eliminate it altogether is useless but we can develop a system to eat less. What should we do when we want it? Know thyself -- and learn the difference between physiological and psychological hunger. Most of the time, we eat and/or crave sugar for the wrong reasons: We're tired, stressed, unhappy, depressed, overworked, and we are actually not hungry. Develop tricks like drinking a large glass of water and waiting fifteen minutes to see if you are still 'hungry'; try a fruit or a fruit with a little protein like cheese, nuts or yogurt, or distract yourself by going for a walk, listening to music, talking to a friend, anything that will take your mind away from the craving. On the other hand, don't fool yourself and believe you can do totally without it. Most people can't. ... If you like chocolate, try a little square at the end of a meal and have dessert once in a while. The important thing is to not consider sugar as a temptation or 'guilty pleasure' as some would say -- though not a French woman. If you look at sweets that way, you'll crave them even more and give in easily. Find a balance and remember that if you have dessert tonight, then no pain au chocolat for breakfast tomorrow. It's doable with a little practice."
I also checked in with Signe Darpinian, MFT, owner of the My Weigh Family Therapy Center in Oakland, California.
She objects to the notion that eating sugar is an addiction.
"People say that loosely and automatically without realizing what it means. There is a definition of addiction, and it's not loose for me, so when sugar is put in the same category as cocaine, I don't like it." She prefers the term "behavioral addiction," because "eating large amounts of sugar does alter your physiology, but not to the point where you can't drive a car."
At workshops, Darpinian teaches intuitive eating, the practice of learning to listen to the body for signals about what it really, truly wants. And usually, she says, it doesn't want a lot of sugar and it doesn't want sugar instead of meals.
"For me to crave straight sugar when I'm hungry is an 'off' read. If I stop to think about it, what I really want is a little complementary sugar" with or after a protein-rich meal.
We become obsessive about sugar when we start viewing it as a forbidden food, Darpinian says. "You can't get a good accurate reading on what your body needs if youre forbidding it to have certain things. We crave what we think we can't have. In study after study, we've seen that the kids growing up with constant access to a drawer full of candy in their homes are the kids who feel the least tortured - and they crave it and actually eat less of it than kids growing up in houses where they're told they can't have any candy.
"Instead of forbidding it, let's equalize it. Let's take the holding power away from it. We're giving it power that it doesn't have. It's just sitting there in the cupboard. ... Instead of telling yourself, 'Whatever you do, don't have a Pop Tart, Pop Tarts are bad,' go ahead and have a Pop Tart. But then pay attention to how that feels in the moment and afterward." Instead of reacting on a purely emotional level, "make decisions about food experientially."