Friday, January 1, 2010

Sugar Rush

Happy New Year! I thought you would enjoy this article on eating sweets. Reducing my chocolate and cookie (and brownie) intake is a New Year's Resolution of mine!!! -L

I've never smoked cigarettes, I've never smoked pot, I've never had a drink. But I definitely have a substance-abuse problem.

by Megan Seling
Illustration by Jessixa Bagley

From The Stranger

It was about 20 minutes after midnight, and I had been weaving through the streets of Redmond, Washington, for at least an hour—driving, turning, looking for the freeway. I really should've been home by now, but after seeing a few friends' bands play at the Old Fire House on a Friday night, I got lost. Confusing streets, unfamiliar town. I ended up somewhere that may or may not have been Canada. It's hard to say. I took a lot of wrong turns.

After stopping off at a Safeway for directions and a Diet Coke, I got back in the car and kept driving, listening to the same song over and over again on my car's stereo, and then I mindlessly reached over to the passenger seat and scooped a glob of coconut-flecked frosting off the side of a Pepperidge Farm Coconut 3-Layer Cake with two fingers. I don't even know why I bought that goddamn cake. I suppose I needed something to go with my Diet Coke.

The frosting was still frozen—nearly inedible. The box said to thaw the cake in the fridge at least three hours before serving, but I didn't feel like waiting. I also didn't have a fridge in my car. So I set the cake on the floor of my Nissan Altima, blasted the heat, and waited impatiently for about 10 minutes. That would have to do.

The frosting on the outside had started to get warm and soft, sparkling with little pearls of condensation as it thawed, but the dense vanilla cake on the inside was still icy cold. I kept eating it anyway, fingerful after fingerful, as I finally started to find my way back home.

By the time I arrived back in Seattle, my car's steering wheel had a sticky film on it, and there was barely a quarter of the cake left. I took the rest of the cake inside and tossed it on the kitchen counter and crawled into bed.

The next morning, aside from feeling physically ill, I also mentally felt like utter shit. I honestly had no idea where all the cake had gone—I knew it was in my stomach, pumping sugar and saturated fat through my veins, but I didn't realize, until facing it the next day, just how much of the pale white mound I had managed to destroy during one single, lonely car ride from the Eastside.

Consider this: There are eight servings in one of the Pepperidge Farm cakes that I ate and 25 grams of sugar in each serving. That's about two tablespoons of sugar. I ate nearly six of the eight servings, so that means I ate about 12 tablespoons of sugar in maybe a half hour. Go to your kitchen and measure out 12 tablespoons of sugar—it's nearly a cup's worth.

I'm as disgusted as you are.

That wasn't the first time something like this has happened. All my life I've loved sweets—it's in my blood. My Great-Grandma Edeen was known in her neighborhood as the Cookie Lady. My Great-Grandma Kallicott was a master at baking pies and cookies, and she always had at least one or the other in her kitchen when I'd visit as a child (no one in the world can make fig-roll cookies like she did).

Over the past couple years, my once-innocent sweet tooth has gotten stronger, more difficult to control. I think it started when the QFC by my apartment in Ballard shut down for remodeling. The closest "grocery store" was a 7-Eleven, which was just one block away. That winter, out of laziness, sometimes three or four nights a week, I would make a dinner out of pints of Ben & Jerry's or Hostess products. And you know what's really delicious? Nestle Toll House ice-cream cookie sandwiches. I'd often grab a banana, too—you know, to balance it out (and FYI, a banana's got about 12 grams of sugar in it, albeit "natural" sugar).

Then, writing about sugar somehow became part of my job description. It started with a couple Slog posts about new candy bars. Then, for an article, I taste-tested every cupcake in the city to declare the best. Later, I wrote a piece arguing for Fran's Chocolates' salted caramels to be the official state candy (after much field research, of course). And then, for a piece about the sugar craze in Seattle—the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream, Full Tilt Ice Cream, Pretty Kitty Organic Ice Cream, Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room, Fainting Goat Gelato, Peaks Frozen Custard, Old School Frozen Custard, Cupcake Royale, Trophy Cupcakes, Curio Confections, Theo Chocolate, Chocolopolis—I went to the Seattle Chocolate Salon to sample the work of dozens of different chocolatiers, including Oh! Chocolate, Intrigue, and Crave.

Every time a new ice-cream, cupcake, or candy shop opened, I'd either have to go visit it (you know, "for work") or they'd send me a batch of their product (you know, "just in case I wanted to post anything about it on Slog"). I couldn't escape it if I tried—not that I was complaining. Because I didn't know there was a problem. I didn't realize at the time that I had gained 20 pounds and become a moody mess because I was fine, so long as I created artificial happiness by starting the day with a nonfat latte (three sugars) and a piece of pumpkin bread from Cupcake Royale (they have the best pumpkin bread in the city).

When traveling to places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Nashville, I would pick up sweet treats for friends back home (Tennessee is the home of the Goo Goo Cluster, you know), but instead of saving them for their intended recipients, I would often end up, uncontrollably, eating them before the plane even landed. I'd be riddled with guilt afterward, but it didn't at all seem like a bad idea as I broke open the package. I never told Alissa I bought her that mint truffle from Fannie May anyway.

So why not just stop buying the candy? And cupcakes and ice cream and Hostess products? Well, aside from the fact that I almost can't stop myself from doing it, I'd end up making due with whatever's in the cupboards.

I've eaten plain brown sugar out of the bag—first picking out the hardened lumps, and then making my own by pressing the sticky, sandy mounds of goodness against a spoon. I've squirted tablespoons' worth of maple syrup straight into my mouth, eaten spoonful after spoonful of strawberry jelly out of the jar, licked my pointer finger and pressed it into powdered hot chocolate mix over and over again, bought bags of holiday candy promising myself I'd take it into the office the next day to share with coworkers only to end the night in an embarrassingly large pile of wrappers... It's pathetic. Really, really pathetic. Especially for me, a young woman who has spent the majority of life purposefully avoiding any chance of addiction.

I've called myself straight-edge (no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes) since I was 15 years old. I've never even had a sip of wine. I never liked the idea of being "out of control," and I never wanted to have an excuse for my actions, and even though I know you can drink a few drinks without losing control, I'm just not interested. Until one day in 2007, I would've told you I'm completely vice-free. It was then, in an attempt to feel better about myself and lose a little weight (every human being's response to being dumped), I told myself: No more sugar. What was supposed to be an easy change in diet turned into years' worth of detoxes, late-night binges, self-help books, mood swings, the first and only fight I've ever had with my current boyfriend, and the ultimate admittance that I, Megan Seling, am an addict. I'm addicted to candy.

The woman behind the counter of Interbay's Super Supplements helped me find the last thing on my checklist, a big bottle of cold-pressed omega-3 flaxseed oil (it was in the refrigerated section—who knew?). I returned to the cash register with bottle in hand and got rung up for about $100 worth of crap like corn-husk powder, liver-cleansing herbs, probiotics, vegan protein powder, and bentonite clay (exactly what it sounds like).

A few months earlier, a friend had followed this detox program, from The Detox Box by Mark Hyman, and said she felt amazing afterward. All you have to do is drink fruit smoothies, homemade vegetable broth, warm lemon water, and yes, clay, for 7 to 14 days, and it supposedly rebalances your system and, the box says, kicks sugar cravings to the curb.

Fantastic! The weekend prior I got bored and had a run-in with a dozen Cupcake Royale Babycakes and half a batch of raw cookie dough—yet another reminder to kick the sugar habit. So I went home, after stopping at Ballard Market for another $100 worth of fresh organic vegetables, bags of frozen organic fruit, and brown rice, and prepared for day one of the detox.

For the record, the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth is corn-husk powder. When you put two heaping tablespoons of it in about six ounces of water, it gets almost gel-like and chunky in consistency. Of course, that's the point—the high-fiber drink is supposed to help, you know, clear out your system. It tastes like dried-up grass and smells even worse.

I was dead set on sticking to this program, on conquering this sugar problem, disgusting fiber drink be damned. So I reluctantly took a second sip.

Gag. Cough. Heave.

And then another.

And then, when I tried to just chug it, I immediately puked it back up into my kitchen sink.

The trick, as I learned after drinking it twice a day for seven days, is to mix it with warm water and the juice of half a large lemon. The sour lemon nearly overpowers the taste. By the end of the week, I was gulping that corn-husk powder down like a champ.

I had two smoothies every day, made with the fiber of ground-up flaxseeds and plenty of frozen, organic berries; I ate steamed vegetables with a serving of brown rice for lunch and a serving of high-protein beans for dinner; I drank homemade veggie broth as a "snack" midafternoon; I even did the whole "hydration therapy" thing every morning in the shower, switching the water from hot to cold to hot to cold to hot again.

I didn't do the yoga. I don't have the patience for yoga.

But this detox wasn't so bad. It was actually kind of neat. I never wanted to see another cabbage again, but I felt good, like my friend said I would. I had energy, I felt stronger, I stood taller, I was proud that I hadn't touched so much as a doughnut hole, and I lost over five pounds (which I know isn't the most healthy thing to do in a week, but it was mostly water weight). And then the next day, day eight, as a reward to myself for lasting a week and with very little hesitation or thought at all, I ate half a lemon meringue pie from the Ballard Market.

What the fuck is wrong with me!?

In 2008, a woman named Nicole Avena published data claiming that rats can become sugar dependent. "Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential," she wrote. After analyzing four components of addiction—"bingeing," "withdrawal," "craving," and "cross-sensitization"—she compared the animals' behavior to the changes in the brain that occur with other addictive drugs. "The evidence supports the hypothesis that under certain circumstances, rats can become sugar dependent," she said. And concluded: "This may translate to some human conditions."

Avena isn't the first person to compare the physical reaction to sugar to that of stronger, more infamously addictive drugs. For decades, a growing number of doctors and scientists have believed that the physical response to sugar can, in some people, be similar to the physical response to ingesting alcohol or opiates.

In the book Potatoes Not Prozac, Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, writes, "Like alcohol, sugar causes a release of beta-endorphin. It can make you feel high. It can reduce both physical and emotional pain."

She cites a number of tests that have been done on the matter and insists that there are only seven steps required to fix the problem—to "balance a sugar sensitivity, heal depression, and come alive!"

I bought this book, and all of its promises, one night in February or March of 2009, after one of the coldest, snowiest seasons the city has seen. It sounded crazy, but after a severe lack of sunlight and a holiday season filled with pounds of baked goods, I was completely open to crazy ideas.

At home, I drew a bath and I read about the chemistry of sugar and what DesMaisons calls "sugar sensitive" people. I read stories about women just like me, women named Carrie and Diane and I think Emily, who were moody and miserable and unable to control their sugar-addled diet. And then I skipped ahead to the part where DesMaisons claims it can all be cured by eating a potato, every night, right before bed.

It can be any kind of potato, prepared anyway you want, so long as the skin is left on and you don't pair it with any food that contains protein. What the potato does, she explains in the book, is it raises your serotonin levels just like an antidepressant would. I remember antidepressants. I took those once. But I stopped (like I stupidly do) right around the same time I—holy shit, right about the same time I started eating so much sugar.

According to DesMaisons's examples, a lot of "sugar sensitive" people also become (or start out as) depressed people. And treating that depression, naturally and with a potato, could theoretically stop you from eating three-quarters of a three-layer coconut cake in 30 minutes. Or baking 80 different kinds of cookies in two months, which I've also done. Or whatever.

So that night I microwaved a plain Russet potato. I wanted to put cheese or sour cream on it, but the book said no protein, so I put a little salsa on it (which was store-bought and did contain added sugar, yes). I mushed it up on a plate, I ate it, I watched some TV, and then I went to bed.

I felt no different the next morning.

That night, I tried a different kind of a potato. DesMaisons said to experiment, so I tried a couple small white potatoes. Because they're not as dry as Russets, they're easier to eat without any toppings, so I ate them plain.

And I felt no different the next morning.

It only took four days before I abandoned the book. I didn't just abandon it—I decided that book is stupid. A potato isn't an anti-depressant or a cure to sugar cravings. It's a potato. And even if the chemistry of it, technically, does work like an antidepressant and/or may fix my sugar addiction (you know, had I stuck to it more than four days), it was much more demanding than antidepressants, which just involved popping a pill every morning.

I don't have the lifestyle for cooking myself a potato every night before bed. I'm a rock writer. I stay out late and go to shows. I have a wonderful boyfriend who often stays over, but as understanding as he is, I didn't want it to come down to "Sweetie, I really love you and I'd like to continue this make-out session, but if you could just hold on a minute while I roast up these fingerlings in a little rosemary and olive oil, that'd be really great."

Still, that stupid book did teach me something. It made me realize how the depression and the sugar are quite possibly linked. And what's a good, natural treatment for depression? Exercise. So within a week, I joined a gym, got set up with a professional trainer, and decided to quit sugar cold turkey. By day 10, I had my first and only fight with my boyfriend of nearly two years. I didn't like his tone of voice when he answered the phone, so I decided he was a cold-hearted, thoughtless jerk.

I was better off eating a potato.

After all the books, the detoxes, the Weight Watchers meetings, and the failed attempts to quit cold turkey, I absolutely believe there is a chemical component to my sugar cravings. I'm sure there are hundreds of other things that I could do to help control it, but right now, as I write this, it's almost Christmas. And the makers of Junior Mints have introduced limited-edition Junior Mints Minis—little green and red candy-coated gems that are about a third the size of regular Junior Mints and delicious. I can't stop eating them, they're so cute! And they're only around for another couple of weeks! I can't not eat the eggnog cupcakes at Cupcake Royale either. Or those classic chocolate-chip cookies at my friend's cookie party last week. And when I go to New Orleans in a few days, I'm going to have to have a beignet—I've never had a beignet before!

I know it's terrible—Stranger readers have, with nearly every article or blog post I've ever written about sugar, told me it's terrible. Society has made it clear that sugar causes obesity, causes diabetes, is the root of all evil and a number of other problems—but if that's so true, why is it fucking everywhere? You can't legally drink until you're 21. You can't legally do drugs ever. But sugar—well, sugar you can get almost anywhere for literally five cents.

So for the rest of the holidays, I'm going to keep eating it. Eight weeks ago, I started the "Couch to 5K" program, which is a nine-week program that trains you to run a 5K, even if you aren't a runner at all. Now I'm running 30 minutes a day three days a week, so I allow myself to have a treat on the days I go to the gym. You know, only if I want. And so far that's working out for me. In fact, on some gym days, I don't have candy.

I also haven't had the urge to binge on sugar—to mindlessly eat nearly an entire cake or a cupful of maple syrup—since I started the running program.

In fact, the only time I end up eating too much is when I try to stop. So, you know, maybe the best medicine, for me anyway, is to never actually stop.

Or maybe those are just the words of a true addict.

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