Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Balance: or, Why I'm Not Eating Sugar

This year I'm doing a balancing act.
It's my one resolution for the year:

Find My Balance

It's so much simpler than my standard resolutions of "go to the gym everyday" or "don't say anything negative." Because we both know those won't happen. I mean, it's okay to admit it. 
I embrace my flaws. 

 I am happiest when I feel balanced. So, this year I seek to find the balance both internally and externally that suits me and my life. I've already been jotting down in my journal the ways I hope to achieve this, but plan to add more as I go. It's a trial and error sort of thing. But I'm not allowing myself to feel stressed about it. That would throw me off balance.

At the moment, I'm working on a few different things to find a balance that works for me. But the main thing I'm focusing on is sugar. 

If you know me, you know I have a tremendous sweet tooth. Chocolate is my drug of choice. But I'll also (happily) settle for cake, cookies, ice cream and anything else with the main ingredient of sugar. Lately, I've recently been reading about the dangers of being "skinny fat," or having a normal BMI but a large percentage of body fat. Although I'm petite with a normal BMI, my body fat is elevated (as is my cholesterol). The majority of my excess fat is stored (like most women) around my core. The problem is, fat stored in the stomach is both subcutaneous (under the skin) and, more dangerously, visceral (around your organs). Visceral fat dramatically increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. Since MW and I eat pretty healthily, it was obvious that my culprit was my habit of sugary treats.

I started reading about the way our bodies react to sugar. There are a number of authors writing about the topic, so if you're looking to read into it you can check out David Gillespie's Sweet Poison. There was also a NY Times article titled (and found here) Is Sugar Toxic? There are also plenty of diet books out there, but the article and excerpts I've read from Sweet Poison have done a great job of explaining our bodies on sugar. I've also been following an Aussie blogger and ebook author named Sarah Wilson, who quit sugar after having several prolonged health problems.

Due to the previously limited supply of sugar (as an energy source) to our ancestors, it seems that we have no "cut off" valve for our sugar cravings. Unlike with fat, we can gorge ourselves silly on dessert. Ever wonder how you can still fit in that chocolate after a full meal? We're hardwired to do it. But now that we're no longer running from large predators and hunting our food, we don't need to immediately use that energy, so it gets stored. It's becoming more apparent that the sugar storage occurs largely around our organs, as we see sugar intake increase and higher rates of disease and illness associated with visceral fat.

The American Heart Association recently estimated that the average American eats 22 teaspoons (or 355 calories) of sugar every day. Teens are eating nearly 34 teaspoons. The daily recommendation is no more than 6 teaspoons! Honestly, I think 22 is a low estimate, considering the amount of fast food we're eating, condiments we're using, and gigantic drinks we're slurping.  It's appalling, really, to think about how much sugar you are ingesting (often unknowingly) in a day.

Initially, I cut out "obvious sweets." No brownies or candy bars or after dinner ice cream. It was definitely harder than I expected. I work in an office where there is an endless supply of sweet treats, especially when we have baby/bridal/going away showers on the regular. I admit that I sat on our couch one night for a full hour thinking about how badly I wanted a bowl of ice cream. Eventually I caved. And I savored. And then the next day I went back to trying, without being mad at myself for giving in. And yes, it was worth it.

Now I'm on my fourth week and although it's getting easier, I still get cravings (especially during my mid day slump, or on slow, rainy, groggy days like today). But I'm continuing to educate myself about the amount of sugar in our foods and continuing to cut back. Although we try to eat a lot of fresh produce, lean meats, and whole grains, sugar seems to slip its way into the pantry in surprising ways. I'm much more cognizant of the sugar content before I buy food. I've stopped eating cereals because they have so much sugar. It's hard to find sandwich bread with an acceptable amount of sugar (I'm aiming for products with 4-6g of sugar per 100g, or less if possible), which is hard since I typically pack a sandwich for lunch.

I'm (loosely) following a Quit Sugar plan from Sarah Wilson's ebook merely as a guide for my own sugar free journey. It helps to know the tips that worked for someone else. Unlike Sarah's plan, I am continuing to eat fruit (which does have fructose). I don't think we should go so far as to completely eliminate a plant from our diet, but I have pared myself down to 2 servings a day. Normally, I could (and would) eat 3-5 servings a day without thinking twice. Fruit was my healthy candy- a way to eat sweets without feeling guilty. So instead, I'm using it as a way to add a little flavor to oatmeal and yogurt, or have a small 'sweet' with my lunch, so the craving won't hit later and beg me to visit the vending machine. I've also found that drinking tea has helped my cravings. Thanks to Mama MW and sisters, I have plenty to keep me balanced and have started keeping some at work for times when the snack room beckons me.

I feel the need to confess, however, that I am continuing to drink beer. Since craft beers are an immensely enjoyable part of our lives, I've left them in (I usually only drink one anyway). If I later decide to eliminate them, then I will certainly do so. But for now I'm content and balanced with leaving them in my diet. 

I'm more than happy to keep you updated on how it's going. I'm interested in trying some sugar free recipes (including a chocolate coconut ball recipe I recently found!). You may think I'm crazy, but honestly I've noticed differences in my energy levels. Instead of spiking and dropping, I'm pretty even keeled. I've been able to wake up at 5am three days a week to go running without much difficulty and am even starting to wake early on non-running days, before my alarm goes off. I previously had moments where I started getting shaky and weak combined with heart palpitations that I usually blamed on going too long without food. But it would happen after 3 hours, and eating sugar immediately helped. Now I eat at regular intervals, and I don't hesitate to have a balanced (sugar free) snack later in the day if I start to feel hungry, but I rarely feel as sick as I did before. 

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