Let’s talk about sugar, baby
Cane sugar. Refined sugar. Processed sugar. Sucrose. Maltodextrin. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). You know, that ubiquitous charmer that leaves most of us in a tizzy. It seduces us with innumerable ravishing delights but always ends with a thump, bump, crash, full-on collision. Honestly, I’ve had such a love-hate relationship with cane sugar for over a decade, until we finally parted ways years ago. The choppy seas of emotional eating and chronic health issues including chronic pain (inflammation), anxiety and depression inspired me to take a closer look at the role processed sugar played in my life. This journey of truth, awareness and compassion left me wanting more for myself and I knew it was time to break-up with refined sugar for good.
In 1848, German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “We are what we eat.” Though he was referring to the stress and turmoil of the times of the German revolution, he was bringing to light something the ancient yogis already knew and lived by: what we eat matters! Our bodies are literally made from what we ingest: a combination of our sensory input, food and water.
According to the Kosha model in yogic philosophy, we consist of five layers. The first layer is the Annamayakosha. This is the physical body or the food body. This layer is the accumulation of food we eat, how well hydrated we are or aren’t, our quality of sleep and rest, physical movement and the five basic senses that allow us to perceive the world around us. Bodies hold cellular memory and so much wisdom within each of the trillions of cells that we’re made of. Through the miraculous process of digestion, we convert our food to energy and this energy supports our vitality or diminishes it. What we bring to this layer spreads to the other four layers. Nothing is separate. Everything is connected. So what are we filling ourselves up with?
Modern conveniences of fast and processed foods have taken us away from growing our foods, preparing homecooked meals with family and slow, steady eating with gusto and pleasure.
We are a society on the go. Rush, grab, chew, drive, compute, commute, walk, go, go, go. Push, shove, push too hard, push harder, deplete, race, achieve, strive, do, do more, go, go, go.
And sugar in those pre-made and processed foods and drinks keeps us going. Sugar is hidden in plain sight and lurks in “healthy” products like gluten free breads and baked goods. Suddenly, it’s as though we’ve become immersed in a vat of empty calories promising a nutritious alternative. I find most of the time, the gluten free products (mostly the snack and treat foods) have cane sugar listed as the main ingredient. If we want baked goods free of cane sugar or gluten, we have to bake our own bread or cakes using alternative sweeteners. Who has time for that?!
For me, this was a call for more compassionate inquiry. This was a call for the practices of yoga therapy to expand my awareness.
Through the yogic practices of Iswara Pranidhana (wholehearted devotion) and Svadhyaya (self-study), I realized that I could no longer allow this toxic sweet talker to disempower me. I’ve shared below the ways in which I empowered myself with expanded awareness and over time made different choices. Not better choices, but different ones. In order to live day-to-day in this body with reduced pain, inflammation and mood fluctuations, I needed to be honest with myself and my processed sugar habits. What I was doing wasn’t working. I needed to shift. I needed to do this for me. And starting there felt empowering already.
If today is your day and you are ready to embark on a journey of your own, whether you are as fed up as I was or just warming up to the idea, I invite you to do so with great curiosity and compassion.
Think of this as an exploration. No need for judgment. The world is hard enough, so bring in softness to this investigation, give yourself loads of positive support and time. Let the steps below take weeks or months, or maybe even a year to work through. Be easy. Be gentle. I truly understand just how complex the relationship to sweet foods can be. The greatest shift for me came through the grace of time and full acceptance of myself, just the way I am.
Step 1: Find those hidden saboteurs
Notice how much cane sugar is in your home: read labels
Look through the fridge, cupboards and pantry. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, the products contain a high amount of added sugars. And these days, sugar has at least 56 different names. And if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, chances are your body won’t know what to do with it either.
Step 2: Self-study part 1
Explore the truth of your relationship to sugar
No more hiding. Look directly at the amount of sugar you eat daily or weekly. With great kindness, keep a record of what you are eating. Note sugar content of meals, snacks, drinks, candy, cough drops or condiments. Journal it all. This helps with accountability. You may also want to note how you eat. Are you sitting and enjoying what you are eating? Are you rushing, driving, working, talking or walking? Are you giving your attention to a screen instead of your food? Are you tasting your food? Are you eating for a boost? Do you eat out of habit? What’s your mood when you eat? Do you know how much you are eating? Do you stop when you are full? Are you bored with food or excited? Do you feel nurtured and supported by the foods you eat? Are meal times regular or irregular? How is digestion? Indigestion? Keep these notes for a few weeks to a month so you can chronicle habits and repetitive patterns. Do this for you. No one will read it. Be honest and accepting of what you uncover. Going deeper: include any correlations to hormonal shifts and increased or decreased sugar intake as well.
Step 3: Self-study part 2
Notice how sugar affects your mood
Keep track of moodiness, anxiety, depression, fatigue or overall malaise. Also, for those of us with chronic illness and chronic pain, jot down any increase in symptoms or pain after eating sugar. As awareness of inner workings grow through practice, we soon get to know our own personal food-mood connection. We better understand that essence of “we are what we eat.” We always have a choice with the foods we digest and the direct affect they have on us. For me personally, I look at birthday cakes and see joint pain for days. Chocolate chips bring anger and self-loathing. Holiday sugar cookies bring a racing heart, a glycemic index spike and crash that always results in depression for me. Every time, no exceptions.
Step 4: Wholehearted devotion and action part 1
Become devoted to your practice and reduce your sugar intake
Once you make the choice to reduce your cane sugar intake, do so. Become devoted to yourself and your health. Decrease sugar intake with kindness: if you eat three sugary desserts a day, cut it down to two per day. Reduce the amount steadily over the next few months. Find a pace that works best with your schedule and cravings. Once you begin, stick with it. Write down changes you make for accountability.
If you have a day where you don’t reduce the intake and you increased it, take it lightly. Seriously. Forgive yourself. Practice Ahimsa (reverence, love and compassion for all)1. There’s no need to shame or beat yourself up; that’s not productive motivation, nor is it what we’re doing here. If you notice self-loathing or self-deprecation, ask yourself “how can I bring in reverence, love and compassion to myself in this moment?” Option to write down this contemplation in your journal. This awareness of the inner workings of the mind is where we have our power. Meditation can help.
Step 5: Wholehearted devotion and action part 2
Substitute cane sugar treats with natural sugar
Some experts say to cut out all sugars (including natural sugars) for two weeks when you are breaking your sugar addiction. I personally tried that route several times and always stumbled into the abyss of processed sugar binges. It was a slippery slope for me, especially with baking (which I love to do) during the holidays. I realized it wasn’t working. The deprivation always spoiled those sugar-free times. Denying myself and being rigid back fired over and over. So, with this new awareness, reverence and love for the hard work I was doing, I gave myself permission to enjoy sweet treats.
Instead of a savory, sugary coated donut or cookie, I would have an apple with almond butter or drink chocolate almond milk. I know the almond milk had a little bit of cane sugar, but it was far less than the donut or cookie. That was a victory; that was a shift. And most importantly, that satisfied me just enough that I wouldn’t go back. Over time, the cane sugar binge never came. And the best part was as I did this more, my taste buds changed. The last time I tried a gluten free cupcake, it didn’t taste good to me. It was too much. So I didn’t eat it. The sweet refreshment of watermelon and fruit salads soon satisfied my cravings. And nothing fills up my need for sweetness like homemade gluten-free apple muffins, sweetened with maple syrup, baked with my husband and son on a relaxed Saturday morning.
Step 6: What are you hungry for?
The deeper I went into my relationship with processed sugar, the more I contemplated what void I was trying to fill. In the moments that I craved sweets, I asked myself “what am I really hungry for?” And it wasn’t always food. So I connected inward. I aksed. I listened. I honored what I was truly craving. Most times, it was comfort. I needed to be nurtured. So I’d find ways to fill the void with something other than food. Quiet time. Spiritual reading. Taking a nap. Soaking in the bath. Wrapping myself in a blanket. Lying down. Listening to music. Creating art. Or just pausing for a moment to take three deep breaths. I let the wisdom of my heart guide me to what I truly needed to be fulfilled in those moments. I knew reaching for food to soothe the pain in my heart could never fill me up, eliminate the craving or take away the pain. This contemplation was paramount as I healed. I freely expressed in my journal what the wisdom of my heart needed to say and that shifted my relationship to sweet foods in a major way.
Step 7: Have a love affair with what you’re eating
Slow down and make eating a full sensory experience
This one may seem obvious, but it’s an invitation to use all the senses to eat. Mindful eating reminds us to look at the colors of our food. To smell our foods. To feel the foods as we chew, observing textures and mouth feel. To taste our foods and notice which flavors we have: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory. We’ll feel most satisfied when we eat meals with all flavors and a variety of textures.
Give yourself permission to cancel lunch meetings, silence your phone, be with your food and fully invite it in. Remove distractions, stressful news and endless scrolling. Eat with others and have a shared experience of nurturing your body with vitality instead of depletion. Remember that the food you’re eating now will be digested, converted to energy and become your physical body. Eating is an intimate experience! Enjoy it. Notice how slowing down and eating without distraction can bring you pleasure and even reduce acid reflux, heartburn or other digestive issues. Fill up with the sweetness of life, instead of just the sweetness of food.