Reader’s Note: This is an extended piece which may be best enjoyed in a few short reads.
Our political landscape is plagued by the disproven claim that the 2020 US Presidential Election was won by a candidate other than President Biden. In the course of two years since this election was held, we hear a lot about what people call “The Big Lie.” And it is undermining the fabric of our Nation. But there is another Big Lie saturating our culture that we are not talking enough about. It is this:
‘The reason people struggle with obesity is because they lack discipline. They should move more and eat less, and follow the Food Pyramid as recommended by the Federal Department of Agriculture in order to stay lean and healthy.’
It may be true that activities like moving more and eating less can be supportive of achieving a lower weight on the scale, and some level of discipline is surely required to accomplish that. But there are other, less obvious, more sinister dynamics at play. Our “lack of disciplined engagement” with health and well-being philosophies, theories and otherwise diets are NOT the reason we continue to struggle with being overweight.
We are not the first humans on the Earth. All through history humanity has calculated the same math and metabolism and yet they were not losing their citizens to obesity related diseases at an epidemic rate. Did they have more discipline and self-control? They didn’t have a food pyramid so how did they know the “healthy” way to eat? And why did they seem to get it right, when currently we are supersizing our collective participation in getting this so dangerously wrong?
And that is the Big Lie I am writing about today: The sole reason we struggle with obesity is lack of discipline.
This “Rooted in Connection” Blog is about sharing perspectives, looking at our lives, and everything and everyone in them, with fresh eyes. The Blog is not about reciting articles, texts, studies, data, research or science. You can, and you should access your own authoritative sources.
“Rooted in Connection” is simply about finding connection in a disconnected world. My hope is that you start your own journey into at least asking what your body has accumulated through today, to now be in it’s present state. Our physical bodies are the net result of all we have put into them, so they carry a lot of data.
I’ve been asking myself questions about the human body in one form or another for four decades. And with each daily lamenting of something I ate or didn’t, I bought into the Big Lie. It seduced me. I believed I just needed more discipline. I blamed and shamed myself silently, for always going back to sugar. In fact, the only things I recall trying to do “better” than learning to “grieve properly” were learning to diet properly; And binge eat properly; And diet again, eventually; And properly this time.
I’ve lost well over 100 pounds in my lifetime. I do not have a discipline problem. The thwarting issue is that it has been the same 15 pounds that I always gain once I am back in the arms of my reliable confidante: sugar.
On a positive note, this wavering journey I embarked on as a young girl, is finally starting to yield some clarity. At least my questions are leading me in a direction that is helping me understand my faithful but messy relationship with food. I have been a sugar lover since I can remember. If it could be melted or toasted or covered in sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, honey, syrup or any other sugar, I went for it.
My identification with ‘love of all things sweet’ is something I have clung to in my adult life. My commitment to sugar has been erratic but unflappable. I have always gone back. In return, sugar has been loyal, providing me with lots of dopamine surges and many chances to obsess about this relationship, and my own inability to leave it for good. Distractions can be a very effective coping mechanism in the short term. But long term, just like grief, our guilty pleasures await our return. They are patient. So the unhealthy distractions can eventually pick up right where they left off as soon as we unlock the door.
I knew sugar could make me obese, but I didn’t realize that eating sugary foods (or highly processed foods) on a regular basis could quite literally destroy my health, little by little. Nor, did I realize where all the sugar hiding places were (like ketchup and vitamin supplements). I just figured (as I did with my grief) it was another big bag of bullshit that I would have to carry on my back (or my hips) for my entire life.
And since this has been “just how I am” I had no real avenue to change it. I have been doing my best to manage my weight between states of sugar deprivation and sugary food binges that can last for weeks. Even in high school I recall intentionally giving up sugar for Lent, kind of a 1980s version of the “cleanse” I guess. I’ve continued that tradition as an adult. But it is always hard to abstain, and though I could succeed for the designated time period, I always went right back to sugar, my old pal. Insufficient discipline cannot be the only culprit in this public health crisis that is threatening to bankrupt our economy.
I am not at all interested in opening this topic to initiate a conversation about weight or weight loss. I am actually bringing it up because I am shocked at what I have been learning over the last couple of years about sugar in its many disguises and the havoc it is reaping on our humanity. If the words Diabetes, amputation, blindness, cardio vascular disease, dementia, stroke and cancer don’t get your attention, this post may not be for you.
My interest originates from the humongous chasm of disconnect, between research and subsequent data that is available about what sugar, high fructose corn syrup and processed foods are doing to our bodies and brains. Why hasn’t the dissemination of research-supported statistics yet transformed our (and specifically my) relationship with food? Why can’t I seem to develop a healthy, non-compulsive, non-obsessive relationship with sugar? (There won’t be lots of answers here, just one, and a lot of ideas. If you have either please share them in the comments!)
The answer to all of these questions is: “Because my brain is addicted.” It’s that simple.
What never really landed for me until now is this: My body is consistently signaling to me (from headaches and agitation to poor sleep, depression and tight pants) the same non-encrypted, non-password protected message that I have been secretly praying was an error all this time:
“Crystalized sugar, and likely crystalized ANYthing, are not substances this human body is built for.”
This includes sugar, flour and all sugar substitutes. I’ve never had a problem dropping the 10-15 pounds I tended to gain when in seasons of not managing my relationship with sugar very well. Diet soda, sweeteners in my coffee, sweet but chemical laden sugar-free creamers, and diets galore, have basically just been a way of life. But whether I was in some sugar abstinence season for a week, a month or a year, I could always lose the weight but could not permanently say “No thank you” to sugar long term. And I think I finally understand why.
As a reminder, I encourage you to do your own research as my role here is not to educate, but merely to spark the conversation. My research has helped me identify what has been happening in my brain all of this time, and why I just haven’t been able to leave sugar alone.
And if you are thinking, sugar is ok, in moderation, I will stop you there and say there is nothing moderate about how much sugar I can ingest in one evening, or during a Netflix binge-a-thon. If moderation works for you, fantastic! You don’t have a pickled Nucleus Accumbens like some of us!
I studied behavioral neuroscience in college, and I became a Pediatric ICU nurse over two decades ago. I consider myself to be somewhat knowledgeable about the body. I know a little bit about a little bit, and yet until now this concept, hasn’t stuck in a way that has helped me break the cycle of addiction.
There is a place in our brain, the Nucleus Accumbens (call it “NA” for short) that lights up and summons dopamine release when it is stimulated. How does stimulation happen? That depends on the person. For me, it happens by eating a cookie. Or even thinking about one. Stimulation happens when I take that first sip of my favorite red wine. It happens when I start to make my Thanksgiving shopping list (my mouth literally waters!).
It happens when I am watching TV and my brain’s flow of unconscious presence is interrupted by an advertisement that shows piping hot bread with butter melting on it. Or, the TV presents a full screen of perfectly roasted pizza that is never as good as it looks on the 90 inch screen image. It could be a Dairy Queen commercial, or a baking show or really anything.
My brain is so well-trained and engineered just like brains of Pavlov’s dogs, that just the mere suggestion of sugar can light up my NA. And when I indulge the craving, I enjoy the dopamine party in my brain. But simultaneously, as my neurons are dancing in dopamine, the part of my brain that controls judgment (prefrontal cortex) also becomes paralyzed. Every time. This paralysis is what makes it so difficult to interrupt a bad choice, especially when it comes to substances. Dopamine is king and rules the day.
Maybe this sounds familiar? Or maybe you have no problem with “portion control.” If the latter best describes you, enjoy that. And if you have absolutely no degree of cravings for certain foods, sweet, fried or otherwise, some other questions start to arise. The questions all stem from the fact that you are getting your dopamine somewhere. So let’s see if you know what stimulates your NA and floods your brain with this feel good, natural chemical.
- How much time do you spend on digital devices for non-work related pleasure/distraction?
- How much of your day is spent thinking about how to get something you want?
- What amount of time do you give to sports and infotainment?
- How much of your energy goes into trying to control future circumstances and situations so they have the result you desire?
- How much of your life is spent time traveling in the past, regretting something you know you cannot change?
- What percentage of your brain’s energy is spent on thinking about how to stop doing the thing you don’t want to do, implementing that plan to end the behavior, and then abandoning it again, as you have done thousands of times?
As it turns out, the NA isn’t so keen on discriminating between addictions (do your research) but as much of the science has illustrated, our brains just want dopamine, and they don’t care what the source is. We can make three piles of white powder on a plate, and each one of them could potentially scratch the itch by itself: If one is cocaine, one is sugar, and one is processed flour, and we ingest some (or even think about it, if like me, you have the NA number on speed dial) the same area of the brain lights up on MRI.
And this is huge: The NA does not care WHICH substance or activity garners the dopamine surge, only that it does. So the brain can be quite crafty when smooth talking us back into the kitchen at 8pm when we swore to ourselves just 12 hours ago that we wouldn’t enter after 7pm.
Information is empowering. Understanding the dopamine game means that we can stop focusing on our compulsions, sugar or digital or whatever they may be, and start to understand how to best integrate this information. For me, the big AH-HA moment came when I finally made the connection between sugar substitutes and sugar addiction.
For decades, I have been erroneously looking at the number on a scale to measure my ability to control my sugar intake. “Thank you, culture and society for teaching me not to trust myself, and how my body feels, and instead to rely on external factors so the world could exploit and profit from my dependence on everything BUT myself.”
All the while and especially during seasons when I was losing weight I was STILL feeding my sugar addiction. Not feeding it with calories, but with NA stimulation. I had no idea. As soon as that sweet taste of a diet soda, keto peanut butter cup, or my favorite vanilla zero creamer hit my tongue, the NA in my brain was sounding the alarm. It screamed “Winner! Winner! Keep dopamine coming at all costs! Don’t let it stop!”
I couldn’t hear that screaming part of my brain, because instead of checking in with my body, I was busy getting seduced by the part of my brain which would pull me with whatever narrative was necessary, to eat or drink more. Even if it was just that need for one more potato chip (which is full of seed oils, aka sugar), this battle continued raging in my brain, until I eventually went back to the box of cookies, the diet soda, or other edible food like substance seeking relief from my withdrawal. I thought I needed more discipline. I bought the Big Lie. Darn, what a waste of time and resources.
This extended blog post is an invitation to open yourself up and ask some questions. If you have addiction in varying degrees to different things as most of us do, take a look at your environment, what you put into your body and absorb through your senses. We are literally the aggregate result of everything we take in, nothing complicated about that concept.
But with this new understanding that I am literally gas lighting my Nucleus Accumbens with sugar substitutes, strengthening the sugar/dopamine connection with every morsel, I have identified three options for myself:
- Continue to confuse my brain by training it to want something I refuse to give it, and continuing to eat and drink sugary substitutes that are non-caloric but are dopamine drivers;
- Drop the substitutes, and just go for sugar in its whole state, enjoying a few high quality treats very sparingly;
- Give my brain the healing balm it has earned over more than four decades, turn off the demented rewards system I have warped with my habits, and simply cool that NA off for a while.
As you may have guessed, I am going for option number three. Now that I have this new information about what is happening in my brain, the first one is not an option for me, full stop. No more diet soda. No more sweet creamers in my coffee, no fake stuff, period.
The second option is so lovely and admirable. Were it possible, I would love choose this one and just enjoy a good desert once in a while. But alas, I have tried that, and failed thousands of times. This may be a great option for some, but now that I have soaked my brain in sugar and dopamine for so long, its just not a path that leads me to peace which is where I belong.
Option 3 is extreme. I am not even sure I can do it. What I am sure of though, is when I keep these things out of my body, my mood is less variable. My cravings for sugar begin to fall away. I’m more alert. I sleep better. Not only do I feel more in control, but the natural chemistry of my body is able to realign itself, after years of fighting against itself. I feel lighter. So I can at least commit to doing it today.
And yes, I have cut out all sugar and sugar substitutes for a couple of weeks now. This is not a perfect map, but at least it feels like a direction that is more loving and less destructive, to my brain and to my body. Nature is on my side with this one. But even if it wasn’t I need only ask myself how I feel to know that it is having a huge positive impact on my well-being and health.
Whatever you do, or don’t do, I urge you to seek some understanding about the role of politics in our obesity crisis. Challenge this Big Lie with every bite. We have everything and everyone to lose.
Please check with your doctor before making changes to your diet.