It was a familiar scene: me, in my car, alone, under a freeway overpass. Mainlining sugar.
Maybe I was coming off a cleanse. Maybe I was following the diet du jour. Maybe I was just trying to be “good.” It always ended in the same way, though: me, in my car, alone, under a freeway overpass. It sure sounds like an addiction. And at the time, it sure felt like one. I’d go weeks without putting maple syrup in my coffee or taking a cookie from the pile at work or even having a piece of fruit, and then suddenly, I’d fall off the wagon. I’d end up in the dirt, wondering why I couldn’t control myself, loathing my habit.
Eventually, I started to wonder why sugar was such a problem for me. Why I couldn’t have breakfast cereal or granola bars or ice cream in the house without inhaling the contents in one sitting. Why I had begun to think of myself as an outright addict, someone who can’t have just one potato chip without ending up facedown and drooling in the bottom of the bag.
The culture of the time certainly supported my experience. From all sides I heard that sugar was “toxic,” that carbs were functionally unnecessary in the human body. Nearly everyone I knew eschewed sugar as an inherently addictive, destructive, fattening substance. We were all on and off the hamster wheel of “cleanses,” the modern-day version of the crash diet, trying to rid our bodies of sugar and train our minds to never ever want it again. The language we used with one another was the language of addiction. Sugar, it seemed clear, was the real culprit in modern disease, and we congratulated each other for knowing the truth.
And then one day, three days into another ultra-strict paleo “cleanse,” I just ... stopped. I took a hard look at my current position in the binge/restrict cycle and decided to do the more difficult thing: I accepted that instead of an addiction I had a disordered approach to food -- one that pushed me from veganism to paleo, from demonizing animal protein to avoiding carbohydrates, from restriction to bingeing, always looking for the next “toxic” thing I could remove from my diet -- and began the work of recovering. A born extremist, I nevertheless trained myself to be moderate.
Sugar addiction is a very controversial topic. The science is inconclusive, though if you wanted to find research to support your particular bias, there’s no shortage of it. To be healthy -- not only physically but psychologically -- I had to stop trolling PubMed for reasons to fear common foods and instead, trust that I’d reclaim the basic equilibrium of my body if I stopped imposing outside limitations. And eventually, after a lot of hard work, I did. I feel free now in a way I could not when I considered myself a slave and a victim of sugar and big food companies. I’m in control now. I decide. I haven’t found myself under a freeway overpass, hating myself and hurting myself, for 18 months.