Do you find yourself frequently thinking about sweets? Do you feel obligated to finish a whole bag of chips once you start? Do you eat more than you want to? Do you ever feel bad about yourself after eating something?
Confessions of an Ex-Sugar Fiend
Most of us are familiar with food cravings, which are just as real as addictions to cigarettes, cocaine, and alcohol. Mine started in medical residency. First it was sugar. Then caffeine. I was driven by stress, fatigue, and the need for quick “food” and comfort in the face of long, grueling work hours.
It started with the occasional Dunkin’ Munchkin that was ubiquitously available at morning meetings after overnights awake caring for sick patients in the cardiac ICU. I became fond of the chocolate ones.
I progressed to peanut M&Ms — surely a gateway drug for many of us — because the combination of fat, protein, and sugar kept me awake and staved off hunger overnight. Energy bars fit in there now and then. And those little 100-calorie cookie packages stashed easily in my white coat pocket next to my stethoscope and patient notes.
Pretty soon anything with sugar and fat was fair game, and if it had salt that was even better. Junk stashes were available at pretty much every nurse’s station, staff meeting, and in resident conference rooms. The really nice nurses brought in homemade brownies and cookies and gave us first dibs before morning rounds. I drew the limit at soft drinks and artificial colors and flavors. (Well, except for those M&Ms.)
About halfway into my first year of residency, I started drinking coffee. Just a half cup so I could make it through the night until noon the next day, when my 30-hour shift ended. I’d didn't even like the taste of coffee! But I am super caffeine sensitive so it’s a great “drug” for me. To circumvent the taste, I added sugar and a small amount of milk.
I gained eight pounds that year, all around my waist, and got sick more times than I had cumulatively in the decade prior. My periods became irregular with intense PMS prior to them. I slept poorly even on my nights off, and in my early 40s got some zits.
On my days off, I craved a muffin for breakfast instead of my previously typical healthy fare of a whole-food, protein-rich breakfast. I wanted sweets every day, and when I wasn't eating them, I was thinking about them. And I started to really love lattes.
In spite of 30 years of living and teaching a healthy lifestyle, becoming a doctor turned me into a sugar fiend! Ah, the ironies of the health care system. Becoming a doctor was literally making me fat and sick!
An Unexpected Detox
Everything changed when I went to Haiti to provide high-risk obstetric and general medical care. I don’t mean to sound glib, given the poverty and attendant starvation in that country (please read my blogs about my experiences there), but I sometimes think of that month as my inadvertent detox.
I lost those extra eight pounds, completely stopped craving sugar and carbs, slept easily for the first time in over a year in spite of being on a cot under mosquito netting in a malaria-ridden country, and came back home physically refreshed in spite of a grueling month of medical work.
During that month food was sparse and simple. The only time candy was available was when a visiting medical team came down to provide services and brought a bag of M&Ms (of course!) or mini-Snickers bars. These were always scarfed up by sugar-deprived Americans within an hour of being opened because everyone wanted a break from the chicken, goat, grapefruit and over-cooked cabbage and onions that constituted breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In addition to the lack of non-food-junk (I refuse to call that stuff "junk food" ‘cause it ain’t food), meals were modest-sized because we were sharing limited food with a large number of people at every meal. Food was served at regular times, and I had only nuts as a snack in between.
I went to bed at 10 and woke up with the roosters (there were roosters everywhere!) at 6:30 each morning. I was physically active and loved what I was doing. I also remembered to slow down and be grateful for every bite of food I had.
Because as really awful as the food was from a culinary perspective, I still had food while most of my patients and the people in the entire country ate fewer than two meals most days of their lives. I worked hard but life had a rhythm, my schedule was in balance with nature, and I was filled with purpose.
Nearly immediately upon my return home I was served a muffin from a local bakery. I actually spit my first bite out into my napkin — the taste was so unbearably sweet I couldn’t tolerate it.
I couldn’t eat any sugar for about six months after my return. I had developed a sugar addiction in residency and in Haiti it was cured. I also had renewed mindfulness about eating and a new level of food gratitude.
However, eventually the prevalence of sugar in my environment and the stress began to creep back in, so I then had to consciously and intentionally say NO, and maintain healthy lifestyle habits that prevented the addiction and cravings from starting up again.
My experience points out two simple truths: