This post proved to be a long one, so I’ve titled the sections for those of you not interested in slogging through the whole thing: you can read just the below section about my sugar history, or skip to the part after about my recent sugar fast. Enjoy.
My Life with Sugar
I have no memory of strong feelings one way or another when it comes to sweets as a kid. When I was young (which means grade school age for this conversation), my mom would bring home a box here and there of Little Debbie or Hostess cakes. They only appeared if mom happened to have a coupon, or if they were on sale. Their presence in the grocery bag was always a special treat to which I would give little thought. I guess I didn’t really have a sweet tooth as a kid.
I was an athletic kid, and most of my childhood memories are of playing outside–two-hand tap football in the street, basketball at the court at the end of my block, tag in multi-yard games. I ate three meals a day, and sometimes I would grab something sweet out of the cupboard in between meals, if say I was at home playing video games or watching t.v. Desssert was never part of the meal when I was a kid: I don’t really remember breakfast, but lunch and dinner always consisted of some kind of meat, some kind of vegetable, and a glass of 2% milk. Pretty traditional stuff.
What’s funny is that when I reflect on it now, it occurs to me that the sweet stuff was always stored in a cabinet in the laundry room, around the corner from the kitchen, in the same cabinet as my grandmother’s liquor. By the time my sister and I showed up, my grandmother had long ago given up the kind of heavy drinking that plagued my mother and her siblings. The liquor in there was only ever accessed by my grandmother once or twice yearly, and only on very special occasions: perhaps Christmas day after the meal, and once in the spring for a drink during the Cubs’ opener.
By putting those cakes in that cabinet, they were removed from the “food” area of the house–they weren’t with the soup or pasta or oil in the kitchen cabinet. They were in another room, in the cabinet with off-limit liquor and lightbulbs. I think, whether that placement was on purpose or not, that decision taught me that dessert was a once in a while thing, something occasional and not meant for habitual indulgence. It was definitely in a class apart from food. I think besides all the physical activity, that access and classification helped keep me healthy though my childhood.
After puberty, into my teenage years, I started spending more time with female friends, more time writing, and less time out of the house. It still never really occurred to me to snack on dessert at home more than occasionally, but my female friends would go on about chocolate and its relation to their menstrual cycle. I was a late bloomer–not getting my first period until 16, so I would listen in what might be politely referred to as indignant silence. I was befuddled and irritated by their seeming helplessness before chocolate, which, to me, was irrationally dependent on the time of the month. And so that was when I first started to equate sweets with femininity. And although I did enjoy sweets, I denied it, and cut them out entirely.
I would refuse to share Ho-Hos at the lunch table, claiming I didn’t like chocolate. When out with my friends, I wouldn’t order blizzards at Dairy Queen, turing up my nose to the very idea of something sweet. So while the practice was good for my body, the denial was bad for my spirit. I’m not talking about how treats are “good for the soul,” but rather that lying to shape my identity was detrimental to my character.
I held onto that old line, of not liking sweets, until my girlfriends in college, who were incorrigible sugar addicts, all wanted me to share desserts with them. I’d have a bite here and there, just to “help them out,” so they didn’t feel so “bad.” But by that point, to have just a little was like chiseling cracks in the Hoover Dam to relieve the pressure. I wasn’t a kid anymore, wasn’t lying about my sexual preference for women, and so felt free to express a preference for sugary treats without feeling like I would be lumped in the same slot as the straight women going on decadently about their cravings. But still, because my gender identity was kept secret, I felt girly for even admitting a little that I liked sweets, so I held fast to my declarations of only sharing to relieve my girlfriend’s sugary burden.
After all, where were any men talking about bon bons or cupcakes? Where were the men going on about dessert? What I didn’t realize is that it wasn’t that men didn’t go on about sweets because they didn’t like them, but rather because men didn’t go on about anything. Women, in general, are more vocal about their likes and dislikes–of the two sexes I had any experience with they were more vocal about everything. But at the time I didn’t see that: I just saw that women seemed to talk so much about dessert, and men never talked about it, so to take part in anything sweet felt like a betrayal to my fragile masculinity. Of course it’s ridiculous, now. Now that I am an out and proud trans man, it’s easy to indulge and not feel my very identity threatened. But it took a surgery and hormones and a name change and lots of growth to be able to feel my outsides match my insides, as far as something as basic as gender is concerned. So yeah, it was important, and foundational, to deny sweets to stake my claim in masculinity. Once that need was gone, to distance myself from dessert, this happened on my honeymoon:
I loved all my frosty children. You can see I have a problem: those weren’t even all the pictures of me eating ice cream–they’re just the only ones suitable for internet publication.
Sugar Fast Update
It’s been six days since I started my sugar detox.* I am doing great: I have stuck to my initial allowance of <6g/day of refined sugar. Yesterday and today (so far) I’ve had none. I don’t want to utter my long term goals just yet, for fear of jinxing myself. But I will say this: six days is the longest I have ever gone without sugar. I would like to take out the trail mix starting on day 8, and replace it with a trial mix with just nuts and dried fruit for a week. If I can make it to week three, I would like to replace that trail mix with just nuts. Beyond that, I would not like to speculate.
What have I noticed while limiting my sugar intake?
Well, the first day was just as I thought it would be–a struggle. I got to work and there was half a chocolate cake in the break room and milk and dark chocolate peanut butter cups in the back room, so that was just fucking great. But surprisingly, I was totally fine: it was such a blatant display I had no problem passing it by. If there were say, just peanut butter cups in the break room, I likely would have been very tempted to eat one, or put one in my locker for later. But it was such an obvious cosmic joke the situation was much more laughable than tempting.
Day two I made it through pretty easy, and noticed I was a bit thirstier that day than normal. I did get the beginning of a headache near dinner time which lasted all night. It was a minor version of the kind of headache I’ve had in the past from too much sugar: a dull ache right at the temple and behind my eyes.
Day three was similar to day two: thirstier than normal, with a dull headache arriving right around dinner time and lasting all night. Also that night I had a sugar dream: I drank the tastiest Pepsi I had ever had, awake or asleep. I’ve had maybe two sodas in the last year, and haven’t had Pepsi in many years: soda isn’t my weak spot. I also dreamed about eating a cinnamon bun, Ann Sather’s style, and then remembered after I finished it that I was on a sugar fast. Was very mad at my dream self in the dream, but then the dream shifted its focus onto some other sweet thing I can’t re-conjure.
Day four found my interest in my 10 minute break fix waining. I was intrigued: I ate the almonds and peanuts and dried cherries, but when it came time for the chocolate and panute butter chips, I could have taken or left them. I ate them, and found the taste to be the same, but I felt differently about it. I felt a little ambivalent about the experience of eating them. That seemed like a positive change. My headache was much duller. But that night, an hour or so from finishing my shift at work, I got a serious craving, seemingly out of nowhere. I didn’t seem to be thinking about sugar at all, and it felt different than just wanting a sweet. I found myself, in my head, searching a bit frantically, like I was missing my keys and was late to work, that kind of frantic feeling.
I felt restless and unsatisfied so I went to the break room and drank some water. Lo and fucking behold if that didn’t work! It wasn’t chocolate, but I just stood there and drank my water and took some breaths and felt relieved, if not satisfied. I was able to redirect my attention, and that was the most important thing.
Yesterday was harder than normal because I was off work, and so had free time to think about sugar and had access to sugar. K and I had a full day out of the house doing fun stuff, and it is the focusing of my attention that saves me from myself. If I’m in the house idly, it’s bad news.
What I’ve learned is that if I eat proper meals, and eat until I’m full (not stuffed, but satiated), and drink plenty of water, and keep myself busy (not frantic, but occupied) then staying away from sugar is an achievement within reach. If I skimp on the water, or don’t finish my meal, if I am home alone with nothing planned, then there is going to be strife. My mind wanders to a snack. Oh, and I have found, perhaps to no one’s surprise but my own, that the times when I’m looking for something sweet are times when I’m not even hungry. Or when I’m very hungry and too lazy to make something for myself.
Also, as I’m sure many of you know, just as cookies are turned to sugar in your bloodstream, so does alcohol. But this bit was new to me: there is more than one study out there showing a link between alcoholism and sugar addiction, because to your body, it’s all the same. Because of this link, my therapist was telling me to be easy with myself, given my familial history of substance abuse: my fondness for sugar might not just be out of habit, it might also be genetic. That pull the other night at work, out of nowhere, that frantic feeling, like something important was missing? Yeah, that felt like an addiction. Or what I suppose an addiction might feel like, as I don’t think I’ve ever had one. Or have I? So I am going to be easy on myself in that I will not resort to the usually name calling in my head if I feel a little weak, a little crazy, as I try to keep away from sweets. But knowing that there is potentially an addiction at work here is all the more reason to cut it out of my diet for good.
Be nice to yourselves,
Your Pal Eli
*Because 6g/day, given the obscene amount I was eating before, is pretty much going without.