Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Sugar Conversation

Sugar is good. I mean, it's really bad. Maybe it's just the most comforting and nurturing relationship you'll ever have with something that treats you poorly and then stalks you if you try to break up with it.

In the good/bad, black/white, scenario that most of us build around sugary foods, there's no real reason to talk about it. Living in the world of "I just won't/can't" eat sugar is a place we grudgingly call home until we take those unexpected and sometimes refreshing vacations.

When you embrace the reality that you and sugar are neither good nor bad and that your paths are bound to cross in ways that shouldn't necessarily be labeled either 'good' or 'bad', you will learn how to arbitrate a settlement that offers a little more acceptance. In one of my most common conversations I discuss a place to live in peace with sugar.

Finding Acceptance

I never used to talk to my clients about sugar but then I realized that's a little like trusting your kids sex-ed to the older kid on the bus whose parents allow uncensored access to the Internet and cable. This tends not to lead to well educated, well planned choices and instead to anxiety producing visits to Planned Parenthood.

With some similarities to the 'Birds & Bees' conversation, sugar tastes good, it makes you high and it's everywhere whether you like it or not. The moment you make an unplanned, unconscious food decision it will most likely be carb-heavy because, in the world of convenient food, carbs have a high profit margin, a long shelf life and the ability to inspire impulse purchases. Do not underestimate this phenomenon because avoiding sugar rich, carby foods requires both diligence and planning and that's true even for those of us who have been doing this for a very long time.

The first step to restraining yourself is to accept the fact that sugar is everywhere and it tastes good which means you'll be tempted often. Period. That said, understand that all sugar can tempt you but only a fraction of it is worth your time and the toll it takes. So the second point to embrace is that there is and always will be a downside. Maybe that downside is fatigue, a headache, a fowl mood, inflammation that causes pain or limits your performance, abdominal distention, feelings of guilt or shame or more pronounced cravings for a day or two but it will be unpleasant and it will occur without exception.

Action: Look around you at work, home, restaurants, espresso stands and grocery stores and make a point of noticing the variety of sugary, starchy, carby foods and imagine if you had a month to sample a serving of each one of those items. How much food would you have to eat? imagine how your body would feel if you did that? Imagine how hard your workouts would feel and how disgusted you'd be as you continued to eat? Be aware of the food not as an automatic veto but as a choice that you're making and how different you're life would be if you never imposed limits on these foods.

Defining Choice

It's a good thing not every day is Christmas otherwise we'd have nostalgic connections to everything we put in our mouth and every meal would not only be sustenance but also a loving attempt to keep memories alive. And there'd be wrapping paper everywhere.

Sometimes food is just food. The celebration we attach to food is not always necessary though sometimes it is. We've lost perspective and forgotten that the celebration of food is that we have it. In a world of overabundance it's hard to be grateful for the treat of just being fed at all. Instead we build in other pointless celebrations in order to add significance to our meal and keep ourselves amused. 'It's Friday!', 'This has been a tough day!', 'I'm on vacation!', 'It's so-and-so's birthday!', 'It's the Superbowl!'

We can find numerous ways to celebrate with food and an equal number of ways to console ourselves with it. But it's just food. You've opted to give food a certain power in your life and then you feel powerless to choose healthy options. It was you who decided that healthy eating wasn't a treat and yet you feel so much better when you eat healthy and so much worse when you don't. Makes you wonder how you came to your conclusions and why you haven't changed your mind about them.

Along with acceptance though, is the fact that we do indeed have strong connections with food and it's important to honor that too. You just need to be clear that celebration isn't something that should happen every meal. Not every occasion is worth the cost and not every 'treat' is actually a 'treat.' As much as it feels like part of the occasion sometimes, enjoying the company of friends doesn't have to include a lot of chewing or even any.

As an example, I had a pesky problem buying myself a little something deviant every time I went to the supermarket. On those occasions when I left without a little snack to eat in the car I felt deprived and the behavior would pop up again. I realized that this habit developed when I was a child and my mother would promise me a 'treat' if I was good in the grocery store. Since I've long established that I'm able to make it through the aisles tantrum-free for the most part, the bribe is now unnecessary but the habit was harder to shake.

Though I was usually choosing something off-plan, I could justify the habit for awhile because it wasn't outright debauchery. The point is, it was still unnecessary and it was still throwing me off. I finally learned to think of a 'treat' differently. I realized I would avoid buying some of my favorite vegetables when they were more expensive yet I still budgeted in 'treat' money. If I chipped in the couple of dollars to buy yellow peppers even when they're $4.99 a pound, that still felt a bit luxurious and if that wasn't enough, I'd toss in some exotic and rare fruit, out of season no-less. By changing the definition of a 'treat' in my head and identifying unnecessary behavior, I was able to change it.

Action: Define what occasions truly matter in your life. What deserves celebration and what feelings can be addressed without food? What types of things can you do to address stress and to comfort yourself - I like to call this the warm-fuzzy-sock option since that's my comfort default. Does it really matter to your friends and family what you eat with them and can you alter behaviors around that? I go for coffee with friends instead of lunch or dinner and my friends don't mind when I join them at meals even when I don't order.

Building a Framework of 'Favorites'

What really needs to be part of your world? If you learn to limit celebration to times that are truly significant to you, suddenly your snack items hold a greater weight. Now this is where things get fun because you get to ponder what foods, no-holds-barred so to speak, are truly a treat for you.

In my case it's chocolate - love the stuff. In order to winnow the field, I sat down one day and went through a list of things I like to create a hierarchy of 'favorites' and what I learned is that some things I thought I liked really weren't that important. Sugar tastes good, but it doesn't taste good enough to make me crave doughnuts, cookies, pies, or ice cream. None of those things really light my fire even when in the form of chocolate doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cream pie and chocolate ice cream. Nope, when I created a hierarchy nothing could knock straight-up chocolate off the top.

Once you allow yourself to eat anything, you become way more particular in your choices. Once I realized chocolate would be 'my thing' I stopped being tempted by any number of other deviance's. The phrase that pops in my head when offered ice cream is, "I don't really like ice cream." It's true, but I would have probably eaten in just the same before I made that declaration.

Action: Make a list of your favorite foods and put them in order of importance. Consider whether or not the items that didn't make the list need to be part of your life anymore. Once you know what your favorite foods are, consider where you can find the best of the best. Who makes the best rice pudding? The best cheesecake? The best ice cream? Limit your splurges to those items which are your absolute favorites and make a special point of not settling for anything less. Whenever you're confronted with your favorite food, delay having any and tell yourself, "Maybe later this week I'll have some [insert favorite food here] after my workout."

Finding Limits

Just because I gave myself the option of having chocolate doesn't mean the next step was stocking the cabinets and filling my gym bag. I next had to draw up ground rules around consumption. The rules are: No CHEAP chocolate - nothing by Hershey's or anything else sold at the check out, no purchases greater than I could or should consume in one sitting, no supply at my disposal, no chocolate unless it's after a workout, no 'chocolate flavored' anything else, and no chocolate if I've strayed in any other direction. But other than that, I can have it anytime I want.

The other part of that is determining serving size. That requires honesty because you have to be willing to admit that a bite of [insert your favorite food here] just won't cut it. If that's just a big fat lie and you need to eat more than that, fine. But the impact needs to be recognized and accounted for in order for the plan to work. If you find that the food you selected can't be eaten in relative moderation, you may have to defer to 'favorite #2' or recognize that you're choices may impact your goals too heavily.

Dealing with Deprivation and Learning to Delay

There are still times, however, that I ponder for at least a second the thrill of launching festively into a fat slab of a near strangers birthday cake just because I got caught in the crossfire of a coworkers midday party. Maybe, just this once, I could carelessly join the camaraderie of the shared sugar buzz around a bowl of M&Ms without my clients ever having to know.

Besides wanting to avoid the look of horror I'd get from people familiar with my austere eating regime which, by the way, would most certainly be a buzz kill, the Pavlovian pang in the gut rings in the realities of a gluten and sugar intolerance. "Warning step away from the sugar! sharp pains, poor performance, and uncontrolled napping in three bites!" The spoiled child in my head still stomps a foot and sulks long after the 'Code Red' is relegated to a false alarm.

It's then that I employ really bad parenting practices for that pesky little inner-tike. I buy it off with false promises. "There, there." Oddly, it's the only place in the world that 'there, there' sounds comforting, "if you still really want cake on Saturday we'll go get some of that FABULOUS cake at [insert location in which 'fabulous' cake is procured] and we'll make it a celebration," I say to myself. Ah, delay. Nine times out of ten I won't even remember by Saturday. On the tenth time, I bring a friend.

Shmi is vegan and in her own world she smiles knowing that sugar will always be vegan and ice cream counts as dinner. Her noble dietary habits take into account the health and wellbeing of every living creature other than herself. I've been stuck answering such questions as is chocolate mousse cake 'better' than carrot cake. A tough question no matter how you slice it. How do I say they're both really, really 'bad' without sounding like I'm passing judgement especially since I'm holding the desert fork across from her? Luckily this doesn't happen often and that's the point.

Action: When you do celebrate have limits but enjoy. Make mindful decisions about what you're going to eat and how you're going to account for it. Don't make your relationships with friends strictly about food but look for that balance that allows you to include the occasional indulgence enjoyed with a pal.