My favorite day of the year is, and always has been, my birthday.
Lately, it’s been all about hanging out with loved ones,... But... for most of my life, frankly, it was about something way more specific….my birthday cake!
As a former self-proclaimed birthday cake freak, I once took delight in all the important cake questions:
Bakery or homemade?
Chocolate buttercream frosting or vanilla fondant?
Raspberry filling or mocha?
As if it were a painting in a museum, I admired the craftsmanship and artistry in the birthday cake’s intricate design.
When the big day arrived, I pretended to care about the rest of the meal but all I could think about was that melt-in-your-mouth pink flower made entirely of sugary icing.
I would cut my piece of cake carefully, ensuring that the frosting-to-cake ratio was the precisely right percentage and salivated as I anticipated the sweetness. When I took that first bite, I entered a sugar high state of nirvana.
Soon after that first bite, in a state of out-of-body oblivion, I would take another bite and my cake would quickly disappear. The sugar high would trigger an uncontrollable urge to keep going back for more and more, ignoring any signs of fullness, satiety, or common sense.
It would begin the frosting finger swipe around the edge of the cake followed by a few extra surreptitious slivers that didn’t really count because they never made it to my actual plate. And if no one was looking, I would swipe an entire flower!
Just as quickly as my sugar rush would take me up it would quickly come crashing down leading me to go back for more cake until it was all gone, thrown away, given away, or I felt sick.
Hello, my name is Lisa I am a former sugar addict.
Did the sugar kill me? No.
Did it give me diabetes? Thankfully not so far.
Did it make me overweight? No.
Did it take away from me having my amazing life? Absolutely not.
Then what is the big deal? You might ask.
It is a HUGE deal for me and many of you, I suspect. But in my case, not for the reasons you might think. In fact, it took me years of investigating to truly understand what a bizarre impact sugar had on my life.
I remember the exact moment, around 20 years ago, when I had my first aha with sugar. I was going out for ice cream with a group of new moms when my friend Ginger said, “I’ll pass, Ice cream makes me feel sad.” She said “sad.” Not “fat,” not “bloated,” not “guilty.” Sad?
This blew my mind.
A light bulb went off in my head. I began to consider how ice cream made me feel. I had NEVER made any food-mood connection before (keep in mind this was 24 years ago) and I KNEW from that moment on that I would never look at ice cream or any food the same way.
Why had I not ever before considered that food could affect my emotional state?
Why didn’t it ever occur to me that my belly was connected to my brain?
What foods were problematic for me and why was that the case?
I suspected that sugar was also a culprit for me, like my friend ginger, so I developed a new “sugar makes me crazy” theory.
It was time to investigate.
I thought back about how every year, on the day after Halloween, I would turn into a full-blown witch. It would start off innocently enough. I’d “sample” a piece or two of my kids' Halloween candy (you know those little milky way dark bite size nuggets of heaven)? In no time, I would end up with a pile of wrappers, a dizzy spell, and a sign on my forehead that could easily be interpreted as "Don't come near me or I WILL hurt you!".
And then there was the time I ate a huge jar full of raisinettes and subsequently had a major anxiety attack while I was on an airplane from London to Boston. It was pretty poor timing on my part because on that particular raisinette-binge-day there were terrorist threats on every flight from London to Boston (which come to think of it was probably why I started eating the raisinettes in the first place!)
The sugar makes me crazy theory was proving to be quite on target and the findings were quite consistent:
The more sugar I ate, the more I sugar wanted.
The more sugar I ate, the more I felt PMS or actually now it's more hot flashes.
The more sugar I ate, the more I thought about ALL food all day long.
The more sugar I ate, the more I worried. I worried about people dying and getting hurt and that my kids were in trouble somewhere and couldn’t reach me and that I was going to die completely ALONE.
In other words, I felt horrible and angry at the world when I ate sugar, and yet all I wanted to do was eat more, more, and more of it.
Then why on earth did I continue to eat it then?- you may be wondering????
The reason that I eat sugar every so often, even though I know how bad it is for me is, frankly, is because it just tastes so damn good! And because, as we are learning more and more, sugar is highly addictive. DUH!
Yes. Sugar is a drug. A highly addictive serious drug. In one study done at Connecticut College, rats got just as excited about Oreo cookies as they did for cocaine. And there are many more studies like that coming out every day. In Gary Taubes’ book, The Case Against Sugar, we learn there have been massive attempts to hide the dangers of sugar by the sugar industry.
I have come to realize that my “sugar makes me crazy theory” was spot on. There are numerous studies linking sugar to increased anxiety, depression, anger, and even schizophrenia! It also hinders our memory and learning skills. And, of course, the inflammation that it causes in our bodies can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Did I mention wrinkles too?
And you thought it was all about fitting into your skinny jeans, didn't you? Nope, Sugar is making us sick, fat, cranky, and wrinkly!
People don’t always understand how serious staying away from sugar is for some of us. Just like with alcohol, some people are more sensitive to it than others. For example, I can easily stop at one glass of wine, but when it comes to stopping at one square of chocolate… NO WAY. How about you? As with alcohol, for some of us it's easier to abstain completely than to try to have sugar in moderation.
And you sugar-pushers out there are not making it any easier!
I will never forget a few years ago when a friend emailed me about our upcoming annual JOINT birthday lunch.
“Promise me you will eat a birthday cupcake with me this year,” she pleaded in her email, clearly remembering that I had passed on it the year before.
I know her intentions were innocent but as a person who helps people adopt healthy eating strategies for a living, I couldn’t help but wonder:
Why the hell does she care what I eat?
Why is she thinking about it six weeks in advance of our date?
Why do we need to eat something sweet to make the day special?
And how do I explain to her that it is not about calories or willpower, but rather something far more distressing like my mental health?
Though she had no idea, it was like she was begging an alcoholic to have a cocktail.
It was that moment that I realized something HUGE. I had changed. For the first time in my life, my birthday was not about indulging in birthday cake. And, I since I had no interest in spending my birthday defending myself, I canceled the lunch.
For those of you, like me, who are struggling with sugar, I have a few suggestions:
Try taking a break from sugar, just to see how you feel. You might be quite surprised. The first few days are hard but after that, not so bad!
Start adding more joy and sweetness into your life and see how that tastes.
And when your birthday rolls around, think about the non-food things you can incorporate into your day rather than making it all about the cake.
As for this former sugar addict, when my birthday rolls around this year, you will find me indulging in life rather than cake. After all, Isn’t that what celebrating birthdays is all about?