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My Journey To Behavior Change, Health Policy And Quitting Sugar

My journey to behavior change, health policy and quitting sugar

Pretty much everyone has a relationship with sugar, and I am no exception. My diet started off pretty well though: I grew up in a household that was fairly health-conscious; there was no soda or “junk food” allowed in the house, and my parents both took vitamins. We ate lots of meat and potatoes, along with veggies at every dinner.

During the summer I was 13, I learned about how meat animals were raised and processed, and the environmental degradation that comes from raising cattle. I came home from summer camp, and announced that I had become a vegetarian.

My parents were duly concerned — They didn’t know anyone who was a vegetarian, and there wasn’t much talk about it in the newspapers they read. They were worried that I wouldn’t get enough protein, primarily, and were concerned that I would do irreversible damage to my health. So they drafted a “release form” that basically said that becoming a vegetarian was my decision, and that I wouldn’t hold them responsible for any current or future health issues that may arise.

I signed the document, and so began a life-long inquiry into what makes me/us healthy.

But I wasn’t a very good vegetarian: I just took out the meat, but still ate a ton of sugar and baked goods. In fact, I think becoming a vegetarian without understanding nutrition jump-started my carb addiction. I would start the day with granola and yogurt, then a couple of hours later have a muffin (or maple-glazed donut), then have a veggie sandwich for lunch, a “healthy” candy bar in the afternoon, and maybe pasta for dinner. That’s a LOT of carbs! It wasn’t until my mid-20’s that I learned that if I have pasta for lunch I need to take a nap around 3:00. That’s when I first started noticing the connection between what I eat and how I feel, but it started very slowly.

It would take me many more years, however, to understand why I had so much trouble with my gut and digestion, with pains in my abdomen and alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea for years and years and years. There were also deep mood swings, which my family affectionately called my “funks.” Even though I was reading a lot about health and diet, I didn’t come across anyone talking about how sugar and refined carbohydrates can impact all of those things. I thought that maybe it was genetic. I continued to binge on oatmeal cookies and other carbs, often secretly.

This was all in the context of the “low-fat” era: There was lots of media attention going towards vilifying fat, but nothing about sugar and carbs. [The big exception was Atkins.]

Fast forward 20 years, and books are are starting to be published about gluten, carbs, and how some blood types are more suited to certain foods, and that grains are implicated in several diseases, largely because of the disruption to the gut microbiome. [I’m not advocating that you eat according to your blood type, but for many people, including me, it started helping me feel better, largely because of learning that wheat isn’t good for type O’s.] I started a new wave of experimentation with my diet, which has led to learning and mastering the boundaries within which I can thrive — and bounce-back from indulgences. That is what I wish for you.

The Media and Your Health

Since my late 20’s, when I went to graduate school to study how media and technology effect people and society, I have been examining and teaching about how the media impact our health, in oh-so many ways. 

What has become so amazingly clear is that through the power of marketing and advertising, the repetition of images and messages over and over and over again, has shaped our society in ways overt and covert. We think distributing endless amounts of candy to children at Halloween is “normal;” we think getting super-sized is a good deal; we think there’s nothing wrong with having sweetened iced tea on a hot summers’ day. All these affronts to our health are because they have been normalized by marketing. The fact is,

after 60 years of marketing,
people think McDonald’s is food. 

This is no elitist rail against the food you grew up with — it was already the normal thing to do, or a special treat. But chances are that your eating preferences and habits were created and sustained by billions of dollars of advertising, that makes everything from candy bars, to ice cream to energy drinks, to cookies, a “treat” that is your right to have. 

Sugar is an addictive substance — reportedly several times more addictive than cocaine because of the way that it lights up your brain — and can take so many deceptive forms. For example, when you eat bread or pasta, it’s basically the same as sugar because the flour is so highly refined that it breaks down in your bloodstream almost immediately. And then there’s all the hidden sugars in our food supply (you can learn about all this and more in the Breaking Free from Sugar program).

In my professional work doing public health communications, I became frustrated that the government/public health was spending millions trying to keep people from smoking or quit smoking, but NOT talking about the detrimental effects of sugar. When you add up the deaths from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia, sugar kills way more people than smoking does. But you just don’t see posters in schools to raise awareness about sugar and processed foods the way you see them about not smoking or doing drugs. It’s pretty clear now that sugar and processed foods are implicated in diseases ranging from depression to dementia, and so few people are talking about it. There’s lots of denial, and not much political will.

Breaking Free from Sugar is a project born out of that frustration. I hope to educate, inspire, and support people on their journey to living a sugar-minimal lifestyle.

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