I can’t pretend I ever had any intention of giving up sugar. I remember meeting a guy from Australia at a Yin Yoga training in California who had given up sugar - all sugar, even fruit and fruit juices – and I recall wondering, without disdain or judgement, a simple But why? in regards to his pursuit.
I figured one day I might “purify myself” enough to give up meat or alcohol or caffeine, but I never even pictured sugar as one of those dietary masked bandits capering about my life creating an addiction. Sure, maybe cakes and cookies and ice cream weren’t exactly good for me and perhaps kept me weighing a few more pounds than I wished, but they were fun. Don’t we all need some fun now and then?
The threat of sugar was naively off my radar. I never considered myself as having a “sweet tooth”. I didn’t eat dessert the way I knew others did. I avoided sugary breakfast cereals or cakey muffins to start my day. Certainly, syrupy drinks or soda hadn’t passed my lips in over a decade. I figured, when it came to sweets, I could pride myself as being a relative abstainer.
What I didn’t realize was that there was plenty of clandestine sugar in my diet. When I truly read the ingredients of what I was eating or considered the sugar of rice or grains or fruit or other carbohydrates, I was consuming sugar at every meal - even when I didn’t eat dessert. Pretty much every swallow of food that occurred in my day involved sugar with each ingestion, and this sugar was bestowing upon me little explosions of energy and excitement.
My relationship with food had transformed because sugar was not a food for me; it was entertainment. By shooting off fireworks in my system - explosive blasts of energy followed by sinking spells - sugar was stringing me along with unrequited passion, like an erratic lover. I was never satisfied and this kept me in a consistent state of craving, perpetually grasping for another hit from my next bite or sip.
But I had no idea this was occurring.
Then a book crossed my path that changed everything. And it wasn’t John Yudkin’s Pure, White and Deadly. About a decade ago, I had attempted to read Yudkin’s book with the rather terrifying subtitle How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It, and, while I was curious about the side-effects of sugar, I wasn’t compelled to finish the book, much less heed its teachings and actually remove sugar from my diet.
It was a book on natural movement that converted me – the last place I would have expected. The book was Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall. Judging from the title, you can imagine I anticipated an interesting read (McDougall is an excellent writer – if you haven’t read his bestseller Born to Run, I highly recommend it – even if you aren’t a runner) full of compelling characters and, of course, I expected numerous revelations of natural movement.
And I was getting that. But as I was nearing the end, savoring the last few chapters of a book fully enjoyed, the topic of diet unexpectedly bubbled to the surface. Around page 260, McDougall introduced the reader to a man named Dr. Phil Maffetone who had an interesting take on sugar and how it affects our ability to perform.
Maffetone worked with elite athletes in the 1970s and believed in a counterculture theory that fat, not starch, was our ticket to success. In a time when endurance athletes were being taught to “carb-load” and “low-fat” was heralded as the solution to weight loss and healthy arteries, he was saying the opposite. Granted, Maffetone was a long-haired chiropractor and not many people gave him the time of day.
McDougall explains Maffetone’s theory by first stating, “think of your body as a furnace”. He further explained, “fill [the furnace] with slow-burning logs and it will run smooth and strong for hours. But fill it with paper and gas-soaked rags and it will burn hot, rattle the pipes, and die out until it is fed again.” For Maffetone, the slow-burning logs are fats and the gas-soaked rags are sugar.
Maffetone claimed that a sugary-diet of starches and energy drinks could be the impetus for an athlete’s aches and pains. How? Well, if the body is a furnace, you want that furnace to hum in a low-and-slow consumption as opposed to a scorching flame that gets so hot it clatters the corporeal furnace and then burns itself out. If you eat mostly sugar, Maffetone warns that you risk “[shaking] yourself into injury by stuffing the furnace with garbage”.
How is fat a more reliable source of energy than sugar?
We store a limited supply of carbohydrates in our body, but we can store an unlimited supply of fat. As McDougall puts it, “carbs are a puddle; fat is the Pacific.” The goal is to put this larger storage to use. McDougall quotes Maffetone as saying,” when you teach your body to rely on fat, your combustion of carbs goes down, and so does your craving for them.”
Sounds great. But the problem is, as McDougall explains, “your body loves fat; it’s a treasure your system would rather hoard than burn, so if it senses there’s any other fuel at hand, it will use that first and convert the leftovers into more fat.” Essentially, Maffetone says “the point is to get your body to change the way it gets energy.” Once you do this, you can rely on your ample fat storage instead of the “gas-soaked rags” of sugar.
McDougall sums up Maffetone’s theory by saying, “Humans are superb endurance athletes who’ve roamed farther across this planet than any other species, and we didn’t do it on Gatorade and bagels. We did it by relying on a much richer and cleaner burning fuel: our own body fat.”
Still not sold?
Perhaps this guy can convince you: Laird Hamilton has surfed some of the gnarliest seas of all time. He is a legendary waterman and attributes his prowess to the fact that, in his words, “my body runs off its body fat.” Laird adds, “A triathlete can go for hours on a little almond butter and their own body fat. But if you eat refined carbs, your blood sugar spikes up and down.”
The thing is, we don’t need sugar. There are absolutely no beneficial nutrients for us in refined sugar. It’s certainly not a nutrient we rely on for survival. So can we start considering why we keep so much of it in our diets? When we are eating sugar, we should make sure to acknowledge the sugar as a treat, not a food source. Recognize sugar for what it is and relish the sweetness as an extravagance. Have fun with it.
And start reading labels! Sugar is hidden in nearly everything. Even if you are eating whole foods and have a “healthy” diet, you are most likely ingesting more sugar than you realize. Open your mind to this and be curious about how much sugar you might be consuming.
I mostly abstain from refined sugar and refined starches these days, but I don’t let this direction rule my life. Everything in moderation, including moderation. A few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I ate jelly beans with my daughter. My husband had a mini candy bar or two. They were ridiculously sweet to us. In all honesty, I think we would have both preferred one of our own homemade desserts with dates and nuts and maple syrup to the overly-sweet “flavor” of candy.
The thrill of sugar is gone. My husband and I pulled back the curtain and revealed the naked addiction we had with sugar. Yoga teachings often promise us that the practice of self-study (svadhyaya) can help us draw back the veils that create the illusion (maya). Certainly, I appreciate the clarity that eating less sugar has bestowed upon my life. Certainly, I feel that veils have been removed as I have created distance between myself and refined sugars.
Recognizing the incredible spell that sugar has over us - how prevalent it is in our modern day lives with fast coffee and fast food - perhaps takes us one step closer to the what I call the deeper current: the truth lurking beyond the shallows of what appears to be reality.
If it resonates, keep in mind the furnace analogy. Perhaps relinquish the burn-baby-burn attitude that comes with sugar highs and consider the possibility that fat might be your best friend.