*Happiness, Hotness, and Health-Trolling was written by Susan Knowles. See the Contributors page for more.
There are three things food can do. Obviously, it sates our hunger, providing micro and macronutrients that allow our bodies to function well. Food also has an emotional/mental component; we turn to it in joy and in pain. In all of life’s big moments, there food is, helping us to celebrate, to heal, and to comfort us in our hours of need. Of course, there is a third thing food can do. When we consume more calories than we need, our body stores that energy as fat. This wasn’t really a problem up until about 100 years ago. But, for as long as I can remember, it’s been a problem for me.
My relationship with food has always been fraught. A more-often-than-not chubby child, I never knew that there were people who didn’t struggle to say no to a second or third piece of cake. I don’t really remember a seminal moment when I realized that I was different from other girls in my small elementary class, but anyone with eyes could see I was usually the biggest girl there. This became more pointed, more painful as I entered junior high.
In my small class of 20ish kids, there weren’t multiple groups, only a dichotomy: you were either popular or you weren’t. In my 13-year-old mind, my social standing was 100 percent due to my size. Looking back, I’m sure it was more like 80 percent due to my lack of confidence and awkwardly developing sense of humor. Regardless, I became convinced that if I could just lose weight, I would be given the keys to the kingdom. Popularity, the attention of teenage boys, and starting for the team sports I played all lay beyond the locked door of weight loss.
At 14 I begged my mom to take me to Weight Watchers. I remember my first meeting where the leader asked us to imagine ourselves at our ideal weight and what that would look and feel like. Later, some woman made an awkward comment that implied that her marriage was at stake if she didn’t drop some weight soon. The point-counting methods of the program were explained and I was sold. Through meticulous point-counting and the miracle that is a teenage metabolism, I lost a ton of weight. I then, of course, realized that I was hot shit. At 5’7 I went from 195 to ~150 lbs.
Ever since, I’ve been chasing that same, sweet high. College was mostly easy weight-control wise, thanks to lots of walking and not drinking until my senior year. After college, things got a lot harder. I tend to stick to basic calorie counting, which has had the fortunate side-effect of making a whiz a quick mental arithmetic. However, I’ve tried EVERY fad diet, too; my friend likes to say that I’ve drank all the flavors of Kool-Aid. A short list includes: Keto, Whole 30, and Nutri-system.
Across the past ten years of being Sisyphus pushing a scale and size-eight jeans up a hill, one constant remained: the struggle with sweets. We’ve all heard the studies that find that sugary foods light up the same areas of the brain as cocaine and/or heroin. I believe it. I am by no means envious of those who struggle with alcohol or narcotics addictions. Thankfully, more than three to four drinks in one session is likely to cause an incurable rager of a headache and taking opiates for more than a couple of consecutive days also creates a rebound headache. While these addictions can wreak havoc on one’s personal and professional lives, there’s something especially shameful about struggling with food.
I can see that look that someone gives me when I make one too many trips to the dessert table, at a party, or at a cookout like, “Jesus, Susan. The rest of us know how to control ourselves as evidenced by our smaller waistlines. Why can’t you get your shit (along with some dignity and willpower) together?” I know that’s just me projecting, but I still feel it.
Living in Sobriety from Sugar
Now, almost 800 words of backstory later, allow me to share the reason I’m writing this piece. I would like to live in sobriety from sugar. Before I tell you exactly what that means for me, allow me to share the two reasons I’m doing this.
First and simply, I want to live with agency over my own body and my choices. I don’t like feeling like there’s something inside of me I can’t control. I want to remain in control of my health, not just now, but in the future as well. Several family members dealt with type-two diabetes, and while I’m nowhere near that now, I want to develop habits that would prevent that from happening ten years down the road. Sugar, outside of those naturally occurring in fruits, whole grains, and dairy isn’t doing jack-shit for your body. It spikes your blood sugar then lowers energy levels after it crashes, and it’s empty calories don’t make you feel as full as you would be if those calories contained fiber, fat, or protein.
The other reason is complete and utter vanity: I want very much to lose about 15-20 lbs. Now this is where you might be thinking, “Susan, isn’t that a health reason, too?” In the words of Chuck Testa, nope. You may also be thinking, “Hey, you’re not a health professional, what do you know about that?” Well, for one thing, I basically have a master’s degree in fat people and how people talk about them.
Even more back story: instead of doing most of my research papers on something relevant to my field, I wound up being fascinated by the way American culture talks about fat people. During my time in school, I read several peer-reviewed studies that could find no statistically significant relationship between weight and morbidity/mortality rates.
So allow me to drop some knowledge on you: the 10, 20, (insert whatever small number you’re obsessed with here) pounds you’re desperate to lose will likely have no negative effect on your health. Ultimately, what matters health-wise are three things: your level of cardiovascular activity: Are you breaking a sweat and getting your heart rate up a few times a week?; muscle mass: are you picking up heavy things and putting them back down, increasing the weight every few weeks?; quality calories: are you eating a crap-ton of various fruits and vegetables, lots of protein, and healthy fats?
Bottom line: when it comes to your health and calories, it’s quality over quantity all day, every day. If you’re doing all these things, feel healthy and strong, and a doctor you trust tells you all of your health indicators like blood pressure, blood glucose, vitamin levels, etc. are good, then dropping 10-20 pounds through simple calorie reduction is very unlikely to do a damn thing for your health. If someone tries to tell you otherwise or tries to concern-troll you into believing otherwise, please feel free to send them this meme.
So, as much as my inner feminist hates to type this, I’m mostly just doing this sugar sobriety thing to look hotter. End of story. However, let’s be real: there are several social benefits of not being overweight in addition to being attractive in a traditional heteronormative way or as Tina Fey put it in Mean Girls, “a regulation hottie.” If you want to lose whatever remains in your faith in humanity, allow me to recommend “Dataclysm” by one of the founders of OKCupid. Even though I’m in a long term relationship, there are a treasure-trove of social benefits of being hot outside of the dating scene. The book outlines several studies that show strong evidence that attractive, non-overweight men and women enjoy several perks that larger people don’t. Spoiler alert: the effect is stronger in women; I know you’re shocked. Non-overweight women are more likely to get hired than a slightly less qualified larger person. Then–of course–there’s the higher pay, greater likelihood for promotions, better tips, and a slew of other, more subtle perks.
In addition to all the screwed up stuff I mentioned above, I’m not afraid to admit that I like all the attention. I like people telling me they can tell I’ve lost weight and that I look nice. It’s shallow, but it’s true.
That’s enough navel-gazing. This is a food blog, or an eat-zine if you will, so let’s get back to the food. What the hell does sobriety mean in the context of sweets? And why just sweets?
As I mentioned before, sweets are my weakness. As much as I love cheese, I’m not likely to blow out my calorie budget by gnawing on a block of white cheddar at 11 p.m. on a Thursday like I am with Oreos or anything Little Debbie makes. I feel like sweets are where I’m most likely to lose control. Now, as I do this, I’m planning to track my calories in MyFitnessPal. As much as it sucks, unless you’re in ketosis, for me at least, calories in and calories out is the only way to lose weight. Exercise helps a little if your diet is on-point, but it cannot cover the multitude of sins that many people think it can.
So what does that mean? Lots of foods contain added sugar that you wouldn’t really describe as “sweet” and I’m choosing to keep those in the mix. While I wish that more food manufacturers would use other means to create flavor, binging on white bread that has a few grams of sugar per slice isn’t really an issue for me.
What about sucralose and aspartame? While these are often vilified, when it comes to weight loss, my primary concern is artificial spikes in blood sugar, which my at home tests have proved to be inconclusive.
I’m writing this in May after two weeks away. Let me just say, many desserts were had. I have no idea what my current weight is, but I won’t step on the scale until a few days in so I don’t freak out at a temporary post-vacay bloat. Right now, I’m committing to no sweets with added sugar for 30 days. After that, I think I might only have these items on vacation, major holidays, and weekends before 5 pm. I tend to binge on sweets at night and I love waffles and French toast too much to part ways with them forever.
I’ll be back in about thirty days to report on how things are going!
Hello, the Internet!
I’m back after about 30 days. I have some good news and some bad news.
The bad news first:
Just telling the internet that you’re going to do something doesn’t make you actually do it. I would love to tell you that I’ve gotten over all of my food/sweets issues or that I’m now one of those bitches laughing into salads and one with the universe and whatnot – but I’m not. Writing an article on a long flight didn’t solve 20-plus years of food/sweets issues. Surprise, surprise. I still ate sugar sometimes and I didn’t really change my weight.
Now, the good news:
I found this really great TED talk and, since I’ve already written 2000 words on this, allow me to quote the neuroscientist directly.
“Your brain also has its own sense of what you should weigh, no matter what you consciously believe. This is called your set point, but that’s a misleading term, because it’s actually a range of about 10 or 15 pounds. You can use lifestyle choices to move your weight up and down within that range, but it’s much, much harder to stay outside of it. The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body weight, there are more than a dozen chemical signals in the brain that tell your body to gain weight, more than another dozen that tell your body to lose it, and the system works like a thermostat, responding to signals from the body by adjusting hunger, activity and metabolism, to keep your weight stable as conditions change.”
“If I’ve convinced you that dieting might be a problem, the next question is, what do you do about it? And my answer, in a word, is mindfulness. I’m not saying you need to learn to meditate or take up yoga. I’m talking about mindful eating: learning to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, because a lot of weight gain boils down to eating when you’re not hungry. How do you do it? Give yourself permission to eat as much as you want, and then work on figuring out what makes your body feel good. Sit down to regular meals without distractions. Think about how your body feels when you start to eat and when you stop, and let your hunger decide when you should be done.
Diets may seem harmless, but they actually do a lot of collateral damage. At worst, they ruin lives: Weight obsession leads to eating disorders, especially in young kids. In the U.S., we have 80 percent of 10-year-old girls say they’ve been on a diet. Our daughters have learned to measure their worth by the wrong scale. Even at its best, dieting is a waste of time and energy. It takes willpower which you could be using to help your kids with their homework or to finish that important work project, and because willpower is limited, any strategy that relies on its consistent application is pretty much guaranteed to eventually fail you when your attention moves on to something else.”
Also, this from Real Life RD:
“When I talk with clients fixated on a certain pant size or number on the scale, because that’s where they have felt good physically and where they felt confident, I’ll almost always ask, ‘But how did you feel emotionally? And how were your relationships? How were you doing as a whole person.’ The response is usually significantly different.”
Healthy means sleep is a priority. Healthy means you practice self-care. Healthy means you’re aware of your boundaries and limitations and you respect those – because you’re confident in how you were created and what your purpose is in this life. Healthy isn’t easily influenced by other’s opinions or by an internet article. Healthy instead is rooted in a fundamental awareness of what is good for you.”
If I haven’t sold you on this way of life I’m excited to try, allow me to quote the great Amy Poehler:
I had already made a decision early on that I would be a plain girl with lots of personality, and accepting it made everything a lot easier. If you are lucky, there is a moment in your life when you have some say as to what your currency is going to be.
My currency was never going to be my looks. There aren’t a lot of things that I’m willing to own completely, but this is one. I’m funny. I don’t really give a shit if you or anyone else thinks so after reading this, but I know it. No rando on the internet or in real life will ever take that away from me. I bet you have something—other than your looks— that’s your currency, too.
So, the plan for the future is to eat a crap-ton of veggies, fewer sweets, and generally eat three squares–intuitively, with no restrictions. That’s all I got. Allow me to leave you with a quotation from Beyonće on the socially constructed bullshit:
“Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell.”
And, perhaps more poignantly:
“When he f@*k me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster.”
Susan Knowles does design and marketing communications for an electronics component company in North Carolina. She has two cats and six chickens. Susan would love to write a guest post on your blog, too; she can BS her way through most topics. If you enjoy her writing, find her on Twitter @SeeSusanTweet or show your appreciation, though decently good seats for Hamilton. You know, whichever is more convenient.