(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Addictions are a prevalent feature of modern American life. Tobacco, alcohol, coffee, pain killers, sleeping pills, television, porn, the internet . . . Humans are creatures of habit. While addictions undermine our sense of control and self-trust, they also soothe us. They serve as a thread of comfortable sameness in our lives, and we use them to substitute for unmet needs. I mean in no way to condemn the objects of our addictions. I don’t think any of the items above, even tobacco, are intrinsically “bad.” I simply believe that when we lose our sense of conscious choice about these indulgences – when they simply become habit – it’s like falling asleep. And life is worth staying awake for.
By far, the most prevalent and insidious addiction is sugar. I ask nearly all my patients about their diets, and almost everyone has some degree of sugar addiction. If you feel like reading about the history of how sugar became insinuated in our culture and cuisine, William Dufty’s classic, “Sugar Blues” is a good book to start with.
Everyone knows excess sugar isn’t good for us, but it’s so hard to get away from it. The addiction is powerful and biological. It alters our moods. Maybe you’re feeling kind of unhappy just from reading this and thinking about the prospect of having less sugar. We do need some sugar, specifically in the brain, so we can’t do without it entirely. But we certainly don’t need sweeteners of any kind in order to get enough sugar to function healthily.
Simple carbohydrates (sweeteners and flour are the main ones) are bloated in calories but empty in nutrients, and they produce bodies that are similarly bloated in size but weak in vitality. In 1939, a dentist-turned-nutritional researcher and anthropologist named Weston Price published a book detailing his studies of numerous isolated indigenous cultures on the brink of modernization. Price did extensive analyses of many aspects of their lives, including their diets, their soil quality, the nutritional value of their food, and the health of their teeth and bodies. He compared those who still subsisted on a traditional diet with others living nearby or in the same community who had begun eating modern foods – particularly processed goods, sugar, and white flour.
Price found that indigenous people living on traditional diets invariably had strong constitutions and healthy teeth. He also found, with alarming consistency, that the introduction of modern foods coincided with the development of chronic health problems and a dramatic deterioration in dental health. Indigenous people living on indigenous diets typically had perfect, straight teeth that fit properly in their mouths, and they rarely developed cavities.
Modern diets led not only to more cavities, but to crowded, crooked teeth that were passed on to subsequent generations. Have you ever thought about why it is that modern humans need to routinely have their wisdom teeth extracted? Or that we need to have our teeth manipulated into place with braces? There are no other bones in the human body that need to be removed or braced in order to fit properly. Weston Price’s work also forged an understanding of how tooth and gum disease contribute to a wide range of problems in other parts of the body.
Modernity has brought certain advances in medicine and public health that have helped to prolong our lives, yet other aspects of modern living tend to degrade our quality and duration of life. Some of these factors, such as pollution by toxic chemicals and electromagnetic radiation, may be hard to avoid. But others, like diet, are well within our control. Sugar consumption promotes inflammation, worsens infections, suppresses the immune system, causes weight gain, and promotes tooth decay. I believe that most chronic health problems are worsened by the consumption of sugar.
The tricky part is that sugar is in almost all processed foods. This is, in Michael Pollan’s words, a1 consequence of “letting corporations do our cooking.” Americans cook about half as much as we did 40 years ago, and this decline is paralleled by the incline in the size of our waistbands. On average, Americans consume 138.3 pounds of sweeteners per person per year. Compare this to 82.8 pounds of poultry, 72.8 pounds of beef, 70.6 pounds of potatoes, 66 pounds of fruit, 63.4 pounds of pork, and 13 pounds of fish. Sweeteners find their way into all kinds of things – tomato sauce, soup, bread, cereal, soy milk, peanut butter, chili, yogurt, ketchup, relish, “healthy” cereals, energy bars, vitamin drinks, coffee drinks, salad dressing, and a huge majority of the food found in restaurants. It’s unlikely that you’ve ever had Thai food in the U.S. without sugar in it. I have looked at all the packages of toddler snacks in all the healthy grocery stores in Portland, and all of them – ALL – have added sweeteners.
It was not until I became a parent that I began to see the role parents play in helping their kids become addicted to sugar. It often starts at special occasions, such as a first birthday, where kids are offered some sweet treats. The crazy thing is, most infants and toddlers aren’t even interested in sweets. But when sweet things are introduced with great fanfare and made the centerpiece of a party, this makes sugar very attractive and ensures that our kids will covet it.
We can’t deprive our kids of sweets altogether – they’ll be clamoring for sugar soon enough – but it’s important that we guide them to establish a healthy relationship with it. I recommend not offering sweet things unless kids explicitly ask for them. When they do ask, first offer a healthy alternative. If they persist, explain that sweets are junk food – they don’t have vitamins in them, they don’t make us big and strong, and if we eat them regularly they actually weaken us – but they’re okay every once in a while.
And why not practice the same advice with ourselves? Over the timeline of the human species, only in last little slice of our existence have we begun to gorge ourselves on sugar. Our bodies aren’t made to handle it. It’s like running ourselves on gasoline when we’re accustomed to coal. It wears us out. Consider that one of the most striking characteristics of centenarians as a group is that none of them are obese.
Now is a great time to quit sugar. The weather is good, the days are long, and there’s plenty of fresh food in season. You’ll probably notice a difference in how you feel within just a few days. After a week or two, your sweet cravings subside. If it’s very difficult to kick the cravings, you can try taking an Ayurvedic herb called Gymnema (available at The Dragontree and in the nutrition section of many stores), which stabilizes blood sugar and reduces your ability to taste sweet things. Instead, or in addition, you can try a mineral called chromium picolinate, at a dose of 5000 mcg per day for several days, then gradually tapering down to 1000 mcg a day. A nice side benefit of cutting out sweeteners is that we rediscover and enjoy the natural sweetness of many foods, such as chicken, corn, bamboo shoots, cabbage, beans, nuts, pork, rice, shrimp, potatoes, squash, oats, and rice. We remember that simple food is delicious. Give it a try for two weeks. You can do it!