sugar


I’m off caffeine right now and noticing an interesting and subtle improvement in my life that has highlighted a problem with caffeine. A few days ago, at work, I felt this low-energy sensation that caused me to think, “I need some caffeine.” That low-energy sensation was not low caffeine levels, though I had come to think of it that way. It was, of course, tiredness. Without recourse to caffeine I realized that I was just tired, there was nothing to do but take a rest or keep working tired. In that moment I was free of something that had caught me during the last year. I was a human being, tired, and this was what it felt like to be me right now. I could relax into that fact.

With caffeine in your life, there comes an element of constantly chasing the flame of perfect alertness, probably in the service of productivity, without having to use self-care or build distress tolerance.

Without caffeine its much easier to notice how much sleep is really enough, and that you, like all primates, get tired in the afternoon and should probably have a siesta–as is traditional among primates who have not inherited nothern-European culture. (No, it has nothing to do with lunch. How many times have you said, “Wow, breakfast really knocked me out”?) There is also the more esoteric but real opportunity for mindfulness and building equanimity towards the discomforts of life.

This kind of problem is a theme. I also happen to be off sugar right now, for example, and have noticed that my cravings for sugar happen when I am stressed. This was much harder to notice when I could just eat something sugary without thinking about it. I don’t think that sugar counteracts the stress, like caffeine does the tiredness, but I do think I’m unconsciously (and ineffectively) trying to manage stress when I eat sugar most of the time. The result is often bellyache. Off sugar, the question becomes, “Am I hungry?” or “Am I thirsty?” or just, “Am I restless and need a break or a few deep breaths?”

A third example is air conditioning. I live in the desert, and it’s hot during the day. I know from decades of experience that I can adapt to the heat by wearing appropriate clothes, using water, choosing activities based on the time of day, and just plain physiological adaptation. Now I work in air-conditioned offices 9-5, five days a week. For me that means wearing long-sleeve shirts over undershirts to stay warm enough, and never adapting to summer. So whenever I step outside it feels like a furnace and I’m dressed for a cool spring day. I have to use enough AC in my car that I don’t show up to clients’ houses drenched in sweat. It’s like pretending I don’t live in a desert.

Don’t get me wrong–caffeine, sugar, and AC are wonderful in their own ways and I don’t foresee giving any of them up permanently. I just recognize the way they get me trapped chasing a small, constantly moving space of theoretical comfort all day, often to my detriment.

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Many decades in the future, when human nutrition is finally a reputable science, our current tendency to think of foods in categories like “good for you” or “bad for you,” will seem quaint. We will probably find not only that all foods have both helpful properties and less helpful properties, but that those properties are enhanced, dampened, or reversed depending on many, many factors like quantity, preparation, combination, microbiome ecology, genetics, epigenetics, other physiological factors, environmental factors, psychological factors, and who knows what else. I don’t say this to insult people who spend their time thinking about nutrition and diet, but to point out a useful fact. When science tackles any very complex topic, the knowledge it turns up, even if it was basically correct, always seems quaint 100 years later. That goes double for folk wisdom and other less-rigorous forms of collecting knowledge.

That is the caveat to the following explanation of how I am currently thinking about chocolate:

To the extent that such a category exists, it is looking like chocolate may be “good for you.” I won’t go into how or why, as there are a zillion articles about that, all waiting to be proven wrong or quaint, but there is a strong chance that eating chocolate is largely helpful.

The problem is that chocolate tastes terrible by itself, so it is almost always sold in combination with sugar, a food that is very, very likely “bad for you.” Sugar has the power to make chocolate and many other foods taste great, but also the power to screw you up in a bunch of ways; the Satan of food, if you will.

What is your minimal sugar requirement to make chocolate tolerable? How about pleasurable? It’s easy and fun to figure out. (Although while I was figuring it out in a grocery with my friends, Abbi and Matt, a woman said, “You are ruining chocolate for me. Make a choice and get out.” Clearly this is not fun for everyone.) It just takes a grocery with a decent chocolate selection, a little math, and some chocolate money.

Chocolate selection at the Kiva, Eugene. Site of ruining chocolate for one woman.

Here are the “nutrition facts” for a 41-gram bar of Hershey’s Special Dark dark chocolate:

The math here is easy, since the “serving size” is the whole bar. Just over half of this chocolate bar is pure sugar. Imagine the bar below with the ingredients separated, the chocolate on the right, the sugar on the left:

Hershey Special Dark dark chocolate bar, sugar mixed in.

The six squares on the left would be pure sugar. That’s a lot of sugar.

The lowest-sugar bar at the Kiva was Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa Supreme Dark bar, at 7.5% sugar. That’s like almost one of one of the squares above. I found it taste tolerable–enjoyable, even, but more in the way wine can be enjoyable than in the way I normally expect chocolate to be enjoyable. Interesting rather than incredibly delicious. I also found that I did not eat it nearly as compulsively as I do sweeter chocolate.

The runners-up were E. Guittard’s Nocturne “pure extra dark chocolate” 91% cacao, at 8.8% sugar and Theo’s Venezuela 91% Cacao, at 9.5% sugar; each had the equivalent of a little more than a square of sugar out of the bar above, about 10 and 20% more sugar than the Lindt. These bars were easier to eat–less burned and bitter tasting, but still definitely in the enjoyable-like-wine category, a little smoother and maybe fruity or aromatic.

The rest of even heavy-duty dark chocolate bars were at 20% or more sugar. That’s at least almost three squares in the bar above. Green & Black’s Dark 85%, for example, is exactly 20% sugar. I haven’t tried it recently, but after eating these 3-10% bars, I expect it to taste quite sweet, with more than twice as much sugar as the runners-up and almost seven times as much as the Lindt Excellence.

Sometimes the nutritional facts numbers do not add up. I noticed that with the Green & Black 85% bar. It’s got 8 grams of sugar per 40 gram “serving” in a 100 gram bar. That’s 20 grams of sugar per 100 gram bar, thus the 20% sugar I calculated. How is it, then, that the bar is also 85% cocoa? Chocolate companies, please explain your math.

I just went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was the closest one I could find using a Google search–a few blocks from my house, maybe a four minute ride, in a house that I’ve passed hundreds of times. I didn’t expect that. I probably would have guessed that there were something like five or ten AA meetings in all of Eugene and Springfield, but when I searched “Eugene 12-step meetings” I immediately had a list of one hundred and seventy-eight meetings within 15 miles of my zip code. One hundred and thirty-four of those were AA, most of the rest were Narcotics Anonymous, and some were Gamblers (4) and Overeaters (10) Anonymous. They happen every day of the week, from early in the morning until late at night. This movement is huge. No one knows exactly how big because there is no registry, no dues, and the meetings are self-organized, but there were 10 people at my meeting, and this was Halloween night. If 10 is average, that’s something like 1,800 attendees per week, though there is certainly lots of overlap–people attending multiple meetings. Still, that’s a lot of people sitting in a lot of meetings, and that’s in an area with a population of about 200,000.

It was interesting to be so outside of my normal social bubble. I was nervous to go, and nervous when I got there, but everyone was super nice. There were 6 boomers, 2 X-ers (including me), and 2 millenials. I guessed a few were middle class and the rest working class. I’ve been working class my whole life, but these days my social circle is mostly upper-middle, with thin skin and clean hands. My eyes were drawn to the “mechanic hands,” with grease practically tattooed into the grooves of the fingers, and the rough, thick faces of hard lives. We sat in a circle, introduced ourselves, and started reading from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible of AA. We each read a paragraph and then passed to the next person. About half of us had what sounded like a grade-school reading level, another reminder of the thin slice of society I live in, so highly educated.

The story was about a rich alcoholic, who failed to get sober in the US and went to Carl Jung in Europe, who also failed to cure him. Apparently, after some effort, Jung told him something like “I have never had any success helping your type of drunk. Sometimes a spontaneous spiritual epiphany can do the trick, and I have been trying to produce that in you, but have failed. You are a hopeless case.”

The format was that anytime anyone felt moved to speak, they would pipe up: “I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic” and then tell their story or make their comment on the reading. I found it moving to hear their stories and even just to cop to being alcoholics. There was clearly power behind that ability to admit powerlessness. One woman shared about how her life before sobriety was “insanity,” not only in that she was constantly miserable to the point that she felt like her life was “hell,” but in that “What I thought or what I decided about drinking had no impact on whether I drank that day.”

A lot of the readings for my Modern Issues in Addiction class are critiques of the 12-step model, the “disease model,” of addiction. The in-vogue model in post-modern circles like my Couples and Family Therapy program is the “harm-reduction model,” which is secular, so it requires no spiritual epiphany to reorganize the addict’s behavior, and is not aiming at abstinence, but at reducing the damage done by the addiction. One reason harm-reduction is appealing is that you are allowed to count positive outcomes that fall short of abstinence; isn’t it a victory if someone who used to get drunk every night now gets drunk just 3 nights a week? Yes, I think so. Another reason harm-reduction is appealing is that God, even as vaguely defined as it is, is such a dicey topic, hard to manualize for therapy, hard to justify getting behind for us multiculturalists, not wanting to offend the atheists or the theists who have another word for God. The AA God has a male pronoun, for God’s sake. So unhip. It’s hard for us to get behind a program that is not for everyone.

The critiques of the 12-step model have all been theoretical critiques of theory–a form which is quickly becoming my least favorite form of writing. If you have a theory you want to critique, please use data to do so. Please build your counter-theory on data. That would be lovely. The trouble is, the data does not contradict the 12-step model. The summaries of evidence I’ve read (which were written by the critique-ers) basically say that 12-step programs work at least as well as harm-reduction programs, however you measure outcomes, and they work significantly better for addicts who are religious.

The God part of the program was clearly a key part for the folks in my meeting. Two men told harrowing stories about their pre-sobriety days that focused on their denial of their problem. They would go to meetings but they didn’t really “get it” and things got worse and worse. Both described turning-point moments that turned on a prayer. One night, one said in anguish simply, “God, help!” The other said, “Oh, God, I will do anything.” And suddenly they knew that they had a real problem, and that they were personally powerless against it.

I have a difficult time relating to the concept of a second-person God–it’s hard for me to believe anything I can’t directly experience–but I think there is something real and useful going on here. It reminds me of what it’s like to sit in Vipassana meditation. I sit and systematically observe the sensations in my body. It seems as if I have some control over what part of my body I’m focusing on, but I don’t seem to have any control over what sensations I experience in that part of my body. I look and feel what is there, and what is there is given. I am learning to relinquish control over the things that I cannot control. I am practicing not reacting against what is given. And really, how I react is also mostly not in my control, also part of what is given, so I sit with the intention of allowing reality to happen and watch. Suffering is part of the reaction. If I have pain in my body and I react against it, that is suffering. If I have pain and I don’t react against it, that is just pain, which is radically different. And the difference between reacting and not reacting, I think, is grace. It’s my willingness to sit and pay attention, and grace. This is not so different from an alcoholic turning their life over to God. It’s like the serenity prayer, which we said:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

When we went around the circle introducing ourselves, each person (just like in the movies) said their first name and that they were an alcoholic. When it came to me I said “Hi, I’m Nathen, and I’m new here.” I was a little nervous about it, but they seemed to like that fine and said “Hi, Nathen!” with just as much enthusiasm as they did for the others.

I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t like alcohol. The first swallow can be pretty interesting, especially if it’s expensive stuff, but after that it starts tasting like something you would scrub your sink out with. I think I inherited that from my mom’s side of the family. That’s how you can tell the Pikes from the in-laws at a family reunion: The in-laws are drinking, the Pikes are not.

I can relate to compulsive behavior, though, mostly around food. And when I say food, I mostly mean sugar. (I seriously considered going to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for this project instead of AA. I think that I didn’t because I (unfairly, I’m sure) imagined the real food addicts staring at me, maybe hating me in my effortlessly thin body.) At times, I can relate to the woman who said it didn’t matter what she thought or decided about drinking. I can make what feels like a very serious decision not to eat any more cookies today, for example, and then find myself rationalizing my way back to the package. Or ice cream, chocolate, pretty much anything sweet. I can remember sitting, my stomach already feeling kind of bad, looking at a half-eaten bag of chocolate chips, and realizing that I was going to finish those chips. It didn’t matter that I would feel terrible. It didn’t matter that I would have trouble getting to sleep. They weren’t even tasting that good anymore. But I was going to eat them all. I find that disturbing. I think of myself as the kind of person who can and does make decisions and follow through, all the way. That is the kind of behavior psychologists call “ego-dystonic,” or counter to the conception of the self.

So I had my moment of feeling like I was in the right place. It was Halloween night, and they had a big container of candy on a table in the middle of the circle and said, “Help yourself!” It was all crap, in the sense of my intention for this year, “Do not eat crap.” I saw that immediately. I was not hungry, but I wanted some candy. I thought, “I should probably eat a piece or two of that candy to take part in the culture of this group.” I took and ate two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups–probably my favorite of the crap-class candy–during the meeting. I’m certain no one would have noticed if I hadn’t. My rationalization was just my rationalization. I felt a little guilty for breaking my intention and I noticed my attention going back to the candy throughout the meeting. It was easy not to eat any more, but that may have been because there were no more Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups visible. I would have had to dig noisily through the container while others were reading or sharing.

But while I did have that experience, I don’t mean to make light of the experience of the people at that meeting, or of actual food addicts. I am not a food addict. I have some usually-mild compulsive behavior around food, but not to the point that I’ve ever done anyone wrong or maintained an unhealthy lifestyle. These folks were dealing with something on a whole other level of suffering and trouble. And they seemed to be doing admirably. One man described how when he started craving alcohol, he knew it was time to “reach out”–go to more meetings, call for support, be with good people. As with the others’ sharing, I was moved by his sincerity, conviction, and wisdom.

After an hour of talking, we stood, held hands, and closed with the Lord’s Prayer. I did not expect to be moved by it, but their delivery of the about temptation and evil had such feeling and meaning after hearing their stories:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.

My mom sent me this in response to my posting the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD yesterday. She’s not a health care professional, but she did raise five boys. Since I’m the oldest I got to see her do it. I also got to benefit from her love of nature (and sending us out into it), reading to her kids, being affectionate with her kids, making nutritious food, and her skepticism of TV and traditional schooling. And many, many other things, like her faith in her kids. The first thing they told us in my class on psychopathology was that we were not to diagnose ourselves, our friends, or family, so I won’t, but I suspect that all of us (except perhaps Ben) fit the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD for periods of our young lives. She wouldn’t even feed us sugar, much less amphetamines, so it’s not like it was a close call, but thanks, Mom, for not feeding us stimulants!

Here it is:
“Be forewarned, this takes effort on the parent’s part!

“Here is my humble prescription for hyperactivity in children (who, by the way, are usually boys): First, TAKE HIM OUT OF SCHOOL!! Live in, or move to, a rural area. (Or at least make sure there is a wild area, like woods or a meadow, nearby). Each day, after he has slept as late as he wants to, feed him a highly nutritious breakfast that contains no sugar, no additives, no colorings. Just whole foods. Then, send him outside to play in nature. Make sure he gets plenty of sun exposure. Make sure he has some of these things: trees to climb, grass to lie in, rocks to scramble on, water to swim or wade in, wildlife to watch, dirt to dig in, and bushes to hide in. (Create a beautiful outdoor environment for him if your outdoor area is naturally very stark.) Make sure he has plenty of water to drink. Let him roam freely. At lunchtime have him come in for another nutritious meal of whole foods. No sugar. Only water to drink. After a cuddle and as much attention as he wants from you, send him back outside to play in nature. Let him play as long as he wants. When he wants to come back inside, he can be read to or told stories, he can play or read quietly, or he can just rest while listening to soft classical music, or take a nap. No TV. No computers. No gameboys… no screens of any kind. Nothing with headphones. Then, back outside to play until the sun goes down. Back in for another nutritious meal, and then he is put in the bathtub. He plays in the bathtub for as long as he wants (an hour or more in very warm water is good). Then, he has a bedtime routine (thorough teeth brushing and flossing- you do it if necessary- and then jammies). After that he gets read to for a LONG TIME in bed…an hour or more is good… until he is sleepy. Make sure he has plenty of hugs and cuddles and kisses and loving words as he drifts off. Follow this prescription every day until his hyperactivity is cured. By the way, this routine could be of benefit to “normal” children, as well. It works for calming and soothing and centering and bringing color to their cheeks, and a more cheerful attitude in general. And, I’d go so far as to say, adults should try it, too… to cure whatever ails them.”