As I was waiting for my flight to Orlando, Florida, the flight attendant was calling for boarding according to groups — “Group A, as in apple pie is ready to board.” That was followed by “Group B, as in butter biscuit.” And yes, you guessed it, “Group C, as in cotton candy.”
I turned to Des, my friend and colleague, and asked smiling, “What’s up with the sugar pushing early in the morning?”
Des just looked at me and smiled, “Oh Dora, you are always the sugar-addiction police.”
I ended my last article, by defining addiction as our desire to mask the unpleasant experience, and that to heal, we need to avoid avoidance. This flight to Orlando sets up the perfect environment to write about our addictive mind.
Sugar is one of the most addictive substances, but it is also the most widely accepted comfort foods. We don’t bat an eye at a “cotton candy” announcement at 7 a.m., or cookies every night. Even though we know overconsumption of sugar is the leading cause of most of our illnesses in modern life, we are OK talking about sugar as a celebrated and loved substance. Imagine talking about alcohol this way — we all love a glass of wine, but we realize that we need moderation, and if we are thinking about drinking at 7 a.m. at the airport we may have a problem.
Des, an ICU nurse, has seen her share of illness due to sugar. We are headed to Orlando to present at NTI with our company Spira Mindful Wellness. Our lecture is on mindfulness practices for nursing professionals. The last slide of my presentation is: Cut down on sugar. It is impossible to be mindful with a brain high on sugar.
We are seldom aware of our addictive mind beyond substances such as drugs and alcohol.
We have evolved to avoid the bad and to seek out rewards. We chase after the feel-good experience because, from an evolutionary perspective, good feelings caused behaviors that helped the survival of the species. Sugar at the time of caloric scarcity helped us survive. Speed ahead 70,000 years at the time of plenty and sugar is not only not serving us, it is literally killing us.
Sugar was a rare find for most of history, but it was restricted to honey and fruits. It is only with the arrival of cane sugar processing that we got easy access to the substance. Before 1600, an average person consumed fewer than 7 pounds of sugar per year, but currently, an average American is consuming 120 pounds of sugar per year. No wonder we have a problem.
And sugar is hiding everywhere. Complex carbohydrates like bread, pasta and potato all break down to form sugars in our bloodstream.
You don’t have to eat sugar to have a high sugar diet. From an evolutionary perspective, we are consuming an inordinate amount of carbohydrates and move considerably less than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The human body functions best with a diet high in leafy vegetable with moderate protein and fat. Grains are a late addition to our palette — they came with agriculture about 5,000-3,000 years ago (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms). We keep craving sweets and grains because they are high in calorie compared to leafy vegetables. Thus our brain still considers them as advantageous for our survival.
This brings me back to my initial statement. To heal, we need to avoid avoidance.
One of the reasons we love sugar is because it suppresses our “bad feelings.” But in order to heal, we need to be aware of the problem.
When we present on this topic, this is right about the time when Des shouts out, no, we are not the “fun police.”
We are not saying no cake, no cookies, no pasta — we are saying considerably less. Once you recognize these behaviors and substances as addictive, you will make different choices. That donut in the office break room will become less attractive, and maybe you’ll exchange eating pizza with home cooking. Where there is awareness, there is a choice, and without awareness we are stuck in the blindness of addiction.
Sugar is addictive. It is a leading cause of obesity and morbidity in the U.S. So, no, it is not OK to think about chocolate cake at 7 a.m. That is a sign of addiction, and it is about time we recognize our problem.
Addiction is everywhere in our modern life.
Dora Gyarmati teaches yoga and mindfulness classes. She owns Spira Power Yoga in Issaquah and West Seattle. Her company M3Bmethod also lectures on resiliency and stress management to health care professionals.