“The Wellness Diet demonises some foods whilst elevating others.” ~ Christy Harrison
For five years, sweets never passed my lips.
I avoided all processed sugar for the sake of my health and was determined to never ever eat sugar.
I’d bought into the whole “sugar is poison” concept but never took the time to look beneath the alarming headlines about how sugar is slowly killing us all. That was it, sugar-free baking from now until eternity.
I honestly thought I was doing it for my health and my family’s health. Only it wasn’t so healthy. I worried about sugar all day long. I substituted processed sugar in everything, I avoided cooking with sugar, and I even started worrying about the sugar in fruit. At one point, I would only eat berries because all other fruits were too high in sugar!
I would religiously study food labels and calculate how many grams of sugar there were in certain foods, especially anything that was remotely processed. I started to avoid anything prepackaged (I mean, hummus and pre-cooked beans included), and I’d constantly worry in case I slipped up from my healthy eating regime.
You see, I was suffering from orthorexia but didn’t realise it at the time. Orthorexia, although not yet an officially recognised eating disorder, is seen to be an unhealthy obsession with eating “clean.” And it was slowly stealing the joy out of living, eating, and hanging out with friends.
I got to the stage where eating out was stressful because, along with sugar, there were many other things I avoided. I was gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free. I would also only eat organic foods. All this worry and stress was starting to take its toll.
Until one day, I picked up a book by someone who had previously suffered from an eating disorder. As the story unfolded in those pages, I started to realise that my own behaviours were looking suspiciously eating disorder-ish and much like orthorexia.
Mind blown. Literally. I started to see how my behaviour was impacting my kids. (I mean, how many years can you go with a mum who bakes you sugar-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free cakes for your birthday?)
I started to see how so many of my behaviours were disordered. How mealtimes had become stressful and how avoiding dinners out with friends was not good for my mental health. I could also see how the stress around eating was probably worse for me than what I was eating itself.
Here’s what I did. We were away for a weekend as a family and whilst sight-seeing, the kids spotted a sweetie shop—can we go in pleeeeasssseeeeeee? It was my worst nightmare, of course, but I thought, “What happens if I join in this time?”
So, I joined in. I became a child in a sweet shop that day and chose all the tangy ones that I used to enjoy when I was 10. I walked out with a small packet of sweets. And then did something I never thought I would: I took a bite.
First one…and then another. I ate them slowly; I sucked, and I savoured, and I enjoyed the taste. Some were absolutely delicious. And after a handful, I put the pack away and pondered. Is sugar really that bad? Do I really have to give up all these foods for my health? Is it normal to be so fearful of food?
That was one of the first steps on my journey to heal my relationship with food, and these are the surprising things I learnt that day from eating a handful of sweets.
1. Eating a handful of sweets isn’t like snorting cocaine.
Despite what the headlines tell you! After my sweet episode, I decided to take a look at some of the research on sugar addiction, and I was surprised to say the least. Most of the alarmist headlines come from a 2007 study where rats were given a choice of sugar solution or cocaine and the findings showed that the rats chose the sugar solution 94 percent of the time.
Some have taken this to mean that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, but this argument is flawed. What it really tells us is that rats prefer the taste of sugar over the taste of cocaine, which is no surprise really because cocaine tastes disgusting (yes, I know from personal experience!).
A further line of argument that some people use to suggest sugar is addictive is that eating sugar lights up the same areas of the brain as when we take drugs. But the problem with this line of argument is that those same areas of the brain also light up when we listen to music, hear a joke, smile, fall in love, and when we stroke puppies. And we’re not claiming that these things are poisonous or addictive are we?
2. Restricting something makes you want it more.
I spent all those years preventing my kids from eating sugar and all I did was create two sugar monsters. The more I tried to restrict their sweet intake, the more they longed for them. My kids used to talk about sweets, obsess over them, and they probably dreamt about them.
I realised that they wanted more sweets because I was always telling them they couldn’t eat sweets. The funny thing is that now that I’ve relaxed my sugar policy, they rarely talk about sweets. The obsessions, the cravings, they’re all gone because they are now allowed to eat sweets.
3. Enjoying sugary foods from time to time is totally fine.
It’s fine to enjoy food with sugar in it every now and then, or even every day. In fact, the stress of worrying about what you are eating can be worse for your health than the food itself. I was so consumed with eating perfectly that I would get stress-related tummy aches. Now that I’m more relaxed about food, those tummy aches are gone!
4. There’s no need to demonise certain foods.
All foods really can fit into a balanced and healthful approach to eating. There’s no need for full-on restriction (unless of course you have a medical reason to give something up), and allowing yourself cake or pizza or sweets every now and then can be part of a nourishing and satisfying approach to eating.
These four things totally changed my relationship with food. They helped me feel more calm around meal times, relaxed when my kids went to birthday parties, and it took the pressure off trying to eat perfectly all the time.
For me, this is food freedom, and it’s a liberating way of being around food. What does food freedom mean to you?