A lot of people gave themselves the task of “Sober January”. For me, it was all about sugar. I had consumed far too much in December but more importantly, I recognized that my habit needed to be broken, so I needed to be totalitarian about it.
What habit needed to be broken?
Well, I would frequently buy chocolate on my way home from the grocery store. It started as something once or twice a week, that became every day rather quickly. I know exactly when it turned from an occasional indulgence to a fix that I couldn’t stop: I was on my race vacation last Fall, in Boston to run my first half marathon. My friend and I had just picked up our race packets for The Boston Half Marathon in October, and as we walked down Boylston St, my eye caught the ever-wondrous Lindt Shop. Why is the Lindt Shop so special, you ask? Well, you can buy any flavour of Lindt ball that they have available, and they charge you bulk by weight. Once you fill up your bag full of balls, trying to be modest and choosing only 2 of each flavour (like I’m building a Noah’s Ark of chocolate balls), the very nice salespeople chime in “This bag will cost you $29, but you can add 8 more balls and it will only cost $1 more!” Of course I don’t remember the exact pricing, but it was something akin to “You would be daft to pass this offer up!” Right-o. Out the door I walk, happy as a clam, with my bag full of chocolate balls, of which I will love every single one because I chose each one by hand!! No duds in this bag!
The balls lasted the time that we were in Boston, about 5 days. When they were finished, I was still on vacation at our next destination, and I was seeking to fill that sugar hit. Unfortunately, when I got home from my 2 week multiple race vacation, I was not only 10 lbs heavier (predominantly from eating out, not solely from eating chocolate) but now I had a new habit.
We were approaching the winter holiday season, and I was getting emails for half off coupons at the Lindt shop, local to me. Obviously, I went to the shop and did it all over again. I even went there one more time and paid full price! Like watching a freight train jump the tracks, all I could do was watch. The sugar habit was giving me something that I wasn’t; I couldn’t run. My feet and lower legs were starting to hurt from 16 months of racing at least once per month. My physio and massage therapist told me to take a break from running, to give me a chance to recover in my off-season (I later discovered my frequency and training had little to do with my pain, but that’s another story). Since we didn’t actually know what was causing my leg pain at the time, only that it wasn’t going away and I was still running, the popular opinion was to stop. What they (and I) did not realize was how effective running was as an appetite suppressant for me. Or how much more anxious I am when I’m not running. It didn’t matter that I was going to the gym now 4 days per week.
There was a kind of hit that I could only get from running, or sugar. During the month of December, my weight went up more, and my blood sugars became more and more unpredictable, which of course, made me more anxious and made me want to eat more sugar… A lot of well-meaning people told me to allow December for celebration without being worried about what I was eating, that many other people were doing it, too. But to throw away a year’s worth of progress in one month was not sitting well with me. Or to suggest that it’s okay to indulge in an unhealthy addiction because hey it’s the holidays and it’s socially acceptable! Every decision I made felt like the wrong one, and every dinner I ate was followed by 10 Lindt balls.
How did I stop the run away sugar freight train? I did a few things.
- The first thing I did was I gave away the rest of my chocolate balls. I gave one bag to my mom, which had about 30 balls in it. I took the other bag and I portioned out tiny little plastic gift bags of 3 balls, each, to give away at a friend’s cocktail party. I had to get that sugar out of the house.
- I decided to let December run its course, and to ban myself from added sugar in January. This wasn’t really an all added sugar ban, as there are certain things I have to keep eating, such as boxes of juice, if my blood sugar drops too low. There was also sugar in most of my meal bars, but these were okayed by my dietitian. Added sugar for me, really meant, no desserts, no chocolate. I’m not drawn to packaged food or hidden sugars (e.g. ketchup), as I eat a low-FODMAP diet and I also want to be conscious of when I am consuming sugar, so that I can really enjoy it.
How did this work? In all of January, I cheated 3 times; twice with a chocolate bar at the grocery store, on my way home from the gym, and once at the very end of the month, so that I could eat a piece of my friend’s birthday cake. I felt terrible when I cheated, like I had no will power. I also felt terrible when I had to avoid other of my friends’ birthday parties, social gatherings, etc. I knew that if I were surrounded by sugar, that I would not be in control. Pretty shitty deal when you feel like you can’t participate in regular social gatherings to try and stop an addiction.
I also tried to substitute my knee jerk reaction to buying those chocolate bars, to buying anything. I would have to keep shopping at the grocery store after my gym workouts, and would I be satisfied if I bought something else to eat before/after dinner? I started steaming broccoli with my meals (that was not so good for my low-FODMAP diet). Then, I started steaming carrots. I also bought popcorn (uh oh, packaged food!) and bought blood oranges (yay! I forgot how much I loved those!). Most of the time, these other sugar substitutes filled that craving. Despite having resumed running and eating much less chocolate, my weight did not budge. I can’t say that my mental state was any better after taking this month off from sugar; I still felt hopelessly out of control with my eating habits AND I felt like a loser who could not enjoy life. One thing I did notice however, was that though I was dreaming of eating chocolate every day, I was not thinking about ice cream. I LOVE ice cream, but I didn’t miss it or dream about it. Ice cream was my desire but it was not my habit in that I didn’t feel any compulsion to satisfy it. I was in control of at least, one thing.
February and March rolled around, and I resumed eating added sugar and chocolate. Ice cream would happen once every 1-2 weeks, chocolate was once a week to start but gained speed in my frequency and volume quite quickly. My blood sugars were in better control, but my habit started to take over, again. Now I had gained even more weight and all the smaller clothing I bought last summer started to dig in. Ouch. I should have known better. Habits take a long time to form or break, and 30 days was not going to be enough for me to gain control. It’s also not uncommon for people living with type 1 diabetes to have some form of disordered eating. While I do not believe I have diabulimia, it is impossible for me to not have a preoccupation with food. An obsession is required to manage my illness, and this does leave me with wavering levels of anxiety, more than I would admit in my day-to-day life. I need to live my life and enjoy it as much as possible, and I’ve accepted there will always be some baseline anxiety that I have to contend with. Exercise is a fantastic coping mechanism and outlet but also provides another source of variability in my eating and blood sugar levels.
My plan now moving forward as of Apr 01, is to not just eliminate added sugar from my diet but now, to also control snacking beyond what my dietitian cleared for me. If I am hungry, then I need to eat more vegetables! And protein, as long as I don’t go overboard. I have given myself the timeline to keep up with this plan until late June, when I am going on vacation with my boyfriend to Ireland for 2 weeks. I don’t plan to go hog wild while we are away, but I also don’t want to be overly concerned about what I am eating, so much that it stresses me out and that I can’t enjoy myself. I want to fit into the clothing I bought last summer. More importantly, I want to fulfill my one fitness goal of the year: to be able to do a chin up. Plus, other fitness goals like getting faster would be a nice plus! I also want to be past this for long enough that I no longer have an addiction to manage, where I don’t have to do damage control, where the habit can be long gone enough behind me that I don’t have to control my environment and intake so strictly. To want and avoid is more work than not wanting at all. I will be successful. I may fall a few more times, but I will keep working toward it.