I Quit Quitting Sugar

cakeI’ll admit I’m a little behind on new diet fads. I just heard about a “new” one which has been around for about a year now.

The book I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson (no link here due to selling of weight loss) debuted last year but appears to be finally gaining some real momentum in the blogosphere. I haven’t read the book but I did spend some time on Ms. Wilson’s website on which she shares her sugar-quitting origin story. Long story short: Ms. Wilson has Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid gland, and after she quit eating sugar (emphasis appears to be on fructose) her symptoms improved and she felt better. She also lost the weight she had gained with the onset of the disease (weight gain is a common symptom of Hashimoto’s). She then wrote a book about it inviting others to take her 8-week challenge to quit sugar to “lose weight; boost energy; and improve your looks, mood, and overall health” according to the Amazon description.

If Ms. Wilson’s condition improved because of changes she made in her diet, I think that is awesome. Perhaps this information could also help others with similar problems, although I don’t believe there is much reliable evidence at this time to show how completely eliminating sugar from one’s diet vastly improves various diseases or conditions (in fact we’ve found that even diabetics can incorporate some sugar into their diets while still maintaining good blood sugar control). I am aware, however, that people are highly individual and that some dietary changes will work for some and not for others. Often it is a matter of experimentation on the part of the individual to find out what works best.

What bothers me about this sugar-quitting trend is the emphasis on weight loss. In fact, the short Amazon blurb refers to weight or weight loss no less than three times. So is this diet about feeling better or getting thinner? Those two things don’t always run hand-in-hand. While I’ll never deny that quitting sugar could make some people feel better, its chances of producing long-term weight loss are no better than any other diet – 5% of people will succeed, 95% will fail. There is no evidence that it will do better than this for long-term results.

All of this reminds me of the time I quit sugar. Twenty years ago I had just moved to a big city and worked at a small company that had no problems abusing my time and good work ethic, and I frequently worked 10-12 hours a day. I was living in my aunt and uncle’s basement temporarily and I wasn’t cooking as much as I normally did so I wouldn’t disturb them. More than once I remember eating three cookies for dinner before passing out early for bed. In general I was super-stressed and tired and my diet was lacking. After a few months of this, I started to develop a few unpleasant symptoms that, after numerous visits to the doctor, seemed to have no apparent medical cause.

I turned to alternative medicine to find relief. Based on some books I read, I thought eliminating the sugar in my diet was worth a try. I managed it easily for about a month. I also tried to limit refined grains. Some of my symptoms improved. Some of them lingered longer but eventually went away after a few months. And yes, I inadvertently lost 5 pounds.

Other things changed too. I got faster at my job and didn’t have to spend quite so many hours there. I got my own apartment and cooked for myself more often. I relaxed more. I made more friends and had more fun. Six months later, my original symptoms resolved (and I gained the 5 pounds back). Despite the fact that I was no longer restricting sugar as much, I was convinced sugar had been responsible for my symptoms. And I was secretly thrilled I’d found another way to tip the scales in the downward direction if needed.

Unfortunately, a by-product of eliminating sugar was an intense desire for sweets whenever they were available. In the initial sugar-quitting stages I did not crave sugar at all, but within a month or so, if a sugary treat showed up in my office (as it often did), you can bet I wanted as much of that thing as I could get. Avoiding sugar became a full-time job of fighting my cravings. Because you know what? I like sugar! Maybe not all the time…but yeah, once in a while a well-placed Oreo cookie hits the spot. Eliminating sugar was my first real foray into restricting specific foods, and it would only get worse from there.

I’ve never been able to completely eliminate sugar (or any other food group) for more than a month at a time and luckily I’ve never had to for medical reasons (during my darkest dieting days, I sometimes turned to quitting sugar short term to lose weight). Years later I’ve discovered that those unpleasant symptoms arise when I am – surprise! – really stressed out and exhausted. It turns out I needed more than just a diet intervention – I needed a whole lifestyle intervention! I no longer eliminate any foods, and because of this I don’t overeat on any type of food. I aim for a diet balanced between healthy and pleasurable. I’m under no illusion that sugar is a health food – I am a dietitian after all – but completely eliminating foods I enjoy was not a sustainable action for me in the absence of serious health problems and ultimately lead to worse eating behaviors.

I tell this story to illustrate a point: Sometimes diet interventions help improve health issues. Sometimes focusing on food masks deeper problems. Sometimes eliminating foods results in an inadvertent weight loss (and usually that weight comes back). Of course I’m going to say it: sometimes food elimination ends up being just another diet to lose weight intentionally. And we know about the effectiveness of weight loss diets.

I hope for anyone with a medical problem or health issue that your experimentation with food elimination is fruitful and brings relief. For the rest of us just thinking about weight loss, stop and ask yourself if food elimination is a practical, sustainable model for you and know that one more disguised diet might not bring you any closer to your dream weight or to a healthy relationship with eating.

Intuitive Exercise: Learning to Love Exercise Not on a Diet

Maybe tomorrow he’ll take a dance class.
In the years before I learned about Health at Every Size®, I exercised at a gym two to three times a week, cardio and weights. I mostly dreaded it and it wasn’t at all fun, but it was something  felt I had to do to keep my weight down. Living in San Francisco with no car, I walked everywhere as well, which was something I actually liked to do, but even that I thought of as Exercise with a capital E: something I did to control my weight.

When the revelation hit me that what I was doing with both my eating and my exercising was not first and foremost fun or pleasurable, I had to take pause. Because I am a fun person. Ask anyone, you want me at your party! And our time on this great blue marble is limited, so why, then, was I taking what little free time I had and spending it on not-fun activities?

Right about the time I decided to stop dieting restrictively, I also decided to quit Exercise (with a capital E) cold turkey. Reevaluating the choices I was making in my life, I realized that the pleasure I had once got from weight loss was long usurped by the misery of trying to maintain it. Quitting Exercise seemed extreme but it would help me to take a step back and decide what I really wanted to do for movement, or frankly, if I even wanted to do anything at all.

Taking a break from all that gym drudgery was heaven at first, but also a little alarming. I’d been a regular gym-goer for at least 10 years. What was I supposed to do now?? Of course I still walked around the city; I have always loved walking and didn’t want to give that up. But did I want to do something beyond walking?

Turns out, yes. After many months of being gym-free, I realized that I actually did enjoy going to a gym – when I wanted to. There was the key: going because I felt I had to was pure awfulness, but going just because I felt like getting sweaty felt like a luxury. No schedule. No strict regimen of so many minutes of cardio followed by so many reps and sets of weights. I got to do whatever I felt like: maybe a Zumba class, maybe yoga, or maybe still be that hamster on its wheel on the elliptical machine. That’s when going to the gym became a treat and not a chore. Since then, I’ve maintained a gym membership wherever I’ve lived but without the need to commit to X many nights a week. Ironically, that freedom has allowed me to attend even more than I thought I would. Movement makes me feel great and I think that is the best reason to do it.

Last year I challenged myself to find new and fun things to do outside of my regular activity. That led me first to a hula hooping class, where I learned a bunch of cool tricks that I continue to be able to do badly. Then, having been a pretty lousy swimmer most of my life, I decided to take swimming lessons. After that I spent the summer at the beach in the ocean. I rode a bike by the seaside for the first time in 15 years. Occasionally I hike in the beautiful hills surrounding LA. Frequently, I dance vigorously in my living room which feels best of all.

I also learned what I don’t want to do: Running of any sort. Belly dancing. Lifting super-heavy weights. Spinning or any kind of stationary bike. As I experiment, I’m sure this list will continue to grow too.

I’ll continue this trend of trying new (and old) things in 2015 with two rules: it has to make me feel good and I have to enjoy it.

It doesn’t have to be a gym or structured classes or anything that costs money. It doesn’t even need to be an activity anyone has ever heard of before. What matters — the thing that will make it wonderful and worth doing — is that you do it because it makes you feel amazing in that moment.

We could call it Intuitive Exercising. It reminds me how we move as children. No kid ever played hide and seek and then wondered after how many calories she burned. Let’s take a lesson from the kids we were and stop Exercising with a capital E and start moving for fun.

My Diet Story: A Tale of Loss and Gain

By Orcunkoktuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI want to tell you my diet story to give you some context for why I am such a supporter of Health at Every Size®. I’ve met enough people now to know that my story, while not completely typical, is also not that unique among people who have lost or attempted to lose weight.

I walked into my first Weight Watchers meeting at age 22. I’d never officially dieted before, though occasionally I casually ate the way I thought a dieting person should, giving up or eating more of this food or that but never with much conviction. Now and again I’d furiously do leg lifts or aerobic workouts and once I did so many squats I strained my quads bad enough that I couldn’t sit or stand without help for a week. But I never really dieted officially and I had never lost any weight. I was a chubby girl, but at the time I definitely thought of myself as fat. Sometimes even too fat.

When I joined Weight Watchers, I didn’t have the greatest of diet habits, the origins of which I’ve discussed here. I overate often, I ate when I was bored or anxious or sad or happy, I ate large quantities of very rich food when I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t have a clue what hungry or satisfied meant in terms of eating. I was gaining weight and outgrowing all my clothes rapidly. Most importantly, there was a lot of turmoil in my life at the time: my mother was dying, I was unemployed, and I still felt utterly lost in adulthood two years after college. I kinda just needed something to make me feel better. Weight Watchers, I thought, could be the answer.

Within 6 months, I had lost 30 pounds nearly effortlessly. It had felt so easy. I know now my experience truly wasn’t typical of most dieters. I was eating better, that’s certain. For the first time in my life I was giving myself structured, regular meals, eating more vegetables, cooking for myself and not overeating to bursting after each meal. Basically, it was what we like to think of as “good nutrition.” On top of all that, I had found something in my life I felt I could control while everything else seemed to spin wildly out of control.

I believe now that I lost the weight so easily because I started out with such a dysfunctional, disordered way of overeating. I sometimes speculate that had I been given some basic nutrition guidelines, a few recipes and taught to eat intuitively, I might have lost weight anyway. It’s not a useful speculation now but one I engage in ruefully now and again. I kept the weight off for 8 years without too much work.

Here’s the problem: even though I developed some good nutrition habits, I also learned to be a dieter. I learned that restriction, no matter how easy, was what got me results.  Even though I mostly ate foods I wanted to, I still felt guilty about many of them. Even as I hadn’t needed to diet very rigorously, I felt dieting was my way of life. I didn’t know I was one of the very few people who lose weight by dieting and are able to keep it off longer than 5 years so I became the biggest advocate of weight loss dieting I knew.

Eventually I decided that after 8 years of maintaining a steady weight without too much effort (but always with a diet mindset), it was time to finally lose “those last 10 pounds.” I had become, once again, dissatisfied with the way I looked, even though I looked exactly the way after my initial weight loss. Somehow, though, my body just wasn’t right. That’s what dieting teaches us: our bodies are wrong and they can be fixed by changing size. The action needed was obvious: more dieting. I was always good at losing weight, I thought. How should anything be different this time? I’ll just be really serious about it now.

Diet I did. I rejoined Weight Watchers. Here’s where my results do become typical. Within six months, my eating became extremely disordered as I pushed my body to new limits. I eventually developed binge-eating tendencies after such severe restriction. I simultaneously lusted after food and feared it. I became preoccupied with thoughts of food 24/7. I was unhappy all the time, with what I couldn’t eat and with my body’s resistance to losing a measly 10 pounds. Worst of all, I couldn’t maintain this “lifestyle” at all. I struggled for 3 years but eventually regained the 10 pounds and a lot more in the years to come.

My dieting started out easily and innocently. But dieting and the goal of weight loss makes what we are never enough. It makes food more than it needs to be. I wish I had known about HAES® and Intuitive Eating at age 22. My guess is that I would have lost some weight but most importantly I would have kept my self-esteem intact while still learning some good eating habits and self care. I would have learned that good nutrition is eating well AND enjoying food AND loving myself.

It’s okay because that’s how it is for me now. If you’ve struggled with diets like I have, I hope you know this is how it can be for you too.

Dare to Not Diet

Last week I received a question from a reader that asked why I thought I was a “rebel” for endorsing a healthy relationship to food since all RDs do this already. Great question!

First, I definitely appreciate that all RDs care about the health of their clients and want to endorse a healthy relationship to food. Many (non-HAES®) dietitians incorporate weight loss interventions along with nutrition education into their practice because weight loss is the conventional health promotion model that has been taught to us and is what is currently promoted in mainstream health care.

HAES®-minded RDs also promote health through nutrition, however we do so without a focus on weight. This is an important point, because it is at the core of HAES® principles – the nutrition intervention must never focuses on weight loss. Weight loss may occur as a result of the intervention, but it is not the intention of the intervention. HAES® is weight neutral. We do this because we know that:

  1. Intentional weight loss efforts (whether called dieting or “lifestyle changes”) have a dismal success rate – most studies show that only the tiniest fraction (around 5%) of people manage to maintain significant weight loss longer than 3-5 years, and many people regain even more weight than they lost in the first place. There are no studies that show that long term (>5 years) significant weight loss is possible for a majority of people who lose weight.
  2. Food restriction tends to create unhealthy relationships with food. This has even been shown to be true in rats.
  3. Healthy behaviors (eating fruits and veg, exercise, not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption) are a better predictor of health than BMI. 

Not focusing on weight loss runs contrary to the conventional health model which puts weight loss at the forefront of the intervention. HAES®, the alternative to prescribed weight loss, focuses on promoting being peaceful in one’s body while working toward health. In that way, it is unique.

However, this question helped me to reach the conclusion to a thought that had been rattling around my brain for the last week: this blog is not about me (although I’ll definitely continue to relay information through my stories and perspective), it’s about not dieting. To that end (and a few others), I am changing the name of the blog to Dare To Not Diet to better reflect that. Because not dieting in our current weight loss-obsessed culture is daring and I want to celebrate and support that daring here.

Update your bookmarks: www.daretonotdiet.com in addition to the above WordPress address will get you here! The old links will continue to work for now but not forever.