Sugar High: How a sweet tooth can wreak havoc on more than your waistline

I am a recovering addict. Well, that is if one can really be addicted to sugar — or the chocolate chip scones at Portland Brew, for that matter. When it comes to sugar addiction, the scientific community is divided. Many researchers and doctors say there isn’t enough science to support the theory that food is any more addictive than reality TV. But a study from Princeton University, among other research, shows that sugar can be as addictive to lab rats as crack cocaine or heroin. 
 
 
I’m no rat. I’m a lady with one long-held belief, that the only thing I couldn’t give up is carbs, especially those of the baked good variety. Take away wine, coffee, even my beloved microbrews, but just don’t touch that bread basket.
 
It’s a love affair that used to begin at sunrise with a carb siren song emanating from the kitchen. I bake, so biscuits, muffins, or what my husband and I dubbed “faux-nuts” (biscuit dough dunked in melted butter and then rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then baked to resemble donut holes) often made an appearance at our breakfast table, all fluffy and oven-bronzed to sugary perfection. 
 
Upon coming down from that sugar high sometime around noon, I would have a salad — washed down with a soda, of course. The school buses rumbling down my street each day signaled it was time for my own after-school snack, at which point I would head to the kitchen for a few bites of ice cream over the kitchen sink, or to eat a leftover breakfast treat. You know, whatever it took to pick me up until dinner, the one fully sensible meal of the day. 
 
Well, unless you count dessert. My former dessert schedule was quite specific. On The Bachelor nights, dessert was wine and chocolate. On Mad Men nights, my now-husband and I would cuddle up to each other — and a bottle of champagne — for late-night mimosas and homemade cookies. 
 
Things went on this way for nearly all of my twenties, creating a constant cycle of highs and lows that seemed to worsen with time. My blood sugar started to become unpredictable. Just a few hours after happily chatting and eating a pastry at the coffee shop, the temporary rush dissipated, leaving me feeling irritable, weak and hungry in a way that made me nauseous.
 
More strange things started to happen. My period, once regular, started to last for weeks at a time. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into the changing of the seasons. My period just never ended. I was buying tampons in bulk and taking Midol by the handful. I began to dread seeing the teenage clerk at Walgreens, who was now all too familiar with how often I visited the “feminine needs” aisle.
 
I saw a slew of gynecologists, many of whom attributed it to stress. Others acted as if I must have been making it up. Then a doctor at Vanderbilt wanted to look into the one thing that no one else had: my insulin level.
 
Given the range of symptoms I described — pelvic pain, weight gain and, of course, irregular, heavy (and, in my opinion, punishing) periods — she suspected polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). A series of additional tests confirmed it. 
 
So what does PCOS have to do with my sweet tooth? Apparently, a lot. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance, one that is ultimately believed to be caused by insensitivity to insulin. Aside from sex hormones getting out of whack, which can cause menstrual and fertility issues, women with PCOS are at high risk for developing insulin resistance.
 
With insulin resistance, cells have difficulty using insulin to process blood sugar. To compensate, your pancreas works overtime to produce more insulin. Essentially, your body just doesn’t process glucose. If untreated over time, this can increase your chances of getting diabetes. 
 
My doctor sent me home with a new cocktail of hormones and birth control, but my pack of pills wouldn’t do all of the work for me. If I wanted to take control of my hormones and have any hope of ending the period from hell, I had to kick the sugar habit. Once I learned that studies have shown more than 50 percent of women diagnosed with PCOS will have diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 40, I had a damn good reason to kiss processed sugar — and all of those glorious carbs — goodbye. 
 
The more I read about the PCOS-insulin connection, the less savory those sweet treats seemed. PCOS puts me a higher risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and any number of frightening medical fates. But sugar can cause more than just hormonal issues or weight gain. Doctors have linked excessive sugar intake to anything from obesity, diabetes and heart disease to chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and a weakened immune system.
 
While there is no cure for PCOS, I’ve learned that proper management can reduce and even eliminate the symptoms. Besides, PCOS or not, I had to admit I was overdosing on sugar. So, upon my doctor’s recommendation, I picked up a South Beach Diet book and vowed to change everything about the way I ate. 
 
If you’re not familiar with the South Beach Diet, here is the rundown: The diet is divided into three phases, all of which are focused on cutting out “bad carbs” such as white sugar, white flour, potatoes and the like. The first phase — the most restrictive — is designed to jump-start your weight loss and eliminate cravings. The next phase is more long-term. You have more options for what you can eat, but you’re stuck here until you reach a “healthy weight.” The third phase is even less restrictive and is designed to help you maintain weight loss. 
 
Energized by my new sugar-free crusade, I entered the first phase with confidence. The book promised that even if you’re a slave to sugar or someone who thinks life without pasta or bread is impossible — both of which described me perfectly — you’d be “shocked at how painlessly two weeks passes without these foods.” 
 
That was a lie.
 
On phase one, I couldn’t eat bread, rice, potatoes, baked goods, pasta, sugar or even fruit for two whole weeks. I couldn’t drink any beer or liquor, which was bad news. After several days without a sugary pick-me-up or treat of any sort, I was wild-eyed and cantankerous. Forget the sugar, I thought. I need a drink. 
 
It was the evening of day two, Bachelor night, and I couldn’t have my wine and chocolate. So I ate a salad doused in lemon juice since all of the dressings we had in the fridge were harboring hidden sugar, and hence completely off limits. I could feel myself fighting off tears.
 
After tossing my salad bowl in the sink, I wandered into my husband’s office where he was hiding out from my diet-induced insanity, and I stood in the doorway and cried. It was one of those moments where I knew how utterly ridiculous I was acting but was powerless to stop it. I had no idea that my connection to sweets and carbs was so emotional.
 
Apparently, such a reaction isn’t all that abnormal. After all, as Reba Sloan, a licensed dietician who has been practicing for nearly 30 years, points out, our relationship with food begins at birth. When you take into account food memories and the various ways in which we’ve been taught to use food — as a reward, soother, or stress reliever — that relationship can be quite complex, Sloan says.
 
I thought that making a serious change was simply a matter of not making Sunday-morning donut runs. But what I really needed was a plan for how I’d cope. “If you put a lid on using sugar but you don’t find other outlets for your emotions, that lid is going to blow off,” Sloan says.
 
That night in my husband’s office, my lid, indeed, blew off. Exhausted from the crying jag and lack of the sugar I’d typically use to pick myself up, I made my way into bed where I dreamt of Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs, two cereals I’ve never even eaten. Clearly, I was in the throws of withdrawal. Sugar may not be addictive — according to the experts — but in those first few days, it sure as hell felt like it.
 
Slowly things got better. In a showing of solidarity, my husband adopted the plan at dinnertime, where our plates boasted grilled fish and two heaping portions of veggies. As my new way of eating became habit, I reached for string cheese or a hardboiled egg to quell my Pavlovian response to the sound of school buses each day. Still, I knew what I was snacking on was no cookie.
 
Sloan advises against such all-or-nothing methods of cutting sugar out of your diet, lest, like me, you become overwhelmed. “If a woman wants to eat less sugar, she needs to look at the greatest sources of sugar in her diet,” she says. “Let’s say she is having three soft drinks a day. She shouldn’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to have any.’ Drink more water and try two a day for a couple of days. And then go to one a day. Then see how you feel about it.” 
 
Still, more than five months after being diagnosed with PCOS, I’ve lost 40 pounds, which led to not one but three alterations to take in my wedding gown. Even better, I’ve almost completely ditched the crazy highs and sickening lows of the blood sugar rollercoaster. And my menstrual cycle is back to normal, which is the best news of all. A neverending period? I wouldn’t even wish it on Snooki, and that’s saying something. 
 
As Sloan noted, I’ve found that the “how you feel about it” aspect of cutting out sugarand carbs is the key to success. I’ve now transitioned into what I call “South Beach light.” Translation: I cheat — just not on everything and not all of the time — because how I felt about those first two weeks wasn’t good.
 
If you’re considering eliminating sugar from your diet, Sloan advises making gradual changes and looking at the big picture. If you’re spending a good chunk of your calories on sweets, she says you’re squeezing out foods that might be wise investments in disease prevention, like fiber. Sloan also suggests including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats in your diet. By doing so, refined carbs will naturally decrease. 
 
No matter what changes you’re trying to make, Sloan has one simple reminder: “You don’t have to be perfect with food.” For anyone who has ever tried a diet and failed, that’s always good to hear. I may be a diet cheater, but I really don’t care. I’ve made so many changes that have stuck, and I don’t need a chart from my South Beach Good Fats/Good Carbs Guide with which to judge that progress. I’ve learned that no matter what the books say, carbs are not my enemy, they’re just not my besties. Most importantly, I know how I feel (healthier), and how I no longer feel (deprived).
 
So what if I can still obliterate a basket of chips and salsa at my favorite Mexican food restaurant? As the waiters at Las Maracas can attest, I’m not perfect. But as someone who is standing on this side of South Beach Diet phase one, trust me when I say perfect isn’t pretty.

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