I salivate thinking about confections of spun sugar and butter cream, fruit pies with a crisscrossed crust on top or tarts crowned by glazed fruit—apricots, raspberries, strawberries, and kiwi that look as if they were lifted from a Renaissance painting. I also adore gooey butter cookies, assorted French designer chocolates, thick custards, puddings and decadent multi-layer chocolate cakes with ganache icing.
Sweets are the enemy of our bodies. I know that, yet when they beckon, I feel powerless over my need to consume a handful of chocolate covered nuts or a big chunky double chocolate brownie. I know it’s reached extreme proportions when instead of a healthy dinner of salmon, broccoli and perhaps a salad wedge dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, I would love to make a meal out of a wedge of a Sacher torte or hazelnut cake layered with caramel and chocolate butter cream. I even dream about technicolor sweets!
Let me preface my decadent cravings by saying I am lucky because I am basically healthy. I weigh a good amount—not too thin and certainly not too heavy. Just right. My teeth aren’t perfect but they’re still my teeth, and I brush, rinse and floss multiple times a day. I’ve been told I can eat pretty much anything I want since my sugar level is normal. I try to walk at least 30 minutes almost daily, my main form of exercise. However, I plan to add to my exercise routine now that I live in New York City by joining a gym and working with a trainer to improve my balance and core to avoid bad falls.
And in my defense, not all my eating habits are terrible. I drink lots of water, eat some fruits and vegetables and don’t eat red meat at all. I try to sleep seven to eight hours without waking up in the middle of the night to nibble and attempt to meditate when I remember to do so.
The problem is simple. I love sugar. I’ve thought about where this obsession came from, and I think it dates back to childhood when my mother would give me a cookie or something sweet to silence me when she was on the phone, trying to read or carry on a conversation with my father. Junk food became comfort food and my emotional eating has continued throughout adulthood.
Most days, as I try to walk off my sugar addiction, rationalizing that a brisk walk is good for my heart, these words come rushing through my head like a cascade of melting chocolate: “Increase your energy. Get fewer headaches. Change your eating habits once and for all. Stop throwing dietary caution to the wind.” I’m good for a day or two and then I fall off the healthy food cart. I might walk by a pastry shop and stop to gaze with big eyes through the windows into the glass cases. Oh, the power of the confections. How they take hold. I’m dying to go in and buy just one cookie. Sometimes, I can restrain myself but usually I can’t. I rationalize one cookie isn’t so bad.
I know I need an intervention. For months, I entertained the fantasy that I would attend meetings for sugar addicts akin to a 12-step program for those hooked on drugs or alcohol. Is there even such a group? I might google but for now I prefer my fantasy sessions. At each meeting I faithfully stand up and intone: “My name is Margaret, and I’m a sugar addict.” I explain my favorite sweets and by the end of my speech, everybody’s shouting cookies, cookies like a cheer. I imagine them leaving the meeting and breaking down the doors of the nearest shuttered bakery with me at the end of the line. Then I get realistic and think about the negative way that sugar makes me feel and the damage it does to our bodies, especially as we age. It can cause headaches, stomach aches and drain my energy. At the end of the meeting, I’m assigned a buddy to help me stay on the straight and narrow. I promise to write down what sugar I consume and try to do better.
But I know myself so well. The thought of this 12-step approach is anathema. I can do this myself, without intervention, in private. I decide to stop eating my carb-loaded sugar-coated meals and treats cold turkey. Sadly, the result is I become a mean bird, experience a letdown, am downcast. Come fall, the rainy days and upcoming raw gray days of winter make me long for a warm kitchen where I can bake and nibble on my chocolate chip cookies or tart lemon bars and sip hot chocolate made with half and half and fluffy mounds of whipped cream. It’s almost Christmas and I have visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.
As much I might try to reform, temptations show up everywhere. Here are some apocryphal scenarios and a few solutions I am sharing to avert those sugar temptations.
The Doctor’s Office. My female gynecologist says to me in a sweet grandmotherly way: “Margaret, I know you want to eat well, maintain your weight, avoid Type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries, a stroke and all the awful things that can happen as one gets older.” She leaves and as I walk out of the room and go to the desk to make another appointment, there’s a big jar of Hershey miniatures. I look perplexed. I am tempted. “It’s dark chocolate and that’s good for you,” the nurse says with a smile. That’s all I need to hear as I dig into the jar.
Solution: Slow down and think before you grab. Stop digging for candies and dig deep into your brain to refocus on what’s important like what you’re going to do as soon as you leave the doctor’s office. Do not make a beeline for the candy store. Be so busy that you don’t think about food. Go work out, work on your relationships, attend a lecture, tour a museum, write a chapter of your novel, journal about the awful date you had last night or start to write down every unhealthy thing you’ve put in your mouth that day. Laughter is the best revenge.
My Friends. My friends are on to me. I visit one. She looks genuinely happy to see me. “Sit down,” she says while munching on green cotton candy grapes. Hey, anything with candy in the name resonates. I try one. She encourages me to take more freshly cut fruit, because she lives in place where everyone is growing their own fruits and veggies. “Take as much as you want,” she offers. I do so to be polite, but my mind is focused on where and when I’m going to get out of there to grab lunch and a cookie. Then she says, “Stay. Let’s take a few minutes to catch up.” She gives me one hour, and some more fruit.
Solution: Start a new habit, munching on fruits and veggies in lieu of cookies and candies. Since your friend grows the stuff and offered, take home a stash. If you can’t erase cookie, cookie, cookie from your brain, instead of eating an oatmeal cookie, per se, nibble on a handful of nuts, raisins or dried cranberries. Have steel cut oatmeal for breakfast in a bowl. And don’t rationalize that eating an oatmeal cookie is good for you.
The Candy Store. I walk into my neighborhood chocolate shop ostensibly to buy a hostess gift. The woman behind the counter says, “What may I do for you?” I say, “I want your one pound of assorted chocolates--and in a separate box for me I’d like some pecan bark, marzipan, caramels and those white chocolate covered pretzels.” I figure I can afford to be generous to myself because when I get back to my volunteer job, I will share the spoils. I’ve noticed when I do this, people treat me with a little more respect and pretend they like me because I’m sharing my candies.
Solution: Change the direction of your walk to stay as far away from chocolate shops and bakeries as possible. Give wine, flavored vinegar and oil or a book as a gift. Bring any leftover fruit your friend gave you to share with your volunteer co-workers. Save the money you’d spend on pastries and buy a paperback beach book that is the reading equivalent of junk food. Try not to buy one about food of any kind, stick to murders, mysteries and political thrillers where nobody’s very sweet.
The Grocery Store. I am going to shop for healthy foods, I tell myself. And then I see a big sign on an aisle end display: Chocolate-covered marshmellow cookies marked down to $3.50 a box. I better get two. And then there’s another row with the newest flavor mentioned on the radio: Peppermint-flavored marshmellow for the holidays. I must try them too so I can report to the CEO or at least the buyer for that aisle.
Solution: Take the $7 and buy two pounds of cherries that are on sale for the same price in the produce department.
Meeting a Man on the Street. I’m walking down the street on a hot summer day, chomping on chocolate covered mint Oreos when I bump into a guy. “Sorry,” I say. He looks familiar, but I can’t really place how I know him. Perhaps I haven’t seen him since college. He does a double take, not because he recognizes me, but there is chocolate all around my mouth. His name comes to me. “It’s you,” I say. I hold out my hand for a handshake and chocolate has melted in my palm. “That’s okay,” he says. I fish for a Kleenex and ask him to hold my bag of cookies. “Take one if you want.” He winces. We stand on the corner for a few minutes like two familiar neighbors who talk to each other only in the elevator. Minutes pass and I realize that my Oreos are melting. I tell him that I must go because I have a very important appointment.
When I get home, I immediately put the cookies in the fridge to firm up. In the meantime, I go on my email where I see a message from my gynecologist on MyChart. I cannot get into the portal without my password. I think for a minute, what is it? Where did I write it down? I find it in my left-hand desk drawer written on the back of a candy wrapper. Of course, my password is chocolate.
Solution: Meeting someone isn’t going to develop into a friendship or romance if you’re steeped in chocolate. And avoid others who are, too. Align yourself with friends who are healthy eaters and try to pick up some of their good eating habits. And, equally important, change your password to something healthy like water for chocolate.