Ep 57: Sugar Restriction + Finding Balance with Food

It’s my birthday today! I’m 35 years old today, on the day this podcast goes live on Jan 23rd. And in the weeks leading up to my birthday, I’ve just been feeling really, really grateful. I love what I do, I love that I get to show up here for you and hopefully offer you a perspective that brings you more confidence as you navigate your own relationship with food. And I’m excited about this topic today: the idea that you need to cut out sugar to find moderation, or the idea that extremism will lead to balance.

I got this question on Instagram that inspired this episode, and the question really stuck with me. I know whenever that happens that it will eventually turn into a podcast episode, and with my focus on sugar during the month of January I figured it was a perfect time to address this. The question said: “What do you think about cutting out sugar for a set period of time, say 3 months, to help calm your drive for sugar and make room for more healthful choices?”

This stuck with me SO MUCH because I have an experience that I’ve never quite gotten over that directly relates to this question. As you may know, I used to be firmly in the all or nothing camp for both nutrition in general and sugar specifically. I would be shoving Oreos into my mouth when nobody was looking, then turn around and do a sugar detox where I would just drink juice for 3 days to “reset.” I believed whole-heartedly that sugar was terrible for me, but that belief did nothing to help moderate my intake. I swung back and forth between total restriction (sugar elimination) and chaos (feeling out of control and unable to stop eating it). I was completely preoccupied with food, and the goodness or badness of what I was eating was a constant focus. I felt like someday I would get it together, somehow gather up enough self-control to find balance, or I would find some magic food program / set of food rules / diet that would change everything for me. I declared a year of no sugar in 2016, which lasted a short while before I threw in the towel - yet again. I was beyond frustrated with myself, and convinced that it was ME that was the problem. That my lack of follow-through and personal strength was what kept me failing these programs and sugar elimination attempts over and over and over. Everyone kept talking about how giving up sugar made you feel so powerful and in control, so what was wrong with me that I just couldn’t do it?

I went through my master’s program in nutrition, and also became trained as an eating psychology coach, and I started taking clients and coaching other people. I created an online course, I started teaching online. I thought I had it figured out. I had come so far in my relationship with food, and I thought I was good to go.

I remember - and in fact, I think back on this conversation often and cringe at the damage I may have done - one call with a client, who was also a friend of mine. (Which, by the way, is not something I would recommend - clients and friends should be kept separate - but that’s how I got started with coaching.) She was expressing to me her struggles with sugar and how she felt out of control. With my limited experience and my lack of understanding about how I could really help, I brought up my own experience with eliminating sugar for a period of time. With all the talking, I remember that the takeaway was me telling her that I thought cutting out sugar for a time was a good idea, not because it was sustainable long-term, but because of what she could learn from the experience. The strength she could gain, and how she could come back to eating sugar with less desire for it. How taking a break from it for a while would lessen her dependence on it - break her addiction, essentially - and then she could gradually add sugar back into her life and naturally find balance with it.

I’m sure my friend left this conversation ready to take on what I know was yet another sugar detox. And I’m sure she experienced, as I had so very many times, the failure of what I talked about.

I now look back and wonder what possessed me to recommend something that, in my own personal experience, had never ever worked. I guess just because I was spouting off what I’d read about and preaching on behalf of other people’s experience. Maybe I assumed that my friend would be stronger than I was and would somehow find the success she was looking for, peace with sugar, despite the broken strategy I was prescribing.

I have several conversations in my life I wish I could undo, and this is one of them. I wish I had been more compassionate and understanding, of my friend and of myself. I wish I had not seen nutrition as a weapon to be used against myself. I wish I had learned sooner the truth about how to find balance with food, and that it didn’t need to involve a period of restriction (essentially, punishment or penance for my perceived character flaw of a lack of self-control).

So that’s what I want to tell you today. I want to tell you differently than I told my friend and client, both to maybe somehow make up for my mistake and to help you avoid another misguided attempt at finding balance.

Eliminating sugar will not calm your cravings. Restriction will not calm your desire for sugar. It will, in fact, increase it, and the research proves this in many studies. Emily and I talked about the study with rats and having the choice for sugar vs. cocaine. Only the rats who were deprived access to sugar leading up to the experiment showed the intense desire for sugar. The rats who could eat sugar if they wanted it did not show the marked preference for sugar over cocaine. And again, like Emily mentioned, we have to be careful drawing parallels because we are not rats, but this same thing has been found in research involving humans. Restricted access to food makes your brain preoccupied with food. It’s different than restriction with cocaine or alcohol, because those are not essential to your survival. Food IS essential to your survival, and your brain is very focused on, and places a high priority on, making sure you get enough food.

I want to talk in another episode about what restriction is, and I started to include it here before I realized it would be too much to cover both. So I’ll cover that in a future episode. But I do want to say that restriction is different than self-moderation. When I say not to restrict food, I do not mean that you never tell yourself no or that you eat everything you ever have a passing fancy for or anything that ever looks good. I am not telling you to eat at the whim of any random thought that happens through your brain. You can have unconditional permission to eat and ongoing access to sugar without being out of control.

But back to this idea of short-term restriction to find long-term moderation. So restriction, eliminating sugar, will essentially backfire. If you believe that sugar elimination is necessary to find balance with food, you are operating under the exact same mentality that got you into trouble in the first place. That’s still very all-or-nothing, and that’s what we really want to avoid when it comes to food. Either I eat no sugar at all and I’m obsessed with nutrition, or I eat all the sugar with no regard to nutrition. Both of those are problematic.

This is why I chose the name “Nutrition Redefined.” Because I really think that in order to find the peace and confidence we are seeking with food, we have to redefine healthy eating - redefine what nutrition is for us personally. Not to redefine the science of nutrition, but to allow it to mean something different for us than the typical all-or-nothing approach to nutrition, like either I eat healthy or I don’t.

Healthy eating, a balanced intake of sugar, and good, solid nutrition does not have to be either or, all or nothing. Perpetuating all-or-nothing thinking around food really just shows a thinking error, or the same lack of understanding I had a few years ago in that conversation with my friend. It’s not about your ability to self-moderate - it’s more about your fundamental beliefs about food and how you are able to achieve that self-moderation and balance. Your thought process is really the issue here - not the sugar itself.

If you do remove sugar for a few months and then decide to add it back in, what has really changed about YOU? How are you better equipped to find that middle ground than you were before?

Honestly, you’re not. Eliminating sugar doesn’t really teach you anything other than how to go without sugar. It doesn’t teach you balance, because you’re not practicing balance. In order to learn balance with food, we have to practice balance with food. We have to aim for that middle ground, which is the happy ending most of us want, where we are able to have self-moderation and feel in charge of our food, to make food choices that are nourishing to us AND make room for the treats we love, all without overthinking it.

Your relationship with food, no matter how chaotic or out of balance, is not about self-control. It’s not about willpower. In fact, it’s not even about the food. And a period of abstinence, no matter how well-intentioned, will not yield you balance. Because abstinence from sugar, for most of us, is just as extreme as our over-consumption of it.

Extremism does not cure extremism. I believe that so strongly now. I know that the cure for extremism with food is to aim for the middle. To seek balance and moderation NOW, instead of after a repentance period without the food you think is the problem.

Because really, it’s not as much about the sugar as it is about you. Instead of asking, “Why can’t I stop eating sugar? What’s wrong with me?” maybe we should be asking more helpful questions, like, “What do I get out of eating all this sugar? What keeps me coming back for more? What is it that makes me want to keep eating even if I feel physically full?

As Emily and I taught in our monthly masterclass inside Eat Confident Collective this month, rigidity is not the answer to food chaos.

But with all my searching (and believe me, this was just about a full-time job of reading books and blogs and articles online about everything nutrition I could find), I never found what I was looking for. Looking back, I know that I was looking for peace and confidence with food. I was looking to feel in charge of my food choices instead of feeling controlled by my desires for food. I thought I was looking for the perfect diet or the right way of eating, but that was misguided. I didn’t need extreme rules or structure to heal my extreme imbalance. I needed to build my confidence in myself and my own ability to feed myself well.

I hope that hearing a little about my experience is helpful in some way, and that the thoughts I’ve shared are helpful for you in your search for peace and confidence with food. You ARE capable of self-moderation. You CAN take back your power from food. You DO have the potential to find the balance you want without extremes on either end. Be patient with yourself, and keep practicing. You’ve got this.

Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll talk to you next week.

Stephanie Webb