Sugar and Sobriety

By: Laura McWilliams, Industry Health

Oh man, sugar! I am going to go full on honesty here and tell you that sugar helped me quit drinking in a big way. And smoking, but that’s a story for another time. What really got to me in the early days of sobriety was wondering what there was to look forward to, especially after work. I spent a lot of years coming home to wine after a long day, and I needed something to replace that. I read all of the books and websites- try yoga, try putting on relaxing music, or lighting candles. No. Ice cream is what did it.

Being female, I have spent plenty of my life preoccupied with dieting. I have never been hugely overweight, but my terrible diet and lifestyle were starting to catch up to me in my late 20’s. So I shamed myself for my food choices, piling extra shame on top of my drinking shame and my personal failures shame. It is especially hard working in restaurants and bakeries like I do- I am elbow deep in the freshest, most delicious treats you can imagine, all day. I ate the treats because I felt like crap- there was a huge, gaping hangover hole in my belly that I fed and fed and it never went away. But it never stopped being hungry, so I fed it. And then I would leave work and restrict my calories like crazy to make up for it. And the wine. Madness. What a cycle of ups and downs, what a recipe for disaster.

When I took out booze, the new rule was, ANYTHING YOU WANT. Go for it! Seriously, anything. I bought things that I had never dreamed of buying, stocked the freezer with different flavors of ice cream, bought cookies from a bakery and bread and sausages and chocolate pudding (?) and frozen snickers bars. One of my big fears in taking booze out all at once was that my sugar was going to crash and affect my energy and mood, because I had been pouring down sugar every evening for so long. This was definitely not the case. It turns out, when you take a huge amount of sugar out of your diet, your mood and energy even out, almost right away. Who knew?

The ice cream was definitely a comfort to me when I came home in the evening. I enjoyed the freedom to eat burgers, or order dessert instead of a beverage when I went out. It was fun and liberating to replace booze with food. I was eating more and better than I had in so long, even with the extra junk food, and I felt strong and healthy. I was hungry, consistently, for meals. I was hungry in the morning, and not in a shove leftover pizza in my mouth so that I don’t have to pour coffee into an empty belly kind of way. Actually hungry and able to eat. My blood sugar stayed consistent throughout the day, I needed less naps and less coffee- and had more energy than ever.

It was around a week into my sobriety experiment that I realized I had made a permanent life change. That I had managed to do the thing that I had wanted to do for so long and was never, ever, going back to where I had come from. Don’t get me wrong- sugar is not what did this for me- my own mental state and determination, a fabulous journaling program that I was doing, and a counselor that I was seeing all had a lot to do with my transformation. But I definitely think that sugar helped as a bridge from one side to the other. We live in a reward based culture. We receive rewards for good behavior from the time we are born. Drinking was such a huge reward for me, on so many levels, that replacing it with a new reward was not optional. I highly recommend looking down deep and finding what the thing is that will be able to be this reward for you and allowing yourself to have it.

That all being said, I have not stopped eating the treats at work. Even though I think i should for health reasons other than weight. I have skin issues that I am trying to troubleshoot controlling with diet and I have a hard time sticking to that at work. I notice addictive qualities to my treat eating, such as- I can not eat the treats until something manages to get in my mouth and then it can turn into a complete free for all. Like, it’s not just 1 cookie- if I eat 1, then I will eat 10. I crave sugar sometimes when I am stressed out- stress eating is something that can definitely grab ahold of me. More often than not, this stress eating involves sugar. Or coffee. A drug is what I crave and a drug is what I give myself. I recognize this behavior in myself and I am working on it. I know what helps- enough sleep, regular healthy meals that I bring from home, fruit as snacks, water, taking breaks- and I am getting better at remembering to give myself those things. It’s a process, this. A journey, sobriety. I understand that sugar is an addictive drug, and that I used an addictive drug to get off of an addictive drug. But, seriously- I’ll take it. You know?

Sugar is a very controversial topic. In the school program that I am doing, we have learned plenty about how terrible it is for your body, and the health problems it contributes to. Every wellness site and blog and instagram pic preaches the evils of sugar and it’s addictive qualities. AA recommends sugar as a replacement drug and food psychologists strongly disagree. Trading one addiction for another? I totally get it. You don’t want to trade one addiction for another- but we aren’t talking about heroin here! Also, it’s not like you are creating a new sugar addiction out of nowhere- if you drink heavily and are like most human beings, your sugar intake is already pretty high.  It’s really more like leaning on one addiction to break free from another. Baby steps toward being free from addictive substances: quit the big guys first, then look at the little guys.

The reason that I cannot get behind the movement to take sugar out of recovery is that I have found many things to be so much easier in sobriety- choosing a healthy diet being a big one. Yes, I ate all of the ice cream during the first month, but after that, not only did I not have the cravings for sugar as much, I had the internal strength and resources to be able to restrict something from my diet. I couldn't do that as a drinker. I cannot be alone in this experience. All day long I see pictures and hear stories from people who have transformed their lives, and their bodies, in sobriety. It is possible in a whole new way. If sugar is the gap stop for you, I say go for it. Once you are on this whole new plane of existence that sobriety brings you to, you can choose to make cutting back sugar your next step.

In this moment, this one right here where you are looking into the fear pit of leaving drinking behind, looking for any and all excuses and validations, do not think for one second that sugar is just as bad for you as drinking. That is complete horse shit. Do not shame and diet and excuse your way back into drinking. Eat the ice cream!

Laura Mcwilliams