I do it socially, but I also do it alone. I do it early in the morning and late at night. Sometimes I do it without telling other people, or when I really shouldn’t be spending the money. If I’m perfectly honest, sometimes I don’t even enjoy it…but I do it anyway.
I’m talking, of course, about eating cake.
I am not alone in my love of cake. Sugar is a main contributor to America’s obesity problem, yet people just can’t seem to shake that urge to eat, eat, eat. And who can blame us? It’s just. So. Good.
Too good, as it turns out. As Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food, our bodies were genetically programmed a long, long time ago, back when sugar was a rarity. In those days, it was a welcome source of readily useable calories, and so our bodies recognized it as desirable in all situations.
And so it remains today: desirable in all situations. Or so we fool ourselves into thinking. Unfortunately, it is now also available in all situations, and many people give in so regularly that the medical community has begun to define sugar addiction.
In fact, says Dr. Charles Raison of Emory University Medical School, people who can’t stop eating sugar have much in common with people who can’t stop smoking cigarettes or using heroin.
“Increasingly, scientific studies suggest that eating activates the same brain areas that are the primary targets of drugs of abuse,” Raison says. “Foods high in sugar, fat and certain carbohydrates are especially likely to stimulate our brain in ways that can become addictive.”
Raison also points out something that many of us already know: there is an emotional component to eating sugar. Stereotypical Hollywood-breakup sobbing-and-chocolate scenes aside, many of us respond to a bad day with a big bowl of ice cream. Or a carton. Who’s counting?
But the relief offered by an indulgence – or a binge – doesn’t last.
“While processed sugars may produce a brief emotional high, several lines of evidence indicate that they affect our biology in ways that promote depression,” Raison says, adding that “rates of depression in a country rise in lockstep with per capita sugar consumption.”
Sugar, in other words, can produce a classic addictive cycle in its users: eat it, feel great, lose the high, want some more, eat it…or don’t, and feel lousy.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. On many occasions I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t eat it anymore, and after a few easily distractable days (“Donut?? Who said donut?!”), I’ve felt great. My undoing always eventually arrives, however, in the form of a small, easily justified, sugary little package: a slice of wedding cake, a dinner out, a cupcake someone baked just for me. How could I refuse?
And then it’s the next day, and I look sadly at the impressive pile of candy wrappers I’ve just produced, feeling sick and sorry for myself.
I’ve learned that triggers are often small, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have big consequences. The only solution is to remove the trigger entirely, and that means no sugar at all. Upsetting, I know, but the alternatives are pretty grim: binging, depression, obesity. Even if you’re thin, high blood pressure and diabetes circle the sugar-addicted like wolves.
Naturally, not everyone is like me: most people are capable of enjoying treats in moderation. But if you do have a propensity to respond irrationally to sugar – if you are, like me, unlikely to stop at one piece of cake – then giving it up entirely might not be the worst idea.
It will be hard, yes. But impossible, no. Can I do it? I’m going to try.