Giving up chocolate or, at the very least, reducing the amount I ate was always at the top of my list of new year’s resolutions. Year in, year out, that same goal appeared on the list, often linked with other aspirational statements like ‘lose 10kg’ and ‘be happier/less depressed’. After decades of trying, I have finally ticked that box. That’s right, I am no longer a chocolate-eater. In fact, I exclude all sugar or sweeteners, both natural or artificial, from my diet and as a consequence I have lost weight, I am no longer depressed and I have finally found contentment – if not, perhaps even happiness. I try to think back to the day (or most likely a night) when, unknowingly, I ate my last meal of chocolate. I now think of myself as someone who used to eat chocolate. Past tense. How did this happen? After all the failed attempts, the endless promises to myself that tomorrow would be different, the same resolutions that reappeared year after year, then one day I went sugar-free .. and it stuck.
In the past, I’d tried to give up chocolate dozens of times, but it was just a matter of time before my resolve crumbled and I could no longer maintain the sheer grit and determination it took to resist sweet foods. Inevitably, I’d return to well-worn habits and over-ate chocolate once again. The truth is that just as it took time to become addicted to chocolate, I didn’t just stop one day. I tried and failed for decades until finally I discovered something that worked: abstinence.
Four years ago I was still working as a chocolatier in my own business when I heard Sarah Wilson being interviewed on the radio about the ‘I Quit Sugar’ programme. In the middle of tempering Belgian couverture, I went to my computer and downloaded her e-book. Later that night, I also read ‘Sweet Poison’ by David Gillespie. At the time, I was still struggling with grief, but that night when I was lying on the couch reading about the effects of fructose, I recognised that my over-consumption of sugar was probably the cause of my constant hunger, tiredness and depression. And I recall thinking that finally – after six years – I was sick and tired of being sad. I realised that I really had ‘done’ grief well, and enough was enough. So I decided to do an experiment and keep off all hidden, added or natural sugars for one month and see how I felt.
As I’ve described in earlier posts, within days of giving up sugar, my energy returned and the weight started to melt off me like butter in a frypan. By the time I got to the end of my 30 day challenge, there was no way I could return to my old habits. My weight had dropped by more than 200g almost every day. After 8 or 9 weeks, I’d lost 15kg and felt fantastic. However, I still had no intention of giving up chocolate forever so I started researching alternate sugars and experimented with sweetening chocolate with glucose. I found a niche market, selling fructose-free chocolate, and had produced a product that I could safely eat .. or so I thought. At first the chocolate seemed to have little or no effect on my weight or appetite and didn’t produce cravings, but after a year or so, I began to gain weight, lose energy and was again struggling with depression. When I think of all the different sweeteners I’ve tried – raw sugar, honey, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, dates, agave, glucose syrup, dextrose powder – searching for a healthier alternative but never really dealing with my addiction to sweet foods. Then I discovered LCHF.
Switching to a low carb high fat lifestyle meant that chocolate – fructose-free or not – had to go as it was still extremely high in sugar and carbohydrate. But I still wasn’t ready to give up on it altogether so I went back to the kitchen and this time designed a chocolate that was sweetened with the Banting-approved sugar-alternative xylitol. However, the result tasted so similar to sugar that it wasn’t long before my addiction to sweet foods had returned and I was overeating anything sweetened with xylitol.
Then I joined an 8 week on-line programme called the Sugar Free Revolution. There, I learned that a sugar-addiction was like other addictions and required abstinence. Abstinence? This was something I had never considered. I’d always tried to control or limit my chocolate-eating, to keep ‘all things in moderation’. Moderation was not something I did easily. In fact, other traits such as perfectionism, self-criticism and anxiety were common amongst our on-line support group as we shared our experience of food addictions and supported one another in our attempts to overcome them.
I came to recognise that I ate chocolate to suppress difficult emotions and in order to stop over-eating it, I would have to replace it with more positive, preferably ‘non-food’ strategies. I identified the times, places and triggers surrounding my sugar addiction and began eliminating or handling them differently.
A key approach on the course was to share 10 written gratitudes every day: 5 about life in general and 5 personal. The main effect of doing daily gratitudes has been the change in my outlook on life: from one of overall pessimism to optimism. This is no small feat after 55 years of ingrained negativity, mostly directed towards myself. I used to proudly describe myself as a perfectionist and was regularly reminded by friends just how tough I was on myself. I didn’t see it that way at the time but over the past 2 years I have learnt to accept that I am not perfect (who knew?! Ha) and this has enabled me to climb out of a whole lot of pain. I have now been writing daily gratitudes for almost two years. That’s over 6,000 positive statements written down and shared since becoming fully sugar-free.
Daily gratitudes help me focus on what’s good in my life, not what I’ve lost. They keep the positive things uppermost in my mind and help me let go of the things that are not going the way I (the ego) want them to. They also help me turn around unpleasant or unwanted daily events so that I see the blessings in them. Difficult encounters with other people and small things that go wrong can still irritate or upset me, but that feeling doesn’t go on for as long as it did in the past. And if it does, I know I’ve hit a core belief that needs changing. I’ve become good at turning around even more serious concerns and finding something in them to be grateful for – often this is only found in the process of writing about it or may come back in the response from my gratitude buddies as they shine a light on things from a different perspective. The problems I encounter often remind me just how strong I’ve become and, in fact, they are greatly outnumbered by the ‘good’ things in my life.
Some days it is an effort to do grats because I’m tired, I have nothing much to say or it’s late at night. But if I’m grumpy, I find that writing about what’s gone wrong helps me turn it around or to just refocus on the constant gifts in my life, like my cats (yes, I’m one of the crazy, cat-lovers in our group). So for me, it’s become just another healthy habit: I eat nutritious, low carb food. I brush my teeth. I write 10 gratitudes daily.
Writing 5 personal gratitudes is definitely the hardest part. It took me several months before I could honestly feel gratitude for myself. Before that, I’d follow each personal grat with “FITYMI” (fake it til you make it) so folks knew that these were aspirational and actually I was struggling in this regard. At one point, I doggedly wrote ‘I am grateful to be me’, day after day for weeks until it finally felt more comfortable and now – most of the time – I actually believe it.
My fellow gratitude buddies and I came together because of our shared history of sugar-addiction. However our mutual support goes way beyond what we do or don’t eat. The longer we’ve shared gratitudes, the more comfortable I’ve become in letting go of tightly-held secrets – sometimes only within the safety of our group; and now, more often, in real life. In the end, we all share one common gratitude and that is how thankful we are for one another’s support.
So when I meet someone who is still addicted to sugar or struggling to give up chocolate, I recall what worked for me: setting myself the challenge to go without sugar for 30 days, following a low carb high fat lifestyle and learning how to handle a food addiction.