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Sugar is the New Smoking—here’s some Help to Quit.

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After freshman year of college, my probation officer issued me a final warning: if one more marijuana test came back positive I’d be “in violation” and imprisoned.

I thought I would never quit weed, nor would I be able to if I had to; but apparently we can do just about anything, depending on the definition of “have to.” I was terrified of sobriety—just not as much as I was of jail. After having smoked all day, everyday for three years, I quit cold turkey for the following two.

Once probation was over, I figured I’d go back, but when I tried, our relationship had changed. She changed, or I had, or we both had, and she didn’t love me anymore. What had been my favorite thing in the world suddenly induced feelings of panic and anxiety, and it took a few years of stubborn attempts (like all pathological relationships) before I finally gave up.

It wasn’t until weed was out of my life that I discovered my passion for stand-up comedy, which led to my performing all over the world, including on HBO and several other networks. This all led to meeting the girl that introduced me to Chinese Medicine.

In spite of having now spent my last decade on the more health conscious side of the spectrum, I’d never until recently explored any radical diet of complete abstinence. For New Year’s in 2018, at the behest of my teacher, Dr. Frank Butler, I decided to jump on the Keto bandwagon. This meant for the first time in my life no bread. No pasta, no rice, or potatoes (not even yams!), and absolutely no sugar whatsoever. I was terrified again, then equally shocked that I’ve kept it up, though grateful, as what I’ve already learned about my/the human body just may have saved my life.

I was four weeks into “ketosis” when I went to visit a friend who manages Gustiamo, a fantastic Italian food exporter in the South Bronx, and in typical Italian fashion he insisted on showering me with samples. Sample after sample of literally the greatest olive oil that’s ever grazed my palette, and who was I to turn down such generosity? I didn’t hesitate when he passed me what I assumed was vinegar.

Wrong. It was saba.

What’s saba?

“Isn’t that incredible?” John phrased his statement to me as a question.

My eyes got as wide as they’re capable of getting, as I’d never tasted anything like it. Such savory, delicious, sweet vinegar!

That’s because it’s not vinegar, schmuck.

“It’s like a syrup,” John explained, “made by cooking down grape must,” and he walked away in his own personal mic drop, leaving me alone with the experience.

Suddenly I was overcome with an uncomfortable head rush, not dissimilar to my own expression of anxiety that has intermittently plagued my past 17 years. I was barely able to think. I picked up the bottle to read its ingredients. It was all in Italian, but hey, I’ve seen “The Godfather” over 100 times, and I speak Spanish.

In Spanish, sugar is “azucar.” This bottle of saba had 38 grams of “zucchero,” and I felt like I’d just drank them all. I was trashed, as if on a bad weed high, and almost hesitated to drive home when I’d planned to 15 minutes later.

The “high” lasted two hours, but the lesson will stick with me forever. Either I suffer from a degree of insulin resistance I’d be well advised to take heed of, or sugar is poison—or both. I’ve since had four similar experiences due to “hidden sugar” in restaurant foods. Strangely, I feel like a kid again, but instead of my probation officer, I’ve got a prestigious acupuncturist steering me toward a better self.

How long do M&M’s stay good for unrefrigerated? What about refrigerated?

The answer to these questions is all you have to know to never eat M&M’s (or anything shelved adjacent to them) ever again. The fact that they don’t spoil should inform us: this is not food, in spite of it being edible. The fact that we can inhale and exhale cigarette smoke doesn’t make it oxygen, right? So, why do we eat junk?

Basically, because it’s been in our faces for our entire lives, and most of us don’t feel its negative effects immediately after consuming it. In every store window and school cafeteria, on every shelf in every deli and practically every home we’ve been in has been some form of edible toxicity…that all happens to be delicious to boot!

What if we weren’t conditioned this way? What if sugar had always held the same stigma that cigarettes now hold? What if the companies couldn’t advertise, the prices on M&M’s went up to $12/pack, and every night on TV, just after the commercial depicting a smoker dying of emphysema was a sugar addict suffering in a diabetic coma? Instead, we’ve been fed (no pun intended) the opposite message.

In the wise words of Malcolm X: “You’ve been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok! This is what he does!”

At some point, big corporations realized they could turn a much bigger profit if they made cheaper food that didn’t expire, obviously sans regard for how it might impact the human body. Typically, competitive companies turned copycat, and the market was flooded with these new forms of “food” that were even more addictive.

A good rule of thumb is: always be suspicious of the product(s) being put out by the wealthiest businessmen, for what are the chances that the best marketing minds are also the most physiologically conscious? Too many of us exist under the impression that we’re not under constant attack. We walk into stores that sell junk and instead of seeing poison, we see options. We assume if something is all over the place: how bad could it be?  We neglect the fact that equally all over the place are irredeemable diseases that logically should not be ruining so many people in a country so wealthy.

One of the most dangerous recycled platitudes is, “Everything in moderation, a true fave of people who love their vices. One of my favorite rebuttals came from my teacher, Jason Ginsberg: “Yeah, everything in moderation…including moderation. It means moderation can work, but to paint a broad stroke as a dietary prescription for all is as irresponsible as eating something that doesn’t expire.

I have patients come into the clinic all the time requesting “the herbal formula for weight loss,” or that I do “the point for headaches.” Do these exist? Yes, there are approaches Chinese Medicine offers for the various patterns that express such symptoms. However, in my opinion, more valuable than adding remedies to our problems would be subtracting the original sources of said problems. Less is more, a cliché many Americans refuse to accept, as most of the cases I see are a result of too much of a bad thing, as opposed to not enough of a good. We’re the richest country in the world. We’ve got plenty of the good. We’ve just got too much bad as well.

Some people have allergies to substances that would make moderation as harmful as would its opposite. Others have longstanding, complicated conditions that require everything they ingest be as clean as possible in order to have any chance at recovery. Should an overweight 50-year-old with an autoimmune disease be allotted the same moderation as a 25-year-old athlete?

We must define moderation, which is impossible, which is why it is dangerous. Its huge subjectivity and subsequent dosage being determined by non-professionals couldn’t possibly qualify as a “balanced diet.” Are cigarettes in moderation okay? What about fast food? As for myself, the notion of never having another New York pizza or my brother’s pasta scares me more than any anxiety attack, but if nothing else I’ve learned one thing from my saba-interrupted ketosis: I’ll never eat sugar again.

I would encourage you to do the same, if not forever at least for some uninterrupted amount of time, as an experiment. Most of us adhere to the cliche: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but fail to consider the implication of its inverse logic. This is not to say we are “broken,” but most of us are impaired in one way or another, which makes exploring dietary changes while keeping other variables constant quite practical. Feel free to keep your abstinence to refined sugars, though I recently felt that same uncomfortable head rush after two handfuls of organic blueberries. If there is diabetes, obesity, or any other insulin resistant pattern in your family, you should consider avoiding fruit as well.

Boycott big business. Share information! If any loved one is suffering with any condition or dependent upon pharmaceuticals, just google, “How sugar affects (fill in disease),” then show them the evidence-based articles I’m confident you’ll find.

Get tested! Many sweet cravings can be a result of calcium or magnesium deficiencies. Be thorough. Don’t just go to the local pharmacy and pick up some generic-brand pill and start popping it. First, see if your doctor will test your levels, then check here for the best brands.

Finally, offer alternatives! My favorite is dark chocolate (80 percent or higher) dunked in almond butter; it’s a delicious, adult, homemade, peanut butter cup. I also love cashews, and gluten-free chips with hummus, guacamole, or salsa; chia seed pudding with cacao and vanilla extract; or have a smoothie if you’re not giving up fruit. Please, do anything you have to in order to “stop smoking.”

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Author: David Foster
Image: Unsplash/Ronaldo Oliveira
Editor: Travis May
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron

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About David Foster

David Foster is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist who splits his practice between Manhattan and The Bronx. He earned his Master’s degree in Chinese Medicine from Pacific College in 2013 and presently apprentices as a fellow of Advanced Clinical Practice under internationally renowned practitioner, Dr. Frank Butler. David holds a black belt in Shorin Ryu Karate and spent 15 years doing stand-up comedy, having appeared on HBO, MTV, and Showtime. Beyond work, his passions now include yoga, old school hip hop, and of course writing. Tambien, David habla espanol. Catch up with him on his website.

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