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The new health craze of giving up sugar has unexpected effects

by Samantha Selinger-Morris - 19/06/16, 12:00 AM
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Photo: Stocksy

Going on a sugar detox didn't just mean dealing with physical cravings for Samantha Selinger-Morris. It meant wrestling with her mind in ways she couldn't have imagined.

"No, no, no, no, no," I thought to myself. My nine-year-old son was pushing his vanilla ice-cream sundae along the table towards me. Again. "We have to share," he said with serious eyes. "You have the first dig."

Now, I'm no stranger to the control freaky thing that can happen between a weight-conscious mum and her child: how do you let them offer their treat without you sharing your hang-up?

But on this afternoon, there was a new fear making me want to pull away.

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I was 12 days into a three-week-long sugar detox. And after nearly two weeks of living in a body that felt like a violin being sawed indiscriminately - knees bouncing like a jackhammer; vise-like stomach squeezing; excessive sweating - I had finally nailed the triple aerial spin of sugar detoxing.

Just the day before, I had gone to a Max Brenner cafe with my family - my children were not doing the detox, and my husband, Mike, only did it for a week - surveyed the sweets and felt indifferent.

So I feared what would happen if I ate the ice-cream.

Would it hurl me back to who I was before I started the sugar detox? Inhaling junk food like an anteater every time I was bored, or needed to signal to myself that a meal was done? And then indulging in the world's lowest form of arithmetic: if I eat this chocolate, I'll have to keep my mitts off the Fruit Loops after dinner.

This is partly why I decided to cut out all added sugar from my diet for three weeks. I thought the detox might free me from such obsessive calculations.

Even more, I hoped it would lift a deep exhaustion that had been leading me to regularly fall asleep at 7pm in that day's jeans.

Fine, I also wanted to transform my feta-cheese thighs into more of a Philadelphia Cream Cheese situation.

This was, after all, what every article, Instagram snap and social whisper had promised: the physical victories of cutting out sugar. Who knew the experiment would also unearth the sort of hypocrisies and insecurities one normally fights to keep hidden?

No sugar, no humour

Surprisingly, the easiest thing was actually breaking my sugar addiction itself, though there were a few crappy bits. For example, that stomach pain on days six and seven of the detox. And how whenever I cut out added sugar from my meals - like the plum compote and honey and maple syrup in my porridge - I felt on the inside how the heckling theatre critics on The Muppet Show look on the outside.

I buried my melancholy under mountains of peanut butter, tuna and cheese. These were also the only foods that squashed my cravings for junk food. (Admittedly, these feelings only popped up at the end of every meal, and every time I felt bored or frustrated with work.)

I also reverted to having the emotional constitution of my 13-year-old self.

Without sugar, I became very serious, overly sensitive, and had about as much of a sense of humour as a box of hair.

"Muuuuuuum, you should do a coffee detox," my daughter Elke said to me at 6.30am on day three, as she bounced on the side of the bed.

"What?" I said, my voice vibrating. "Why?"

"Because you ask Dad for coffee every morning and every night and it wastes time," she said.

"Yeah, Mum, you should do a coffee detox," Mike said, with a conman's grin.

I narrowed my eyes at Mike - who had already quit the sugar detox. "Mum does not find that amusing," I said.

Surprisingly, my morphing into a cross between Archie Bunker and Lucy from Peanuts did not enhance a rare date night with my husband.

After having differing opinions about a play, I struggled to keep myself from blurting out my red-hot revulsion of his perfectly reasonable judgment.

I said little. I nodded robotically and flashed him the squeamish smiles of someone on a bad second date.

But. But. Once day 11 hit, the desire for sugar simply disappeared. The twitchy thumbs, irritability and carnal thoughts about chocolate that had been pin-balling through my brain? All gone.

I felt like a stormy lake that had suddenly gone as flat as a piece of glass. Also, surprisingly bad-arse. I was Tony Soprano. Sugar addiction? I had cut it off at the knees.

Add sugar, gain intimacy

The fly in the ointment was that cutting out sugar created relationship problems I never even knew existed.

The main one was with my children.

I never told them that I was doing a sugar detox, because I feared that if I did, that it might spark an obsessive attitude towards sugar.

This had happened to the son of one mother I spoke to during my detox. After she asked her young son to count the number of teaspoons of sugar he was consuming each day - she believed that eliminating most sugar in his diet would boost his immune system, which she thought was weak - he developed a nervous tic, letting out a little sound every time he sat down at the table.

So I felt conflicted whenever my kids offered to share their treats.

I desperately didn't want to eat the sugar, or tell them I wasn't eating sugar. But I also didn't want to miss out on such closeness with my eldest son and daughter, with whom I presumably have about four more one-on-one dates before they realise that I'm the social equivalent of orthopaedic shoes.

So, in a show of Superman-like bravery, back at that café on day 12, I ate a few bites of my son's ice-cream.

I also - try to hold your applause - sipped from a mug of hot chocolate that my son made me. And, in the manner of a starving mouse attacking a corn cob, I demolished a bikkie that my seven-year-old daughter had made from an old family recipe.

The weirdest thing happened. My "cheating" moments turned out to be revelatory.

I actually enjoyed something edible that my children had made.

Anyone who's ever taken a bite of a "fruit salad" made of banana, cherry tomatoes and apples, and tried to bin the lot without detection, knows what a slam dunk this is.

Also, when my son beamed like a convert after making me a hot chocolate in the microwave - a device we've only recently let him use, and he's nearly 10 - I felt a knot in my stomach.

I have long struggled to foster my children's independence, out of fear for their safety. But in this moment I truly got it: I have to loosen the reins.

Sugar detoxer? Or hypocrite?

The detox turned me into a liar. This happened a few weeks after my three-week-long experiment officially ended.

I was still nixing almost all added sugar from my diet.

Then I came across some hard-to-find chocolate bars and sweets from my childhood. Maybe, I thought, I could just eat little bits here and there?

My temples started pounding. I feared a backward slide.

So over dinner the next night, I gave the sweets to three good friends, even though one had been trying hard to cut out sugar for a while.

To her, I suggested she might want to introduce the sweets of her childhood to her daughter. (I know.)

"So, the sugar detox is done then?" this friend said to me.

"Yeah, pretty much," I mumbled.

I didn't have the courage to tell her that I gave the sweets away because I fear gaining weight.

And that I fear this because I believe that keeping my weight down helps counterbalance what I perceive as my psychological flaws.

That was a month ago. So where am I now? My exhaustion has eased considerably. But the detox led to exactly no improvement in the thigh area.

If anything, my pants have become marginally tighter, because of all the fatty foods I ate. (It also led to little pimples springing up on my chin, like daisies, where there weren't any before.)

And I'm back on sugar. It began with an attack on a leftover birthday cake a week after lying to my friends.

One second I thought, "Maybe just a little." The next thing I knew, I had pried the cake open like a book, and spooned the entire layer of ganache into my mouth with the concentration of MacGyver diffusing a bomb.

I'm still not eating nearly as much sugar as I did before the detox. But I've reverted to craving, and eating chocolate after every meal. I've also developed an addiction to brioche.

Still, I feel healthier. What's that saying? We're only as sick as our secrets. •

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