The Day I Would Spontaneously Combust If I Didn’t Eat Sugar

donutsMy dad has a 28 inch waist and has been the same weight since high school. My grandmother shopped in the girls’ department for clothes that fit her correctly. With all four of my kids, breastfeeding was all I needed to get down to my pre-pregnancy weight within a few months. A month after I delivered Baby #2, I saw a casual acquaintance in a parking lot. She told me “Women like me have a name for women like you. It’s ‘skinny bitch.'” In this day and age, I would have called her out for body-shaming me. But that day it was cold out and this skinny bitch’s ass just wanted to get inside the building to warm up. Skinny bitches are always cold.

Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, let me repent for my sins. I will admit it, I was smug. I had been confident that I would spend the rest of my life eating what I wanted, when I wanted it, and not suffering any consequences for it. I was certain my good genes would keep me fitting in my good jeans.

It turns out my genes aren’t so pristine, after all, since they are the reason I had breast cancer. “Skinny” and “healthy” are two different things.

I’ve been told cancer cells love sugar. I love sugar, too. Ice cream, pastries, cheesecake…sure, of course! I’ve never met a carbohydrate I didn’t like.  One of the first recommendations my oncology team made was that I meet with a licensed nutritionist. I did that, and we wrote down my typical weekly diet. We inventoried my pantry and dug through my fridge and freezers. A major overhaul was warranted.


Sugar substitutes are a murky region. The strange, dry aftertaste many of them left behind weren’t appealing to me, anyway. Better choices, like agave and honey, have calorie counts that neutralize time spent exercising. (For all that is holy, please do NOT tell me to increase the amount of exercise I’m already suffering through!)

I made a decision. My best approach would be to go cold turkey, to retrain my taste buds. Mind over matter, right? My area of focus should be eating for nutrition, not out of habit or conditioning. So what if I was raised on bowls of Cookie Crisp, highly-processed frozen meals and nightly bowls of ice cream?  Those low-fat varieties of vanilla yogurt I was eating weren’t helping. They are loaded with sugar, even more than the breakfast cereals I was eating them in place of . A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch? It’s amazing my teeth weren’t falling out with the sugar content of not only those two ingredients but also the sliced bread I spread them between. The fruit juices I drank, the ready-made meals I warmed up when in a hurry, the snack bars I carried in the diaper bag, the occasional soda at lunch…these examples and a host of other food items I consumed regularly were doing me more harm than good.

Okay, I told myself, no big deal. You’re a grown woman. This is fine! You can make smarter choices. This is within your control to change.

I read labels, did some research online, and followed up with the nutritionist. When I needed to replenish something from the pantry, I made sure to buy a brand or variation that fit my new meal plans. I bought more fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. I stopped buying prepared meals and began planning out our menu weekly to manage my time in the kitchen better. I no longer baked as often and, when I did, I utilized methods like unsweetened applesauce in place of oil and experimented with less added sugar or using agave or coconut oil.

All of these changes were in place to help me be the healthiest I could be. Medications, surgeries, cancer treatments: all of them can cause changes in a body and affect metabolism or how weight is carried.  Without even considering my diet, those things combined changed a great deal about my body, and not in a positive way. The one thing I could control is what I was putting into my mouth. My mind encouraged me to simply give up the “sweet” habit, to show my kids that they could live without dessert or that sugary, “pick me up” in the afternoons that all too soon led to an energy crash. I would lead by example, and they would never know the urgency of sugar-addiction.

By then, I had never wanted a doughnut more. Or a bowl of ice cream. Or a candy bar. I’d settle for fun size, stale Halloween candy. If I couldn’t eat it, maybe I could just lick it a few times?

I didn’t just WANT that doughnut. As soon as I told myself I couldn’t have one, I NEEDED one. I spotted them in every grocery store. I couldn’t drive anywhere without noticing every doughnut shop in town.  I could smell them if I was sitting at a traffic light with the car windows down. Someone somewhere nearby was enjoying a French cruller! I couldn’t possibly go another minute without allowing myself to eat one. I had never wanted a doughnut so bad in my entire life. IN. MY. ENTIRE. LIFE.

I broke down. I stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts. As I opened the door, I inhaled the sweetness in the air and marched to the counter with purpose. I ordered that French cruller and a blueberry glazed. The blueberries make it a little healthier, I assured myself. I even ordered a bottle of water to wash it down with, telling myself that I didn’t want the empty calories of a flavored beverage.

Sitting in the minivan, scarfing down those two doughnuts, was one of the most shameful moments of my life. It was evening, and those treats that I absolutely had to have were slightly stale. After the first bite of the second doughnut, my palate was on sensory overload, and I had to choke the rest of it down. Guilt hit me at full force. I wiped the crumbs from my mouth and exited the vehicle to dispose of the trash. I didn’t want any evidence around to remind me of my poor decision.

Is this what dieting was? Is this why people tried numerous ways to curb their appetites with fasting, supplements, unproven fads and untested theories? Would I be having this internal struggle with myself forever? As a fat-obsessed culture, how do we sift through the waves of information about diet, exercise, and lifestyle that barrage us every day, from all angles, and somehow come out ahead?

Some days I do a better job than others. I find that the best course of action is to stay away from sweets completely. No small piece of cake at a party, no quick spoonful of whipped topping, no handful of candy. Planning out our dinners for the week can take some time, but the website I use has great tools to help with that. Then I can focus on nutritional needs and feel as though I’ve accomplished something worthwhile to attain them. I have my weak days, like when the last slice of Shoo Fly pie is sitting on the counter and I’m blissfully alone in the kitchen. Or when Baby #4 takes four bites of the Polish water ice I just paid for and declares he’s finished with it.

I was raised on Apple Jacks and instant iced tea mix. There is a lifetime of poor eating habits to overcome, as any child of the 80s will attest to. I keep chipping away at it. Whenever I do cheat, I find that the taste doesn’t live up to the expectation I had in my mind, anyway. I can now empathize with all of the dieters out there, and can see how each bite of food can become an obsession. I now understand the difficulties in denying yourself something that, truth be told, you may not have really wanted until you were told you couldn’t have it.

herbal tea

Dry, flavorful wines must replace mixed drinks. I can add fruit to my Cheerios. A cup of herbal, caffeine free unsweetened hot tea is enough to sip on to reward myself at the end of a long day.  The greatest motivation is the hope that I will never need to be a cancer patient again, and that I am doing something positive for my long term health. I’d rather be around to fight the temptations than long gone.