Has a sugar-quitting backlash begun?
Yesterday, social media was buzzing with debate about a new post on Sarah Wilson’s blog. The post was simply called: “I ate sugar.”
That headline is significant because of who Sarah Wilson is.
She’s a journalist and media commentator but she’s also the author of three books: physical book I Quit Sugar, e-books I Quit Sugar: an 8-week program and the I Quit Sugar Cookbook. I Quit Sugar has also become an eight-week program, not unlike Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation program.
Wilson originally decided to quit sugar in 2011, as an experiment for her column in Sunday Life, a Fairfax owned magazine. In her book she describes the immediate improvements in her health and the positive effect it has had on managing her autoimmune disease and thyroid condition.
Since then, Wilson has been building a sugar-quitting empire, with her best-selling books, website and program proving immensely popular. And then yesterday, she revealed on her blog that she’d eaten sugar while travelling through Europe.
So yesterday I ate two chocolate croissants. Let’s be sure: they weren’t even good ones. They were stodgy and filled with PUFA-drenched Nutella-like goo. And I’d already eaten a full breakfast. And ate them with extra butter. But I was having a flap. And the flap took me straight back to a well-grooved rut that I spent, ooohhhh, a good twenty years chiselling into my being. It’s the rut that I used to go to almost daily when I got hurt, uncertain, uncomfortable, wobbly. Stodgy, PUFA-drenched pastries were what I would drown myself in when the panic and anxiety in my gut got too much. The stodge was like a suffocating pillow I could jam down on top of the anxiety. It would work. For five seconds. Until vile guilt overwhelmed me. And the anxiety – now carrying the weight of a gluten-y, sugary pillow – would flare up again.
After I ate the two chocolate croissants, the same pillowy panic took over. It wasn’t enjoyable. The rest of the day I felt incredibly ill. And my thyroid symptoms kicked in. Sugar AND gluten in the one injection.
But maturity saw me get a grip and go for a walk. Get out! Move! It’s the only cure. So I hiked along some cliff tops and concentrated on calming down. I also sank into the ocean for a bit. I was not as emotionally open and grateful as I am normally with such experiences. I was aware of this. I witnessed how shitty I was with everything. I had to give into it. Maturity just let it be a shithouse day (where previously I would’ve freaked that I’d even allowed a shithouse day to occur).
Then I collapsed. I had to lie down under a tree for two hours. I drank water. I waited. I drank water. I rested. Around 5pm I was able to get up and drive to the next town. I ate a hearty meal of meat and vegetables. And was better. This is how I recalibrate. Move. Water. Rest. Hearty food. And witness the whole ruddy lot, warts and pillowy stodge and all.
While there are many devotees of the no-sugar lifestyle in Australia, the program also has its critics. In particular, there is a strong view amongst many nutritionists and eating disorder experts that cutting out sugar entirely can be dangerous for both mental and physical health.
Paula Kotowicz, an eating disorders counsellor, has written on her blog about how avoiding particular foods (when there is no scientific health-related reason to so) can cover up dangerous eating disorders or conditions. She was one of the first to leave a comment on Sarah Wilson’s blog piece about eating the croissants.
Kotowicz was clearly concerned for Wilson’s well being. She wrote:
To some vulnerable people in our society, it [quitting sugar] simply provides an excuse to restrict and control and can trigger these people into disordered eating or even into bona fide eating disorders.
My other concern are the notions of ‘failing’ or ‘slip-ups’ as described by many of the readers in their comments….
While you may wonder what this has to do with anything, imagine being able to say to yourself: “So I ate the croissants… Did I enjoy them? No. Will I do this again? Almost definitely. But for some reason, I needed to eat them and that’s ok. I am human after all…”
Being harsh on ourselves, not only does not help, but makes us feel so much worse in the long run because it deconstructs our sense of self and causes us to beat up on ourselves. Isn’t it possible that there is a happy medium in there somewhere? It’s not crack. Just food.
Kotowicz’s dissenting voice is almost alone among the comments after the post; most are applauding Wilson and confessing their own ‘failures’ something Kotowicz warns can be part of a broader problem of normalising and encouraging similar binge-guilt behaviour.
She’s not the only one sounding alarm bells.
Sydney nutritionist Cassie Platt, is set to release a new book entitled Don’t Quit Sugar. She wrote the book as a direct response to Wilson’s I Quit Sugar, and aims to debunk myths about sugar intake and explain that sugar-free diets can actually damage the body.
“Sugar is our cells’ preferred source of energy and is absolutely critical to proper metabolic function. Eliminating it from the diet will do you harm,” Platt said.
“Your food choices should be based on biological and metabolic needs. What we eat should fuel our cells, facilitate growth, repair and reproduction and, most importantly, enable your body to function at its very best.”
Platt has previously tried removing sugar from her diet and explains that she had to “claw” her way back to health. While her book doesn’t necessarily advocate substituting vegetables with chocolate mousse, it does encourage incorporation of natural sugars – fruit and honey, for example.
Others have also expressed concern on social media about the food obsession that these sort of rigorous dieting plans encourage; creating what can be a very unhalthy attitude and relationship with food. This from one blogger – Bianca Wordley’s blog, bigwords:
This extreme obsession over food is troubling. I hope the young women who follow Sarah Wilson, who have given up sugar not because of medical reasons, but for weight issues do not feed off this.
I hope this sort of self loathing for eating just two croissants, doesn’t send a message to young girls that it is ok to punish yourself emotionally for eating something unhealthy.
That when you give in to a sweet craving you must wallow in your misery before being “mature” and getting on with your rigid eating plan. I hope it doesn’t justify an anorexic’s harmful relationship with food.
What do you think about the I Quit Sugar movement? Have you tried to quit? Did it work for you?
If this post raises any issues for you and you need help or support you can call the Butterfly Foundation support line on 1800 334 673.