On September 24, 2017 I went to a doctor. I was tired of my legs hurting, having no energy, getting headaches and backaches all the time. It was really clear that I had a lifelong problem with food, and that my problem with food was causing these other problems. I did not want to be a thirty year old diabetic. I saw my grandmother suffer from food-related diabetes for the last twenty years of her life. It was a slow, painful, unhappy way to spend her last years. I decided to take back my life by asking for help.
My doctor found that, like many people, my pancreas is highly sensitive to sugar and carbohydrates (which turns to sugar). She told me if I "just" cut out sugar, flour, wheat, and caffeine, that I would be fine.
Finding food in America without sugar, flour, wheat, or caffeine is like finding a needle in haystack. Especially if you're a southern boy like me who likes everything fried.
It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and for the first few months I literally cried myself to sleep. It was an emotional, spiritual, and physical withdrawal.
At the same time, I never felt better, had much more energy, and lost the mental fog I was in. I had clarity to make much better choices about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. My newfound energy and sobriety led me to move back to Houston and change careers. Sugar had enslaved me and my decision making, and I was now a free man!
It became clear that I had spent my life numbing emotional discomfort with food. I got to meet Patrick Parker and get to know him for the very first time. And I liked him. A lot.
On a more superficial note, it also fed into my ego that everyone noticed I was losing weight, and I got to feel a little self-righteous when I saw other people indulging. Most of that has passed now, but in those first few months any silver lining was needed to push through how hard it was!
As an overweight man, I had some pretty interesting thinking errors. First of all, I definitely thought diets were for women, and real men should be able to eat what they wanted when they wanted. I had an entitlement and denial that fed into one another. I did not see that I had an eating disorder or that I was making myself sick. Sometimes I take out an old XXL shirt and put it on to remind myself that I really did have a major problem with food. It is so hard to see ourselves, especially when we are in the middle of a problem.
Life is hard. There are so many problems and struggles we all face. We all need more help than we get.
So, can we blame people for being fat? How is the average person who works forty hours a week and raises kids supposed to make good choices when it takes more time and money to eat healthy and there is fast food on every corner? How is an exhausted parent supposed to come home and cook a healthy meal for their family when it is easier to order a pizza and sit in front of the TV? How can obese children figure it out when they see all their peers--the most important people in their life--eating fast food and Coke at lunchtime?
I was lucky when I decided to address my problem in that I was a single man with enough time to go to a doctor, make food recovery the single focus of my life, and had the money to fill prescriptions and go to a therapist and support groups. It was a full time job for the first three months, and then it gradually became a working part of my life that I barely have to maintain at this point. I was finally ready to address the central problem in life that all my other issues stemmed from, and I had the tools and resources in which to do it.
I love the United States, but we have major problems. One problem is our food policies which are creating generations of sick people. My story is just one symptom of a national crisis that is affecting more people every year.
Here are some of the stats:
70% of Americans are overweight or obese.
Eighty percent of the 600,000 food products in the United States have added sugar.
Brain scans show that sugar activates the same areas of the brain triggered by cocaine, and acording to Dr. Mark Hyman, sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine.
If trends continue, 95 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2035.
Sugar is listed under 56 different names, so it is sometimes hard to even identify in a nutrition facts label.
Eighty percent of American high schools have contracts with soft drink companies, with 50 percent of school cafeterias serving fast food. Our kids are being set up to fail.
Seventy-five percent of all health care costs involve metabolic diseases.
Exercise is not a cure for the sugar problem: it takes two full hours of exercise to burn off the calories from a single can of Coke or Pepsi.
In this Houston Chronicle article, almost every one of the twenty most obese cities in America are in the southern states.
In Fed Up, a documentary narrated by Katie Couric, obesity is re-framed not as over-consumption but as malnutrition. An expert in the film named Dr. Lustig explains that sugar goes straight from the intestines to the liver, where it turns to fat, causing excess insulin production from the pancreas, which tricks the brain into thinking that the body is starving. In other words, our body wants homeostasis. It wants to be at the place it self-regulates as normal. But when we put sugar in our mouth, there is spike (some, like myself, are more sensitive than others), then a crash lower than the normal level. That creates more craving for sugar, to spike our stats again, but we overshoot, and another crash... a vicious cycle of simultaneous overeating and feelings of hunger.
What is the cause of this nationwide epidemic which we see in the bellies of our friends and families so often that it registers as the new normal?
There is no simple answer. There is no one identifiable culprit. Our problems are complex, their causes are complex, and the answers are complex.
Some people believe corporations have intentionally designed this problem for profits.
A doctor friend sees poverty as the root cause.
Another friend sees government subsidies of corn (which leads to corn syrup in many foods) as a root cause, since that leads to low-income families ingesting more sugar.
Good old-fashioned negligence and ignorance?
When Senator George McGovern recommended Americans consume less sugar and fat-laden products in the 1977 McGovern report, the egg, sugar, and meat industries were less than thrilled. They banded together and rejected the statements. The recommendations were then rewritten to encourage consumers to buy more lean products as opposed to less of the rich ones. The food industry adapted by re-engineering thousands of products to be low-fat. However, removing the fat from a product makes it taste GROSS! So companies added sugar to compensate. Some low-fat products actually contain twice the fat as their original versions. (I can attest to this, since my no sugar diet is high in fat).
Since the U.S. government issued its first dietary guidelines 30 years ago, the rate of obesity has skyrocketed.
French fries and pizza are currently considered vegetables in school lunch programs.
The USDA is simultaneously responsible for promoting US agriculture and dietary guidelines, a clear conflict of interest.
Congressional efforts to improve nutritional standards, ban advertising of sugar-laden foods to children, and even taxing bad foods are thwarted by food lobbyists claiming over regulation and violations of freedom of speech and commerce.
So, what's the solution?
In Fed Up, Katie Couric submits "eating real food, reading labels, getting junk out of schools. There are some things that can be done immediately. But in terms of public policy we need to open up a dialogue with well-intentioned people who are now better aware of the issue and the whole confluence of things that have come together to create an environment in which this generation will live shorter lifespans than their parents."
I do not know what the solution is. I think about my grandparents who grew their own food in their garden, which seems to be the answer. Yet they were low-income and bought cheap foods high in corn syrup in sugar. I think that any simple answer is the wrong answer.
Maybe there is no answer.
Maybe it just looks like one man, one woman, at a time doing the hard work of not harming their body through what they put in it. I have been free of sugar, flour, wheat, and caffeine for over fifteen months now. I feel better, think more clearly (and I definitely get to go on more dates and actually fit in clothes I want to wear)! I know that I have influenced people, not because of my words or my opinions on public policy or advice giving. I have influenced people by quietly going about the business of committing to my own wellness.
The individual well-being influencing policy is probably not the answer either. But, it is where I, and others, can make our start.