Sugar, Are You Lying to Me?

Goal and Motivation Recap

My goal is to eat sugar in mindful moderation and buy only fair trade.

My motivation is to enjoy and have a healthy relationship with food, and to minimize any harm done to others by my consumption of luxury foods.

This Is Your Brain on Dopamine

There’s a reason bad habits are so hard to shake… whether the habit involves consuming an addictive substance or not. That’s because, when you think about indulging in something you have enjoyed in the past, your brain produces a powerful drug of its own: dopamine. When this neurotransmitter is released, it causes you to feel desperate to have the object of your craving.

Photo by Arthur Brognoli from Pexels

The author of my favourite book on willpower is very careful to emphasize that dopamine does not in itself make a person happy. Instead, it is simply “the promise of reward”. She invites the reader to think of their strongest habit that they want to quit:

Chances are this is something you believe makes you happy…. But a careful analysis of the experience and its consequences often reveals the opposite…. Ultimately, you’re left frustrated, unsatisfied, disappointed, ashamed, tired, sick, or simply no happier than when you started. There is growing evidence that when people pay close attention to the experience of their false rewards, the magical spell wears off. If you force your brain to reconcile what it expects from a reward – happiness, bliss, satisfaction, an end to sadness or stress – with what it actually experiences, your brain will eventually adjust its expectations.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. (The Willpower Instinct)

That’s good news for us dopamine addicts! So, how can I get my brain to objectively compare the promise of reward to the reward itself? Once again, the answer is to pay careful attention – to be mindful. Over the next few days (and beyond, if it’s helpful), when I feel a craving for sugar or chocolate and I go ahead and eat some, I will try to notice what happens….

As fate would have it, I’ve been able to test this out sooner than expected. As I write this post (I’m writing it the night before posting), my sister, who had no idea I was writing about this, literally laid out a couple dozen gooey, oven-warm, barely-holding-together-for-aLL-ThE-ChoCoLaTe-ChiPS COOKIES directly in front of me on the table where I’m working. So… here we go:

  • Before taking the first bite, I focused on the craving and desire. What promise did it hold? A promise of beautiful, rich sweetness, and yes – happiness.
  • How about the actual experience of indulging? Did the craving go away as soon as I tasted what I was craving? Or did it linger? These cookies were phenomenal. The taste was sweet and wonderful, as expected. But after about 2 seconds of that, even as I was still enjoying it, I caught myself thinking about how nice it would be to have more.
  • So, does the promise equal the reward? Is my craving satisfied? No and no. Now that the sweetness has faded away into the recesses of my mouth, there’s a strangely bitter dryness at the very back of my tongue, almost like the vague soreness just before falling sick with a cold. I don’t feel one bit happier. And as I sit here looking at and smelling the many remaining cookies in front of me, I’m salivating thinking about how amazing it would be to have another.

That’s after just one cookie. If I were to have several, I know from experience that I would feel worse than I felt when I started: angry with myself for eating so many cookies, and wired and anxious from the sugar and chocolate, and of course, still not satisfied.

There you have it. That’s the answer to the title of this post: Yes, sugar is lying to me. Or more accurately – dopamine is lying to me about the promise of sugar.

Replacing a Beloved (Bad) Habit

As I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoy visiting local establishments to have some time alone with nothing to do but think, read or write, and enjoy a freshly baked brownie (or cookie, or hot chocolate, etc., etc., etc.!). At this point in my life, this kind of opportunity arises maybe once or twice a month, so it’s a bit of a special event for me. (I wonder how the promise of this particular enjoyment would hold up to the actual experience of it?)

At other times I’ll take a walk with family to an ice cream or bubble tea shop. Or we’ll work it into a necessary outing or errand.

There are two problems with these fun outings:

  1. Very few, if any, of these shops use fair-trade sugar or chocolate, and;
  2. Eventually, when my daughter is older and I am out-and-about more often, I can see this occasional indulgence very easily becoming a daily routine.

But I’m loath to banish special outings like this altogether! I’m pretty sure they are genuinely good for my mental health and my relationships.

Thankfully I can think of some alternative habits that fit better with my goals and that I would probably enjoy just as much!

  • When it comes to my alone-time outings, it’s easy enough to order something delicious that does not contain chocolate or sugar. I could get an unsweetened matcha latte at some cafes, for instance.
  • Family outings for ice cream or bubble tea are more complicated, but I plan to reach out to some of the local establishments to see if they sell any confections containing only fair-trade chocolate and sugar. There is one place I know that uses fair-trade chocolate in at least some of their delicious ice creams but I don’t know about the sugar.
  • I could also don my chef’s hat and whip up my own brownies or cookies (or even ice cream!) with honey or maple syrup instead of sugar, and fair-trade chocolate. I love to bake, so I would enjoy the process as well as the results. If our family wants to make it an outing we can walk to the park for a mini picnic!

Hurray! I’m feeling good about all this. It feels like this is something I can sustain quite happily. I don’t feel that I’m limiting my experiences of joy or happiness, but instead it feels like I’m giving myself good gifts: more freedom (not being tied to an addictive habit), greater enjoyment of the foods I eat, and better physical and mental health.

How is your journey coming along? Are you at the start of a new one? Or trying again to change a behaviour for the umpteenth time, like me? As always, I sincerely wish you all the best. I hope you are able to find what truly brings you joy, and be rid of the things in your life that are nothing more than empty promises.

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