A Beguiling Beast

Mission: Mind+Body Rule #2:


I love sugar.  I do.  I appreciate the exquisite delight of cracking the top of a petite crème brulee, and I am always pleasantly surprised at the strange, beguiling flavor of a Swedish Fish.  I love breathing in the steam coming off of a big, creamy mug of hot cocoa, and I love the way my teeth feel like they’ve put on little sugary sweaters after eating a giant bowl of still-warm caramel popcorn…

Okay, maybe not that last one.  That feeling is kind of gross.

But I want to be able to enjoy the sweet things in life the way they were meant to be enjoyed:  as a rare and wonderful treat, rather than as a primary ingredient in everything I eat.  And, most importantly, I want a future free of diabetes and obesity.

I'm not the only one with sugar on my mind.  Read this month's National Geographic cover story HERE.

I’m not the only one with sugar on my mind. Read this month’s National Geographic cover story HERE.

I know that NO SUGAR seems pretty extreme, but really at the end of the day, my whole goal is moderation.  My goal is to beat my sweet tooth (remember it takes 18 months!) and then to be able to enjoy sweet or sugary things as a rare treat, without going overboard, and without ruinous consequences to my health.

And, as I am learning, it’s not just as easy as giving up “sweets.”  Why not?  Well, as it turns out, sugar is in everything.  Or nearly everything, it seems.  It’s not like I’m totally oblivious to what I am eating, but having always operated under the conventional wisdom that “a calorie is a calorie.”  I just didn’t pay as much attention to sugar content as I did to other things like total calories and whether it had enough protein or fiber.

But as I started to look at the labels of foods in my fridge and pantry that I never would have considered “sweets,” it was a real eye-opener.  I knew I would be saying goodbye to things like breakfast cereal, but I was alarmed to hear that “a standard six-ounce Yoplait yogurt has 11 grams of added sugar. So when you consume a Yoplait, you’re getting a yogurt plus eight ounces of Coca-Cola,” according to Dr. Lustig in this NPR interview.  I was sad to say goodbye to Famous Dave’s BBQ sauce (you will be missed).  It has more high fructose corn syrup than any other ingredient!

And so my education begins.

For me and for the purposes of Mission: Mind+Body, 

NO SUGAR means:

No sweets.

No foods where sugar is listed in the top 5 ingredients (this can be tricky because sugar goes by many different names, which we will talk about later).

No added sugar:  this includes cane and beet sugar (white, brown, powdered, etc.), honey, maple syrup, etc.

No artificial sweeteners.

No soda or fruit juices.

YES to whole fruit.

The Single Best Thing

Mission:  Mind + Body Rule #1:

Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day

Let me just start by saying that I do not expect that exercising every day will make me lose weight.  There.  I said it.  Before you shut down your browser in a huff and jump back on your Stairmaster, just let me explain.  I don’t expect exercising every day to help me lose weight in the conventional sense (“calories in vs. calories out”).   Why?  Because exercising makes me hungry.  Anyone who has ever gotten sweaty doing anything ever can back me up on this one.  Exercise/physical activity/working on a chain gang makes you want to eat more.  There’s a reason it’s called “working up an appetite.”  Even though it may seem to be the most intuitive and logical thing in the world, I remember telling some very fit and athletic friends about it when this controversial Time magazine article came out, and they were practically offended by the notion.  They just could not wrap their minds around the idea that exercise does not make you lose weight.

But, I can.  Just thinking about exercise makes me want to bury my face in a Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait.  And yet, I’m going to do it anyway.  It’s Rule #1 for crying out loud!

Why?  For me, daily exercise is as close to a magic bullet as I’m ever going to find.  I know from experience and from the research I’ve read that exercise is the single best thing you can do for your health (if you haven’t already seen it, watch the clip “23 ½ Hours” – it’s very persuasive).  Exercise makes you fit, it makes you strong, it helps you sleep better, and most importantly to me–it helps you cope with stress.  And my suburban, upper middle-class American lifestyle is stressful, people!  The lines at my local Costco are always long!!!  There is a two-year waiting list for the Montessori charter school!!!  And now that I have watched all of the foreign films and documentaries, I can’t find anything good on Netflix!!!

But seriously, stress.  The way it works is that exercise helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol.  Well, actually, cortisol goes up while you are exercising (talk to me 15 minutes into a spin class and I will rip your head off tell you about it).  But it lowers your cortisol levels for the rest of the day.   The effects seem to wear off after 24-48 hours, which means consistency is the key here.  So, my exercise today was an early morning hike in beautiful Sabino Canyon.  Check out my view:

In this photo, I was trying to show you the lovely riparian area at the bottom of the canyon, but instead you mostly get to enjoy my gigantic granny glasses:

photo (1)

And now I’m off to Costco.  Wish me luck.

The Magic of 18 Months

“Erika, listen to me.  You can do anything for 18 months.” – My mom

In his book, Why We Get Fat, the journalist Gary Taubes talks about how sugar is addictive in the brain in the same way drugs like nicotine, heroin, and cocaine are.  If you have ever told yourself you would have “just one more” Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate-covered Pretzel Thin (which I suspect may actually be dusted in crack), then you might be able to relate.  I know that I am certainly victim to what he dubs “the intense cravings of a sweet tooth.”

I seriously do not get people (like my own husband) who “don’t like” sweets.  I mean, it’s like saying you “don’t like” watching B-list celebrities dress up in bedazzled spandex and do the fox trot.  It makes no sense.  And yet Taubes seems to think there is something more out there–something beyond intrusive thoughts of pretzel thins (and sniggering at bad spray tans).

Taubes quotes the Duke University pediatrician James Sidbury Jr. (who later became director of the National Institute of Child and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health) who reported great success in slimming down obese children by drastically reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates in their diets.  Dr. Sidbury noted that, “after a year to 18 months, the craving for sweets is lost.” And the children often pinpointed when this happened “to within a specific one to two week period.”

Eighteen months???  Are you kidding me???  That is a long time to fight the 3pm urge for a bite (or bar) of Lindt intense orange dark chocolate, or the giant bowl of homemade caramel popcorn that seems to find its way to my counter top each Sunday evening, or just one more slice of the to-die-for artisan bread I just mastered the art of baking!   Who could ever hold out that long?

Well, I hope the answer is:  me.

I hope that I can do it.  After all, my mom told me that I can do anything for 18 months, and as it turns out, she was right.

When I was nearly 21 years old, I applied to become a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (yep, I’m a Mormon).  For some pretty immature reasons, I decided that there was really only one place I didn’t want to go – and that place was Portugal.  You see, I was already fluent in Portuguese (I’d done an internship in Brazil my sophomore year of college and then studied it after I’d returned).  I either wanted to learn yet another language as a missionary, or just go back to Brazil, which I had fallen in love with (who wouldn’t?).  I had nothing against Portugal per se, but it just sounded so…boring.

Well, if you believe that God has any sense of humor at all, then you know where this is going.  Because I was away at a summer program when my mission call arrived, my parents opened it for me over the phone.  My mom read the opening lines, stopping just before she read the part that told me where I would be headed.  There was a long pause and then, “Erika, listen to me.  You can do anything for 18 months.”  I knew what that meant.  I was headed to the one place I just didn’t want to go.

And so off I went to damp, dark, dull Portugal (at least that was how it seemed to me when I got there in late November).  And it didn’t disappoint.  My mission was harder than I ever could have imagined–although for reasons that had very little to do with being in Portugal– and my mom’s words became my mantra:  “You can do anything for 18 months.”  And, she was right.  I was badly injured in a traffic accident just a few weeks after arriving in Portugal, and battling through the pain and lingering complications of those injuries became my mission within a mission.  But, in the end, it changed my life.  It changed me.

In Portugal, 2000.

In Portugal, 2000.

Now, again, I want to change my life and change myself, but I know it’s going to be hard.  I have two young cousins who will both leave to serve 18-month missions in the next two weeks (shout outs to Sister Ostler in Ecuador and Sister Heylen in Missouri), and they are my inspiration.  I know that the adventure they are about to embark on will be hard.  Much harder than anything I’m trying to attempt.  What they are about to do, day in and day out for the next 18 months, will demand discipline, persistence, and above all, faith.

To them I say – there will be days you might want to throw the towel in, there will be days you might want to punch something (or someone – probably your companion) in frustration, and there will be many, many, days that will send you to your knees, begging for the help and power to become someone greater and stronger than you could ever be on your own.  There will be blisters and bad haircuts and a lot of doors slammed in your faces.  But, what can I say?  It’s worth it.  It will change your life–and in ways both big and small, I really believe you will change the world.   Just don’t give up.  You can do anything for 18 months.

I hope I can, too.  Bon Voyage!

More than Just a Calorie

So, I’m an American woman in my early 30’s, and like the majority of people in this country, I’m overweight.  It’s something I’ve struggled with since my late teens.  Obesity and nearly all its attendant diseases run in my family (as does brilliance and good looks), and after a perfect storm of related health scares in my immediate and extended family, I’ve woken up to the fact that if I don’t figure this out, I will be on the fast track to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and who knows what else?

I want more from my life right now, and I want more than a future of disease and decline.  I want to feel better, to have more energy to fulfill my duties, and to do the things I enjoy with less pain and fatigue.  I also believe that mind and body are inexorably connected, and I want to be more in tune with the spiritual side of my nature.IMG_1050

I’ve tried different things in the past, most of them based on the conventional wisdom of “a calorie is a calorie” and that weight regulation is just a matter of “calories in vs. calories out.”  I’ve had varying degrees of success in losing the excess weight, but have always gained it back – and usually very quickly (See Mom?  I am an overachiever after all).

A couple of years ago, while meeting with an endocrinologist, I expressed my extreme frustration at reaching a healthy weight and then gaining back 30 lbs in less than a year.  He nodded his head and said to me, “Yes.  People who can gain weight very quickly are people whose bodies are very sensitive to sugar and carbohydrates.”  He didn’t really offer any specific guidance beyond that, and unfortunately, it wasn’t until recently, when I became aware of the work of journalist Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat) and that of  Dr. Robert Lustig (a pediatric endocrinologist at the UCSF and author of Fat Chance) that I began to understand what he meant.

Taubes and Lustig both go to great lengths to explain how the conventional wisdom behind “a calorie is a calorie” and “calories in vs. calories out” is fundamentally flawed.  In his must-watch lecture and series of videos on YouTube, Dr. Lustig clarifies how our hormones (particularly insulin) regulate how different calories are either burned for energy or diverted to our fat cells for storage.  My takeaway from their work is that for someone like me who is already biologically prone to obesity (and diabetes, which also runs in my family) a calorie of sugar or refined/white carbohydrates is much more than just a calorie.  It’s the beginning of a biological process of driving up insulin production and fat retention.

So my goal with Mission: Mind + Body is to address the biological factors behind the excess weight gain by regulating the hormones that drive it:  insulin, ghrelin, peptide YY, and cortisol.  How?  See the Mission Rules, which are lifted directly from Dr. Lustig’s recommendations for overcoming obesity.   Each rule is intended to help regulate these four hormones and hopefully help me lose weight, feel better, and ultimately transform my entire lifestyle.

Will it work?  I have no idea.  I’m not a doctor, and my understanding of all of the research is admittedly fairly superficial, but part of Mission:  Mind + Body is to educate myself on these and other related topics and explore them on this blog.  All I can say right now is that everything about this approach makes sense to me, and I’m willing to give it 18 months.