By Andrew Rodman
I prowled the streets aching for a fix. First store I find, I beeline straight to the candy section, for jellied orange slices, 59 cents.
Sugar encrusts the candy, making it look both lurid and cartoony. It sparkles and tantalizes. Must... eat...it! The rush triggers my brain’s opioids; natural heroin. I’m hooked. We are all hooked.
I knew my bingeing could not last. Unchecked opiate-driven compulsions generally lead to ruin. Sooner or later, I would get my diet together. Later rather.
When I was diagnosed with cancer last winter, the boot finally dropped. Suddenly, there was no “later.”
In the frantic scramble to get proactive, I had to change out my diet. Processed sugars had to go!
I had to get dogmatic to pull off this feat. I repeated the mantra of sugar’s ills on my health; sugar suppresses the immune system, raises insulin levels, interferes with calcium and magnesium absorption, contributes to kidney damage and increases cholesterol and the risks of heart disease. Excess sugar contributes to diabetes, speeds the aging process, aids osteoporosis and weakens our defense against infections. Our bodies get a whole lot of dunking for donuts.
Obesity rates in the western diet aside, it is always good to watch the amount of sweets in your diet. When you are ill however, you have to be far more vigilant than a healthy person. When I became real sick, I became fanatical about my sugar aversion. I made it a point to root out every crevice of sweets in my diet. Not only sucrose (table sugar) but also carbohydrates and starches were all suspect. To be avoided were white bread, white rice, corn flakes, extruded breakfast cereals, glucose, and maltose. So long beer, sandwiches, breakfasts and fast-cooking rice.
I used to drink orange juice when I got sick. Now I suspected the sugar-shock to my system was doing me more harm than the vitamin C was doing me good (herb teas are best). Already woozy from chemotherapy, the confusion of my safe-world view took a toll, as long-held eating habits withered under the harsh light of scrutiny.
Alternatives exist, and I pursued them mightily, although it took a while to get into the swing of cooking alternate grains. I knew that amaranth is great alternative. (In Good Tilth 22iv.), as are other “designer” grains like quinoa, barley, farro, buckwheat and bulgur. These were easy enough to cook at home, but I was not likely to encounter them when I ate out.
Sugars lurk in live foods as well. Bananas are high-carb sugar. Most of the fruit I frequent were deemed too high in fructose as well. Apples and cantaloupes were too sweet, as are dried apricots, raisins and dates. Any juice that packs a sweet kick was voted out. Even my health smoothies were suspect.
My already woozy head began to spin. I sought comfort in my old mainstay – tortilla chips. A man needs a salt lick. But the chips are basically more carbs, which I had to avoid. Argh!
There were more shocks in store for me. I discovered that the innocent rice cake, my bread substitute, is very high-glycemic, rating 77 on the gycemic index to 55 in a Snickers bar.
Trying to focus
So here I am at the grocery store. Hungry. My basket is empty. Now it’s shopping as unusual. A half-hour flies by as I pick up each box of cereal and read its ingredients, trying to find a sweet-free breakfast cereal (all but shredded wheat) show high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, cane juice, cane sugar; refined, juiced, evaporated, agave, barley malt, malt flavoring, malted barley syrup, brown sugar syrup, maltodextrin, invert sugar and confectioners shellac(!).
In my weakened state, I felt defenseless against the hordes of sweets, which multiplied the more I started noticing them. They were everywhere, out to smother me with decay.
I had to be proactive about this vex. So my partner Terry and I settled on a plan.
Breakfast would be oatmeal with cinnamon. Fruits and nuts, in their natural state, became my snacks. Since carrot juice proved too sweet, I munched on carrot sticks instead. I started to mainline almonds and cashews and sunflower seeds. Lunch was bean soups and salad and sandwiches on sprouted-wheat breads. Dinners focused on stir-fry and deep-green veggies.
We ate in accordance to the glycemic index. We chose breakfast cereals rich in oats, barley and bran; breads with whole grains, stone-ground flour, sourdough–reducing the amount of potatoes eaten, increasing other types of fruit and vegetables, and consume plenty of salad veggies with a vinaigrette dressing. Not just greens. The best colors to eat are a variety of blues and reds and yellows. My favorite fruits became blueberries and blackberries and reddish raspberries - all high in antioxidants.
We ate out much less, but when we did, we chose Thai a lot, a mistake it turned out, as there are lots of sweets along with the sours. Well, I never claimed to be perfect.
As “pure” as I became, the experiences were starting to fundamentally unhinge me. When I saw people near me drinking soda and eating processed food, I felt like leaping out and doing an intervention.
Light in the tunnel
After the diet change-out, intensive herbal therapy, four rounds of chemotherapy and acupuncture, the tumors shrank to a size that was successfully removed via surgery.
Slowly, vigor and equilibrium returned to me, and thanks in part to my vigilance about sweets in all forms, I had lost 20 pounds. I am now cancer-free and feeling great.
The intensity of my sugar aversion that carried me through my illness could be eased off a bit with my returning vitality.
Maybe we all have to go through a deeply radical phase before we can settle on being simply progressive. So it was with my sweet paranoia.
Surviving a major health crisis puts everything in a different light. These days, sick or not, I avoid processed sugars. I strive to get my sweets from fruit. If I am going for sweets, I try to get them in their most natural forms.
It is astounding how much sugars –processed or whole – infiltrate every aspect of the foods around us. In this context, what could be more radical than treating sweets as if they were a rare treat?