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This is Your Brain on Sugar: My Rehab Story

20 J0000003UTC 2011

Our brains have ruined the real taste of sweet. Because our brains are plastic (able to acquire new information and stimuli and shift structure in response), we are in an era of uber-sweetness, overstimulated by man-made and false sugars. In this over-sensitization the sweet center in our brains is like cotton candy, no longer able to sense the real sweetness of an apple, peanut or carrot.

A couple of years ago, before I began my nutrition education, I began removing extra sugar from my diet. Soda was obvious; fruit juice was not as obvious, but it went, too; then white sugar in coffee and baking. I needed replacements, so I read “Sweet and Sugar Free.” The good-intentioned author wrote that I would soon discover the “sweetness of celery.” Yes, celery. I laughed out loud, clearly not ready for the earthy tasting recipes within. The food actually tasted like the ingredients. Cherries were tart. Pumpkin tasted like it smelled. Nuts were…nutty.

I saw the bravery of this book, but there had to be a better way. My way did not include “the sweetness of celery” but has involved re-conditioning my taste buds and my brain away from sugar addiction and towards real food. I needed to discover what real food tasted like, something I never had done before.

I grew up on Shasta, Kool-Aid, Cookie Crisp, M&Ms and Chips Ahoy. We ate wholesome dinners (tuna casserole, thanks, Mom), but that was the 80s and microwaved dinners were at our mothers’ fingertips. No part of baby boomer moms wanted to be like their Depression era mothers, so why not grab a case of Tang, Lucky Charms or a Salisbury steak dinner? It was fast, easy and enriched.

With this backdrop, I rarely ate a vegetable till age 24, until I got married (for the first time). I tried cooking and was not good at it, so we ate a lot of cereal, yogurt, soup, chili and Oreos. I’m pretty sure I was malnourished for roughly the first three decades of my life.

I was told a few years ago that the aching in my hands was the first signs of rhumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition. Knowing nothing other than dread of yet another “specialist,” I dove into the internet abyss, looking for dietary solutions to my new problem. I found that RA is inflammation and that inflammation can be caused by eating large amounts of sugar. I thought, “I eat large amounts of sugar; maybe I should stop.” Hence, the soda, juice and white sugar removal.

Enough aching subsided that I never went to that specialist.*

At first I switched the white sugar in my coffee to raw sugar, then agave, then took it out all-together because cream has sugar, called lactose. Then I switched to almond and coconut milk (sweet too), then to green tea half the time and decaf coffee half the time. This process took about two years.

I took out pancake syrup, using raw honey instead. Then I found sweet potato pancakes that don’t use any sweetener in the mix because the potatoes themselves are so sweet.

For baking, I usually use raw agave nectar (much stronger/sweeter than sugar), but sometimes use unprocessed organic sugar for consistency. I often cut the amount of sugar in roughly half and use a lot of cinnamon. There are few recipes that I don’t alter either in sugar, flour or oil/shortening. All of this took a long time, one little step and realization at a time, mostly centered around someone’s health. The downside? Just some funny looks when people eat the food I make and a couple of thrown-out pies.

I used to put white sugar in my smoothies, which is funny because smoothies are made of sugar– mostly fructose, or fruit sugar. I use all kinds of fruit, vegetables, seeds and the tart cranberry juice for a smoothie where I can actually taste the ingredients.

Alas, I no longer sit around at night dunking endless piles of Oreos, but I’m better without the high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Instead I enjoy every bite of really good dark chocolate. It’s not as sweet as cookies, but it’s real and I don’t need a baker’s dozen to feel satisfied.

I even reduced the massive amount of bread, pasta, bagels and pastries I eat.  But then, if you’ve been reading, you’ve already know about bread butt. Now pie is something special and pancakes are once a week– this process took a long time of taste and discovery, too.

Now, when I taste a super sugary dessert, drink or  breakfast, I almost can’t take it. I’m bound to only a sip of Coca-Cola (my old favorite) when I go home for a visit– not because I’m a food snob, but because my taste buds and brain have changed. After deliberately shifting how and what I eat and decreasing the amount and type of sugar I ingest, the taste of sweet on my tongue and the corresponding map in my brain also shifted. I no longer need as much stimuli in order to be satisfied. When I am over-stimulated, my buds and brain quickly tell me.

I suppose you could say it was a type of addiction rehab, requiring lots of reasons and time. Now Little Debbie and Einstein’s are too sweet for me. Who knows? Maybe down the road celery will be too sweet for me too, but I doubt it.



Note: *My choice not to see a specialist for RA was just that, my choice. This is not necessarily what I would advise someone else as a Nutrition Consultant. If you suspect or know that you have RA, or any other autoimmune condition, please speak to a doctor or other trusted practitioner as soon as possible.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 J0000003UTC 2011 5:52 pm

    Great post.
    Really enjoyed reading it.

    It touches on a lot of stuff I’m going through currently (no soda, pasta, bread). You give this stuff a lot more thought than I do, though. For me these changes have come fairly easily and I’m enjoying almonds, vegetables, sweet potatoes for the first time in my life after a small adjustment period.

    For me the motivation is simply knowing that what I’m doing is healthier and will probably benefit my life in the long run.

    Keep it up, sister!

  2. 20 J0000003UTC 2011 6:09 pm

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, some people love it and it comes easily, but for some it takes time and thought and the sugar extraction is more painful. I think the longer one waits, the harder it is. The beautiful part is that anyone can change their own brain.

  3. Travis permalink
    20 J0000003UTC 2011 8:03 pm

    Great post, Kris! Completely inspiring! I hope to one day be strong enough to resist Oreos…

    • 20 J0000003UTC 2011 8:19 pm

      I mean, I’m not saying I would not have a nibble if offered one…

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