When I was growing up, my parents believed in two things: First, they never told me how to spend money I had earned independently of them, regardless of how frivolous or indulgent my purchases might be.
Second, food, especially carb-heavy food like candy, was consumed for comfort and sometimes as a way to cope.
As an adult, these two beliefs sort of merged into one, and now (too large) a portion of my paycheck often goes to indulgent, edible purchases. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll tell you about last weekend. On Friday, after I deposited my paycheck, my boyfriend and I went out—in the midst of a tropical storm—to purchase some early Halloween goodies.
Now, to be clear, going out was my idea and so was spending nearly $50 on a few industrial-sized bags of Halloween candy. But I had a little excess from my paycheck and had been looking forward to my Halloween candy purchase all week long. I’d been so looking forward to it that when we got to Target and they had no Halloween stuff out, I insisted we stop at several other stores—all during this really, really bad storm.
I could go on for probably several pages about candy, but I’ll spare you. However, I will say that my affair with candy, and sugar in general, is intimate enough that I can tell you what Halloween candy was sold in which types of mixes last year and what candy mixes are new this year, and I can also tell you which stores sell which candies, and what candies are sold in industrial sizes at SAMs along with their prices.
Before I went to college, until people started telling me that I ate a lot of it, I thought the amount of candy I ate was normal. I do share a lot of my candy (probably because it makes me feel better about how much I buy), but I buy candy in such large quantities that if a cashier asks if the candy is all for me, I say no. Other times, I’ll feel really self-conscious and just say that the candy is for a group, even though it isn’t and even if the cashier hasn’t asked.
At one point, my over-indulgence in sugar was so bad, I purchased two boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes, proceeded to eat them both (24 Swiss Rolls, 12 Oatmeal Crème Pies) in a single sitting and then dispose of the evidence before my boyfriend got home from work. I’m not overweight. I’m not diabetic. There’s literally no reason to hide what I’m eating other than the sense of shame I feel when I (frequently) over-indulge. By the way, I didn’t tell my boyfriend about it until months later.
Let’s stop for a moment and talk about what happens if I take out the word “candy” or “sugar” and replace it with “beer” or the blanket term “drugs.” If I wrote an article that detailed my in-depth knowledge of where to buy drugs, who sells what, their pricing and my own over-indulgence in them, I think most people would agree that I have a problem. But sugar seems like such a cute, harmless thing that people don’t think about it as critically as they would other addictive substances.
Sugar is addictive, but people would probably laugh if you said you had an addiction to it. In fact, some researchers insist that eating is addictive, but sugary or fatty foods aren’t. I’m not a scientist—just a sugar junkie—but I’m going to point out that it’s rare for someone to go overboard with salad, fruit or other healthy foods.
When people binge or have problems eating too much, it’s often with fatty, sugary, carb-heavy garbage. Food addiction in general is still being studied, but as recently as February, 2015, scientists did a study in which they found sugar to be eight times more addictive than cocaine. I can’t comment on this particular study because I’ve never tried cocaine, but given that I hogged down 36 snack cakes in a span of about four hours, I’m going to guess that I’ll always side with sugar.
Last week, I wrote an article about going on a raw diet. Part of what I mentioned in that article is how I struggled with not eating sweets, especially candy. Fruit helped, but my boyfriend was a witness to my bad attitude and general displeasure because I was abstaining from any non-fructose sugar.
Now, I’m not equating my deep desire for sugar to a serious addiction to a drug like meth, which has far more psychologically and physically scarring effects. But I am saying that despite the overwhelmingly positive benefits of the raw diet—happiness in terms of body image, very healthy body, great control and management of my gastric problems—I would still binge-eat sugar. Even though it made me feel like a pile of poo, both physically and emotionally, I would look forward to the weekend simply because I knew I would have the freedom to go on an insane sugar binge.
So, that’s my personal experience with sugar, and I’m guessing it’s similar to other people’s issues with junk food. I think our culture is, at present, too critical of overweight people (the bizarre fat acceptance campaigns touting images of morbidly obese, unhealthy people excluded) without being critical of the food they’re eating and the food that’s being put on shelves in supermarkets.
For example, in the 1950s, each person consumed about 11 pounds of corn sweeteners—0 of it was high fructose corn syrup—on average each year.
In 2000, each person consumed 85.3 pounds of corn sweeteners—63.8 pounds of it in high fructose corn syrup—on average each year. The problem here isn’t just that people were (and are) consuming more sugar; it’s that the foods they were (and are) consuming suddenly contained more sugar. The USDA’s Factbook, “Profiling Food Consumption in America,” slightly acknowledges this fact by writing, “sugar is the number one food additive.”
Although celebrities like Jamie Oliver have tried to raise awareness of the sugar issue, it’s a difficult battle because sugar is often tied-up in “diet” foods (low fat equals more sugar, salt, thickeners) and, as paradoxical as it is, it’s often used to promote healthy eating habits. One example is the case of flavored milks. Kids who don’t like milk will probably drink it if it’s chocolate or strawberry flavored, but these flavorings add an extra 16 grams of sugar on top of the 12 grams already present in a single, eight ounce carton. A kid who has two cartons of milk at school is consuming 56 grams of sugar, which is pretty alarming when the American Heart Association recommends only 25-37.5 grams of sugar per day.
I don’t mean to vilify sugar because it can be eaten in healthy amounts (not by me). The problem is that I’ve yet to see anyone who eats sugar in a “healthy” amount. Even people who abstain from sweets are taking in that sugar through bread, milk, alcohol, chips, etc. So, what can you do?
The food industry won’t change overnight. Sugar is addictive and addictive substances are the best substances to sell, because the only person who continuously loses is the consumer (until the consumers all die from complications caused by morbid, long-term obesity).
But what you can do is be nice to each other. Most of the time, obesity isn’t caused by pure over-indulgence, but by an entire range of psychological factors, some of which do include an addiction to sugar and/or food as a coping mechanism. Sometimes obesity or just being overweight happens due to nutritional ignorance. But if you’re judging an overweight person for eating McDonald’s, consider examining more than just that isolated person in that isolated incident.
At some point, people have to stop being shitty to each other and instead look at why corporations like McDonald’s, which survives by telling people it’s okay to eat 1,500 calories in a single meal, are allowed to guide not only what we consume, but portion size, too. Sure, Big Macs are really freaking tasty, but do they need to be sold with a side of fries and a Coke?