Welltalks: Sherry Strong on finding a healthy relationship with sugar
I would confidently say that I’m addicted to sugar. I don’t necessarily crave a Snickers or a Coke like I used to, but at least once a day, I get a pretty aggressive craving for something sweet. I’m sure many people are in the same boat, and while we know sugar is bad for us, willpower can be a tricky thing. In order to better understand our relationship with sugar, we sat down with Sherry Strong – food philosopher, chef, nutritionist, author of A Return To Food – the life-changing anti-diet, among many other accolades. Sherry also recently announced the launch of the Sweet Freedom Summit which features 30+ speakers, researchers and thought leaders as well as a strategic program to help end sugar addiction ‘for good’.
You speak a lot about our relationship with food. What does a healthy relationship look like?
You know you have a healthy relationship with food when you’re driving it as opposed to it driving you. You have it handled and you feel good because of what you’re eating. That changes at different times in your life and to varying degrees. I don’t think a healthy relationship with food is a perfect relationship, I think it’s an evolution.
Why do you think we’ve become so addicted to sugar?
The most nourishing things are the least addictive, and the most hedonistic are the things that are most addictive. And that’s the problem. We have a world now where the foods that were once rare
and hard to obtain in nature are now available everywhere for cheap and are highly addictive. One of the things I always keep coming back to is nature. Nature provides balance for us. It tells us what to eat and the quantities to eat it in, depending on how easily attainable it is. One of my main philosophies is the consumption concept: if we had to source our own food in nature, we’d all be making very different decisions about what we’re eating.
How do you reconcile the “good” feeling we get after eating sugar, with our body actually feeling good when we nourish it properly?
The first is the addictive feeling good. And the addictive feeling good always comes with a low. The nourished feeling good is much more even. I use the analogy of why an affair is hard for any marriage to withstand, because if you’ve been married for a long time you have this even pattern, you have a healthy relationship. And if someone comes in and they’re new and exciting, it’s hard to compare that to the steady, healthy relationship, but still requires a lot of strength to resist someone who’s tempting in that way. The thing you have to understand is this: anything that’s addictive is going to come with some drawbacks, and if you give into that it will create problems with your long-term relationship with food.
So should we be giving up sugar altogether?
Some people will be able to have sugar occasionally and be fine, and then for some people it’s zero tolerance. It will also change for you at different times in your life. Most of us can probably look back at a time in our life and go “Oh I found it really easy to resist sugar at that time”, and it’s usually when we’re in a really healthy place. And then when we’re having challenges, we’re all wanting something that makes us feel better, and sugar does that temporarily. So it’s easy to get into the cycle of “I’m just going to have this and it’s going to make me feel better” when we’re unable to replicate or produce those feelings of wellbeing with our thoughts and feelings. So sometimes in your life you have to do zero tolerance, no sugar, and at other times you can have it and you’re cool with it. It’s all about knowing where you are in your life.
We all know the bigger dangers of excess sugar consumption, but how could it be affecting us on a day-to-day basis?
Depending on your genetic disposition and tendencies, sugar will help bring out the disease that your body’s most vulnerable to. But you don’t actually have to get to the point of disease. Chronic fatigue, memory loss, energy, mood swings, a weakened immune system, gut issues, even hand eye coordination and balance are linked to sugar (I’ve seen this personally when working with elite athletes, and when they cut out sugar their performance improves). You’ll see that even after seven days of removing it, you’re going to have more energy, more even moods, etc. What you’re putting into your body impacts your ability to function and perform at a better level.
Is there a difference between refined sugar and natural forms of sugar?
The way sugar impacts the body is the same. The difference is, refined sugar is like the cocaine, the high fructose corn syrup is the crack, and the honeys and the maple syrups are at that stage where it’s no longer the coca leaf (which gives you a high), but it’s somewhere in between. Or if you’re taking opium sap and turning it into heroin, there’s the opium stage and then there’s the heroin stage, but there’s also a stage in between where it still has some macro and micro nutrients which cushion it as it enters the body.
Though if you have too much of anything, it will create imbalance in the body. Now people are consuming large amounts of fruit, but this isn’t natural. In the past people used to ration dried fruit, they would even use prunes for example as a currency, because it was really rare and precious. Anytime we eat out of context of what we would actually be able to find in nature, we create this internal imbalance. But yes, processed sugar is even worse. The further away something is from nature, often the bigger the high, and the bigger the low. At least with fruit, there are still the micro and macro nutrients present.
What are some tips to help manage sugar cravings?
Number one thing is to not have it around (or keep a small amount of something high quality around as a treat like Sherry does). With chocolate for example, find a brand you love (organic non-refined) with a small amount of sugar (the cost alone of chocolate like this restricts consumption), and have a little bit at a time. It’s about knowing yourself. For some people that’s not going to work, and that little bit of sugar can trigger their brain and their dependency to then have more. The big thing is to get all that highly processed stuff out of the house. While you can’t control other people bringing sweets into the office and having it around, you control what you can control. And then you can have something like a licorice tea, like we’ve having right now, there’s sweetness from that but it’s not going to spike your blood sugar.
The biggest thing you can do before even cutting our sugar is to understand your why. Why are you eating the sugar. Not superficial whys or whys that don’t motivate you. If you keep digging you’ll find a why that’s big enough to help you get off of sugar.
And the other piece is to nourish yourself, because you’ll find that the more nourishing things you put in your body, and the less lethal, toxic, highly refined things you put in, your body will get a little bit stronger and less susceptible to the temptations that will weaken it. Eat green things for breakfast, for example a green smoothie (not too much fruit), and a salad or soup for lunch and dinner. Then if you want something sweet, you can make something like raw chocolate, that tastes great and is nutrient dense. You’re then getting little hit without the refined sugar.
And when we do decide to consciously eat sugar, how do we do it without feeling guilty about it?
I love the quote “Discipline is remembering what you want”. That’s why it’s so important to figure out your why and what it is that you want. For me, I want to feel good most of the time, but sometimes I just want to celebrate and I’m willing to take the hangover or the hit to my body. It’s a choice. But either way, pretending it didn’t happen tends to produce more negative behaviour. But also start to listen to your body and feel that contrast of how it feels when you don’t have it. And most importantly have patience and forgiveness when you’re going through the process.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.