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Off sugar, and wanting to tear my eyes out
Is sugar a drug?
It's a topic of hot debate. Some nutritionists and biochemists swear it is. Others say it's not.
There are significant consequences. If consumption of sugar were someday found to be an addictive public health hazard, it could eventually be regulated by the federal government, as it regulates tobacco and alcohol.
That would be swell with endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, who told CBS News' "60 Minutes" in 2012 that sugar is a toxin that contributes to obesity, heart disease and cancers. In the same report, Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute said sugar activates pleasure centers in our brain in a way "that's reminiscent of cocaine."
Lustig, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, proposes limiting sales of sweetened products during school hours, or designating an age limit such as 17 for the purchase of drinks with added sugar, particularly soda.
Can anyone say Mischief Night target?
I've never had much use for busybodies like Lustig. I find them more frightening from a civil liberties perspective than cocaine is from a health perspective -- or a dozen cherry-topped Charlotte russe cakes.
That said, on a whim last Sunday, I found myself resolving to give up all sugar and carbohydrates for the next few weeks. I wish I could say it was to test Lustig's findings, but that would be a lie. It was corpulence alone that drove me, i.e., I'm no longer strong enough to button my largest suit jacket. Something must be done.
I've lost weight dozens of times before, but I've never kicked sugar -- all sugar, even from fruits and vegetables. Lustig does not go to these extremes, explaining that the fiber in fruit mitigates the negative effects of its natural sugar, but I figure if I'm going to go for it.
However, I didn't quite know was I was getting into. I had forgotten just how many forms sugar takes in commercial products: sorghum, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and several other disguised sugars I can't pronounce. Basically I'm left eating sand and salmon. Kidding: I can throw in the occasional turnip (and even that contains natural sugar).
Lustig -- who says he'd rather be known as the "anti-processed food guy," not the "anti-sugar guy" -- maintains that 80 percent of all grocery store items contain some form of sugar. I'm beginning to believe him. Sugar seems to be in everything. Try reading can and carton labels in your kitchen. You'll see.
Anyway, it's five days in and I'm dying. I've had a constant headache, and my body and spirit are in chaos.
I used to tell people with a straight face that I didn't care for sugar, and I actually believed it. I even privately considered peers who ate dessert a little unmanly. But while thinking my prideful thoughts, I was usually pouring goblets of ethyl alcohol -- pure sugar basically -- straight down my throat. I'd say to friends, "You all order dessert; I'll just have another Courvoisier." (That's cognac with 2 grams of sugar per ounce.)
It wasn't until I gave up booze a little more than 10 years ago that I realized how ridiculous my thinking had been. For 20 years I had been an insane sugar addict; it just came in 80-proof form rather than in a foil wrapper.
Quitting drinking wasn't that bad. Neither was quitting smoking, which I did a year later. Not with a powdery white world of sugar available to substitute for those addictions. As I embraced this new world of sweets, my thinking moved with it: "Has anyone in the history of mankind ever noticed that every Raisinette is unique? Like this one ... or this one?"
It's amazing what the brain will do to get what it craves. People short on potassium have been known to dream about bananas. The heroin-addicted messenger will sell his bicycle for a fix. The brain and body have incredible single-mindedness when they want something.
Five days after giving up sugar and carbs, and 10 years after giving up alcohol, what is it that my brain is conjuring? A double snifter of golden brown cognac, straight out of the subconscious. I haven't thought about drinking in years, but there is that glass floating above me in my mind. I won't succumb to its call, but my body is screaming for it.
I find that extraordinary.
And I hate Dr. Lustig.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.