Sunday 16 June 2019

Julia Molony: My addiction to sugar led me into the food wars

Julia Molony
Julia Molony
Julia Molony. Photography by Boris Conte
Julia Molony

Trying to break a life-long dependence on sugar was agony for Julia Molony. Not only that, but the effort carried her into the fanatical and bitterly contested world of competitive healthy eating.

Whether it's the Paleo diet, or gluten-free, carb-free, organic, macrobiotic, vegan or juice fasting, many of us are increasingly desperate to define ourselves by how and what we eat or don't eat. But what is it, she wonders, that we are really hungry for?

Throughout my life, sugar has been my most consistent and reliable source of joy. I love sugar with an intensity that, frankly, can't be matched by much else. Whatever disappointments and frustrations life throws at you, there has always been Italian ice cream and French patisserie and Haribo Giant Strawbs and Cadbury Creme Eggs.

Let them eat cake, as Marie Antoinette probably didn't say. But whoever did first utter those famous words understood one thing - sugar has long been the recourse of the disappointed and the thwarted. There is not much else that delivers the same moreish hit of emotional satiety and sensory pleasure, except maybe rubbing up against warm human skin.

Experts who point out regularly how irrational our attachment to sugar is, given that it has absolutely no nutritional value, are missing the point. We don't eat sugar to feed our bodies. We are addressing a deeper hunger. It is not nourishment we seek when we cram our faces with marshmallows and Tunnock's Tea Cakes - it is consolation.

It's no coincidence that as we reached the lowest ebb of fiscal morale in recent history, baking became an obsession. If there cannot be great riches or endless love or a happy ever after, let there at least be chocolate cake.

I am addicted, of course. Hopelessly and helplessly. I have been since I was a small child. Back then, my cravings made me a thieving, lying eight-year-old junkie. At home, our cupboards were crammed full of lentils and vegetable crisps. So, when allowed into the houses of other children whose kitchens were better stocked, I would steal - peeling off in the middle of hide-and-seek to lift fun-size Mars Bars and Rich Teas from the pantry. I'd return to my hiding spot reeking of nougat and larceny. Such sweet, sticky shame.

But the bad news is that sugar is deadly. If you believe the hype, it's probably worse than heroin, or Base jumping. Or worse than injecting heroin while Base jumping. Munching through a bag of Maltesers used to be one of life's simple pleasures. Such innocence! But each crunchy bite, it has recently been claimed, is an assault on your telomeres. They are the caps, or buffers on the ends of your chromosomes, and the longer they are, the better, in health terms. But a new study has concluded that sugar shrivels them, each mouthful sucking silently at your vitality. I have a visual image for this, borrowed from the Disney film The Little Mermaid, in which Ursula the Sea Witch stands for the demon sugar - she is a plump, juicy sorceress who looks like a right laugh until it becomes apparent that her favourite thing is to rinse Merpeople of their life force until there is nothing left of them but feeble husks of grey sad-face. Poor unfortunate souls.

Julia Molony
Julia Molony

For some time now the evidence against sugar has been building. The body of research that implicates sugar as the key agent in the obesity crisis is gaining weight as fast as Augustus Gloop face down in a chocolate river.

It is now believed that sugar is largely to blame, either directly or indirectly, for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, with its merry band of accompanying sinister diseases.

My first reaction to this was to think: Oh well. I am not obese. I have all my own teeth and no fillings - so surely I can continue to chomp through jellies with impunity. But it looks like I was wrong. And I took this latest finding, from a gloom-mongering corner of the University of California, pretty hard.

Because as well as being an addict, I am a hypochondriac. And with sugar as the health villain of the moment, these two challenges are coming into increasingly brain-melting conflict with each other. These days, sugary treats come served with a bitter after-taste of early death. So I've been trying to give up the sweet stuff.

I won't bore you with the details of the daily struggles this involves, the successes and failures. There are probably enough people in your life only dying to give you a soul-crushingly specific inventory of how many dietary vices they succumbed to between lunch and dinner. But suffice to say, it is a living hell.

There should be rehab for sugar - where addicts like me are locked away from the temptations of the supermarket aisle and the corner shop, to suffer our headaches and foul moods at a safe distance from the wider public; where agonising withdrawal is effected with help of a team of experts that include a facialist, dietician and a masseuse.

Still, I don't resort to thievery any more to feed my habit. So perhaps that counts as progress. But as I make my halting, weak-willed way towards adherence to the daily consumption limits now recommended by the World Health Organisation, I didn't expect that I'd also be blundering into a war. It turns out that the moment you start eliminating certain food types, that is exactly what happens.

Giving up sugar is the first step into the modern world of nutritional fundamentalism. Sectarian lines are drawn between, for example, the vegans, the Paleo eaters and the gluten-free. The contemporary dinner plate has turned into a conflict zone. But it is a peculiarly passive-aggressive, polite kind of battle - played out through the clenched teeth and fake smiles of the brutally judgmental.

Dinner parties have become political and logistical minefields, loaded with as much subtext and suspicion as a UN summit. Juice-fasters sit beside macrobiotics, making polite small talk through a fog of mutual scorn. Each believes the other is, at best, a gullible fool, or, at worst, on a fast track to an early grave.

The sugar issue is pretty much the only point of consensus between these healthy-eating factions. Beyond that, they jostle and compete for influence and the right to claim the greatest health benefits. As nutritional science and eating fads enjoy bigger and bigger public profiles, the whole subject of how we eat has become utterly bogged down with dogma. Diet zealots are as self-righteous as religious leaders, and all see the devil in their own way. For some it's dairy, for others meat, or grains.

For two whole weeks, with huge effort and a great deal of suffering, I succeeded in completely cutting refined sugar from my diet. Once I'd got past the shakes and the tearfulness and the overwhelming desire to take to my bed, it became tolerable.

Julia Molony
Julia Molony

I can't say that I felt all of the immediate benefits that the anti-sugar press promise. I didn't notice a new glow to my skin and shine to my hair. I didn't discover previously unknown landscapes of flavour previously concealed from my sugar-blunted taste-buds. Nor did I become aware of a new well-spring of energy and ebullience bubbling up inside me.

Physically, I didn't feel transformed. But there was something new, something moreish that emerged by the end of the fortnight. For probably the first time in my life, I felt smug. I'd become used to a fairly constant inner voice of self-reproach which piped up every time something unhealthy passed my lips. But now, as those around me tucked into doughnuts and biscuits while I abstained, I felt in possession of something I'd never had before - the moral high ground.

Total abstinence didn't last, of course. There's a half empty bag of Jelly Tots beside me as I write. But I'm a more moderate consumer of sugar than I was before the detox. And it did provide a useful insight into the psychology of faddy eating.

Scratch any neurosis and you'll soon uncover a fear of death. It used to be moral sins that we'd regularly beat ourselves up about committing, now it's lifestyle ones. All those Judeo-Christian values about redemption and damnation and good and evil that we've all absorbed, that desire to bathe in the sunbeam of righteousness that used to drive us to church and synagogue in our droves - we didn't leave all that behind when we turned away from the Church, we just piled it on our plate.

Food - along with the two other deities in the holy trinity of good health, exercise and abstinence - offers us the illusion of control over our mortality. By doing all the right things, we like to believe we can keep the grim reaper at arm's length.

It's a belief that is regularly exploited by the food industry. A few years ago, pomegranate spent about five minutes as the super-food of the moment, so the makers of one pomegranate juice promptly included 'cheat death' in their slogan. Sensibly, their ad was banned.

But the tricksy, seductive and fickle promise of self-perfection through food is constantly dangled in front of our faces. Giving up sugar was my first step on this quest. I haven't joined a diet faction, but I admit to strolling around the supermarkets with the headlines from the health pages in mind, filling my trolley with green tea, good fats, and organic fruit and veg.

We're all starving for guidance, it seems. Here's a randomly selected sample of recent food and health-related headlines to add to telomere-gate: 'Milk may be linked to early death'; 'Vinegar can make you thinner and fitter'; 'Eating well wards off depression'; 'Broccoli could improve autism symptoms'; 'Hot cocoa improves memory problems' (every granny's fantasy, that one ); 'A single booze-binge could harm your health.' And finally, my favourite: 'Edible flowers reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.'

So all I have to do, apparently, is live off vinegar, broccoli, and hot cocoa, with carnations and pansies for snacks. Simple. In no time I'll be a svelte, invincible, upbeat superhuman weirdo, with terrible wind and chip-shop breath. But hang on. Another study claims that dieting itself can be bad for you. Scientists have discovered that cutting calories can ruin your marriage. And the proposed mechanism? Hunger makes us grouchy. That's right, some researcher actually designed a study to work that one out. Quick, call the Nobel Committee. In the experiment, participants were deprived of chocolate and then asked if they'd like to stick pins in a voodoo effigy which represented their partner. The hungrier they became, the more their appetite for allegorical spousal torture increased. No surprises there.

Now, I'm not married, but assuming the principle applies also to cohabiting couples (and based on yesterday's pre-dinner sulk-off in my kitchen, I think that's safe) then this sugar-free diet is likely to turn me into a very cranky and lonely superhuman indeed. And not even because of all the broccoli. On the plus side, if a life of foul-tempered isolation gets too much for me, food has the answer too. I won't need drugs to self destruct -I'll do myself in with Krispy Kremes, red meat and glasses of milk.

I have a friend who has a slightly bonkers view of the connection between food and health. I've always just assumed it's because he is French. If he wakes up with a headache, or a pimple or a sore throat, he will usually say in rueful tones, "It must be ze sandwich/chips/chocolate I ate last night." In his mind, eating something processed, or in any way unhealthy, triggers an instant and reproachful reaction in the body. If he consumes bad things, he assumes the punishment is in the post.

The nonsense-logic of this always makes me chuckle. But the more I think about it, the more I realise many of us are prone to this kind of magical thinking, in our belief that if we follow a particular dietary code we can bulwark ourselves against misfortune.

Despite the headlines, no amount of broccoli or pomegranate juice can deliver the kind of reassurance or certitude we're after. Trying to make sense of the studies that are reported in the press about foods that ward off cancer, or cause heart disease, or lower blood pressure, reveals less a clear, easy-to-follow code, more a confusing and contradictory mess.

One study alone proves very little, despite how loud the media trumpets it. And the landscape is constantly shifting. Even dietary advice that up until recently was widely taken as gospel is up for grabs. Until this year, we were all about the dangers of saturated fats. But then large sections of the medical community started recanting en masse, blaming carbs for our problems instead.

Sure, there are broad-stroke guidelines that are wise to follow, and largely well supported by the evidence. But they are simple and common sense, and don't involve necking chia seeds and turmeric in the hope that they will save your skin: moving about, eating a variety of fresh, home-prepared food, not smoking, or drinking too much.

Aside from that, the best we've got is a wing and a prayer. And, for when it all goes wrong - that chocolate cake.

Julia Molony. Photography by Boris Conte
Julia Molony. Photography by Boris Conte

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