I fought the Sugar Dragon, grappled with it, stabbed it with a dagger in the heart, threw its body over a cliff and watched the corpse tumble down among the rocks, and then I left it for dead. But I knew it would come back.
I’m referring to an episode earlier this year when I challenged myself to go a full week without consuming a single calorie of processed carbohydrate — nothing, that is, with sugar, grain, corn, or starch. The reason is that I’m sensitive to foods with high glycemic load (which cause swings in blood sugar) and feel better on a low-carbohydrate diet — yet I have a huge sweet tooth, which means maintaining this diet is often a struggle.
Not to mention, the Dragon has many agents at its beck and call. At a restaurant with a limited menu, the best option showed up with a basket of soft, white, warm pita bread. Stopping for a beer, a vase of fancy breadsticks sat beckoning upon the bar. Family members brought home chocolate chip cookies — the kind as a child I would eat by the box — and a nibble turned into a half-dozen in a blink. The next day at work, I felt a mid-afternoon twinge of hunger. Had I let that sly lizard get the better of me?
One must be thoughtful when engaging the Sugar Dragon. After all, gorging on sugar is programmed into our genetic code. The scientific term is hyperphagia, and it’s a behavior we share with many of our animal relatives. Bears fatten themselves up before hibernation, as do migratory birds before flying long distances. During its pre-migration hyperphagia, a hummingbird consumes enough nectar to double its body weight.
If the Sugar Dragon is embedded in our genetic make-up, then it can never die. You must keep fighting it forever, so marshal your resources accordingly. I could have repeated the full-week zero-processed carb challenge, but this felt like a frontal assault: it risked draining too much willpower, leaving me bogged down, stuck in an endless war of attrition. For an opponent so resourceful, I needed a stratagem, a plan that would rely on guile, not force.
So I came up with the following idea: rather than setting any specific goal, I’d keep a food diary for ten days. The exercise would help me measure how far I’d slipped from an ideal diet. Then I could decide what to do.
This was a great plan, because it required no commitment and deferred all action — the only effort would be a little record-keeping. However, I was actually being very sneaky, knowing that the act of measurement would itself influence every choice I’d make.
I started the diary Tuesday morning, and the next few days went fine, with my typical breakfast consisting of mixed nuts and a cappuccino, followed by a large salad for lunch, and whatever meat and vegetables my wife Sue would prepare for dinner (day-by-day notes are at the end of the blog post).
One evening I attended an interesting pitch for a new supplement that contains “exogenous ketones,” the chemicals that the body produces when it breaks down fat for energy. Through strict diet, fasting, and training, I can now power my body through fat burning and ketone production, or so it would seem, as skipping meals is no longer a source of anxiety, and I can run over 40 miles without any food at all. The supplement would in theory provide me the same benefits without the need for diet or training. The spokesmen were passionate, but I left unconvinced. Battling an evolutionary force like hyperphagia couldn’t be that easy.
If you’re not going to use supplements and your willpower is limited, then what do you do? To battle one evolutionary force, unleash other forces and align them in opposition. In the battle with the Sugar Dragon, I was calling first upon my passionate desire to live a healthy and vigorous life, a feeling that I think most people share. Then I was linking in my penchant for collecting and analyzing data (a right brain phenomenon common among financial analysts like me) and then tapping into the contempt I feel for nutritional researchers and their unholy alliance with the industrial food complex.
I stuck pretty well to plan through the end of the first week and on the weekend headed out for a day of hiking, skipping breakfast to get an early start and bringing no lunch, so that by the time I was done, I had squeezed in a 24-hour fast. The next morning I ran an 18 mile race in the morning without breakfast. Then I got very hungry and had a big lunch and dinner. The next morning I stepped onto the scale, and my weight was exactly at target.
Soon enough the ten-day measurement period was drawing to a close. The exceptions to the ideal diet (i.e., foods containing highly-glycemic processed carbs) had been quite minimal: three pastry-wrapped hor d’oeuvres at a reception, a couple of tortillas that came with an egg breakfast, one beer, and a serving of rice. The experiment appeared to be a resounding success. I had kicked the Dragon’s ass.
Friday evening, we went to dinner at a local Italian restaurant, and just as I was paying the check, I caught a movement out of the corner of one eye: it was a slice of creamy cheese cake being whisked to a nearby table. I had just eaten an enormous dinner, but for cheesecake, there was still room in my stomach. I banished that thought, and back at home, reached into the drawer where the chocolate is kept, looking for my stash of super-dark 85% cocoa chocolate (which has very little sugar and is therefore compliant with a low-carb diet), but instead there was a delicious sweet mint chocolate bar loaded with sugar and before I knew what had happened I had gobbled half of it down. Then I saw there was an 85% bar underneath. A sad note upon which to end such a successful 10-day period, but not the end of the world.
The next night I attended a dinner with a great bunch of friends and an interesting speaker, but not a lot of food to eat. I was still hungry when dessert plates were passed around. It was a slice of chocolate cake with moist chocolate frosting and a dollop of whipped cream quivering on the side.
Slipping two nights in a row would cast serious doubt on the experiment, which I had just declared a rousing success. Would it be victory or defeat? — the outcome seemed to hang in the balance.
Maybe I used some willpower, or maybe I tapped into an inner sense of shame — however it happened, a desperate plan came to mind: I’d make a deal with myself, if I skipped the cake, then on the way home I’d stop at the grocery and buy a lot of fruit. I pushed the cake away with a shaky hand, and a neighbor scarfed it down.
On the ride home, I looked into the night sky and fancied I saw the Dragon flapping off toward a distant mountain peak. It’s sitting there now, I think, watching me with baleful eyes, biding its time, planning the next move.
And that’s OK, because I’m watching it, too.
- Tuesday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salmon, vegetables & melon for lunch, shrimp, pork, chicken, nuts, olives, mango for dinner
- Wednesday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast; salad and melon for lunch; chicken, broccoli, carrots for dinner
- Thursday: mixed nuts, berries, yogurt, bacon for breakfast; roast beef and salad for lunch; lamb kebab, acorn squash, argula for dinner with 85% dark chocolate for dessert
- Friday: no breakfast or lunch, hamburger (no bun), sauteed kale, meatballs, sashimi, beer for dinner — exception: beer
- Saturday: no breakfast, hamburger (no bun), mango, banana for lunch; oysters, swordfish, coleslaw, beet salad, banana and mango for dinner
- Sunday: huevos ranchera, sausage, fruit for breakfast; plate of bacon for lunch; trout, rice, soup for dinner — exceptions: tortillas, rice
- Monday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salad for lunch, duck, kale, mixed nuts, figs for dinner
- Tuesday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salad and watermelon for lunch, hor d’oeuvres at a reception included 3 pastry-wrapped items and 1 sitting on a cracker, mussels and salad for dinner — exception: hor d’oeuvres
- Wednesday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salmon and vegetables for lunch, chicken with cashews and mango for dinner with 85% chocolate for desert
- Thursday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salad for lunch, Thai duck breast, mangos, and mixed nuts for dinner
- Friday: mixed nuts & cappucino for breakfast, salmon & veggies for lunch, trout with escarole and antipasti vegetables for dinner, mint chocolate bar for dessert — exception: mint chocolate bar