Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Happiness and its Causes - Do you want sugar with that? Part 2

David Gillespie is among many people who believe sugar is an addictive substance and that we should consume significantly less of it than we do. But is it easy to break an addiction when the substance is crammed into most convenience foods which are so readily and enticingly available?

I mentioned here how sugar, MSG and other salts are being added to a greater variety of foods and in grossly larger quantities than ever before in the history of mankind. And we’re paying the price of a fast food lifestyle with obesity, depression, type two diabetes and other damaging and costly health effects.

A number of people have mentioned to me how difficult it is to break the addiction to convenience foods. So, how do you begin to break the vicious cycle?

I'll mention some today, and share information about "The Happiness Diet" later on.

Jan Morrison over at This Crazy Writing Life (here) has been talking about Kaizen – adopting small, achievable steps to change.

In contrast, one of the moderators at the conference talked about removing all sugars from her diet in the space of a week. She suffered horribly the first week, found it really hard for the second week, but after a month she began to feel better than she had for years. It's not something I’d encourage without sound medical reasons. Not only are you going to have withdrawal effects, but your brain will likely panic, have a bit of a hissy fit and retaliate by craving more - just in case it's going to be deprived for ever! That seems to be how it works all too often for most of us, and the result is yo-yo dieting and grumpy mood swings.

I’m more comfortable with the Kaizen path. Instead of munching on a whole Mars bar, choose a smaller one, or leave a bit and keep the rest for later, or throw it away if possible! If you’re used to chewing through a museli bar (they’re packed with sugar, but appear innocent) for morning tea, try eating 2/3 of it and wrap the rest for another time.  Celebrate every mouthful not munched with a loving pat on the back and a verbal "Well done!" It might seem daggy, but it's worth it, and your brain will enjoy the novelty.
Bush turkey finishing off some ice-cream in Noosa QLD.
If it's not good for us, it's not good for other creatures, and should be in the bin.
I've been known to suddenly realise I'm scoffing something sweet, mouthful on mouthful, not really conscious of what I'm doing and suddenly notice what's happening. My choice at that instant is either to swallow or not. I try to remember that even one mouthful not swallowed is worth it. And occasionally if I've chosen to spit out one mouthful, it's easier to put the rest aside.

That's a pretty good feeling. I celebrate with a pat on the back and sharing with someone who cares. My husband and two friends have offered to support and celebrate with me. We don't talk failure, we share the success of a mouthful not eaten, or a smaller portion consumed. Every tiny step is worthy of our attention.

Check out the labels on the foods you habitually consume.
I’d become quite complacent about checking labels and had been encouraged to use low fat yogurt (which I don't like at all) instead of the full milk style I usually enjoy. A house guest was scathing about the low fat version, and said his wife wouldn’t touch it, but had no idea why. When I looked at the label, I found that the unpleasant no fat yogurt had 4 times as much added sugar as the full milk one I usually buy. (Handy chart here) There is a big difference between brands too, so it's worth checking.

In the previous post I mentioned that David Gillespie's goal is to have no more than 2 teaspoons of sugar per meal. Yet in one very small 100 gram serve of yogurt, which it's possible to eat in seconds, you can consume twice that. And you’re not even had a sweetened drink yet.

The above picture is from Choice, and whilst it doesn't specifically focus on sugar, you can see some of the other frequent additives in foods. The article is available here, and makes for interesting reading.

It's best to purchase your foods from the perimeter of the supermarket and do some preparation yourself. For all the clever, manipulative advertising, convenience foods packed with chemicals don't make for a balanced diet, and the massive multinational companies don't have your best interest at heart. Their bottom line is profit, not your well-being.

So, take small achievable steps, and celebrate every gram of sugar not consumed.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Happiness and its Causes - Do you want sugar with that?

How does your diet affect your state of wellbeing? Are you really depressed and grouchy, or could it be the state of your digestion?

What role do the additives in our food have on our moods and wellbeing?

For millennia sugar was a rare luxury. Our hunter-gatherer forebears would have consumed it rarely, and mostly in the form of honey - when they could find and extract it from wild bee hives.

Our bodies and brains then said: “yummy, let's scoff as much as possible!” Our brains apparently turned off the ‘full’ receptors to allow us to keep scoffing, because we didn’t know when this lovely sweetness would be available again. It was a response that had been developed over millennia and was supremely appropriate for a scarce resource.

David Gillespie spoke forcefully at the ‘Happiness and its Causes’ conference about the research that supported his belief that the added sugars in our foods are having a massive affect on obesity with enormous health impacts. His web site is here.

He attests that is isn’t a lack of willpower that makes dieters feel helpless at their failure to lose weight and keep it off, but that the added sugars turn off the “full receptors” and make us want to eat more food in general. It's a vicious cycle that we are unlikely to win whilst we keep eating sugar which he calls 'sweet poison'.

A little bit of history:
According to some historians, throughout much of recent history (at least the 1600’s onwards) the Western diet consisted mainly of bread and large quantities of fruit and vegetables, which supplemented fish, and smaller amounts of meat. Processed foods were unknown. If you wanted something, you had to prepare it yourself, or buy it from a local supplier. Foods were mostly grown and consumed locally. Exotic ingredients like spices and sugar were transported from distant lands at great expense, and as such were considered a luxury and used sparingly.

Until relatively recently it was impossible to over-consume sugar. It wasn’t ever added holus-bolus to foods, and when it was added, it was with great ceremony and reverence. The stuff was simply too expensive to waste unnecessarily on unappreciative guests. It was a very impressive status symbol.

Sugar was purchased as a solidified lump in a form known as a cone. The hard cone of sugar needed to be further processed in the home before use. Chisels and mallets were used to break off smaller lumps, which were broken down further for kitchen use with strong tongs. In the dining room, even smaller nippers were used to break off pieces for addition to tea or the meal. A mortar and pestle was used to make powdered sugar. Quite a bit of energy was expended to get the cone of sugar into a useable form!

According to Bill Bryson in ‘At Home’ “in 1770 per capita consumption of sugar was running at about 20 pounds per head … Britons today eat 80 pounds of sugar per person annually, while Americans pack away a decidedly robust 126 pounds of sugar per head”.

Just to put this into perspective, 20 pounds is approx 9kg. That's about the comfortable weight of a sweet little lap dog. 80 pounds is approx 36kg, which is equivalent to a big dog such as a Labrador. 126 pounds is approx 56 kg. That’s as heavy as Bull Mastiff - that's a huge animal! A whopping increase for a substance that we are designed to have in meagre quantities.

Food for thought:
David Gillespie describes lethargy and sleeping problems being associated with a sugar rich diet. He believes that the over-consumption of sugar leads to insulin resistance, type two diabetes; that it promotes ageing, feeds cancers and is highly addictive.

David has eliminated all foods with added sugars from his diet including sweets, biscuits, juice and soft drink. If his family wants sweet things, they make them from scratch. This enables them to appreciate the item, they know what is in it, and it is eaten with a mindful attitude.

Prior to cutting out most sugars from his diet, David was 40kg overweight; he doesn't appear overweight now. He says he now knows when he feels hungry, and is able to stop eating when he is full. He trusts his body to let him know when to eat or not and is enjoying the experience of being in control of his food consumption.
David set a limit of 10 grams of sugar per meal, ie 2 teaspoons. 
Back to some history:
What it means is that in the space of a couple of hundred years, we’ve gone from sugar being a luxury and treated with great respect, to it being shovelled into a vast array of foods, beverages and condiments by businesses that have a vested interest in us consuming as much as possible, no matter what the consequences to us, the consumer. It is now so ubiquitous that we are unaware of it infiltrating foods at a greater and greater rate and at higher and higher concentrations than ever before in history. We don’t have to work to get it, and our bodies haven’t adapted or evolved to process it any differently than in the past.

If the foods you eat are processed and have an abundance of sugars as well as MSG you are facing an uphill challenge. Anecdotally, MSG is associated with an increased desire to eat the food in question – think potato chips, and even rice crackers. One of my friends talks about how MSG is added to make us want to continue eating. Some people believe it should be labelled as an addictive substance. How do you detect it? Have a look at the label: It’s number 621 and is usually called a ‘flavour enhancer’. Taste-wise, it’s when the food tastes unnaturally scrumptious and you just want to keep munching – but because it is a salt, it can leave you feeling thirsty – and what do you drink? Another item possibly packed with sugars and more MSG – addictive indeed!

So we have two apparently addictive items being increasingly added to many processed foods. In case you aren’t feeling a bit manipulated already, spend a moment thinking about the advertising industry. They target the psychology of eating, and carefully and deliberately select the words associated with encouraging you to eat more, and more, and more. “Don’t stop at just one!” “ You can’t say no”.

Is it any wonder many people struggle with their weight, their moods and general well-being? How does what you eat affect you?

This theme is continued in the next post here, where I talk about weaning yourself off the sugar habit.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Happiness and its Causes - Pre conference workshop

I think a good place to begin talking about happiness is at the pre-conference workshop I attended, and with some attempt at a definition of happiness.

Let’s start with what happiness isn’t: Happiness isn’t having what you want whenever you want it. That leads to a selfish attitude that isn’t good for you or those around you.

In the pre conference workshop "The Attention Revolution", the presenter Alan Wallace* described two types of happiness.

Hedonic happiness

We seek it externally; it feeds the senses and is when we try to feed our inner yearnings with “things” outside of ourselves. It's when we hope or expect a person, thing or event to MAKE us happy.

That’s a big ask of any person don’t you think? It’s a bit like saying “I can’t do it myself (ie make myself happy/content/satisfied) but I expect you to do it for me”. (And heaven help you if you can’t fulfil my wishes!) That’s a huge amount of pressure to put onto another person. I can’t help but think that if you want someone else to make you happy, it's a tad selfish.

Many people are addicted to the superficial feeling that hedonic happiness brings. They continually chase the sensation and are subject to the highs and subsequent lows when the sensation wears off or isn’t fulfilled. The craving is the same as with more publicised forms of addiction.

Alan Wallace described it as being similar to ADHD, and the inability to focus sustained attention. “Where can I go next?” “What can I buy next?” “What can I do to prevent boredom?” We’ve all known exercise junkies, workaholics, alcoholics, TVaholics, people always wired and gaming. Retail therapy anyone?

Many people indulge in hedonism to hide from emptiness and pain and as a “pick me up”. You may have noticed this tendency in yourself. What do you use to hide from yourself (warts and all), and what opportunities do you miss as a result?

Eudaimonic happiness

Alan Wallace and others refer to eudaimonic happiness as genuine happiness. It is an inner happiness which feeds the soul, and stems not from what we get from the world but from what we bring to it. He believes it stems from

  • An ethical way of life
  • Mental balance
  • Self knowledge

Genuine happiness isn’t subject to the ups and downs of hedonic happiness and provides us with longer-term stability and security.

More on how to begin to attain eudaimonic happiness later...

Other presenters at the conference included: Dr Jane Goodall, Dr Paul Ekman, Dr Russ Harris and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Topics for discussion included: "Cultivating Genuine Altruism", "What's Happening to our Children?" "Compassion", "Empathy", "The Nature of Depression",  "We are what we eat", "Music", "Resilience" and "Sex" - in all a very interesting variety of topics related to happiness!

*Alan Wallace trained and lived as a Buddhist monk. He has a degree in physics and the philosophy of science, and has a Ph.D in religious studies.

Many of his teachings are available in podcasts from here and here

**These are my observations, presented through the lens of my own biases and experience and not a verbatim transcription of the workshop or presentations.