Confessions of a New World Sugar Eater

 

Sugar is a drug. 

This observation will not come as news to long-time readers of this blog. I used to harp on it regularly, back in the day when I discovered Atkins and was cutting the carbs to lose weight. I can happily report that I have kept myself on a relatively low-carb diet since (ten years, woohoo!), but this past year and half were challenging, especially the six weeks in autumn 2020 that I spent with my mother while my step-father was dying. The house was full of cookies and chocolates and more cookies made by her friends from church, and I ate all of them. 


I tried resisting, but it just didn’t seem worth it. My step-father was dying; my brother and I were there to comfort our mother; and resisting the sugar seemed so pointless. Why not give in and get fat? 

Except that somehow I knew, deep down, it wasn’t about getting fat. 

It was about feeding the demons. 

Have I told you about the year I spent eating frozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts when I was in elementary school? Some club or other was supposed to be selling them, and I tried going door-to-door (introvert nightmare) to get subscriptions. But the only doughnuts I recall selling were to myself (this memory is a bit confused—how did I pay for them? Maybe we had the doughnuts already?)—which I would eat by the dozen—frozen, because I was too impatient to let them thaw. I can still remember the sugar-glaze high.

High school is a blur of cinnamon rolls (glazed), cookies (baked and raw), ice cream (by the half-gallon). College, ditto. I see photographs of myself from those years, and I am not nearly as fat as I remember feeling. But I remember the binges. The ice cream with Cool Whip. The buttered white-bread toast with sugar. The Little Debbie fruit pies. The bags and bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies. The aching need to keep eating. The demons chittering away in the background promising that this time would be the last. If only I fed them now.

Alchemists would give the demons fancy names like “Insulin Response” and “Neurotransmitters,” but these are just masks the demons wear to work on our feelings. Which, truth be told, insofar as they sugary, are also demonic—that is, driven not by reality, but by phantasms. 

“He hates you. He is never going to pay attention to you.” “You’re alone, nobody likes you.” “Your work is pointless; why do you bother?” “You’re going to die, and nobody will come to your funeral.”

Did I mention I have been fasting myself from sugar these past two or three months? Clearly, even my “low-carb” diet has been higher in sugar than I was willing to admit, given that these thoughts are current, not something I have to pretend to remember from high school. 

I know how to stop them now. All I have to do to make them shut up is eat some sugar. It doesn’t need to be whole cakes or pints of ice cream. Even a kid’s-size box of raisins will make them subside.

For a bit.

Until my blood sugar drops again.

And the demons return.

I had an interesting moment a few Sundays ago driving to Mass. I am guessing my blood sugar had dropped more than it should, but somehow my eyes went wonky as I was driving. Just for a moment, but it was scary enough.

That Sunday we were celebrating St. Joseph, complete with Italian-style St. Joseph’s table, covered in cookies and cake. 

A.k.a. medicine for the body and soul.

I ate like a teen-ager in high school—albeit modestly, the way I might eat in public, not in the depths of my mother’s basement, watching Dallas and wishing I were thin.

I had to get my blood sugar up, you see. I couldn’t see otherwise. I was afraid I might die.

Which is how the demons get us in the first place—with promises of happiness and energy, when the only thing they can give us is more sin.

I can hear the demons now.

“Don’t be silly, it’s just dessert.” “You deserve a treat now and then.” “It wouldn’t be a birthday party without cake!” “All you have to do is eat it slowly, then you won’t get fat.”

Cut to me, face down in cake and icing, scarfing up the lot.

Have you ever thought about how we celebrate every happy event in our lives with sugar? Or, to put it another way, how ritualized our consumption of sugar is?

Pop quiz: what else do we ritualize? What else do we make the center of our spiritual, emotional, and physical lives?


I used to think sugar was food, something I needed to eat in moderation if I didn’t want to get fat, but not something that was of itself diabolical. 

I know better now.

Sugar is a drug, which means it has been engineered to be addictive, just like alcoholic spirits. Or opium. 

Once upon a time, back in the Dark Ages, Christians talked about God as “sweet.” “Taste and see that the Lord is sweet,” the monks and nuns sang in their choirs

Foods that tasted sweet were recognized as nourishing. Warm and moist, as Aristotle and Galen would say. Fit for human consumption.

And then along came the pirates, a.k.a. Elizabethan privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, who introduced the English to the intoxicating power of buying and selling slaves, which slaves they put to work on sugar plantations to rival the Spanish, and before you could say, “Time for tea!,” the British had themselves an empire fueled by “free trade,” usury, and jam. 

I paraphrase. Sidney W. Mintz tells the story in full. See his Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985). In his words: “Sugar...was a cornerstone of British West Indian slavery and the slave trade, and the enslaved Africans who produced the sugar were linked in clear economic relationships to the British laboring people who were learning to eat it.”

Sugar was the opiate of the British proletariat. The Empire sold opium to the Chinese.


I am not happy to have come to this pass. Twenty years ago, I wrote an academic paper on the metaphor of sweetness in the monastic West

“Why don’t we talk about God in this way?” I wondered. “Why don’t we talk about God as our chocolate-chip cookie or our honey-sweet tea?” 

I suggested that the loss of religious belief oft-noted in the industrialized West might have something to do with the way in which we consume sugar, but I had no idea that it was the sugar itself that was to blame. I thought, perhaps, there was simply too much of it, that we had been so overwhelmed with sweetness as not to be able to taste it.

Now I understand that we have been drugged. Sugar was the drug of Empire because it kept the working masses of England happy and soporific. The more they indulged in jam and tea, the easier they became to control.

Not that the ruling classes of the Empire understood things in quite these terms. They, too, were under the spell of the Sugar Demon, arguing in Parliament for ways to keep the sugar production going strong. 

Just try suggesting to someone of English heritage that tea and biscuits might be harmful to the soul. Then you will see what made the British Empire “great.”


How do we fight the effects of this drug? It it everywhere—in our food, in our drink, in our daily diet, in our celebrations. Birthdays, weddings, Christmas, Easter, Halloween—you name it, we use sugar to celebrate it. 

My mother’s friends couldn’t stop bringing cookies and chocolates as gifts. What else could they bring? Every church function includes coffee and cake. Every school party involves cookies and soda pop. 

Without sugar, we, like the British working classes of the nineteenth century, would have nothing to eat.

It is cheap. It is plentiful. It is ruining our bodies and souls.

“White privilege” was built on it. Industrial empires were built on the back of the sugar slaves. 

This is our real race war—the war against the sugar barons who keep everyone enslaved with their sugar and spice and everything nice.

Before there was Big Pharma, Big Sugar ruled the waves. Big Pharma is but the heir to the sugar throne. 

Have you had family quarrels over the newest drugs? Try explaining why you no longer eat cake. 

Or, worse, why having read this post, you still crave something sugary with your tea.


On drugs as “high tech” and the British opium trade, see Benjamin Breen, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (2019).

For the antidote to the sugar and spice, look for the Draco Alchemicus! Sneak peak of our new poem at Dragon Common Room Books.

UPDATE: Sean and Rachel Duffy invited me to join them at their Kitchen Table for an in-depth discussion of “America’s Longest Addiction: The War on Sugar.” Listen at Fox News Radio!

Comments

  1. Frozen Krispy Kremes huh? I grew up in the town that is home to KK. Try getting them fresh and hot and eat just one. The 'sugar demons' are fat cells our body developes that demand to be fed at regular intervals as they attach themselves to the start of the digestive tract and grab carbs first, especially the simple ones like sugar. The cells multiply and make us fatter and hungrier.

    Sugar is our enemy. With salt right behind.

    Robert

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had the idea KKs were local to me... Louisville, by any chance?! I had them hot, too. SO MANY KKs!

      That makes sense of the fat cells. Gotta starve those out. Thanks, I will add that to my anti-demon weapon hoard!

      Delete
  2. Nope. Winston Salem, North Carolina. Do the starving while you are still young because later it is near impossible.

    Robert

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is making more and more sense of why the monks practice prayer AND fasting.

      Delete
  3. If you're interested in overcoming some of the sugar phobia you've developed I'd recommend a book called "The Thermo Diet" by Christopher Walker. He actually just released it recently, though I've followed his work for some time now. I used to think sugar was the enemy as well when I was enamored with the keto diet.

    You'll thank me later, if you take a look.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not afraid of sugar! Mintz calls it a drug, too. I agree with whitewall—it has clear physiological effects, just like alcohol.

      Delete
  4. In regards to the English working class and the sugar treatment: George Orwell wrote an engaging social report on this segment in his day, The Road to Wiggen Pier. Part of his commentary is the persistent and overriding requirement of the English household to have tea with heaps and heaps of sugar upon it. The desire for sugar and tea together was so great that families on the edge of starvation chose to spend pence on sugar in tea over bread and butter, much to their own detriment. A bit like developing world and probably many in USA choosing a smartphone over indoor plumbing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A friend of mine was a sugar addict, and needed a full twelve-step program to recover. She leant me Kay Sheppard's /From the First Bite/, a book that reveals that for some people, refined sugar really is the equivalent of crack cocaine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also, Gary Taubes' book "The Case Against Sugar" which follows his book "Why We Get Fat".

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  6. I was a habitual consumer of copious daily sugar rushes in both coffee (of which I'd usually have at least two mugs a day) and soft drinks with lunch (my office so kindly provided a free selection in their fridge). Then my doctor told me my blood sugar was into the pre-Type II diabetes zone. That was a scare and a half, I'll tell you. Promptly switched to drinking coffee black and to either sparkling water or diet sodas, and after a few months of that it's remarkable how unpleasant stuff sugared to the former levels of consumption actually tastes.

    The key is simply finding where something has become a habit and breaking it. I still let fear play too large a part in too many of my life's decisions, but there are times it's a perfectly appropriate and useful motivator.

    ReplyDelete

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