Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Sugar Free

On Sunday I started the Atkins Diet. Again. I've been doing some variation on the low carb thing for almost three years now, so when I say I'm doing Atkins I mean I'm doing it hardcore: No sugar, not caffeine, and no more than 20 grams of carbs a day. This is what Atkins calls Phase One of the "Nutritional Approach" (don't call it a diet, they get pissy), and it's meant to kick-start your weight loss before you ease into the kindler, gentler phases of the diet -- oops, the approach.

The thing is, all phases, for life, involve complete sugar deprivation, and I'm simply not capable of doing that. Cake and ice cream are close friends of mine, and it would be cruel to cut them off completely, wouldn't it? So I try to moderate. When I find myself doing less well at the moderation (Entenmann's oatmeal raisin cookies, anyone?), I try to kick the cravings out of my body by going to the other extreme.

I first did Atkins for about six weeks in 2001, after watching an actor in a show I was working on lose so much weight he needed new costumes. I lost about 40 pounds. (Before you tell me how unhealthy it is to lose that much weight that quickly, know that I had gained about half of it in half the time not long before, doing a children's theater tour where I ate only fast food, Cracker Barrel, and scary things out of motel vending machines, and spent all my time in a van.) Maybe more important to me than the weight loss was the examination of my eating habits that came from doing something so extreme. It's amazing what you discover when you can't have any sugar at all. I started reading labels and was shocked by the amount of sugar and carbs in, well, everything. My idea of eating healthy had been getting low-fat cream cheese on my bagel. Pasta was good, right, because there was no fat and no grease and occasionally some vegetables? Yeah, except for the carbs of course and all the sugar in the sauce. That breakfast cereal with the fruit and the nuts...yeah and the frosting. The common denominator in everything I ate, even when I was trying to be healthy but not losing any weight, was carbs.

I also have no willpower, which made Atkins a good option for me. In theory, as long as you don't have any sugar at all, portion control is not a problem because of the way your body processes protein in the absence of carbs. You're basically tricking your body into burning off its stored fat to make energy for digestion. Okay, I'll admit it, that doesn't sound healthy. Anyway, this does not mean, as many people seem to believe, that you can stuff your face with bacon all day long. But it does mean that a snack of cheese can actually be a good thing.

It also means that doing the diet is, I assume (and hope), the closest I'll ever come to knowing what it's like to have an eating disorder. Because, as I understood it, if you have any sugar at all, the trick doesn't work. The wheel of cheese is just a wheel of cheese. So I became hopelessly paranoid about everything I put in my body. Wait, was that steak marinated in something? Are tic-tacs sugar-free? Were there shredded carrots in that chicken salad?. It's maddening. Of course, I'm sure it's nothing like having an actual eating disorder, but I've never experienced so much second-guessing and obsession over food -- how much, what kind, when.

Like any diet, it's not for everyone. And like any diet, if you don't do it correctly it won't work. It worked for me, and it educated me on what my personal food pitfalls are. For six weeks, I ate not one bit of sugar and only 20 grams or less of carbs a day. And no caffeine, which was perhaps the hardest part. At first, I ate a lot of McDonald's burgers (sans bun, ketchup and onions), but that made my skin break out, so I wound up doing a lower-fat, lower-grease version of the diet that many do, cooking at home and altering a lot of the recipes from the Atkins website (to include less oil, butter, etc.). In the end I saved money by eating out less and learned how to make some great stuff. I lost weight, my cholesterol went down, and my skin cleared up. And, best of all, I kicked my Diet Coke addiction and learned how to control sugar cravings.

Then I stopped. I'd learned how to snack more appropriately and eat sweets in moderation. So I was still on the right track, though I wasn't technically "on Atkins" anymore. And, despite the warnings I got from everyone, two-and-a-half years later I haven't gained the weight back. I still eat sweets and bagels and whatnot, but I eat far less of them. I'll eat at an Italian restaurant, but no longer keep pasta in my house. I order brown rice in Chinese restaurants instead of white, get sashimi instead of sushi, snack on nuts instead of pretzels.

Unfortunately, I also get into weird bingey places, where, due to stress or laziness, I pig out on all the wrong kinds of things. So occasionally I'll do a couple of weeks back on phase one -- what I like to call "touch-up Atkins." It's not how you're "supposed" to do it, but it works for me. Lately I've been getting better at striking a balance between low-carb and carb-crazy (much easier now that the craze has caught on and there are all kinds of sugar- and wheat- free substitutes, and everyone from Subway to Ben & Jerry's has Atkins-sanctioned products), and I haven't had to really diet since the four-week panic-and-donut-induced stint I did last summer right before my high school reunion.

But two months of my schedule being turned upside-down, and a high-stress job in a neighborhood with few food options except for the diner across the street (which has awesome turkey clubs and chocolate chip muffins) has kept me from the gym and sent me reaching for whatever food is on hand again, as well as spending far too much money on prepared food.

So I'm trying to get some discipline back in my life for a couple of weeks. I'm not so concerned about losing weight (though I wouldn't mind a little), but with getting those cravings out of my system. It's like re-training my body, reminding it that it doesn't need the morning jolt of caffeine or the mid-afternoon comfort cookie. It's also one of the few areas on my life I can hope to exercise some control over right now (and there's that eating disorder again!).

This is Day Four, and so far so good. But if I seem to lose my sense of humor and zest for life over the next couple of weeks, please forgive me!

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