Clearly what I’m doing isn’t working. I’m going to eat sugar again.

Picture of Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

Back in May, I set a dream goal weight of 135 pounds. That would put me in the middle of the “normal” BMI range (112 – 154 pounds) for my 5’6” height.
Knowing how powerful sugar is, and that the human brain has evolved us to overeat it when we see it (see this previous blog post outlining the basics behind this), my mindset has been very black and white: Sugar is evil, sugar makes me overeat, sugar makes me gain weight. I must avoid sugar in order to eat peacefully and avoid binges and lose weight. I’m addicted to sugar.

The premise behind this thinking is sound. And in fact, when I’ve gone several weeks without eating any added sugar, I’ve consistently lost weight and felt my desire die down. I still believe that going for a period of time without sugar (especially for those of us who have been eating it regularly and have our dopamine reward receptors downregulated in our brains) is a valuable tool. But trying to restrict sugar 100% beyond the first weeks is clearly not working for me in the long term. My weight has been stagnant, with me losing and regaining the same 3 pounds, for 11 weeks now – proving that trying to aim abstinent from sugar is not currently working for my own personal brain and body.

Why? One problem is the Abstinence Violation Effect that I talked about last week. Once I give in to a craving or an urge to grab something I hadn’t planned to eat, I just say, “F*** it – I already messed up the day, so I might as well eat whatever I want now!”

Also, perhaps more importantly, over-restriction can sometimes promote binges. By thinking that I can’t control myself around sugar and trying to restrict it completely, I’ve set up a mental construct whereby my primitive caveman brain views sugar as scarce (because my prefrontal cortex is intentionally making it scarce). And when our primitive brains think something is scarce, that thing becomes a VERY hot commodity and we instinctually want to hoard it. (Think toilet paper in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic for a great non-food example.) This scarcity mindset leads me to sporadically binge on it (essentially hoarding it inside my body) in the moments when my prefrontal cortex goes offline, like when I’m tired, stressed, distracted by misbehaving preschoolers demanding my attention, etc.

Interestingly, there have been a few times when I have planned for a sugary treat in advance and noticed different results. A few weeks ago, I took Graham blackberry picking and knew 2 days beforehand that I wanted to make blackberry cobbler. I made it in individual ramekins to give myself a clear serving size, planning to eat just one. (I don’t know about you, but it’s awfully easy for me to go back and “even up” that edge in a big pan of cobbler!) We sat down to eat it and I enjoyed every bite mindfully. It didn’t feel like a rebellion or something shameful. It just felt enjoyable. And I didn’t feel the intense urge to eat more, or to binge. The next day I was easily able to return to my no-sugar protocol without much mind chatter or mental drama about wanting more sugar.

I haven’t yet researched the science behind this, but I’ve noticed just with my own brain and personal experience like the one above, that restricting sugar and then suddenly eating it on a whim seems to strengthen the urge to eat or binge on sugar and make everything worse, whereas planning with my prefrontal cortex in advance to eat sugar and then enjoying it mindfully as planned doesn’t seem to fuel the flames of overdesire in the same way. Could it be that intentionally planning a sweet treat every so often, maybe once a week, might end my cycle of restriction/binging/restriction by helping to keep my primitive brain satisfied that sugar is not in fact scarce, that it’s freely available and that I can and will have it when I plan to?

Well, we are going to find out. Starting now, I am suspending the main focus of #Project135 – weight loss – and diverting at least temporarily to a focus on developing a healthier relationship with sugar and ending the binges. If I gain weight during this experiment, so be it. But if my theory is correct, I won’t gain weight (and might even lose weight) because I won’t be binging on sugar periodically. My ultimate goal is still 135 and I plan to get there, but I won’t get there as long as I keep binging on sugar.

Here’s today’s weigh in:

Project 135 stats:

Starting weight: 159.6
Week 1: 157.2
Week 2: 155.6
Week 3: 155.4
Week 4: 153.8
Week 5: 151.0
Week 6: 152.8
Week 7: ? (Dad’s death)
Week 8: 150.8
Week 9: 152.6
Week 10: 154.2
Week 11: 152.6
Week 12: 150.8
Week 13: 150.6
Week 14: 151.6
Week 15: 152.4
Week 16: 152.4

Total weight loss: 7.2 pounds (4.5%)

Tomorrow I will be making a homemade chocolate sorbet from David Lebovitz with my sweet son Graham, and I’ll enjoy it with intention and joy. A “joy eat.” Stay with me in the coming weeks as we see how this sugar experiment goes!

In the meantime, if you have a weight-related topic you’d like me to cover in this blog, please drop me a comment below, or hit me up on Facebook,  or Instagram or Twitter @DrJenKerns. Have a joyful week!





One Response

  1. Dr Jen,
    Exactly what you said about scarcity and abundance. Just remember about the way the brain invokes hunger and craving. It may not be compatible with your desire to simply stop eating sugars. Maybe this calls for a different mindset and general picture of how stress, real or perceived, is met by your mind. Vision triggers neurotransmitters that can make it become your reality. See if something is triggering those cues for sugar consumption: adequate sleep, awareness, resilience to stress – think about what might be triggering the autonomic system to shift toward neurotransmitter and endocrine flows that lead you to complete the craving-satisfaction cycle.



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