Making Peace with my Sugar Beast

I can’t remember which of Anthony Bourdain’s books it was–Kitchen Confidential or Medium Raw. In it, an oft-drunk but undeniably talented baker calls into the restaurant he works at to say he will not be coming in. He’s hungover and in no shape to do his job, yet he remains on the phone to insist that someone feeds the bitch, so she doesn’t die. The “bitch” the baker Adam was referring to was his sourdough bread starter. If you know anything about baking bread (I admittedly know very little), you know that the starter is a living organism–a yeast created by flour and water let to sit over a period of time. People who are serious about sourdough bread-making often like to use and maintain the same starter for years and years, many believe it gives their bread a unique and more complex flavor. A woman in Newcastle is said to be maintaining an 122 year old bread starter. To keep it going, she must periodically feed it flour and water.

Like any other living organism, yeast is a fighter; it wants to stay alive. Ever wonder why if you start eating bread or sugar you just want more and more bread and sugar? When we consume bread regularly and start to maintain a certain level of yeast in our bodies, that yeast wants to stay alive, just like it does before we consumed it. The yeast is smart and it’s demanding–it knows what it wants and needs to stay alive–carbohydrates and sugar. It’s demands and screams manifest themselves to us as cravings, and they are often so strong we can’t help but fulfill them. The yeast inside us remains happy and well-fed, while the rest of our body pays the price with discomfort, bloat, and inflammation. It’s a cycle that can feel impossible to get out of, especially with the treats and feasting of the holiday season. I see the thing kicking my cravings into high gear not so much as a bitch, but as a beast–one that bullied me until I learned to befriend and eventually control it.

I don’t believe in diets. In my younger years I tried almost every diet that existed and tirelessly sprinkled eating disordered behaviors throughout all of them. Now that I’m a little older, wiser, happier, and healthier, I’ve let go of the idea of eating in a way that I cannot regularly maintain. While there are a lot of foods that I choose not to eat on a regular basis (sugar, processed grains, dairy (except butter!), there are no foods that are forbidden or can’t be had in moderation. I’m not a health professional and I don’t have the perfect body, so none of this is meant to be advice. The truth is I really like nutrition and I really love food, so I can’t deny a frequent aim to incite discussion on both. I enjoy learning about why people eat what they eat and what makes them feel their happiest and healthiest.

In hopes of stirring up more of this sort of conversation, I thought I’d throw together a quick list of how I manage to stay in a happy food and body place during the holiday season. I think it’s a shame that so many of us struggle during this time of year. To me, it feels so much better to be able to be grateful for all the abundance in our lives, but I know that’s not the easiest place to land at. What’s helped me…

  • Kick the can down the road. Alright, this phrase isn’t perfect, but I think it will illustrate my strategy well enough. Something that really helps me is to save bready and sugary treats for the end of the day. If I start in the morning with a big stack of pancakes with maple syrup or doughnuts, I haven’t got much hope for any real nutrition the rest of that 24 hours. When I eat shitty in the morning, it often feels impossible to turn it around, and neither my mind or my body really want to. There’s a definite fuck it mentality that clicks on and it delivers a one-two punch: I want more bready, sugary, and probably cheesy things (hello pizza!), and the sofa becomes the only place I really want to be. If I can instead “kick the can down the road” and get in some veggies and clean protein for most of the day and save my indulgences for nighttime, I’m usually way better off. For one, it gives me something to look forward to all day. Two, the treat is just that–it’s dinner and maybe dessert, and that’s it. It’s not shitty breakfast that turns into shitty snacking that rolls into shitty dinner; I haven’t exhausted myself and I don’t have to sit in my self-inflicted discomfort the whole day. Instead I get to hit the hay soon after a delicious meal and shut off the more more more voice that pipes up when the beast is awoken too early. Bonus: Sometimes when I save the treat for the end of the day, I end up not even wanting it!
  • Keep it Real. I tend to stay away from processed food on the regular but I find it’s especially helpful to limit the store bought junk during the holidays. For me, the worst feeling is if I’ve gone overboard on stuff that’s not really worth it. Just a few days ago I was discussing the Christmas menu with my mom (I normally cook almost the entire meal) and we decided she would make a few different kinds of cookies for dessert. My mom makes good cookies. When I eat 4-8 of them throughout Christmas day, I’ll do so happily and with no regret. On the other hand, if I’ve wanted something sweet and ended up killing an entire bag of crap gluten free glutino cookies while I’m grocery shopping, I tend to regret it for almost as long as all those preservatives take to pass through my system. I figure even if I’m giving my body a bit more than it wants of something, at least let it be food that’s real and that it knows how to digest.
  • Move intuitively. We travel back to Michigan and stay for about a week every Christmas. I’m an active person, so wherever we go, I’m going to find time to fit exercise in. Just like back at home, I always keep my workouts in the AM. I f I plan for later in the day, the number of legitimately good excuses not to get it done just keep on piling up. While I try to fit in enough workouts to keep myself feeling good, I also make sure I’m not missing things in order to get in exercise. I get back to Michigan two, sometimes three times a year. The gym is always there–but the time I get with my friends and family is limited. During the year, I’ll often choose a run or a yoga class over something social. Intuitively, it feels fine; I know that I am taking care of myself. During the holiday, that intuition remains, but it often guides me in the opposite direction. Sometimes it even says that a day on the sofa with my sister and my hubs watching old Grey’s Anatomy episodes is the only activity I need. When I listen to my gut on these days and end them feeling relaxed and restored, it helps me trust that voice the rest of the year. Knowing when to push and when to rest is key to my health, my fitness, and my overall sense of wellbeing.
  • Remember, tomorrow is a new day. I said I don’t believe in diets. I never said I didn’t believe in cleanses! I’m actually a big proponent of hitting the reset button once in a while. I’ll discuss this more when we get into the New Year. I mention it though to emphasize that after the holidays, we have a whole new set of weeks to restrict ourselves and workout like maniacs if we want to. For me, life is too short and food is too joyful and delicious to pass up the opportunity to celebrate with it. I mentioned that I cook almost the whole meal on Christmas day, but other members of my family contribute in a big way as well. My sister is in charge of appetizers. Every year she outdoes herself, and it always makes me think of that episode of Friends where Monica puts Phoebe in charge of ice. A normal person in charge of ice might pick up a few bags at the bodega and call it a day. Phoebe brings an ice sculpture, spooky dry ice, a snow cone machine–she really pulls out all the stops. So does my sis. While she may do a minimal amount of cooking because I am occupying the ovens, the spread of cheese and charcuterie and dips and crudite and other insanely delicious little snackies that we get to feast on all day, is a serious culinary achievement. My little bro’s task is the mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are supposed to be this super simple thing, but mine suck. His are buttery and creamy and garlicky and delicious. And this year my mom is here to up our cookie game? I’d say the eats are not to be missed at Henderson Christmas 2017! 

When the New Year comes, I’ll clean up my eating. You’ll definitely see a post in January about slaying the sugar beast. But for these last couple weeks of this trying and exhausting year, I’m learning to live with this monster inside. As long as I don’t over or underfeed him, he doesn’t get too loud. In fact I think maybe he speaks up just enough, to make sure I get at least a taste of all the deliciousness the holidays have to offer.

How about you? Are you game to indulge and enjoy during the holiday season, or does all the overeating stress you out? What makes your holiday satisfying, happy, and healthy? Anyone looking forward to a specific dish?! I wanna hear about it! x



header: bethany newman