Will eating all the sugar cure your chronic illness? Or is it the reason you’re still sick?
I’m going to start this off with a bit of a spoiler: cutting out all the sugar, thinking I cut out all the sugar, and eating all the “healthy” sugar, didn’t cure me of my chronic, invisible disabilities.
I’ve had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, pretty much my whole life. When I was in my mid-20’s, I developed two new conditions that suddenly made my piddly one (with frequent dislocations, subluxations, chronic pain and fatigue – standard, right?) feel like a walk in the park.
I passed out when I sat up. I passed out when I tried to eat (hey, PoTS, I’m looking at you), I became intolerant to what felt like pretty much everything, including smells outside. So much so that those smells made me want to, you guessed it, pass out. Histamine Intolerance can be a real bitch, especially when you become intolerant to your own digestive process.
After exhausting all the medical options (unfortunately, I was that rare person who reacted terribly to the ‘miracle’ meds), and a deep, torrid affair with Doctor Google, I fell hard for the promises of wellness. Never-ending propaganda promised me that if I just changed my diet, I’d ‘cure’ myself, just like the glossy girls on my Instagram feed gushed that they had.
Overnight I went (and wait for this):
- Gluten Free
- Sugar Free
- Low Histamine
- High Nutrient
During this two year foray into wellness, one thing came up more than anything else. Although, gluten, meat and dairy all faced the ire of one blogger or another, supposedly being the reason that I was still bed-bound, sugar was the common thread, routinely pushed as both demon and saviour.
On the one hand, I had people telling me to cut out all sugar, or at least cut out “all sugar” (while still eating all the maple syrup and medjool dates), while on the other, I was told that a ‘raw vegan diet made up primarily of fruit’ was my saving grace.
At the beginning, I started to get a bit better. All I did every day was read about food, talk about food, and prepare food. My house reeked of juiced broccoli (sorry, mum!) and I developed a pretty bad case of Orthorexia.
I can laugh about it now, but it’s actually really sad. I genuinely believed that the food I was eating had the ability to poison me, and I was absolutely terrified of making myself more unwell than I already was.
A lot of people turn to diet “cures” out of desperation. It’s hard to admit that you may never get better, and food seems like a ‘what’s the harm’ kinda thing you can use to try to feel in control.
Testimonials are enticing (especially before you learn that there’s no evidential value there), and obsessive reading, Instagramming, and Netflix documentaries had ingrained the message in my brain that the food we eat has insane power over our health, and every bite we take is a choice to ‘feed your sickness’ or to ‘return your body to its natural state of health’.
These people have clearly never met my body in its natural state.
I ended up believing that any fluctuation in my health (*cough* my chronic, incurable, fluctuating health) was my own fault.
It’s pseudo-religious bollocks, but it’s easy to believe when you’ll grasp onto anything to be better. Oh, and when people will actively message you on social if you eat something that they deem is making you worse (yes, that was a fun time).
I obsessively scanned food labels for white sugar in all its forms, and was too scared to eat store bought pasta sauces (or supermarket vegetables because #chemicals) in case they had evil evil sugar in them. At the same time, I chowed down on ‘raw brownies’ every day made with boxes of dates and lashings of syrup. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even a big sweet person before I changed my diet, but since it felt like it was being taken away from me, I ate all the ‘healthy’ sugar I could get my hands on.
As humans are wont to do, I failed to make the connection between my decrease in symptoms and coming off of meds that made me want to die. I didn’t associate it with the natural fluctuation of these conditions, and a myriad of other things that I won’t bore you with here.
As I continued, at first buoyed by my success, the subsequent flare ups over the next few years confused me, and made me feel like I was failing.
The glossy girls did this and they were cured. Why wasn’t I?
The worst part was, since I was sharing my “journey” (man, I hate that word!) on Instagram, people also felt like they had a right to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of my current diet, as well the supposed negative attitude that was standing in my way of a cure.
I was always doing something wrong. I wasn’t pure enough. I wasn’t extreme enough. The thing standing in my way was the fact that I didn’t believe I could get better.
I didn’t know what to do, so I kept switching between diets and ‘healthy sugar’ intake. I kept trying because I was so desperate to be well and live the life of a ‘normal’ 20-something.
It wasn’t until I spent several thousand pounds on IIN (The Institute of Integrative Nutrition – I know, I’m embarrassed to admit it), that I realised that most of this was nonsense. Not quite their intended outcome, but hey.
Being taught by the very people whose messages I’d been reeled in by, I realised how much of it was bollocks. The more I read and listened, the more I realised that most of these people had no absolutely no qualification to talk about nutrition.
The final nail in the coffin came after an argument with one of my ‘coaches’ in the mandatory Skype sessions. I was disagreeing with some advice on a scientific basis, and was told we had to agree to disagree, because ‘feelings’ and religion were just as valid as facts when giving health advice (and apparently I needed to respect that).
Over the years I’ve tried so many different sugar related diets. I’ve read all the books. I did a “raw food challenge” that left my stomach so bloated I couldn’t move. I hopped from 7 banana and mango smoothies to trying to avoid even a squeeze of fruit juice or a bite of an apple.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think this is just about sugar. It’s about our wider relationship with food, how to ensure everyone has the fundamental scientific knowledge to battle woo and pseudoscience, long-term treatment for long-term health conditions, and the way we treat each other online.
The sugar conversation can, has been, and will be, replaced by whatever is the new sexy reason that people misinterpret a study which explains why we’re all sick and fat.
A lot of people, myself included, find it easy to deride people for believing fads, misunderstanding science, and following these trends. But I believe it’s important to address the reasons why.
I was never into science, but I consider myself an intelligent, critical thinking person. I fell for ‘sugar-woo’ and ‘diet-woo’ more generally because I was desperate. At the time, I was literally intolerant to most things, so along with wanting to be better, I genuinely couldn’t eat more than a few foods, so it seemed like a sensible track to go down.
And this is where quacks prosper.
These messages are propagated in a way that is so enticing – and it’s important that we keep this in mind when we try to tackle it. We need to continue to share proper evidence from qualified professionals (shocker, right?) in ways that are easy to understand and attractive to the general population (who don’t have the time that many of us have to spend ranting on Twitter!)
After all, a balanced diet and lots of water doesn’t sound all that sexy, and doesn’t offer the miracle quick-fixes that many people are after.
I’m lucky that I managed to escape it (although I wish it hadn’t cost me a few grand in course fees and thousands more in supplements, appointments, and tri-weekly grocery trips to Whole Foods), and all that remains of that time is self-blame whenever I have a flare up.
As a sick person, these messages are damn hard to avoid online. They come from people ‘innocently sharing their journey’, people commenting and wanting to help because it supposedly helped them, and these ‘cures’ are usually pretty high up on Google when you’re looking for support. It takes a lot of strength to avoid them.
We must never underestimate desperation, or deride people who are looking for hope. Yes, sugar-woo and all other food-woo is incredibly frustrating, and the more we can debunk it (and that’s for people way more qualified than I) the better. But in order to understand why these quacks are able to prosper, we need to understand the multitude of reasons people are drawn to them, and it’s not quite as simple as it looks at first glance.
Natasha Lipman is a chronic illness blogger and freelance writer from London. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @natashalipman