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13 June 2012updated 30 Jun 2021 11:49am

Quitting sugar is the new quitting smoking – only, worse

By Eleanor Margolis

“What’s the matter?” I say.

My girlfriend, Leo, home from work, has just stormed into the house and – without comment – collapsed onto the bed like a distraught Greta Garbo.  

“I feel shaky,” she says into a pillow, “the ground is moving underneath me. I have a headache.”

“What about a cup of tea and a paracetamol?” I say.

“I can’t do this,” she says, staring blankly into the corner of the room, “I need sugar. I think I’m allergic to not having sugar.”

“Yeah,” I say, “We’ve got chocolate in the fridge. Do you want some?”

“You’re supposed to tell me not to,” she says.

Leo is on about day three of quitting sugar. It’s likely that you know someone doing the same – someone unable to shut up about it, perhaps. Or maybe you’re that person. Last year, for about three months, it was me. And in all honesty, once the withdrawal symptoms had subsided, I felt incredible. To reiterate what you’ve already heard from a hundred people by now: I had more energy, I was less hormonal, and my taste buds were able to detect natural sweetness in a way that made strawberries taste like something from Willy Wonka’s factory. I can’t remember the specific reason I fell off the wagon, but it probably has something to do with the pure ubiquity of sugar. At least when you’re quitting smoking (which I’ve also done) there aren’t cigarettes in your favourite cereal.

And quitting sugar is – it seems– the new quitting smoking. People doing it are smug, irritable, boring and – unfortunately – right. In fact, according to some of the latest “food is killing us all” literature, the sugar quitters may be even more right than the smoking quitters. Although it’s not just sugar. The highly subjective and suddenly omnipresent term “bad diet” is something that – according to whichever scare piece du jour you happen to be reading – includes red meat, no meat, too much salt, too little salt, too much fruit or too little fruit. What we eat is killing us, but no one can agree on how. Oh and meanwhile the world is ending, which is a better reason than most to rail the odd tube of Jaffa Cakes. What are we aiming to live for, exactly? The 2 for 1 on Pringles at Shell garages when last polar ice cap melts?

Alongside political and environmental instability the likes of which many of us have never seen, the uncertainty about what’s “safe” to put in our mouths is really rolling out the red carpet for eating disorders. Even among billionaires, if Jack Dorsey’s fasting regime is anything to go by.

I miss the days when my fears around death were limited to thoughts of getting hit by a bus. Now, more than I can ever remember, not only are we being shamed for comfort eating in dark times, but we’re being prompted to contemplate our mortality every time we so much as walk past a Greggs. How has food – something that ultimately keeps us alive – turned into the source of so much death anxiety? And what – above all else – became of the notion that if you eat/drink everything in moderation you’ll basically be OK?

Discourse around moderation has evolved into an “all or nothing” attitude towards diet, in which we’re strongly encouraged to live out our own sugarless versions of the withdrawal scenes in Trainspotting. In which a giant jelly baby crawls across the ceiling and you have to stop yourself from biting your friends and family, all of whom have transformed into gingerbread men. Recovering junkies – at the very least – can probably hoover up a bag of Haribo Tangfastics without judgement and/or the looming presence of the diabetic angel of death.

Over the Easter weekend, Leo ate chocolate. She said she’d forgotten how sweet it was.

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