Something didn’t seem right. This did not make any sense at all.
It was October 2011, a year since I’d finally rid myself of my black dogs, Anxiety and Depression. I’d just crossed the finish line in my second – and probably last – marathon, and I could not believe what I was seeing.
I say “probably last” because I’d ran my first full marathon two years earlier, with a target time of under four hours. On that first occasion in 2009, I poured myself over the finish line, having walked much of the last two kilometres, literally unable to feel my legs and on the verge of quitting, in an excruciatingly close time of four hours and one minute.
Running that first marathon had been sheer mental and physical torture, all the more so because I’d dug deep and hung on as best as I could, only to barely miss out on my target time. I‘d come so close, but I swore I’d never put myself through that torture ever again.
At least, as a years-long recreational runner, I could finally say I’d run a full marathon. That in itself was a great big swooshing Nike-esque tick on my bucket list, and nothing could ever change that. All the months of long, hard training had also caused my mid-life midriff to shrink nicely – I was fitter and leaner than I’d been in years.
There were mental benefits too. During those months of intense training, I felt more confident and self-assured than normal in day to day life; less anxious and worrisome.
As an example, at the height of my 2009 marathon training, I was in a meeting at work about a systems rollout project that wasn’t going so well.
In meetings like this, I would usually chip in a few comments just so I could be seen to be contributing to the discussion, and then I’d go with the general consensus. All the while, I’d be lacking any confidence that my ideas were worth anything anyway, as well as worrying about how, when the entire project would inevitably fail, it would be all my fault.
But on this occasion, I felt particularly confident about my suggestion. I knew – I insisted – that it would work. I persisted so much so that we all discussed it further. We ended up implementing it, and it did work, smoothing the way for the rest of the rollout.
All those extra endorphins I was producing as a result of my training were clearly doing their job, as well as helping me do mine.
It was all very short lived, however. The extra training was too time-consuming and intense to maintain. As 2009 drew to a close and I went back to being a casual runner; my confidence and self-assurance gradually returned to their normal low levels, and my mid-life midriff reappeared.
My black dogs also started growling again.
Back To The Torture
Two years later, the memory of all the torture had faded and I returned to the marathon start line. I still hadn’t got over how close I’d come to cracking that four hour barrier, and I was determined to have one more go at it.
After the months of second-time-around training, and with one marathon now under my belt, I felt fitter and wiser than two years earlier. I’d also conquered my black dogs once and for all, so I was mentally stronger this time.
All I could think of was three hours, something. I didn’t care what came after. I just had to cross the line in anything – literally anything – less than four hours. Only then could I happily retire from my brief marathon running career.
Three hours in, with about ten kilometres to go, I was on target – but only just. Once again, my legs were starting to feel numb. My Garmin GPS watch was telling me my pace was dramatically slowing down. All I wanted to do was walk. However, I knew from my very limited experience in running this far that if I just didn’t slow to walking pace this time, I was in with a good chance of cracking the four hour barrier.
As those last ten kilometres unraveled beneath my feet, I felt like I was still running, but I was probably dragging one leg in front of the other at slightly more than walking pace. Once again I dug deep, doggedly determined, and just kept going, onwards through the seemingly endless torture.
I covered those last ten kilometres in precisely 55 minutes and 27 seconds. I had done it! A sub four hour marathon: 3 hours 55 minutes 27 seconds! Welcome to retirement!
Just beyond the finish line, as I was jubilantly catching my breath, I looked down at my feet, while literally swearing to myself that this time I really would never put myself through all that torture ever again.
That was the moment I realised something didn’t seem right.
“What the hell is that sticking out of my belly?” I thought. Whatever it was, it looked so big, so round, so out of place.
As my heart rate slowed to normal, it didn’t take long for me to realise that the thing sticking out of my belly actually was my belly.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My midriff actually looked bigger than it had been four months prior, before I had started my second round of long, grueling marathon training. This really didn’t make any sense at all.
For sure, I’d been eating a lot more sugary energy food than normal while I’d been training. But it was no different to when I’d been training for my first marathon, and back then I’d got so…lean.
I thought, perhaps it was just part of my genetics, perhaps also in part due to me not getting any younger, perhaps even one of the known potential side effects of my medication. Though I’d always sworn I’d rather be overweight and happy than slim and sad.
Well, I like to think that a common message I convey when it comes to both running marathons and dealing with the black dogs of anxiety and depression is to never give up – no matter what it takes.
But I’d also like to cut to the chase here. It will probably come as no surprise that the rest of this chapter is all about the benefits – both physical and mental – that I got when I did give up one thing: sugar.
Taking On The Seemingly Impossible
I’d like to point out that I’m not a nutritionist or dietician, so my sugar-free story is in no way a professional recommendation. I’d encourage anyone – especially those struggling with a mental illness – to seek professional advice before making radical changes to their diet. It’s clear that we can all respond to different medications and diets in different ways, so all I can do here is tell you what undeniably happened to me.
Giving up sugar was no easy feat for me. In fact it once seemed like an impossibility, because I’d always had the biggest sweet tooth. I could happily go through three or four coffees a day with a sugar in each, sometimes with a cake or biscuit, and I always had chocolate or sweets after lunch.
As if to reward myself for getting through another day, we’d also have a slab of Dairy Milk in the fridge for after dinner. On the not-so-seldom occasion when I felt like particularly rewarding myself, I could be as much as a 12 squares a night man.
I wasn’t, and never have been a big drinker. Chocolate, cakes and sweets were my main vices in life, and I’d always felt I compensated for this by exercising regularly.
Until October 2011, that is.
Not long after my Marathon Bellygate moment, I got talking by chance to a colleague of mine, Irene, on the topic of sugar. It was one of those conversations that kind of sprung up out of nowhere, but in hindsight felt like it was just meant to take place there and then.
Irene raved about a book called “Sweet Poison” by David Gillespie. She told me how it was highly informative, at times entertaining, and written in layman’s terms. It had really opened her eyes to just how bad sugar was. As I have a weak spot for never being able to go past a book recommendation, I went out that weekend, bought myself a copy, and devoured it (pardon the pun) in a day.
The main loud and clear message I read in Sweet Poison was that fructose is a very bad thing. Not necessarily fructose found in a couple of pieces of daily fruit, which usually comes with a whole heap of healthy fibre.
No, according to Mr Gillespie, and all the research, studies and self-experience that back him up, it’s the fructose that is a component molecule of sucrose that causes all the problems. Sucrose, of course, being the sugar that gets artificially added to so much of the food we eat.
I’m not going to try and summarise Sweet Poison in a few short paragraphs, however amongst many eye-opening facts, Mr Gillespie writes how the more fructose we indirectly consume in the form of sucrose, the more we want and the more our bodies convert to and store as fat.
I also read with lowered jaw in Sweet Poison about studies that show how fructose it is directly attributable not only to weight problems, but also diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, and not surprisingly, our old nemeses anxiety and depression.
While researching Sweet Poison, Mr Gillespie quickly realised this was not just an exercise in weight control, this was also an exercise in not poisoning himself. By the time I’d finished reading it, the same had become the case for me.
I was convinced, but I didn’t know where to start. It seemed so hard to put all the advice into practice, all the more so because sugar seemed to be in just about everything. But Mr Gillespie also explains that if you simply do not eat or drink food that tastes sweet, you will 100% reap the rewards.
I felt I had nothing to lose, everything to gain. Or if I looked at it from the same angle I had after finishing my second marathon, I had absolutely nothing more I wanted to gain, and everything I needed to lose.
With this in mind, 2012 became what was once the unthinkable for me, my mission impossible, which I willingly chose to accept: my year without sugar.
The results surprised me – both mentally and physically – and in ways I had never expected.
Gordon FOking Ramsay
According to Urban Dictionary (so it must be true) the definition of Hangry is: “when you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or both.”
Well, that was me – to a tee. Even in the months after I’d overcome my anxiety and depression, and before I went sugar-free, if I was ever later than normal in eating a meal, or hadn’t eaten a stomach-stretching quantity of food during a meal, my body would let me know.
Sometimes it would also let anyone around me know too. I’m not ashamed to say that on the outside I’d become grumpy, snappy and at times unpleasant to be around. Which doesn’t sound too bad, really.
On the inside, however, I’d be frantically scaling the walls of my mind in frustration, bursting to escape from what felt like a prison of sheer starvation. There would also be a slightly different tone of dialogue going on in my mind- like I was having a conversation with my inner Gordon Ramsay. I wouldn’t so much be screaming “what the fOk is this?! Do you call this fOking food?!” But rather “where the fOk’s me food?! Just give me fOking food! Any fOking food! FOOOOOOOk! Foooooood!”
As I entered my year without sugar, I expected to experience some changes. But never in my hangriest dreams did I expect the silencing of my inner Gordon FOking Ramsay
I didn’t get too fussy, or go about reading the label on everything I ate. I just stopped eating chocolate, muffins and sweets, and stopped putting sugar in my coffee. I wouldn’t think twice about using a pasta or curry sauce from a jar – because although it probably contained some sugar, it didn’t taste sweet.
I didn’t actually have any withdrawal cravings, and within a few weeks, what I can only describe as nothing short of a miracle happened.
I was having a particularly busy day at work one day. All I’d brought with me was a carrot, an apple and a couple of crackers, all of which I’d eaten mid-morning. I’d planned to go out and buy something extra for lunch.
Once again, I looked down and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But this time I was looking down at my watch, and not my belly.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon – and I wasn’t in the slightest bit hungry. Nor hangry! My inner Gordon Ramsay wasn’t even whispering in my ear, never mind screaming at me.
I’d planned to leave work on time that day so I could be home by 6pm to go for a run. I figured that as I wasn’t even hungry, it was a bit late to try and shove something down my throat so close to a run. So I just kept drinking water regularly, as I usually did.
That evening, I went for a run as I had planned – and I ran like a gazelle.
I can still clearly recall it as probably the most enjoyable run I’d ever had. I pushed myself harder and faster than ever before. I was full of energy – and I felt great.
As I still hadn’t eaten since late morning, I’d been almost expecting Gordon FOking Ramsay to leap out from behind a bush halfway through my run and start screaming at me – yet still he was nowhere to be heard.
Although I’d already exterminated my black dogs over a year earlier, I’d never experienced anything as level-headed as this. I now realised for myself that quitting sugar wasn’t just about not poisoning my body, it was also about not poisoning my mind.
As if to prove to myself that I firmly believed cutting sugar from my diet was not about losing weight, throughout my Year Without Sugar we didn’t own a set of bathroom scales. All that time, I had no idea what I weighed, or how much weight I had lost. I just enjoyed an improvement on the ever-increasing scale of my well-being.
At the end of 2012, however, I started to fall back off the sugary rails. I missed the odd sugary treat, and decided to let loose over Christmas. And it was great! So great in fact that I decided that a little bit of sugar every now and then wouldn’t hurt. And so 2013 became my year of Sugar Only On Special Occasions. The only problem was that within a few weeks, I was treating every day like a special occasion. It took almost another two years before I started to steady the ship again.
The Man Who Couldn’t Fart
In November 2014, another colleague of mine, another ex-pat Scot, also called Mark, told me about the book “Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It” by Gary Taubes. Mark told me how not only had he lost 15kg from following the advice in this book, he’d actually lost 6kg before he’d even finished the book. Furthermore, he told me how he now has more energy, he eats when he wants to eat, and he doesn’t get hungry. It sounded like a supercharged version of my Year Without Sugar.
The clear message from “Why We Get Fat” is not just that sugar is bad for you, it’s more that carbohydrates in general are bad for you. All backed up by research and case studies.
Again, I’m not a dietician, and again I’m not going to try to summarise an entire book in a few paragraphs, but some of the key points from the works of Gary Taubes that convinced me are as follows:
– The more carbohydrates we eat, and the sweeter and easier to digest they are, the more insulin we secrete – this has been known since the 1960s and has never been controversial
– High levels of insulin stimulate a ” fat saving mode” – and an increased vicious circle craving for more sugar. And of course an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes
– Because of this vicious circle, we don’t get fat because we overeat. In fact we overeat because we are getting fat – with the wrong food types
– Our bodies will always burn carbohydrates first – but we burn fat more efficiently when we do run out of spare carbohydrates in the blood
– As for mental health implications, just as one example – Alzheimer’s Disease, the sixth biggest killer in America – has been linked to Insulin imbalances and is now referred to in medical circles as Type 3 Diabetes; Diabetics are also twice as likely to suffer from Dementia
– In just the same way as not everyone who smokes will get lung cancer, not everyone who eats carbohydrates will be affected in the same way. There will always be some who can eat excessive carbohydrates, never exercise, and never get diabetes or Alzheimer’s
And so with that, and 300 more pages of the work of Gary Taubes in mind, I more or less cut out all carbohydrates from my diet.
The low-sugar high-carbohydrate Weetbix that I once considered healthy was replaced by a daily ham and cheese omelette that I once considered unhealthy. Lunch became meat salad and veggies, and at dinner, for example if the rest of the family were tucking into a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, I’d just eat the bolognaise part. Or go cook myself a steak or fish and tack on some salad.
No pasta, no rice, no bread, no potatoes (so yes, no chips!), no pizza.
It all sounded like the once unimaginable – but it also felt so right. This time around, to give me something to measure my progress with, I also armed myself with a set of bathroom scales. I watched with great pride as my weight dropped by 12kg in as many weeks.
When I did eat, I found myself getting fuller faster, and on smaller portions. My energy and confidence levels also peaked higher – more so than they had on my Year Without Sugar. A recurring skin rash I had also cleared up. Heck, if the truth be told, much to the disappointment of my two young sons who used to laugh loudly at my trumpet-bum orchestral performances – yet to the delight of my wife – I even stopped farting all the time.
Many family, friends and colleagues also started to really notice and comment on how fit and healthy I was looking – though disappointingly nobody commented on how well I was smelling.
Some family and friends think I am on a Paleo diet. It’s not quite Paleo, and I have nothing bad to say about Paleo. In fact, because I eat a lot of meat, sometimes it’s easier to just tell people yes I’m on a Paleo diet.
I’ve also come to realise that the topic of dietary choice has become as sensitive, controversial, even anger-provoking, as the topics of religion and politics.
That’s one thing the over-sensitive, angry and vocal critics of any so-called fad diets seem to forget. They are just that – choices. Nobody is keeping people locked up in cages and forcing them to eat, for example, like the cavemen used to; nobody is starving anyone of sugar against their will. They are simple sharing what they believe in; offering perspective.
The Paleo diet in particular has come under a lot of criticism because it’s based on what we think the cavemen ate in the Paleolithic Era – from 10,000 up to 2.5 million years ago. Apparently they all died young, critics say, so how can this diet be good for you?
Well, another colleague of mine, Anna, who has also followed the wise words of Mr Taubes with great benefits, explains that she didn’t do so because it was what we think the cavemen ate. No, she did so because of all the modern day studies and research contained in “Why We Get Fat”. The fact that these factual studies are in line with what we think the cavemen ate was irrelevant to her decision to change her diet.
In any case, it may not be that the cavemen died young because of what they ate. It may be that they died young because of what ate them.
Well, whatever mankind has been eating over the past 2.5 million years, it has clearly worked, because we are still here. Yet while I may have ran from many an encounter with a vicious black dog over the years, I don’t recall last time I had to run from a sabre toothed tiger.