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Sugar: The New Smoking

After freshman year of college my Probation Officer issued me a final warning: If one more marijuana test came back positive I’d be “in violation” and imprisoned. I thought I would never quit weed, nor would I be able to if I had to; but apparently we can do just about anything, depending on the definition of “have to.” I was terrified of sobriety – just not as much as I was of jail. After having smoked all day, everyday for three years I quit cold turkey for the following two.

Once Probation was over I figured I’d go back, but when I tried our relationship had changed. She changed, or I had, or we both had and she didn’t love me anymore. What had been my favorite thing in the world suddenly induced feelings of panic and anxiety, and it took a few years of stubborn attempts (like all pathological relationships) before finally I gave up. It wasn’t until weed was out of my life that I discovered my passion for stand-up comedy; which lead to my performing all over the world, including on HBO and several other networks; which lead to my meeting the girl that introduced me to Chinese Medicine.

In spite of having now spent the last decade of life on the more health conscious side of the spectrum I’d never until recently explored any radical diet of complete abstinence. For New Year’s, 2018, at the behest of my teacher, Dr. Frank Butler, I decided to jump the Keto bandwagon. This meant for the first time in my life no bread. No pasta, no rice or potatoes (not even yams!), absolutely no sugar whatsoever. I was terrified again, then equally shocked that I’ve kept it up, though grateful, as what I’ve already learned about my/the human body just may have saved my life.

I was four weeks into “ketosis” when I went to visit a friend who manages Gustiamo, an incredible Italian food exporter in the South Bronx, and in typical Italian fashion he insisted on showering me with samples. Sample after sample of literally the greatest olive oil that’s ever grazed my palette, and who was I to turn down such generosity? I didn’t hesitate when he passed me what I assumed was vinegar.

Wrong. It was Saba.

What’s Saba?

“Isn’t that incredible?” John phrased his statement to me as a question.

My eyes got as wide as they’re capable of getting, as I’d never tasted anything like it before. Such savory, delicious, sweet vinegar!

That’s because it’s not vinegar, schmuck.

“It’s like a syrup,” John explained, “made by cooking down grape must,” and he walked away in his own personal mic drop, leaving me alone with the experience.

Suddenly I felt awful.

No, that’s an oversimplification. I didn’t feel awful. 90% of my body felt fine, but I was overcome with an uncomfortable head rush, not dissimilar to my own expression of anxiety that has intermittently plagued my past 17 years. I was barely able to think. I picked up the bottle to read its ingredients. It was all in Italian, but hey, I’ve seen the Godfather over 100 times; and I speak Spanish.

In Spanish sugar is “azucar.” This bottle of saba had 38 grams of “zucchero,” and I felt like I’d just drank them all. Meanwhile I hadn’t even drank 10% of them. Still, I was legitimately trashed, almost as if on a bad weed high, and almost hesitated to drive home when it was time 15 minutes later.

The “high” lasted two hours, but the lesson will stick with me forever. Either I suffer from a degree of insulin resistance I’d be well advised to take heed of, or sugar is poison, or a bit of both. I’ve since had three similar experiences as a result of the notorious, “hidden sugar” in restaurant foods, and once even from too many organic blueberries! I feel like a kid again, but instead of my Probation Officer, I’ve got a prestigious acupuncturist trying to steer me towards a better self.

How long do M&M’s stay good for unrefrigerated?

The answer to this question is all you have to know to never eat M&M’s (or anything shelved adjacent to them) ever again. The fact that they don’t spoil should inform us: This is not food, in spite of it being edible. The fact that we can inhale and exhale cigarette smoke doesn’t make it oxygen, right? So, why do we eat junk?

Basically because it’s been in our faces for our entire lives so most of us don’t feel its negative effects immediately after consuming it. In every store window and school cafeteria, on every shelf in every convenient store and practically every home we’ve been in has been some form of edible toxicity… that all happens to be delicious to boot! Whether consciously or not, this creates in us some degree of acceptance, that although we’re aware of its (lack of) quality, how bad could it be, really?

What if we weren’t conditioned as such? What if sugar had always held the same stigma that cigarettes now hold? What if the companies couldn’t advertise, the prices on M&M’s went up to $12/pack, and every night on TV, just after the commercial depicting a smoker dying of Emphysema was a sugar addict suffering in Diabetic coma? Instead we’ve been fed (no pun intended) the opposite message.

In the wise words of Malcolm X: “You’ve been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”

Obviously Malcolm was talking about the white man’s doings to black people, though I believe an equally accurate accusation is of the rich man’s doings to all of the masses. At some point big corporations realized they could turn a much bigger profit if they made cheaper food that didn’t expire, obviously sans regard for how it might impact the human body. Typically, competitive companies turned copycat, and the marketplace was flooded with these new forms of “food” that were even more addictive. As a more aware adult I find a good rule of thumb to be: Always suspect the product(s) being put out by the best businessmen, for what are the chances that the most clever marketing minds are also the most physiologically aware? Too many of us exist under the blind impression that we’re not under constant attack by big business. We walk into stores that sell junk and instead of seeing poison we see options. We assume if something is all over the place: How bad could it be?Neglecting the fact that equally all over the place are irredeemable diseases that logically should not be ruining so many people in a country so wealthy.

One of the most dangerous platitudes recycled in regards to diet is: “Everything in moderation,” a true fave of people who love their vices. One of my favorite rebuttals came from my teacher, Jason Ginsberg: “Yeah, everything in moderation… Including moderation.It means moderation can work, but to paint a broad stroke as a dietary prescription for all is as irresponsible as eating something that doesn’t expire.

Some people have allergic responses to substances that would make moderation as harmful as would its opposite. Others have longstanding, complicated conditions that require everything they ingest be as clean as possible in order to have any chance at a full recovery. Should a 40-year old with an autoimmune disease be allotted moderation in the same way as a 25-year old athlete in great shape? We must define moderation, which is impossible, which is why it is dangerous. Its huge subjectivity and subsequent dosage being determined by non- professionals couldn’t possibly qualify as a “balanced diet.” Are cigarettes in moderation okay? What about fast food? If sugar is as toxic as studies show it seems like introducing it into the body every day could have as negative of an effect as daily vegetables would a positive. Therefore, if you are navigating through any serious illness a more effective approach would probably be abstinence. As for myself, the notion of never having another Manhattan bagel or pizza, or my brother’s delicious pasta terrifies me even more than any anxiety attack, but if nothing else I’ve already learned one thing from my Saba-interrupted ketosis: I’ll never eat sugar again.

I have patients come into the clinic all the time requesting “the herbal formula for weight loss”, or that I do “the point for headaches,” or heartburn or anxiety. Do these exist? Yes, there are approaches Chinese Medicine offers for the various patterns that express such symptoms. However, in my opinion much more valuable than adding remedies to our problems would be subtracting the original sources of said problems. The Latin translation of “doctor”is educator. This implies that any health practitioner who is only offering additional intake for patients, not suggesting any omissions is doing at most half the job; for a particular herb that might assist weight loss can at best only break even against the inflammatory effects of sugar. Less is more,a cliché many Americans refuse to accept, as most of the cases I see are a result of too much of a bad thing, as opposed to not enough of a good. We’re the richest country in the world. We’ve got plenty of the good. We’ve just got too much bad as well.