Sugar is something we all love. Our bodies are wired to seek sugar because it's a quick and easy source of fuel. For some people sugar can become an addiction, taking over their minds and consuming their thoughts.
Dr Lucy Burns talks about her sugar addiction. How she used to hide chocolate and relish the excuse to eat sugar in sociably acceptable settings.
She chats about how it consumed her and she felt powerless to stop it.
She explains how she over came her addiction and the tools she uses to prevent herself falling back into her sugar addiction.
In this episode, You Will Learn:
Dr Orlena: Hello, Lucy. It's fabulous to have you here. Thank you so much for being on the show today.
Dr Lucy: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr Orlena: Well, I would like to dive in and hear your story and for you to tell us a little bit about what you do. Then we will focus more on that evil word, sugar.
Dr Lucy: Wonderful. Like probably many of your listeners, I was a yo-yo dieter. I reckoned I lost the same 20 kilos, maybe 46 times. I was a life member of Weight Watchers I had done every diet starting from the age of 16.
I was very, very good at losing weight, but not very good at keeping it off. I would just lurch from one side to the other of either being perfect or on a bender.
Dr Lucy: Anyway one particular time. I was on my bender for months of just eating chocolate every day, as much as I could. Sort of get away with without people seeing.
That addictive behaviour of having chocolate hidden around the house. If there was a chocolate bar in the cupboard and I ate it. I would replace it so that nobody saw I was eating it in secret in the car.
I felt like I needed it for everything. So if work was busy, It would be so much better if I had some chocolate with me. If I'd had a bad day, then suddenly I'd find myself at the petrol station buying chocolate.
And there was usually chocolate on special. So even if I didn't particularly like that brand I'd buy it cause it was cheap.
Dr Lucy: Just like a lot of times when you know what, enough's enough, I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going back and I'm going to stop.
So I went into somewhat I thought was healthy eating. And by most stretches probably is healthy eating. I was eating untoasted muesli with some fruits on it and some low-fat yoghurt.
I was finding that I was having eight buckets of it and I was hungry and I wasn't losing any weight. I thought, Oh, this is a tiny bit rubbish.
Dr Lucy: As a doctor, a tiny bit embarrassing that here I am overweight, starving, and not able to lose any weight. I did some blood test on myself and discovered that I had insulin resistance, fatty liver and pre-diabetes.
And you know, the mortification that set in. I just thought I should have known. I mean, I have a family history of type two diabetes, but I just never thought it would happen to me.
Dr Lucy: I changed my eating. I did go and moved into a low carb, whole food eating program that I just sort of muddled my way through. And it was amazing.
It worked. What happened, I think for the first time in my life, I stopped being hungry. I was able to gain control of my sugar addiction by not having what I now realize was physiological hunger.
I guess sorting out the physiological hunger helped me then focus on my psychological hunger.
Dr Orlena: Wow. That is an amazing story. So first of all, huge congratulations on making that an amazing transformation.
I always like to think about people standing at a crossroads. If you had carried on where you had been without making those changes, where does that path lead to? Diabetes and all of those horrible complications.
Well, you've made those changes. Where does that path lead? It leads to an amazing, healthy, wonderful lifestyle. So big, big, congratulations.
Dr Orlena: Can I ask how old you were pleased when you did the test?
Dr Lucy: Yep. 48. Goodness.
Dr Orlena: So I bet it's scary because diabetes is for elder people. I'm 46. I don't consider myself to be old yet.
Dr Lucy: No, not at all. I think this was the thing I thought, bloody hell. I have 40 years ahead of me. I know that medicine is very good at keeping people alive but we're not very good at improving the quality of their life.
I just thought I don't want to be a person who's on 15 tablets and having my toes chopped off at the age of 60.
Dr Orlena: Yeah, absolutely. The other side of that story is I totally hear what you're saying in that medicine is good at keeping people alive.
Dr Orlena: When we look at the flip side and all those changes that you make and the changes that we stand here and advocate yeah. They're actually really easy.
You don't have to get up at five in the morning and meditate on one leg and eat kale chips every single day. I mean, you can do those things if you want, but it's just about normal life and making changes. Once you get used to them, they're fun and enjoyable.
Dr Lucy: Yeah. Look at it is totally about your mindset around that. It's what you think about a habit or a situation or a problem determine how you feel about it.
So I totally agree with you. If you have the right thoughts, then that will create a feeling that enables you to continue on.
Dr Orlena: Absolutely. I'd love to hear more about sugar cravings. You were talking to us a little bit about this addictive behaviour, which I find fascinating. I'd love to hear more about that.
Can you speak to us a bit and about two other people who find themselves in that situation now?
Dr Lucy: Absolutely. I totally love talking about sugar not in a way that I'm advocating, but in a way to empower people to recognise its addictive potentials.
Dr Lucy: Some people don't actually believe sugar is an addiction. When you look at the term addiction, it's really about engaging in a behaviour that you actually don't want to do.
So for the majority of people who have a sugar addiction, eating sugar doesn't bring them any pleasure. In fact, it's associated often with guilt and shame.
I think the thing to recognize is that it's a little bit like alcohol in that. There are people out there that can have a glass of wine and they might have it once a month.
And it means it's nothing to them. They have a glass, no big deal. There are other people that probably have maybe a glass or two every night. They would rather not do that, but they find it difficult to stop.
Dr Lucy: Then you've got the people that go that next level whose whole life is destroyed by alcohol addiction.
I think sugar's a little bit the same.
There are people out there that can have a bit here and there. It doesn't wake up any cravings or make them want more and more.
I was in that next level of category and probably heading into the third.
Dr Lucy: In fact, probably if I'm honest with myself, I was in the third level where people with alcohol addiction will hide their bottles of wine or height. Do secret drinking, hide the evidence if you like.
And so what it became was, I didn't even recognize, every thought I had was really about how I was going to get this sugar.
It would be things like a book group. I have had a bunch of girls and I'd go out for BookBub and all I could think about I'd be clapping my hands. I'd be in a group book or movies. Oh, great. I can have a packet of Maltesers. Barbecue's awesome. They're gonna have cheesecake.
It was not about the event or the people. This was a great reason for me to be able to indulge in sugar in a socially acceptable way.
In some ways, therefore meant I didn't have to go and scoff my block of chocolate that was hidden in Martin D's drawer.
So it really was very in some ways quite disabling now that I think about it.
Dr Lucy: Tricky because it's so readily available. It's so cheap. It's so acceptable and it's encouraged. We are marketed to, within an inch of our lives by big processed food companies who tell you it's okay to do it.
Dr Lucy: And so it took until I burst out of my undies. I had no more clothes to wear. I had nothing till I finally recognised that actually, this is a problem. And then I go, okay, I'm going to do something about this problem.
I actually had developed some health consequences because of it. I think it's sneaky, but it's real.
Dr Orlena: It's a really interesting point. I remember a few years ago being a mother of young children and I read it on the internet. Some lady had given up sugar for a year and at the time I remember thinking, Oh, that's ridiculous. You don't need to give up sugar.
Now I fast forward a little bit. I've been really focused on healthy eating and creating healthy foods for my children and myself. I've changed my mind about sugar.
There is absolutely no reason other than a pleasure to put sugar in foods. We live in a society where should there is added to everything and people can't recognise the taste of things without sugar.
Dr Orlena: You can buy a savoury pre-prepared food and they'll put sugar in it to make it taste more appealing. The danger of that is we no longer recognise these healthy foods as tasty because we've trained our taste buds so much to just have sugar.
I was talking to a client about this yesterday. She was a little bit like, “Orlena, you're one of these people who say I love broccoli and other people aren't the same as you.”
My answer to that is you can get to be like that. As you say, it's about mindset.
One test that I think is really interesting. It's called the strawberry test. As we record this, we're coming up for Easter, but this happened to me several years ago.
Dr Orlena: At Easter time, I bought some strawberries because it's probably seasoned, beautiful. It's delicious strawberries, full of flavour. I had a strawberry and thought, "wow, that is bursting with flavour."
Then I had a bite of chocolate because there was chocolate around and I have young kids and then I had another strawberry. So my mouth is now full of sugar. I didn't rinse it out.
I ate the strawberry and that strawberry just tastes sour disgusting. Like one of those flavours, fruits that you think, what's the point of that fruit.
The difference was that my mouth was so overpowered with sugar, that I couldn't taste those beautiful flavours.
That was just one five minute example. But that as a society is what we're doing all the time. We're constantly adding sugar. So we can't taste the beautiful flavours without sugar.
Dr Lucy: Yeah, totally I think, you know, food companies are a tiny bit evil in that. They employ engineers to engineer process food to that bliss point that hijacks our whole brain. Our whole taste system. It releases that maximal dopamine response.
Dr Lucy: The addiction side is all about dopamine. Our brain doesn't say to us, "I love dopamine. I wish it could have dopamine in here." It says, "Oh, I love that chocolate. I wish I could have that."
Every time you have a bit of that chocolate, your brain releases a little bit of dopamine and that makes you feel good and you go, "Oh, that's lovely." But honestly, it's actually not about the taste. If it was, we would do that thing where you'd have a little sweet. You'd swizzle it around your mouth and then you'd spit it out. But nobody does that. We eat it.
Dr Lucy: People who are addicted to sugar aren't savouring their chocolate or whatever it is, their bar of whatever. They're wolfing it down. You wolf it down into kind of get this thing that you need to do.
You tell yourself you're doing it because you're stressed or you're tired or you're bored or you're lonely.
Dr Lucy: Again that seems like a reasonable option where marketed to that. It's in all our movies. You know, we could all ride a rom-com. It's easy. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. Boy has some existential crisis and runs off. Girl sits down, she's crying, her friends all come around in their pyjamas.
They sit down and watch a movie with big tubs of ice cream. And then boy gets his sort of self together and they galavant off into the sunset. It is social engineering at its best.
Dr Lucy: The girl's friends would have been better to come and take her off to a beautiful walk in the forest where she can connect with nature. And she's allowed to feel sad.
That's the other thing when we don't let anybody experience their negative emotions. We just fix it with food.
Dr Orlena: Yeah, so true. So taking you back to that time when you're addicted, how did you get out of that?
Dr Lucy: As I said, I got to the point where I'd grown out of all my clothes. At one stage I had just kind of given up on myself and I thought, Oh, it doesn't matter. You know, middle-aged woman, I'll just buy elastic, waisted pants.
No one cares when I grew out of my undies, I just thought, actually this is ridiculous. I cannot be buying the next size up. It was like a line in the sand.
I just actually did hardcore and went, “No, I'm not doing it.” I got rid of all the stuff in the house. I said to my family, “I'm going cold Turkey.” They rolled their eyes because they were used to me going on a diet. They thought it was going to be another diet.
I just recognised that the substance that I thought ruled my life. I thought it was the nearest and dearest thing that I would have almost considered selling one of my children for.
I just realised it was like poison. It was just killing me. And so I had to just make a really firm conscious decision.
I didn't just wake up one day and go, I'm not going to do this anymore. It was superconscious.
Dr Lucy: What I did was I immersed myself in reverse what I call reverse brainwashing. We have all been brainwashed to believe that sugary products are helpful, nice or delicious. That somehow they bring the family together.
And you think about, in Australia, their ad is "have a break, have a Kit-Kat." It just rolls off the tongue. It's like one word.
A mile a day helps you work rest and play. We've got all of these little sayings that come with this food that just go into our brain.
Dr Lucy: I worked really hard at undoing them and taking the language. My thought about language is really important. I don't ever use the word treat around food anymore. It seems extreme but for me it was really necessary because treat implies something that's going to be good for you and delicious.
Sugary food no longer is a treat for me. It's like they like telling you, just have a glass of champagne has for a treat. It's not going to hurt you. One glass won't hurt.
My brain already does that. It does that. It'll trick. You'll see butter cake. Look, I just have a little bit and I just have to go. In fact, my favourite line one is too many and a thousand is never enough.
Dr Orlena: I love it. I love it. And so how easy or difficult was that journey?
Dr Lucy: It has been hard. It's hard at times. I would like to say to you that day I decided was the last time I ever ate sugar. That's actually not true. It's a bit like giving up smoking.
I suspect it takes a couple of goes and you need to recommit each time. But what happened was that I have never gone back onto like a six-month bender.,
it's really been like a day and each time it's actually got less and less. I've done a lot of work on guilt and shame. That's not part of my scenario anymore.
Dr Lucy: It's really about accepting that sometimes things happen that are out of my control. I don't even use the word mistake. It's not even a mistake. It's just something I did something I didn't really want to do. And so I just recommit. I talk to myself.
Dr Lucy: I use them always. I've used this phrase of a learning opportunity and I have a look and go. Well, what were the things that led me to have that slip up that? I didn't really want to do eat those biscuits in the cupboard or the tin at work or whatever.
Dr Lucy: The overwhelming combination of things are tired. I know that you're always talking about sleep. If I'm tired, interestingly, I’m not even using the word stressed. It's not stress. I have the emotion that will make me go and eat is resentment.
I had to peel away a few layers of the onion together, get to that to work out what was it.
Dr Lucy: What was happening every Friday afternoon at work. I was having a kind of fight with the biscuit tin. And it was because Friday, I was tired into the week. Also, I was the only one in my clinic working on a Friday afternoon. Everybody else had gone home.
I realised I was sitting there sometimes I'd have to be sorting out other people's problems or something like that. It just started getting me cranky.
I actually did two things to change that situation. First of all, I made sure that on Fridays, I always have a good lunch at work. Sometimes I do quite a bit of intermittent fasting. I actually love it because it's what I call the easy-go way of eating.
Dr Lucy: I don't have to think about food, but on Fridays, I do. I always take lunch on Fridays. I've actually finished a couple of hours early. I then leave now at a normal time instead of working till five and then tidying up all the rubbish. Getting home at seven and thinking, wow, my weekends already over.
So that those sorts of things have been really helpful.
Dr Lucy: The most helpful thing in my whole world has been this analogy that I like to use. I have an analogy and I call it Fluffy. For most people who are Harry Potter fans, you may remember the three-headed dog that is guarding the chamber of secrets. He sees giant drooling, ugly dog that sounds asleep. He's got three heads.
The thing that keeps Fluffy asleep is music. And when the music stops, he wakes up. So the thing that keeps my Fluffy asleep is no sugar. When I have very low sugar in my life, Fluffy's asleep.
If something comes in that is a little bit somewhere. Then one head wakes up and stopped sniffing around. That's when the chatter starts back in my brain of, "Oh, a bit more. It'd be good. Just one biscuit." Everyone else is eating biscuits.
This sort of talk that happens. If I then listen to that talk and go and have something, the second head wakes up. Then the third, and then it's really hard. Then I know I'm in for a torrid time to put him back to sleep.
So for me, I go, “you know what, my life's easy when Fluffy's asleep”.
Dr Lucy: I'm often saying I can't, in my head, I don't eat cake. I don't eat chocolate. I don't say to people I can't because that implies some sort of restriction.
It's “I don't”, and I love it. That little phrase from my kids. I've got older girls and they're vegetarian. I'm sure, you know, half the teenage population of the world is. But if we go to a barbecue, for example, and someone offers them a sausage, they don't go, “I can't eat meat.” They say, “I don't eat meat.” I thought, well, I don't eat sugar. Not that I can. I just don't.
It's much more empowering and much more assertive and I'm in charge. It's not some sort of willful sad problem that I'm dealing with where "I can't." It's "I don't."
Dr Orlena: Fabulous and amazing story. What I'm hearing you say is essentially, step number one is all about self-awareness.
All of these tools that you have are tools that you have come to realize about yourself. I love your learning opportunities. I call them a golden learning opportunity.
Dr Lucy: Oh, great. Yes. So my last question is, firstly, how long have you been not eating sugar? And do you love broccoli as well?
Dr Lucy: Well, absolutely I do love broccoli and you are totally right about sugar taking over all your taste buds. I've now been without sugar for three years. I lost 20 kilos, which I don't know what that is in pounds about 45 pounds, I think. It's been off for three years, so I know it's not coming back.
It's it's done. I'm done. It's gone.
Dr Lucy: I was having this beautiful Thai green curry. All I could taste it the flavours in it, the chilli, the lemongrass, the lime juice. Thank God. I can taste all of this now.
In the past, all I could taste was sort of chilli hot stuff. Nothing else. Certainly, I totally love broccoli. It does have to have a little bit of butter on it for me.
Dr Orlena: That’s okay. Flavour is fine. I'm all about easy flavour. You know, we live in the Mediterranean. So for me, it's lemon and garlic.
Dr Orlena: Another tip is I love to use the lemon rind as well in my cooking. I think it gives things like a really fresh standard. So if I'm making a coleslaw, they are great in the lemon rind as well.
Some people might think of a little bit strange, but try it because it's delicious. It’s all those fresh flavours that you're talking about in the Thai Green Curry. It doesn't have to be vegetables by themselves.
Another thing I love is because I'm in Spain, olive oil, and I just recently have it on everything. Not literally everything, but it's just a broccoli bit of olive oil.
Dr Lucy: The thing for me I reckon was changing my food. I was always a complete low-fat advocate. In fact, doing Weight Watchers, I ate some sort of chemical chocolate mousse thing of fresh air. You'd almost inhale it and it'd be gone, but you know, it was only half a point. So that was okay.
Now I realise that by adding fat, avocado, butter, olive oil, nuts, I'm not hungry. I am full and I'm not afraid of fat.
I used to cut every shred of everything off so that I was basically I had toast. It was like cardboard. If I had a piece of steak, it was like leather, there was zero fat in my diet and it just made me hungry.
Dr Orlena: Yeah. Fat is fabulous for making you feel full up and it doesn't affect your insulin levels.
Dr Orlena: So another message is it's about enjoying your food. Enjoying it in a mindful way, as opposed to eating it to try and do to maximise what we can.
Just eating what we need and enjoying what we need.
Dr Lucy: Absolutely. The thing is, again, brainwashing about hunger. I see it even now in parents. I was at the park one day and some kid was running around and the moms go, “Do you want a sandwich? He goes, “No, thanks”. And she's going, “Are you sure you don't want a sandwich?” She's kind of, “No, no, I'm good.” “I think you might be hungry. I think you'd like a sandwich” I felt like, he's not hungry!
We force-feed them. They are so much better at being in tune with their hunger and satiety, which I know that you used the word posh way of saying full. We train them out of it.
Dr Lucy: Getting sugar out of my life has allowed me to reclaim that superpower. It's just wonderful because I can go to dinner being that tiny little bit hungry and my food is so much better.
Dr Orlena: Absolutely. Hunger is the best source.
Dr Orlena: Thank you so much for being on the podcast. It's been just a pleasure to talk to you and listen to your really inspiring story. Where can people find more and tell us a bit about how you help people.
Dr Lucy: I had worked with another doctor called Dr Mary Barson. Our business is called Real Life Medicine. And really because we are real and I'm also very passionate about the idea that its weight loss for health. Not influencer Instagram modelesque type weight loss. I always feel like I have to clarify that.
You don't need to be a size six or four or zero or whatever those terms are to be healthy. It's really about focusing on health. So Real Life Medicine, therefore, seemed like a really good name for us.
We're on all the normal socials of Facebook and Instagram and our website is rlmedicine.com. So RL because somebody else had the real-life medicine name and we would have to pay like 10,000 bucks to get it. We thought we're just sticking with RL medicine.
Dr Orlena: Fabulous. Thank you so much.
Dr Lucy: You are welcome. Thank you.
Wouldn't it be amazing if you could dial down your cravings for certain foods?
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Dr Orlena Kerek (MBChB from the University of Bristol, UK) trained as a pediatric doctor. She is now a family health coach. She helps busy mums who want to feel amazing by eating healthy food. So they can enjoy a healthy life, get back into their honeymoon shorts and teach their kids healthy habits. All without thinking about it.
If you want a healthy family and healthy lifestyle without having to think about it. And you'd like help, book a 30 minute "Healthy Life Roadmap" call here.