Do or Donut: My Battle with Sugar Cravings

Matthew_B_Johnson

To eat the donut, or not to eat the donut? That is the question.

Can you imagine a more trivial dilemma?

And yet, it’s a question I wrestle with more than I’d care to admit.

Why?

When I get stressed out, I crave coffee and donuts like it’s the cure for death.

I’m currently working a patchwork of jobs.

I’m working on becoming a published novelist, which requires me not only to complete and polish a publishable draft of a novel, but also accrue a number of short-story publishing credits, which is a job unto itself.

I’m doing my damnedest to stay on top of all of the responsibilities and time-consuming obligations of being an adult.

I accumulate stress like it’s a paying job.

I do my best to engage in healthy methods of relieving stress: reading, watching stand-up comedy, exercising, etc. But even their restorative abilities are limited.

I’ve found that, if I’ve been shouldering stress for an extended period of time, the most effective cure is to go to town on a box of donuts while guzzling the largest cup of coffee I can find.

Why?

For one, sugar is a mood elevator. According to David Sack M.D. of Psychology Today, “sugar and processed junk foods flood the brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine.”

In other words, you eat the donut, your brain turns into Homer Simpson, and, while drooling, thinks, “Oh yeah…that’s the stuff. Hit me again.” And you feel better…at least in the short term.

Secondly, donuts are delicious and widely available. Every apartment, house, or college student housing unit I’ve lived in has had a donut shop nearby.

Entering a donut shop elevates my mood. Inside, it’s a festival for the senses. The smell of fresh donuts and hot coffee. The donuts displayed behind glass cases, top-lit so their glaze making them shine like a sports car in a showroom. Sometimes there’s upbeat music playing. Sometimes a TV is showing the morning news on low volume.

My favorite shops are the small, independent or family-owned ones where the staffs are almost always super friendly. In addition to a tasty treat, I’m getting some actual human interaction, brief, but pleasant, which can be hard to come by in a world in which we increasingly interface with a device rather than connect with other people.

And I always leave feeling better than when I came in. After all, feeling better was the goal, wasn’t it?


I know the good feelings triggered by the donut will be short-lived. That initial sugar rush and dopamine release has a limited lifespan. After it’s gone, I know I’ll end up feeling tired, sluggish, and possibly even cranky.

I may also have a stomach ache depending on which kind or how many donuts I ate.

If I’ve had an especially rough couple of months, I’ll binge on donuts until I feel queasy, sometimes even while engaging in some of the healthier means of alleviating stress I previously mentioned.

I’m not surprised when I feel like crap afterward. I’ve done it enough times to know exactly what will happen.

Again, according to Dr. Sack, “Sugar can cause blurry vision, difficulty thinking, and fatigue,” and “A sugar high and subsequent crash can cause shaking and tension, which can make anxiety worse.”

Oh, I’m well aware of the irony and futility of trying to alleviate my stress symptoms by ingesting a substance that worsens the very symptoms I’m attempting to rid myself of. It’s like that quote from The Simpsons (I forget which character said it, but I’m pretty sure it was either Lenny or Carl), “There’s nothing like a depressant to take away the blues.”


Donuts are one of the worst things you can eat if you’re trying to lose weight. It’s exceedingly difficult to lose weight if you’re eating deep fried dough coated with sugar, a sugary glaze, or any number of toppings you can now find at trendy, boutique donut shops. Pretentious as they can be, I have to admit to loving an Oreo cookie-crumble-topped donut with chocolate drizzle I recently had. It made me happy in my belly…before giving me a sugar crash, an upset stomach, and a heaping pile of guilt.

So even though I know that, if I eat the donut, I’ll feel worse in the long run, why do I do it? I mean, besides that fact that donuts are delicious.

Have you ever heard of emotional eating? If not, the Mayo Clinic defines it as “eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.”

Sound familiar? Maybe you do it, too, or have done it in the past. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, isn’t it?


In my case, it goes beyond the subconscious desire to use sugar to trigger a hit of dopamine.

My connection to sugar is deeply ingrained in my upbringing. If I behaved while I was at the grocery store with my mom, I got candy bar for the ride home. If I behaved while my grandma cut my hair (don’t worry, she was a professional hair-dresser), I got ice cream afterwards. If I did well at something – school, sports, piano recitals (ugh, yes, piano recitals…I don’t want to talk about it) – food was part of, if not THE reward. Not always something sweet and sugary, but usually something that would clog your arteries and elevate your cholesterol and blood pressure a dozen points or so.

Moreover, some of my most cherished memories revolve around food. For example, if my sister and I, and later, our younger cousins, all got good report cards, my grandpa would take us out for pizza. We’d get together and celebrate academic success. More than that, it was an opportunity to just be together as a family.

Well, that, and to pump quarters into the various arcade games.

My grandpa would also challenge me to see if I could eat more pizza than he could. I was an overweight teenager by the time I won.

Also, there were several Sundays on which the 49ers would play at 10am, so my dad and I would go to church at 8, come home, and my dad would start cooking what we affectionately called the “gut bomb” breakfast. During the pre-game coverage, my dad would fry up eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, and, for good measure, toast up some Eggo waffles. We’d start eating right around kickoff, and by the end of the first quarter, we’d be nursing food hangovers.

Was it good for me physically? Shit no. But I got to hang out with my dad watching football while eating tasty food. Good times were had by all.


So when I pick up a donut, it’s not just me thinking, “let’s take a temporary escape from feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, or whatever.” It’s me thinking, “I’ve been working hard. I deserve this treat. I earned it.” It’s me thinking, “Food is family. Food is love. And everyone deserves to feel loved, right?”

Is that healthy? Probably not.

Is that sad? You bet.

Is it understandable? I think so.

Am I alone? Certainly not. According to the American Psychological Association, “Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.”

Why?

It varies from person to person, but the generalities are, we’re busy. Our time and energy are limited. We’re tired.

And it’s easier to eat sugar than do the work required to deal with our problems in a healthy manner. It’s faster to slam a donut than restructure our schedules or perform any sort of self-evaluation and work toward meaningful, positive change. And as I mentioned in the post, “The Trouble with Time Off,” we’re programmed to constantly produce.

Who has the time to work on themselves when they’re working on producing whatever it is they produce?

Ironic, isn’t it? The things we do to earn a living stress us out, so we eat rather than improve ourselves, but since we’re not improving ourselves, we continue to be stressed, which we compensate for by eating.


A simple answer is moderation.

“All things in moderation” the old saying goes. Simple, but not easy, especially in a country in which bigger is better. If a little is good, more must be better. “If the Sun’s up, you’re already behind.”

“If you’re sleeping, you’re not working hard enough.” I heard this from a journalism teacher who was attempting to instill in my class the relentless drive and pursuit of a story required to be a successful journalist.

Moderation isn’t something we’re taught. So how can we be expected to practice it?

In my case, I do my best to avoid my neighborhood donut shop. I try to occupy my mind with other things. I try to keep busy on things I enjoy working on, such as my novel projects and writing this blog.

Sometimes I’m able to resist the craving. Other times, I’m not.

The pandemic and endless months of quarantining has caused me to lose more battles than I’ve won. And the numbers on the scale reflect just how badly the war is going…

But change comes slowly. And I’m hoping that if I just keep at it long enough, I’ll be able to transition away from using food as a compensatory device.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to only engage in healthy methods of stress relief.

And I’m hoping I’ll be able to trade in my 3XL T-shirts for smaller sizes.


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