Durban – She was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, but Karen Thomson said her toughest addiction to kick was sugar.
“I am a sugar addict,” she said. “I have an addictive personality and have struggled with addictions since my teens. But my addiction to sugar was the hardest to beat.”
Thomson, who lives in Cape Town, was speaking at a seminar in Durban titled Stop Sugarcoating the Truth, hosted by Discovery SharkSmart, that focused on the benefits of a low carbohydrate, sugar-free diet.
The 34-year-old granddaughter of heart transplant pioneer Dr Chris Barnard said her mother, Deirdre, had had an eating disorder, her uncle had died of addictions and she believes her family heritage increased her risk of addictions and eating disorders.
From childhood, she used sugar to soothe, a practice that continued for years. “My dad would come home with a fizzy drink and a chocolate and when I had those, I felt safe and comforted. Sugar equalled love, affection, joy, security and safety. To push down bad feelings, I would use sugar. Sugar made me happy.”
Then the pretty 16-year-old from a famous family started modelling.
“It was one of the toughest times of my life. I didn’t fit the stereotypical look and I starved myself to get thin. I fell into a cycle of binge-starve-guilt. Not eating was hard, but sugar gave me energy.
“I was obsessed with the scale. If I was 50kg in the morning, I had a brilliant day. If I was 52kg, my day would be shocking.”
Then she discovered cocaine.
“It took away my appetite. It made me thin, but I was never thin enough. I was drinking excessively too, but nothing could fill the hole in my soul.”
At 24 she checked into rehab for nine months and emerged clean of cocaine and alcohol.
“Recovering from drugs and alcohol was easy compared with recovering from an eating disorder. For seven years, I abstained from eating disorder behaviours – bingeing, purging and overeating – but I substituted with sugar. It was a roller-coaster of sugar highs and plummeting lows. My blood glucose would spike after eating sugar and my mood would stabilise. Then it would drop and I would be a tyrant.
“I would use any excuse to fill up my car so I could slip into the shop and buy sugary snacks, which I would eat in the car on the way home.”
What makes quitting sugar hard, says Karen, is that it is everywhere, lurking in the unlikeliest of foods with a variety of names. She realised that even on a “restrictive” day, coffees with two sugars, two fizzy drinks and a bowl of pasta would add up to 26 teaspoons of sugar. The recommended daily intake is 5-9 teaspoons.
Ironically, the dietitian who treated her for eating disorders said eating “normal” foods indicated she was becoming normal in her eating.
“She did not take into account the fact that I was eating all of my emotions and I would do anything to get hold of sugar, even eating it out of the bowl.”
A turning point came when she heard a talk by Professor Tim Noakes, who advocates a low-carb, sugar-free way of living.
“He used the words ‘sugar’ and ‘addiction’ in the same sentence. In that moment I knew I was a sugar addict.”
She knew if she wanted to kick her sugar addiction, she needed to identify the emotional triggers that made her soothe with sugar. She had to accept herself, start loving herself – and abstain from sugar.
“It required complete abstinence – no sugar substitutes either, as my brain could not distinguish between real and fake sugar. It was a programme of recovery involving body, mind and spirit.
“I felt terrible at first, with physical withdrawals like shaking, and my moods were all over the show. I went cold turkey but had a couple of lapses, but as my taste buds started changing, sugar stopped having the same effect on me.
“Quitting sugar was more difficult than quitting cocaine because I was not surrounded by cocaine. I learnt that there were no half measures for me. It was all or nothing. I had to learn to live with no sugar.”
Today, the home she shares with her husband, Steven, and two sons, Jamie, 7, and Luke, 5, is sugar free.
“If my boys go to a party and have sweets and cake, that is okay, but there is no sugar at home.”
She runs HELP, a 21-day inpatient programme and The Sugar Free Revolution, an eight-week online programme to help others who abuse sugar and carbs. The programme has been developed by Noakes and Rael Koping, in partnership with Harmony Addictions Clinic in Cape Town.
She glows with health and is committed to spreading a low-carb, sugar-free way of eating.
Life, she says, is sweet – without the sugar.