When Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Colored Sugar

Last time we talked about how, since sugar is one of the cheapest and most widely available worldly pleasures, it has historically been a popular substance for Christians to give up during the penitential season of Lent, which varies from 40 to 47 days depending on the denomination. It’s about 6 weeks, and for consistency in discussion we go with 40 days. Through this cultural mechanism, a lot of people have had a chance to grapple with the lure of sugar, and its addictive quality has become widely recognized on a “folk” level.

The degree of commitment makes a difference, of course. To only quit eating candy bars, or to just stop putting sugar in coffee, does not get the job done. The conscientious effort to expunge every gram of sugar from the diet is a fiendishly difficult task. It’s so easy to ingest without even knowing. To really, truly quit sugar requires study, because otherwise a person will be unaware of all the places it can lurk and all the aliases it hides behind. A webpage from the Harvard School of Public Health emphasizes the complexity of the problem, as these excerpts show:

Some ingredient lists mask the amount of sugar in a product. To avoid having “sugar” as the first ingredient, food manufacturers may use multiple forms of sugar—each with a different name—and list each one individually on the nutrient label.

Food makers can also use sweeteners that aren’t technically sugar—a term which is applied only to table sugar, or sucrose—but these other sweeteners are in fact forms of added sugar.

When reading a label, make sure you spot all sources of added sugars even if they’re not listed as the first few ingredients.

Surely there must be individuals for whom sugar abstention is a serious, deeply-researched project, and some even make it through to the end without caving. But then, the season of deprivation is over, and sugar’s identity as a major addictor probably accounts for why relatively few people use that victory as a springboard and go on to refrain for more than 40 days. So when Lent comes around again next year, they face the same withdrawal misery all over again—or pick something different to quit.

Then too, plain old human fallibility is a factor. However strong a person’s initial resolve, backsliding is always a possibility. Once that happens, the temptation is huge to simply forget the whole thing. As the jocular saying goes, “I gave up giving up.”

From the Outset

Intention is the infrastructure on which any such effort is built, and temporary abstention is not the same as a full-on commitment to quit. Psychologically, there is a vast difference between knowing that the deprivation will only be for 40 days, and knowing there will never be another cupcake. In the religious framework, the prohibition has a pre-determined end point, and a person can bolster determination with self-talk like “This is difficult, but it will eventually be over,” and “Only 10 more days.”

But never? That’s a long time and the concept of “never again” is very hard to face. Why haven’t more people taken advantage of the head start provided by Lent and given up sugar permanently? The short answer is that many have done so. But it may be that for a lot of people, the season is not long enough to produce convincing results. The physical body has to clear toxins, and its metabolism has to learn new ways of processing nutrients. The mind and emotions have to make big adjustments too. How long do cravings last? Ask experts, ask former sugar addicts, and either way the replies are all over the map, from five days to three weeks to three months—and 90 days is more than twice as long as Lent.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Added Sugar in the Diet,” Harvard.edu, undated
Image by Sascha Kohlmann

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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