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I have a confession to make. I went home to Tennessee for my Dad’s birthday and totally tanked. I gained five pounds (mostly inflammation from all the gluten, dairy and wine). It’s hard to admit this as a nutritionist, because it’s my job to keep my clients motivated and to coach them through falling off the wagon. But I’m only human and not immune to back slides. What matters is how you handle it.

I travel a lot and usually with my own food so I don’t get caught in a jam eating nasty airport fare. At the very least, you can find a good salad, but the dressings all contain unhealthy soy or canola oils. I’ll bring jerky, nuts, fruit, or healthy soy and whey-free energy bars for the plane and then eat a good meal when I land. So far, so good. But when I got home on Thursday, the celebration for my Dad’s party was underway. “The kids” (my boyfriend, brother, sister in law, and myself) had a glass of wine and started prepping dinner: grass fed steak; shrimp and veggie kabobs; okra succotash (my contribution); mashed potatoes; and lots of artisanal breads. Now, I don’t have a problem avoiding bread because I’ve been gluten free for so long that it doesn’t even register as a trigger for me anymore. Plus, I know how bad it makes me feel. That wasn’t the problem. I didn’t even have a problem avoiding the high glycemic mashed potatoes. The problem was the carrot cake. “I’ll just have a bite,” I thought. One bite turned into 2 and before I knew it, I’d wolfed down a huge slice. The wine I’d had earlier didn’t help: alcohol spikes blood sugar and leaves you with an increased appetite and craving more sugar, so resistance was futile. Not to mention that the carrot cake had cream cheese frosting and white flour. I need to avoid dairy, because I’m casein-sensitive, meaning that dairy causes inflammation (read: weight gain) for me when I eat it.

Happy birthday, Dad!

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not the end of the world if you have a piece of cake every once in a while. But bear with me.

So the next day, feeling my sugar hangover, I tried to have a decent breakfast, but showing my boyfriend around Nashville included plenty of famous Southern food places. We went to Loveless Cafe, and the famous biscuits and gravy came out. “Well, I’m already off the wagon; may as well have one.” And they looked soooo good. Besides, I’d already avoided the bread from the previous night! It got worse from there. I made a paleo peach crisp (a great alternative to sugar and refined flour desserts, at least) and when the vanilla ice cream came out, I thought, “I’m on vacation. No big deal. I want some ice cream.” But the next day, feeling puffy and bloated, I swore I’d return to my gluten & dairy free lifestyle, but I was so hungry due to unstable blood sugar levels from all the sugar and gluten I’d been eating. And I was craving more sugar. And basically defenseless when those foods were around.

Yesterday on the plane, my jeans felt noticeably tighter, and I was depressed and 5 pounds heavier. What happened?

For those of us who have sugar or gluten sensitivities, “just a bite” really may not be possible. One bite leads to another to another and then the bargaining begins: “It’s ok; I’m on vacation.” “This is a celebration. I’ll be better tomorrow.” But physiologically, each bite of sugar or white flour (or a combo) triggers a powerful morphine-like reaction in the brain. When gluten breaks down in the body, the proteins plug up feel-good receptors in the brain and give you a pleasurable high, not unlike what a heroin addict may feel. Add sugar to the mix and you’re really off and running. Sugar (and gluten too) causes you to crave more sugar and gives you an endorphin rush. It’s wickedly addicting. The gluteomorphins in gluten increase appetite and addictive behavior (Dr William Davis talks all about this in his book Wheat Belly). It’s almost like something else takes over and all logic goes out the window: you just want that bread or that piece of cake and once you start that train rolling, you can’t stop. No amount of willpower can overcome the high. It’s like a drug addict or an alcoholic relapsing. Same chemical triggers, in fact. One sip leads to 10 drinks, just like one bite can lead to a binge. Then, the tendency to throw your hands up and give up seems easier because you’ve already failed, right?

I tell my clients that back slides are a part of any healing process. Embarking on any change for the better involves “falling off the wagon” and back into old familiar patterns because that’s an old comfort zone. And it takes a back slide to realize how unproductive your old habits were. And how they weren’t serving you well. Humans aren’t robots. You can’t expect to program a new lifestyle into your brain-computer and be off and running. Even after seven years, sugar can be a powerful drug! It’s how you respond to your back slide that makes the difference: understanding that it’s not a case of sheer willpower; it’s a physiological craving on a blood sugar and brain chemistry level that’s causing you to eat multiple pieces of cake. And knowing that at any point, you can choose to understand how it’s going to make you feel–and back away. This is why the best method is to avoid it in the first place. Don’t even have that one bite. There are always more healthful substitutions to whatever junk your family and friends are eating. Show up with a cake made with coconut flour or almond flour, or a raw berry cake that doesn’t contain sugars or gluten. A friend sent me this vegan chocolate cake recipe. It’s made with beets and looks delicious. Make a paleo pizza with almond meal crust while the rest of the family has a pizza party. Educate them about why you’re avoiding sugar and gluten, and get them on your side for support, too.

As for me, I’m back in San Francisco now and doing a 7 day mini-cleanse to get back on track and detox the junk from my system. I feel tired, brain foggy, disappointed in myself, and inflamed all over. Time to pick up and move on, understand what my triggers were in that situation and how to avoid them next time. I know that I’m very sugar sensitive and even just one bite can throw me off the rails. And after nearly seven years of avoiding gluten (and sugar, mostly), I’m still prone to back slides like anyone else. It even happened last year! But now I am armed with new motivation so I can remind myself to avoid the trigger in the first place. Some people may be able to have just a bite. I’m not one of them. But what I do have are many alternatives: desserts and treats that are sugar, dairy, and gluten free and naturally delicious. Grain free pizza or lasagna made with ribbons of zucchini (don’t knock it; it’s delicious and you won’t have food coma afterwards). These dishes don’t spike blood sugar or leave me hungrier and craving more and feeling like shit. Bloated and cranky.

Falling off the wagon is a lesson. We’re all works in progress. A back slide doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re human, and you’re getting information about yourself and what works to help you succeed and what doesn’t serve you well. I hope this helps you find motivation or the ability to forgive yourself and move on after you’ve had a slip-up.

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