Sugar: From Sweet to Sickening

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Food, glorious....sludge.

I'll be the first to admit it. Foodies are not ideal temperamental candidates for gastric bypass surgery. Luckily for me, I wasn't much of a supertaster. From as far back as I can remember, I always enjoyed bland, starchy food. It took me until young adulthood before I could appreciate the flavor of baked chicken. I hated--and hate--potatoes. Can't stand fish. Most vegetables. Virtually all spices and sauces.

What's left? Salt. Processed starches and deli meats with salt. Rice-A-Roni, bologna, Marie Callender's spaghetti dinners, bacon bits, canned foods, frozen chicken tenders. Just sort of foods that we're evolutionary adapted to fill up on, the sort of foods that lack the right type of fatty acids, the type of foods that don't expand in the stomach and leave you hungry for more.

My parents, God love them, made sure that I ate more healthily than my preferences would dictate, although as a kid I also found myself eating larger portions of the bad foods when they were away, as if I were a lion preparing for hibernation.

The scent of sugary, frothy, gooey, creamy cake does not, for some reason, trigger the same neurological patterns anymore. Sweet foods, be gone.

It would take a book to detail my relationship with food, and my writing on addiction and memory and history isn't nearly as compelling as the folks who put together In Treatment. So just know, for the moment, that I came to use food as a crutch, and unfortunately for me, the type of food my taste buds could tolerate were the worst of the worst.

Bariatric surgery patients are counseled extensively about their post-operative food choices. Some doctors tell their patients to avoid red meats for life, not because they're bad for you but because they'll irritate your new stomach. My doctor restricts us for a year. Patients are told that our appetite for starchy, salty, high-fat foods will naturally diminish, and that we will no longer be able to tolerate sugar. That's true. Two weeks after surgery, I scooped about a gram of cheesecake onto my spoon, just to try things out. About ten minutes later, I had what I believe was a true dissociative experience, nearly fainted, and had to spend about 20 minutes recuperating.

My physiological adaptation has progressed a bit, and I can safely consume bits of sugar without losing control of my bodily functions. Not much, though. I really have no taste for it. I have no cravings. I can stand in a room full of celebratory cake--this I did last night--and my stomach won't rumble. The scent of sugary, frothy, gooey, creamy cake does not, for some reason, trigger the same neurological patterns anymore. Sweet foods, be gone.

Before the surgery, if I worked late, I used to enjoy a Healthy Choice microwave dinner, usually macaroni and beef or some variation on that combination. I don't buy them anymore because I just don't perceive them as savory.

In fact, that's the word I've been looking to use since I began this diary entry. Bariatric surgery does not remove all cravings, it does not change all behaviors, it does not work without active participation by the person who gets cut open. But it does alter, in significant ways, how you perceive the distinctions between sweet and savory, and it does seem to (somehow) modify those neurological pathways between your nose, mouth, brain and stomach.

Because I didn't much enjoy complex savory foods before the surgery, my single biggest problem post-surgery is finding the will to eat enough to sustain a basic level of nutrition. I ought to be eating about 1,200 calories a day now. I usually pack in about 1000. I've tried to find some protein-rich snacks, like string cheese, that would allow me to boost my totals, but I worry about the pattern of snacking behavior.

Let me open my food diary for you: Yesterday, I had two packets of microwavable grits for breakfast. Two packets! That was a first for me. Until that point, I was only able to eat one at a time. Two packets, 100 calories each = 200 calories.

I had lunch with a source yesterday, and ordered a chicken Caesar salad. I ate about a half of a wheat roll--let's generously estimate it to have given me 150 calories, a few small pieces of cut-up chicken, and I picked at the lettuce. About 85 percent of the salad remained on the plate when I was done. Let's assume that I consumed about 300 calories--a very generous estimate, but since we all tend to underestimate these things, I'll go the other way.

For a snack, I ate 100 calories' worth of crackers. The 100-calorie packs come in handy. They're good travel companions.

By dinner, I'd eaten 750 calories. I prepared about two ounces of cooked pasta with tomato sauce and sprinkled it with shredded cheese.

At that point, at 1000 calories, I am sated.

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Samuel T. Stanley is a pseudonymous reporter living in Washington, DC. More

Samuel T. Stanley is a pseudonymous reporter living in Washington, DC. Earlier this winter, he received gastric bypass surgery at George Washington University hospital. He is re-learning how to enjoy food.
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