“Fit” is More than Skin-Deep: Confessions of a Sugar-holic

Last year, in the pages of NickerNews and BestHorsePractices, we focused on rider fitness and weight. That’s because there is mounting evidence showing we do our horses and our horsemanship a sizeable favor by being fit and on weight.

As it happens, I know a lot of fit, athletic riders. These men and women run the gamut:

  • They are ranchers with no college education
  • They are white collar, weekend riders
  • They are professional clinicians.
  • They are high level dressage riders

As they step effortlessly into the saddle and nurture a healthy, relaxed connection with their horses, they share one invisible flaw: a Western diet. It’s high in fat and sugar and even in folks who are fit and athletic, it can have a negative impact.

How do I know?

I’m one of them. For years, I justified a bad diet with the smugness of being fit and active. For scrutiny’s sake, my fitness is defined here:

— 5’7,”135 pounds

— Daily aerobic exercise (hiking, horse work, etc)

–Daily strength exercise (ranch work supplemented with gym time)

I’ve also justified an American grab-and-go meal attitude, telling myself I was too busy and apathetic to make a healthier sit-down meal, like a hearty salad or something with vegetables. Common culprits in my diet (followed by rationale):

— PayDay bars (hey, they have peanuts)

— Donut for breakfast (hey, I’ll burn them off by lunch)

— Cereal and yogurt instead of a real meal (hey, the cereal has vitamins and I’m a woman so I need the calcium)

— Dessert after every meal

Dr. Steve Peters

But as Dr. Steve Peters would like to remind me, even crummy diets camouflaged by fit bodies can impact our health. This study reported that even lean individuals drinking as little as one soda per day increase their risk of getting diabetes by 18 percent. Fruit juice is not an innocent substitute since it is still high in sugar.

These studies reports the impact a Western diet can have on your aging, on your brain health, and emotional health.

At Intermountain Health in Utah, Dr. Peters has given scores of presentations that connect healthy eating with healthy aging and brain activity. He advocates a vegan diet. So does the huge health conglomerate Kaiser Permanente. Read their directive to doctors and patients here.

But frankly I cannot stomach veganism or stay fortified all day without something more than plants. I talked with my doctor who was, thankfully, not so hard core. He urged a modified Mediterranean diet that includes some dairy and meat. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and beans, should rule my days, the doctor said.

But change is hard.

One of the most impactful books I’ve read lately is the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It’s helped me understand the importance of doing things right the first time and the challenge of undoing the wrong thing.

The concept, of course, is applicable to a lot of horsemanship:


Colt Starting

Equine Rescue

Life-Long Learning

It’s also relevant to reshaping food intake after decades of unhealthy practices. I know, for instance, that my craving for something sweet is physiological, psychological, and neurological. The cravings and indulgences aren’t just weaknesses. They are neural pathways which end in that satisfying release of dopamine. In other words, it feels good to have a cookie. Healthier habits are actually about carving new neural pathways. Grabbing a cookie is my mind’s fast track; not grabbing a cookie is bushwhacking through the wilderness in neurological terms.

Maddy Butcher

Self-reform has been a blend of tricks and mindfulness. Some strategies:

  • Taking the dogs for a walk right after a meal
  • Buying better coffee that doesn’t need sweetener
  • Eating graham crackers instead of fat- and sugar-laden cookies (most graham crackers have only a few grams of sugar and almost zero fat)
  • If I can resist buying it in the first place, then temptations are simply out of reach. This is simple if, like me, you live miles and miles from the nearest store.

I’m a work in progress. But as Julie Kenney has so articulately written, we all are. I no longer eat entire rolls of Life Savers in one sitting or sneak whole cans of frosting out of the cupboard, like I did as a kid. I’m a grown-up and am finally trying to take nutrition seriously.

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  1. Ah, Temptation, it is so hard to resist! There are a few tricks I’ve learned over the past year regarding eating healthier. 1. Don’t buy food/drinks that are unhealthy for you; just leave them at the store. 2. Eat plenty of raw vegi’s; they will fill you up and cause you to eat slower. 3. Choose only lean meats to prepare meals. 4. Brush your teeth when you know a craving might be coming on (such as soon after a meal/before bed). 5. Water is your best friend as it does fill you up but it does take awhile to adjust your taste buds to no sugar. 6. Cut out food items completely that you just don’t LOVE (for me it is potatoes) and eat sparingly of those foods you DO love (for me it is chocolate so I have a small piece of high-quality 72% cocoa chocolate almost daily). 7. Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you backslide; just work on those good eating habits as you move forward.

  2. Tiny bits of protein all day long will stave off the sugar cravings. Egg w/toast for breakfast. Whole milk yogurt with almonds for a snack. Lean meat sandwich for lunch. Hard cheese and crackers for afternoon snack. Healthy Mediterranean dinner with lots of green veggies, salad, fish and whole grain bread. Oh, and a glass of wine with that! Just one! 🙂

  3. Of course I think “healthy” eating is essential, and a balanced diet. But vegan? I have yet to be convinced that we should not consume meat, chicken, fish, etc. After all, we are born with eye teeth, which is for tearing meat. Also, I tried in my 50s to refrain from meat, eating salads, milk products…..and I got walking pneumonia. The first thing the doctor said was…when did you last have some animal meat? He told me the enzymes in animal meats are essential to human beings. Well, at least they are for my body. I agree some others seem to survive, and with good energy and low illness, on vegetarian or vegan diets. But it is not for me. Now…to watch the sugar….my downfall! Ohhhh, ice cream!

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