The Connection between Sugar, Refined Carbs, and Ennui


Sometimes it surprises me that I know fewer words than my adult son. Especially, considering I majored in English and have been writing for more than 40 years.

I was telling him about a funny cartoon I had seen in which a child in the back seat of a car was asking his dad to pull over, because he had what I pronounced as “en-you-eye,” which was spelled ennui in the caption.

Barrett said, nonjudgmentally, “It’s ennui,” which he pronounced as “on-wee.”

It has become my favorite word.

Every evening, stressed as we watch the news, I exclaim to my husband, “Mike! I have ennui!”

He responds (because he knows me so well), “Would you like fries with that?”

I’m sure we’ve all done our fair share of “ennui-eating” over the years. But you may not know that’s what you’ve been doing because if you’re like me, you’ve not used ennui correctly in a sentence until recently.

With the level of societal stress we’re under, we’d expect to spend at least some time feeling unnerved, dissatisfied, lonely, stuck, bored, despairing, weary, depressed, or even weltschmerz! (In my head I’m pronouncing that “well-smertz,” when apparently it’s supposed to be more like, “velt-sch-mare-tz.”)

When we have uncomfortable feelings, and our lives are emotionally challenging, we often turn to food. The problem occurs when our ennui-eating starts a feedback loop with unhappy mood leading to unhealthy food. And unhealthy food reinforcing the unhappy mood.

Often the results of this loop show up on the scale. The bottom line is eating too many sweets and refined carbohydrates (white-bread, -rice, and -pasta, for example) during difficult, emotionally challenging times has been the main contributor to my bouts with regain over the years.

I have approached this problem from many angles, the most productive of which – for me (remember, you do you, boo) – has involved managing my blood sugar.

Even before I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in my 30s, I was sensitive to sugar. Honestly, I was born that way. As a child I had an unusually obsessive love for sweets. For example, when I ate cheerios for breakfast, the bottom of the bowl with the milk and sugar was by far my favorite part.

Kathleen Des Maisons published an interesting book in 1998 called, Potatoes Not Prozac. In it she discusses the concept of sugar sensitivity, noting that certain mouse strains are more sugar sensitive than other strains. The makeup is in their DNA. They can’t control whether or not they are sugar sensitive.

But here’s my favorite part. Des Maisons stresses there are no bad mice! Their genetics are not a moral issue.

Honestly, this realization changed my life. After so many years of feeling out-of-control and weak, I realized I could find compassion and forgiveness for myself. If I could have done any better, I would have. I just didn’t know the truth.

Once I wised up, I began learning and practicing awareness, experimenting with finding a way of eating that didn’t lower my mood, and persevering in a culture that encourages me to eat ice cream when someone leaves me, have a lollipop when I skin my knee, drink wine in new and creative ways (during yoga, for example), and super-size my meal.

My life has gotten considerably better, my blood sugar is more stable, and I’ve learned I am able to take more focused action when I eat in a way that stabilizes my blood sugar. This has been a long process of trial and error for me. It hasn’t been a black and white diet in my case. This mouse prefers intuitive eating (also called mindful eating and whole-body-eating).

Sometimes I am completely connected when I eat. I know how to identify what I want to eat – based on the larger context of what I want in life; how much I will eat – based on a dialog with my body; and I make sure I take full pleasure in what I eat. If the experience isn’t pleasurable and I eat anyway, I know I’m engaging in ennui-eating.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves, Ennui Happens. It’s how we prepare for it and respond to it that makes the difference.

I feel less stressed now that I have a practice to use when I reach for food to manage my mood. I make a loving and kind effort to feed myself in a balanced way, and to be more aware of my portions with the problematic foods. In fact, I encourage myself to savor those foods. My experimentation has given me a strong foothold that supports me when my world starts to shake.

If you’re reading this article as a lesson on why to stop eating sugar altogether, consider going back and reading it again.

What I’m saying is, there are no bad mice. You are not weak or flawed. You are not hopeless. And your ennui will pass. You can help that happen by bringing your attention to refined carbohydrates and sugar.

Eating sweets in small to average portions occasionally, and as part of a protein-based meal, just might help your ennui-eating.

I encourage you to spend some time sorting out what will work for you.

Let me know how it goes!