After exploring Beijing's Chaoyang district for much of the afternoon, my boyfriend JP and I escaped the heat of the July sun, ducking into a Starbucks. The three stories of the coffee shop were packed with foreign and Chinese businessmen, 20-somethings on their laptops, and friends gathered for a mid afternoon coffee break. After scanning the menu, we both ordered plain coffee and found a seat on the second level to check our e-mail accounts.
"It's weird," I said as JP removed his iBook from his backpack. "They have all the standard Starbucks drinks except the white mocha." At this point in my life, I was a devoted barista for the Starbucks Coffee Corporation, and had made about a gazillion white mochas. I wondered why, since they were so popular in the States, Starbucks in China did not capitalize on the drink.
"Probably because it's too sweet," JP said, as though the answer was obvious.
As a child growing up in Mississippi, the phrase "too sweet" rarely came out of my mouth. My mother is one of 10 children—five boys and five girls—and they all love to cook. When we would gather at my grandparents' home in Oxford, my cousins and I would experiment with different breakfast combinations, always adding sugar to something that didn't need it: grape jelly in grits, sugar in rice and Frosted Flakes in already sweetened oatmeal. I didn't realize it then, of course, but I was setting myself up for failure as an adult.
Holiday meals probably didn't help. You haven't done the holidays right until you've done it with my family. The dessert table—which is often larger than the dinner table—is always covered with an assortment of pecan and sweet potato pies, caramel and German chocolate cakes, cookies, cobblers and my Aunt Bab's glorious banana pudding. Early on, I formed a strategy of eating meager portions of turkey and dressing so that I would have plenty of room left for what I considered the main course, dessert.
Over the years, sweets have become less of a vehicle of sustainability and more of a necessity. It's a reward when I feel I have accomplished something. It is a pick-me-up when I've had a rough day. It is a well-deserved treat that I'm entitled to on weekends when I veg out on the sofa with movies from my Netflix queue. It is to dinner what Milli was to Vanilli—you can't just have one.
It wasn't until I visited China that I realized there was an alternative to this uncontrolled lifestyle that I'd known so well. Removed from my routine and my culture, my usual morning syrupy latte was replaced with a cup of green tea. My standard-fare chocolate dessert became lightly sweetened fried corn. Even the candy was subtly sweet. It was perfect.
When I returned to Mississippi after a month-long stay in China, I was determined to exercise self-restraint, eating more fruit instead of manufactured sweets. But old habits die hard.
It's been two years since that trip, and even as I sit munching on jellybeans that I know I shouldn't be eating, I am still inspired. Despite my late-night dashes out into the rain to buy brownie mix, there's some sense of hope that beckons me to tap into it. All it takes is one word: "No."
It's easy to say the word "no," but the hard part comes when it's time to take action backing up the word. I can say that I'm going to put the lid back on the glass candy jar containing the jellybeans while I frantically look for a green one. But if there's no one standing over me telling my guilty conscience to repent and stop my wicked ways, it's a lot harder.
What is even harder, however, is watching friends and family members put themselves at a higher risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. It's also hard to see Mississippi's No. 1 ranking for hypertension and obesity, and No. 2 ranking for diabetes cases, and know that you are contributing to the problem.
Gov. Haley Barbour has infiltrated our minds with that annoyingly catchy "Let's Go Walkin' Mississippi" theme song. And he (or his publicist) is right: We have to get off of our bums and exercise. But that's not all there is to it. It all starts with creating healthy habits, and that includes eating.
Late-night infomercials have fooled Americans into thinking that the way to a healthy—and unrealistically perfect—body is by spending thousands of dollars on gym memberships and the latest effortless ab machines. But without changing the habits that initially fed that unhealthy body, we create false hope.
Another hindrance to creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the misconception of what a healthy body is. Many people find fault when a petite "little ole thing"—as I've been called on many occasions—eats small portions of food and shies away from sugary temptations. Obesity is not the only face of disease, and we've got to reverse that perception.
Parents should seek alternative forms of rewards for children to replace sweets. By purchasing a puzzle, game or materials to make their own, not only are you giving them lasting, tangible treats, but you're also promoting mental stimulation.
If you want to use food as a reward, give children fruit, or invite them into the kitchen to help you make a lightly sweetened cobbler (if you must use additional sugar at all). Everyone craves a chocolate bar (or jellybeans), but we can minimize those late-night trips to the grocery store by disciplining ourselves to say, "No."
For adults like me who have been dating the candyman for years, it's difficult to break off the relationship. But the earlier we begin to practice the habit of self-restraint, the sooner we will see a generation of adults in Mississippi who can turn the statistics around. We will see health-conscious Mississippians who can turn the lard-heavy culinary past into a healthy future.
I remember one time when I tried to quit sugar cold turkey, and my body ached for days. I could feel my body throbbing whenever I went to bed. The withdrawal symptoms were horrible.
My church is going on a consecration soon, so I know I'll have to go without it for a couple of weeks. As long as I have alternatives, I'll be fine. I prefer fruit anyway, but when there's none around, I reach for the sweet stuff.