The Force Behind the First Sugar-Free School: An Interview with New York’s High Voltage
New York’s indomitable anti-sugar superhero, High Voltage, aka Kathie Dolgin, takes sugar addiction recovery into inner-city schools. “When they see how much sugar is in the food products, they get really upset,” she says. She’s pictured in Central Park giving her group’s signature “Thumbs Down to Soda.”
by Jill Escher
Long before Dr. Robert Lustig pronounced sugar an addictive poison and a decade before Mayor Bloomberg sought to ban mega-sodas, a bleach-blond and super-fit force of nature called High Voltage (real name Kathie Dolgin) started a New York program to help schoolgirls break free of their sugar and junk food addictions. At 65, an age where many women suffer obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression and hypertension, Voltage remains a vibrant, youthful and positive bundle of energy, who, through her one-of-a-kind approach and role modeling has helped turn thousands of young lives around.
Voltage is the director of EUVA, Energy Up! Voltage Approved, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit now in its tenth year, a group that goes into schools and teaches girls the nasty truth about sugar and junk food. You can find the group at EnergyUp.Org and follow them at @EnergyUpVoltage. I had the honor of interviewing this trailblazer in June in beautiful Central Park.
How did Energy Up! get started?
In the late 70s, when I got sober from drugs and alcohol, I recognized my eating behavior, specifically with sugar, flour, and salty things, was just like with drugs. So Energy Up! was created based on the addiction model. It was set up that way, I always knew sugar is a drug.
You were way ahead of your time. Scientists are just now accepting the addictive properties of sugar.
I addicted to drugs and alcoholic, so because of my brain chemistry issues I recognized the pattern. Chronic sugar consumption is a brain chemistry problem.
Addiction specialists see this all the time–drugs, sugar, and alcohol chemically causing the same type of aberrations in brain biochemistry. But it seems this field still sees this as an eating disorder, not addiction.
That’s starting to change. Two years ago, Dr. David Kessler in his book, The End of Overeating, was the first serious researcher who talked about the science of overeating and sugar addiction. This is the science behind Energy Up!
What is your group doing in the schools?
Energy Up! has been a health and wellness program in the schools for ten years. Ten years ago I donated my time for one month to a Catholic girls’ school. I fell in love with the girls, I didn’t have children and they became my daughters, and I realize how many people beat themselves up, they think it’s their fault, they think they’re losers, “What’s wrong with me?” Like they have some sort of a defect. And it’s not. It’s brain chemistry. Then they understand that, they get their lives together, and that’s something worth dedicating your life to, in my opinion.
What we’re really proud of at Energy Up! is some of the girls who come back and work for us. “Once an Energy Up! girl, always an Energy Up! girl.” We really back each other up, and a lot of girls from inner city situations don’t necessarily have that. These girls are brilliant, and I love to tell them, maybe you didn’t get that silver spoon in your mouth but many times that silver spoon chokes.
We’ve worked with thousands of girls, about 60 girls per program. They have sugar issues, food issues. But after a three-day course, the energy can come up, the weight can start to drop down if there’s a weight issue, and you start feeling different quickly when you stop eating sugar and many processed foods. Energy Up! is not just a weight loss program, it’s a spiritual and lifestyle program. Affirmations and gratitude are just as important as eating Voltage-approved foods and staying hydrated. Also, removing sugar can have a profound effect on depression, mood, and aggression.
You look incredible, can I ask what you eat?
The way I eat is where I’d like the girls to be one day. I eat organic and vegetarian probably 80-90 percent of the time. I love food, and I’m constantly eating, but I eat real food and I don’t eat crap. I was a sugar junkie for so many years, but once my physical nutrition became so strong, I can have a little bit of sweetener but I have to be careful I don’t overuse it. If I catch myself overusing I just stop.
When I was addicted, cookies and dough were my thing. Now I need to train my brain to look at these sweets as dog doo-doo. I would never touch that stuff because now I see dog doo-doo. On that slippery slope, I would fall down and break my butt. In the Energy Up! program, we encourage the girls to identify foods that don’t work for them, we get them to not like them.
Are challenges working specifically with inner-city girls different?
There are plenty of wealthy families with access to everything that have the same problems. So honestly I don’t think it’s so different. They might say, “But that’s so expensive,” and I’ll say, “Those are really cool sneakers you’ve got on, and let me see your phone.” Somehow all of us get what’s important to us, so we’ve got to change our idea of what’s important. You need to learn how to cook and you need to learn how to chop up vegetables. We need a cool, new-millennial Home Economics.
I spend less on food now than I did before I went off sugar. It’s cheaper to eat healthy.
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to say it’s more expensive. But we run out of excuses, people are dying and they’re miserable. Some of our girls have diabetes or are on blood pressure medication at 13, 14 years old. The doctors don’t know how the kids should eat, the medical school money comes from pharmaceuticals, that’s who pays for their education.
Tell me about “Choose To Be Sugar-Free”schools.
We launched a pilot of the first “Choose To Be Sugar-Free” school in New York last year. This is no quick project. Phase one was getting chocolate milk out, juice out, making real salad dressings, getting the lowest sugar cereals, and not very sugary cookies. More incremental changes are coming. We use incentives. When girls order Voltage-approved food, they get the pink bracelet which reads, “I Choose to Be Sugar-Free.” We give out raffle tickets. We get the healthier stuff in, and then get the kids excited about eating it; that’s the secret to success.
When you’re educating the girls about the seriousness of sugar, what messages work?
Our signature activity is called Sugar Shock, and through math we show girls how much sugar is actually in a product, we get little baggies and the girls scoop the sugar into the bags — it looks like drugs. We show them what 6-8 teaspoons looks like. Showing them anything over this amount makes you sick, starts giving you cancer, heart disease, moodiness, bad skin, and aggression. When they see how much sugar is in the food products, they get really upset. Sugar Shock turns people around, really quick.
What’s your advice for a girl struggling with food issues?
The advice I give most often is if you really want to win in life, you need to be healthy because you need the energy. It’s all about energy. If you have the best credentials in the world but no energy, it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of money spent to keep you sick, but what I keep telling the girls is, “No one has a gun to our head to keep us eating crap, we can stop anytime we want.” Once they realize they only want food that makes them strong and powerful, they see the crap for what it is. When your brain is hijacked by chemicals in the processed food, you’re always going to be hungry, you’re always going to be depressed, you’re never going to feel your best. I want my girls to win, there’s nothing wrong with that. Become the best you can be. We want the girls to become advocates for themselves. They are going to have the information, the education, they are going to be very hard to ignore.
I wish you were there when I was in high school!
Wisdom comes with age. I wasn’t always like this, I was afraid of my own shadow and very insecure. We get smarter and more secure. We need to take care of ourselves to become the role models we need to be.
EUVA is launching a capital campaign to expand their capacity to bring the program into more cities and schools. To learn more or make a contribution, please visit www.energyup.org.