We–my husband and I–are at the end of Day Six of a 60-day trial of being sugar-free. For the past six days, we haven’t had any cane sugar (table or unprocessed), honey, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, or artificial sweeteners. When we set up the rules, we allowed ourselves one agave-sweetened treat per week, and I decided I could use blackstrap molasses in small doses in items that need a touch of sweetening. (You really can’t overdo blackstrap molasses without ruining your dish. It has quite a strong flavor. So far, I haven’t used it in anything.) Our sweet flavors are coming from fruits and vegetables—and the subtle sweet taste of whole grains, as well.
Have you noticed sugar is like crack? I mean, really. Crackity-crack-crack. Last February we did a trial month without cane sugar–still allowing ourselves to use honey, agave, and maple syrup during that month. We realized we felt better emotionally and physically that month. When the month ended, what did I do? I made a dessert that used sugar. And we were back on the crack wagon. Ever since then, we’ve been saying, “You know, we really felt better when we didn’t eat sugar. We should do that again.” For a YEAR we have been saying that. Then we bake cookies or make waffles and push our resolve away.
When I posted about this on Facebook, several people asked me why we were giving up sugar. I am not usually someone who is drawn to extremes. Actually, that’s crap. Naturally, I’m very drawn to extremes, but when I’m trying to live a life of balance, I always try to keep in mind that the healthy spot is usually somewhere closer to the middle. I realized several years ago, the year I started this blog, that my extreme attempts at dieting (no carbs or no fat or whatever) didn’t work. So why give up tasty, crunchy, baked-goods-enhancing sugar entirely?
Here’s the thing: unlike nearly every other food, sugar has virtually no nutritive value. You can argue that honey, molasses, less processed cane sugar (such as demerara), and maybe agave have some trace vitamins and minerals in them. And it’s true—they may. But they don’t have them in any large quantity to make sugar a worthwhile source of them compared to all the other options.
Meanwhile, sugar contributes to the body being unhealthfully acidic, it encourages illness and even cancer, it causes blood sugar instability, it creates inflammation, and in many people, it creates or worsens feelings of depression or moodiness. And guess what? I’ve had cancer and it may come back. I’ve had two major upper respiratory infections in the last six weeks. I can feel the instability of my blood sugar on some days. I’ve been diagnosed with at least five autoimmune disorders in the last ten years (which tend to be linked to inflammation). And I have a tendency toward moodiness and depression.
It sounds like I shouldn’t be eating sugar, doesn’t it?
It’s sooooo tempting, though. It’s so very, very tempting. Baked goods are much easier to make with it. Flavors tend to sing when they are some combination of salty, sour, bitter, umami, and sweet. I crave sweet things. Chocolate, one of my favorite flavors, really requires sugar to taste right. And really, what harm does a little sugar do?
I’m actually not sure a little does any harm. I’m all about moderation, remember? The thing is, I find it very difficult to be moderate with sugar. I was good at it for a while, when I was first losing weight. But in the last year or two, sugar has crept in to make a daily appearance in my diet, and I wish I just meant as an ounce of chocolate a day, which would be fine. Scones, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, salad dressing: and those are just some of them, and those are just the times I actually add sugar instead of when the package already includes it (chutney, chili sauce, ketchup, honey mustard, brown rice couscous, soup, and so on). Sugar is everywhere, and I’ve been eating too much of it.
But really, it was two things that tipped me over: 1) I got my two respiratory infections here. The first was over Christmas. My killer strep throat took two rounds of antibiotics to go away. Actually, I had had two upper respiratory infections in Atlanta in the three months prior, as well–the first of which may have been H1N1 and took six weeks to go away entirely. After finally getting over the strep, when I got a bad cold three weeks ago (that took 17 days to go away), I wanted to scream. 2) I started back with acupuncture and talked in depth with my new TCM practitioner about what to do for healing—for general good health and to avoid another crazy infection. Cutting back sugar was, of course, one of her first recommendations. Well, shit. I knew I needed to do it.
So I tried to simply will myself to cut back, and quite frankly, it didn’t work. Sugar has a hold on me right now. Like I said, it’s like crack. Cold turkey became my option to try, and my husband—who saw how much better he felt without cane sugar last year, even though he’s generally obscenely healthy—was willing to get on board with me.
The first few days, I thought about sugar a lot. I had this empty place inside me that perhaps was an illusion, but it was similar to how I felt when I gave up gluten. At least I knew, This too shall pass. When I saw chocolate bars in our pantry or sweets at the store, I reminded myself I have that one-treat-per-week out. (That’s really how sugar should be, I think—a special treat that gets you way excited.) I have to admit, even being a careful label reader to avoid allergens and intolerances, I was shocked to find out how much of what I usually buy has evaporated cane juice as an ingredient.
Friday arrived–the first eligible day for my week’s one treat. I had planned to hold off till Sunday and make an agave-sweetened cake for Valentine’s, but instead I was jonesing hard by Friday night. My husband and I rushed to BabyCakes NYC’s LA bakery, where I got a cupcake . . . and another cupcake top, to be honest . . . and he got two cookies with icing stuffed between them. We ate them on the way home. The first bite, I thought, “There’s nothing wrong with this cupcake, but it doesn’t fix everything that’s wrong in my life, either.” Of course, I already knew that technically, but it’s funny how obsessing over a food can make you feel like your life would be just right if you could have it. As I made my way through my cupcake, I took bites more and more slowly. The truth is, I didn’t really want to finish the cupcake, but I made the mistake of convincing myself to finish it (after my husband didn’t want the rest of it) by telling myself I had another week till I could have such a treat. By the time we got home, I felt mildly headachey and a little light-headed. Just not right. Ten minutes after we got inside, we looked at each other and both said, “My stomach doesn’t feel so good.” Neither of us felt food-poisoned or anything so severe; we just didn’t feel well. The sugar? The immense fat in those desserts? Something else? I threw away the remaining cupcake top without eating it.
Whatever caused the ill feelings, that experience has been good for me. I’m still craving sweet things—would love to make some chocolate biscotti right now. But I am reminding myself of that basic feeling when I took the first bite of the BabyCakes cupcake: sugar doesn’t fix anything. And then I’m reminding myself of how I felt after I ate it. I believe wholeheartedly in good self-care. Maybe this experiment is just about convincing myself this is actually a self-care issue.
(As a side note, if you want to follow along, I’ll be doing a daily update on the sugar-free trial on Twitter. My username is sallyjpa.)