I was chatting with my friend this summer, rattling off what a crazy week I was having. I stopped in mid sentence. I was all hopped up on sugar again!
“You know, I need to cut back on sugar,” I told her. She agreed wholeheartedly. This is the moment we made the Sugar Pact. We vowed to remove sugar from our diet completely. Piece of cake. (So to speak.) We hung up.
Going Through With It
A few days passed. I zipped around the grocery store, list in hand ready to conquer my demon. I stopped to read every label and analyze the nutrition information on the package. The labels confused me. I soon found that ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, xylol, maltose, malt, isomalt, hydrolyzed starch, and syrups are all sugars in disguise. I sighed and threw back yet another tub of yogurt containing corn syrup.
Next stop. Cookie aisle. Passing by all that chocolatey marshmallow, chocolate and cream filled, peanut-buttery, sugary, cinnamon sprinkled, fig-laden, chocolate chip, coconut covered goodness, I paused. I opted for the gluten-free, sugar-free, no salt, ginger snaps. When I popped one into my mouth later, I could have sworn the package read “taste free.” Not quite the tasty kind my mother makes. (Her grandmother’s were even better, I’m told. Compliments of the lard.)
In the ice cream aisle I haughtily breezed by the Häagen-Dazs. I dropped it like a hanger-on. I don’t need you anymore, I scoffed. I turned to sorbet, but it often contained chemicals that I couldn’t pronounce. According to Andrew Weil, MD, you’re better off eating moderate amounts of sugar than having unnatural compounds like saccharin, cyclamates, and aspartame (NutraSweet). Some can have toxic effects and most “taste funny.”
Success and Failures
Still I was determined. I started making smoothies with fruit to satisfy my sweet tooth. I avoided the vending machine at work and brought in snacks like nuts instead. I switched to black coffee. After several days, the less sugar I ate, the less I craved it.
This makes sense, given how our bodies process sugar. Refined carbs (sugars and starches) cause the blood sugar to rapidly spike, releasing insulin. At first you get hyper and then you start to crash. It can sometimes mean fatigue, headaches, and irritability. For some it means anxiety and depression. Our bodies can’t use all that energy and cry out: “I can’t take it!” The unused energy is stored as fat. When your blood sugar falls, your body craves more sugar to keep going. You get that craving again. Repeat cycle. Over time we get less sensitive to insulin, which can cause weight gain—and for some diabetes.
But, I still missed the pleasure in having sweets. I missed chocolate. I shook it off and labeled sugar Public Enemy #1. Until that night.
The Turning Point
I went to dinner with my boyfriend and his family. When it came time to order dessert, I strategized. Always thinking of others, I figured it would be rude not to have dessert. Plus, why alienate them? I didn’t want to have to explain the Sugar Pact just yet. Plus, if his mom knew, she might stop making that scrumptious cheesecake! The horror of it left me cold.
So I had some gelato, figuring it was the least demonic dessert on the menu and feeling rather happy again. That cool creamy scoop of hazelnut gelato brought back memories of Venice. It felt good not to have to be good. I considered emailing my friend about my misstep. Nah!
The following day my Protestant guilt set in. I called my friend, admitting that I’d broken my role in the Sugar Pact. Turns out she had too. She’d had a bite of her son’s muffin and later a cookie. We both sighed in mutual relief!
The Sugar Pact ended not long after it started. But my complicated relationship with sugar has not. Let’s just say it’s evolved. I don’t blindly embrace it anymore, but I understand it better than I used to. I know its tricks—how the more I engage it, the more I want it. How it makes me feel wonderful one minute and irritable the next.
I started incorporating more healthy snacks between meals to stave off sugar cravings and keep my mood more regular. Carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in the liver and muscles get used up in four to six hours. Food replenishes them. Thus the reason you keep hearing that it’s good to eat every four hours. It gives your body a boost and prevents you from overeating during mealtimes.
Here are a few snacks I’ve been trying:
Berries dipped in low-fat yogurt
Apple and a small piece of cheese
Pear slices with honey, raisins, and walnuts
A handful of nuts (almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, cashews)
Natural peanut butter on a celery stick
1/2 avocado with lemon
2–3 squares of dark chocolate
I’m no health nut. Not even close. Sweets are it. Nothing comes close to warm chocolate cake, homemade chocolate pudding, my mother’s strawberry rhubarb pie, gelato, my grandmother’s apple pie, my boyfriend’s mom’s cheesecake, or my sister’s cookies.
But I try to monitor my sugar intake, without the same vigilance and lack of irony of the Sugar Pact. I stopped labeling foods good and bad, focusing instead on portion control and savoring every sweet.
Armed with my new knowledge, my sweet tooth does not control me. Sweets have become a choice, not a survival technique. Sugar is as much an emotional experience as a physical one. I’m sure I could give it up completely if I wanted to. But eating is about pleasure. And why deprive myself of that?