By Mike Johnston
I quit eating sugar last April. Aside from a modest slip on Halloween, I haven't had any "overt" sugar since then. It's been an interesting experience.
In an increasingly industrialized food supply, sugar is the perfect industrial food. It's moderately addictive or habit-forming, in that heavy consumption triggers cravings; it has a high perceived value despite being easy and cheap to produce (astonishingly, more than half of the huge corn crop in the U.S. now goes to the manufacture of high-fructose corn sweetener); it can be used to "enhance" a wide variety of foods as an additive; it's easy to transport and store because it doesn't spoil; and most people are genetically predisposed to find it appealing, even when they're not aware that they're eating it.
The reason I quit eating it is that I have a horrible sweet tooth, and was eating way, way too much of it. Large amounts of sweets were a regular part of my diet. I was so bad that I started realizing that many of the "foods" I ate were essentially "sugar delivery vehicles"—they either had sugar in them or needed sugar put on them. I suffered excessively from the "insulin spiking" syndrome that is now well-known in nutritional circles and well documented in recent diet books: eating so much sugar made me feel bad.
If you eat a lot of sugar, not eating it stimulates mild withdrawal symptoms—principally cravings. Sugar cravings are weird in that they can make you crave non-sugared foods as well as sugary ones. Sugar cravings can make you anxious to eat more even when you're painfully full. The good news is that sugar is not really technically addictive, and the cravings subside quickly. The first three days are hard, but by the time two weeks have gone past, you won't crave it much at all any more. Especially if you're consciously aware of how bad it makes you feel when you do consume it.
In most diets, there are, in practical terms, two kinds of sugar, known as "overt" (obvious) and "covert" (hidden). Overt sugar is, well, sugar and sugary things—candy, desserts, pastries, cakes, puddings, doughnuts, milkshakes, sodas—anything deliberately made to be sugary and sweet.
Covert sugar—now largely in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, fructose being the worst kind of sugar for you to eat in anything but fruit—is a good deal more insidious. Say you want to prepare and eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Americans, at least, don't consider a PB&J sandwich to be a sweet or a dessert—it's food. It might be considered part of a normal meal—usually lunch. Especially for kids. Yet chances are good that unless you take deliberate steps to avoid it, all three ingredients in your sandwich are heavily laden with sugar.
Jelly's the most obvious source. Most jelly or jam that comes in jars starts with fruit that contains sugar naturally, but sugar is an essential added ingredient in traditional jelly-making, and some commerical jellies are spiked with even more. What many people don't realize is that most commercial peanut butters are also loaded with sugar. It's possible to buy "natural" peanut butters in many stores now (some of which still add sugar), but the worst peanut butters are virtually sugar paste.
And then there's bread. At our Farmer's Market a couple of years ago, I bought a loaf of homemade bread from two Mennonite girls at their family's stand. The girls looked unhappy to be there, as if the riverside market in our pleasant little town were the very heart of Babylon. Neither of them responded at all my my attempts at banter. Their bread turned out to be similarly stern and severe. I had been expecting an orgy of wholesome goodness, but the bread was bland and tasteless. The reason? No sugar. There were only four ingredients listed: flour, water, yeast, and salt.
If you buy bread in packages, chances are very good it contains sugar. The worst ones have the equivalent of more than a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar in every slice. And just try buying bread with no sugar in it. You might live in a "progressive" community with more options than we have here in the hidebound Midwest, but in most ordinary supermarkets, good luck. My supermarket has a whole wall full of breads, dozens of different brands and literally more than a hundred varieties. And not a single one with no sugar.
Most commercial breads, it seems, are "part cake." The Mennonite girls disapprove.
Thanks to covert sugars, that ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich is really halfway between a food and a dessert. It can have as much as two tablespoons of sugar in it. Our ancestors before the era of industrial food would have considered that dizzyingly sweet.
Many foods are deliberately marketed to try to make you feel better about them, even though they're bad for you. Yogurt, for example, is widely believed to be a health food. Not so if you're avoiding sugars. Those little containers of yogurt you buy at the supermarket are loaded with huge amounts of sugar. Eating one is really very much like eating a similar-sized container of pudding. Even for people who are not trying to avoid sugar, a yogurt should be considered a dessert.
Many heavily sugared foods get away with it because in their pure forms they don't have any sugar. Brewed black coffee contains no sugar, but many of the concoctions you buy at Starbucks—even before you dump yet more sugar into them—are more heavily loaded with sugar than ice cream. I'm not joking—that's true.
Sugar, it turns out, is everywhere. The challenge in the supermarket is not in finding it hiding in unexpected places, but in finding anything without it. If peanut butter is a sugar paste, then ketchup is a sugar sauce: the typical ingredients in ketchup are tomato paste, vinegar, and sugar. (Vinegar and sugar go into sushi rice, too). Barbeque sauce is not quite like slathering your chicken in chocolate syrup, but it's not that far off, either. TV dinners (in fact, most food that comes in boxes and has a name), canned soups—all are garnished with a little (or a lot) of sugar before you even open them. The general exception seems to be foods that are either plain ingredients, or else mainly fat, such as cheese and mayonnaise.
Of course, small amounts of sugar occur naturally in many foods. Even Smucker's Organic Peanut Butter, with one listed ingredient—peanuts—contains a gram of sugar per serving. I just checked a can of no-salt-added green beans—7 grams of sugar! That's more than half a tablespoon. Natural occurrences aside, as a generality, the Western food supply is now hopelessly adulterated with sugar, with no end in sight. Sugar is everywhere, in everything. We eat huge amounts of it—even when we don't eat "sweets," but especially when we do.
I make an effort to avoid not only candy and anything overtly sweet, but covert sugars as well. I buy sugar-free jelly, sugar-free ketchup, sugar-free seafood sauce. But it's impossible to escape entirely. When I get cravings for sugar now, I recognize it as a signal that a covert sugar has crept into my diet from somewhere—it's only eating sugar that makes me crave it. So I go ferret out where the sugar is coming from and stop eating the source of it. Otherwise, I'm fine.
And I feel a lot better now.
Except on Halloween.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Paris: "So you're saying that fructose is OK if you eat it in fruit, but 'the worst' if you eat it in anything else? How could that be? Are you sure? Absolutely agree with the premise of your essay, but that phrase set off my skeptic alarm."
Mike replies: Paris, That's according to the book Sweet Poison: Why Sugar is Making Us Fat by David Gillespie, which was recommended to me by Rob Grinberg. It's the book that inspired me to quit eating sugar last April.
Without getting into the science at all, Gillespie's thesis is that the body metabolizes fructose very differently than other sugars. In what evolutionary psychology calls "the ancestral environment," meaning the way humans lived 10,000 to 100,000 years ago, eating and nutrition was very much a feast-and-famine cycle. When the trees bore fruit, fruit was plentiful, but only for a short time—and you needed to eat as much as humanly possible while you could, to store up as much nutrition as possible for the lean times to come.
Evolution eventually selected for this property, because the individuals who pigged out on fruit when they could—and whose bodies converted the excess to fat storage most efficiently—had a survival advantage. The result is that fructose literally acts as a trigger for us to eat more—it's saying (chemically) to our bodies, "the getting is good right now—so get it while you can!"
The problem is that we've detached fructose consumption both from actual fruit and from the short period of a naturally-occurring fruit harvest—we can eat it all year long now, and there's fructose aplenty in everything from a Papa John's pizza to a can of root beer. But it still says to our bodies, "now's the time to eat to excess. Have at it." It's literally a biological trigger for overeating. According to Gillespie, anyway.
Hope that's not too simplified—naturally it's a bit difficult to sum up an entire book-length thesis in a few words.
Featured Comment by Sean Paul: "This video alone made me drastically change my eating habits in the same way. It's a lecture video from the University of California San Francisco where the professor indicates that the body's chemical reaction to sugar is akin to reacting to poison. It's a fairly well known segment as it went viral on a lot of social blog sites earlier this year. I've cut sugars out as much as possible (no candy, soft drinks, and even orange juice) now for a year and notice significant improvements in my health. And believe me—I loved sugary foods before this but the information in the lecture caused a complete shift in how I thought about sweet foods.
"And bravo for wading into this topic—it can be very divisive."
Featured Comment by Matthew Miller: "In our defense, Mennonites can—and do—also produce very delicious and healthy bread."
Mike replies: Matthew, I think my mistake was in buying the white bread. I should have gone with the real thing.
Featured Comment by John: "The whole fructose thing came home to me in the past couple of years. At the age of two, my daughter started having extended episodes of what seemed like diarrhea, but without any other significant side effects. She was eating fine, drinking fine, and gaining weight at a nice, healthy pace. But the weekly routine was four or five days of diarrhea, and if we were lucky, a couple of days without.
"Her doctor wasn't concerned: 'It's just a phase that some toddlers go through.' But we tried various allergy tests and elimination diets, to no avail. Through extended trial and error, we kind of had an idea of what to avoid, but we had no common link.
"Finally I happened upon the wikipedia page for fructose intolerance, and voila! There was the very list that we had been arduously compiling. Magic! Keep her away from fruits like red grapes, mango, cantaloupe, certain types of apples. Look for corn syrup… OH MY GOD IT'S IN EVERYTHING! ITS IN THE @#$! BREAD!
"Certain kinds of things set her off right away: bread with corn syrup (whether it's labeled HFCS or not), 'apple' juice, raisins. And yet still the doctor doesn't believe us, which is remarkably frustrating. I can show her a direct causal link, with a food/poop diary, and she just kind of shrugs. Just another couple of hysterical hippy parents, eh?
"Meanwhile, my wife has also eliminated wheat and is after several years finally able to spend a whole day without clutching at her gut. I've even started baking bread for her.
"Lucky me, though, born with a cast iron stomach."
Featured Comment by Shawn Barnett: "When you have diabetes, the massive quantities of sugar in our diet seems more like an assault. I now dread going to every kind of social function, because the primary snacks served are carbs and sodas, no protein at all. I went to lunch with my son last week at his school, and though they had a diverse menu for them, it was almost entirely carbs. My 'salad' included a sugary yogurt, a cookie, four slices of cucumber (thank goodness), a roll, and a cheese stick. No salad in sight, so that was misleading as well.
"I'm most particularly angry about HFCS. I remember feeling good about buying Hansen's 'Natural' soda back in the 1980s because it used High Fructose Corn Syrup instead of sugar. 'That's supposed to be good for you,' we thought. 'It's from fruit!' As one who carries around a blood glucose meter, I can tell you that my blood sugar goes up by ~100 points more if I've had HFCS in a meal; whether bread, crackers, or other snack, my reaction is double what it would be with even refined sugar.
"Good for you for becoming more aware of how we wealthy are killing ourselves in the name of convenience. Eat source foods, avoid things in boxes, cans, and bags as much as possible. While you're at it, read about AGEs, advanced glycation endproducts: the byproduct of cell metabolism and toasting or overheating just about anything. The Wikipedia article is probably good enough to get a grasp on the concept. It's the heat-caused chemical combination of sugars with protein. It's why toast raises a diabetic's blood sugar more than a slice of bread, and why instant coffee (thrice cooked) is implicated in diabetic foot ulcers.
"And of course, don't overdo underdoing sugar in your diet. Let the knowledge guide your choices, and the occasional indulgence will be soaked up by your healthy liver and kidneys."