First, a confession:
I eat (and love) sugar.
I am powerless against key lime pie, and I firmly believe chocolate makes me a better person. And it seems I’m not alone. According to a 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, Canadians consume around 110 grams, or about 26 teaspoons of sugar daily. Some of that comes from fruit, vegetables and dairy, but over a third is from “other” sources, like packaged snacks and pop. Now, 26 teaspoons each day is, let’s be honest, a lot of sugar. Especially if you consider that it equals 88.5 pounds of sugar a year—about double my preschooler’s weight!
Last April I began to question my family’s relationship with the sweet stuff thanks to a 60 Minutes program about sugar’s pitfalls. It featured pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, MD, whose lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has surpassed 3.5 million views on YouTube. My husband and I settled in for the show, munching on apple crisp, oblivious to the irony. Dr. Lustig maintains that too much sugar is seriously bad for us, leading to insulin resistance, elevated levels of artery-clogging fats and obesity, not to mention tooth decay. Suddenly, our apple crisp didn’t taste so sweet.
If what experts like Dr. Lustig suggest is true, it appears we’re poisoning ourselves with sugar—one cookie at a time. But our bodies need some sugar, right? Yes, some (to fuel our body and brain) being the operative word. The World Health Organization suggests a 10 per cent daily maximum of calories from sugar. Health Canada offers no such guidelines but does specifically caution against high sugar intake. So how much is too much?
“No question, we eat too much sugar,” says Yoni Freedhoff, MD, an Ottawa-based obesity expert. “It may not be toxic in low doses, but the degree to which we’ve sugared our lives does carry risk.” Risks like Type 2 diabetes and obesity. “If you give your child a sugary diet, that’s more likely to be what their palates will carry for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Freedhoff.
Why are we so sweet on sugar?
Well, it tastes good. Plus, our desire for sugar is natural and evolutionary. Sugar-rich foods are calorie dense, and back when food sources were tenuous, calories meant survival. “To suggest we can turn off our desire for sugar is naïve,” Dr. Freedhoff says. “The likelihood we’ll learn to love only spinach and hate chocolate is very low.” But while turning off that desire for sweet may be tricky, reducing our need for it is possible. We can change our palates and reduce those cravings simply by eating less sugar, Dr. Freedhoff explains.
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With my new found knowledge, I decided it was time to tackle my family’s sweet tooth, declaring that we’d go sugar-free (of added sugar, that is) for four weeks. Fruit, including unsweetened dried, was allowed (fruit contains fructose, but also has fibre and other nutritional gems), but all sweeteners, even honey, were banned. Because we rarely eat processed food, I was fairly confident that with some planning we were up for the challenge. But what about the family whose grocery cart regularly includes packaged foods? “It’s important to establish if the goal is realistic,” says Sarah Remmer, a Calgary-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. If elimination is too extreme, Remmer suggests manageable changes, like swapping store-bought cookies with homemade ones that have less sugar, or using Greek yogurt and fresh fruit on pancakes rather than syrup.
1. Read Nutritional Labels
Accessing nutritional information has never been easier, but it can be confusing (learn to decode labels in our article Nutritional Labels for Dummies). Health Canada allows companies to list sugar synonyms separately, so you could be eating more than you think, which I discovered during my first sugar-free grocery store run. These synonyms include the following:
Sugar was in nearly every packaged cereal, most yogurts and even products you wouldn’t expect, like refried beans and canned tomatoes. “If people want a no-brainer way to improve health, cook 85 percent or more of meals from fresh ingredients,” Dr. Freedhoff says. His rule for packaged foods: “If it needs to convince you it has healthy contents, it probably doesn’t.”
And what about the pervasive belief that natural sweeteners, like honey and agave, are healthier? “Sugar’s sugar,” says Dr. Freedhoff. “Just because it was made by a bee doesn’t mean it’s better for you.”
2. Find the Sneaky Sources of Sugar in Your Diet
Overhauling our pantry proved we weren’t as label-conscious as I thought. Honey mustard? Four of the 10 ingredients were sugars. Pasta sauce? Sugar was the third ingredient. And those juice boxes, reserved for the occasional school lunch? One 200-millilitre box of “unsweetened” apple juice has a whopping 24 grams (six teaspoons!) of sugar. To put that in perspective, a Tim Hortons maple dip doughnut has nine grams of sugar; I’d packed the sugar equivalent of almost three doughnuts in my daughter’s lunchbox. Good grief!
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By midafternoon on day one, the cravings peaked, and it wasn’t pretty. The hubby had a chocolate habit to break, our five-year-old treated maple syrup as a food group, and I fantasized about cake. Going sugar-free was hard: we were cranky, depressed from the deprivation and fairly convinced we wouldn’t last the month.
3. Cut Processed Foods and Make Smart Sugar Subsitutions
“Eliminating sugar essentially means reading labels, analyzing ingredients and making everything from scratch,” Remmer says. No kidding. Time to pull out the apron and mixing bowls.
With grocery bags unpacked, I started experimenting, substituting unsweetened applesauce and dried fruit for honey in my homemade granola, and spreading apple butter on PB&J sandwiches in lieu of jam. I also found sugar-free bread and discovered dates sweeten everything from muffins to smoothies. I omitted jarred sauces, opting for sugar-free seasonings.
Sugar-free eating is time-consuming, no question, so be prepared. And it’s not easy—I made four batches of muffins before they were edible. But it was time well spent, and soon things got easier. The cravings abated. While we weren’t perfect—we drank the occasional glass of wine and may have had an ice cream cone once or twice—but within three weeks we had wrestled the family sweet tooth into submission.
Sugar-Free Diet Success
After a month of added sugar–free eating, we were reformed. Everything from milk to chocolate to carrots tasted sweeter. And while we indulge on occasion (I still keep chocolate in our cupboard, but it lasts longer), we now eat less cake and more fruit. Plus, my usual 3 p.m. slump has disappeared. I religiously read labels and continue to find ways to de-sugar our lives. All in all, we eat a lot less of it now. And the best part? We don’t miss it. Not a bit. Seems we’ve retrained our palates and our perceptions.
So how else can we Texi-Mexi Egg Soft Tacos? The easiest way is by reducing access: omit candy from loot bags, skip sugary snacks and don’t buy packaged treats. Remember, your kids will get lots of sugar outside your home (birthday parties, school fundraisers, Grandma’s house…), so be part of the solution and keep your house as sugar-free as you can. “Offering our kids healthy, homemade choices most of the time will help create healthy eating habits for life,” Remmer says. Sounds like a sweet plan to this rehabilitated sugar-loving mom.