The odyssey of a no-sweets diet.

Health and medicine explained.
April 1 2008 5:41 PM

Footloose and Sugar-Free

The odyssey of my no-sweets diet.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I always thought I had a pretty virtuous diet—unless you counted the cookie I had with lunch every day and the half-pint of ice cream after dinner. My metabolism was efficient, so why worry? But then, last summer, shortly after going off the birth-control pill, I woke up one day with bad skin. When topical remedies failed me, I began to wonder whether cutting back on sugar might help. The science behind the sugar-acne equation was apocryphal at best, but overhauling my diet still seemed worth a try. And so, on the stroke of midnight this past New Year's Eve, I resolved to give up sugar, long one of my favorite substances.

The average American consumes a shocking 150 pounds of sugar a year, or roughly 20 teaspoons every day. Such through-the-roof concentrations of added sweeteners may contribute to all sorts of health problems beyond the obvious obesity: high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hyperactivity, insomnia, and, yes, acne. And that's not all: Sugar could also act as an immunosuppressant and cause respiratory problems like asthma. And a recent Harvard study posited a link between simple carbohydrates and decreased fertility.

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The World Health Organization has recommended cutting our sugar intake in half, to no more than 10 percent of our total calorie consumption. But even 10 percent sounded like a lot to me, so I decided to rule out all high Glycemic Index substances that would spike insulin production—at least for the first few weeks. That meant not just no Ben & Jerry's but no booze, no baguettes (or pizza!), no mashed potatoes, and minimal fruit and dairy.

In a stroke of luck, a close friend volunteered to wean herself off sugar at the same time. She also suggested that we formally chronicle our efforts online to dissect every triumph and rough patch on our journey to sugarlessness. And while our resulting blog was pathetically short-lived, our two-person support group indisputably served its purpose.

We both learned pretty quickly that preparing our own food was the key to eliminating sugar. For me, this meant a narrowing of my daily diet. If I were some brilliant self-trained chef, I might've used the experiment to broaden my culinary range, but I'm not, so I didn't. In any event, like David Lynch, I've never minded having the same meal every day. I like what I like, and I was pleased to discover that a good deal of what I like is naturally sugar-free. I began breakfasting on either scrambled eggs or, far more frequently, steel-cut oatmeal sweetened with either defrosted berries or grated apple and cinnamon. And despite my Seinfeldian passion for cereals—particularly those ornate granolas that masquerade as health foods—I forced myself to pass right over that aisle of the grocery store.

For the other major meals, I ate a stripped-down version of my old diet—lots of salads (homemade dressings only), three-ingredient soups, beans and brown rice, chickpea stews, quinoa medleys, and whatever other "slow" carbohydrates I managed to work in. (My one reach—a curried bulgur dish—was an embarrassing failure, never to be repeated.) For snacks, I had raw cashews and tamari almonds and guacamole and bricks of Gruyere in various combinations.

Dull? Rather. A detriment to domestic harmony? Very possibly. My husband soon regretted introducing me to William Dufty's Sugar Blues, the seminal (and hilariously camp) 1975 screed against all things sugared. Though he admired my discipline, he constantly mourned our cleaned-out pantry. Still, he couldn't argue with one unanticipated benefit of our righteous new lifestyle: a dramatically lower grocery bill—yes, even in these times of agricultural crisis and despite the outrageous asking price of almonds these days. Turns out it's the packaged, processed foods that add up the fastest, the two-bite scones and frozen pizzas and other such vanquished staples of our household. Plus, maybe I was just eating less.

I liked saving money, and once past the initial withdrawal period, I started to feel pretty good about my random self-betterment scheme. In no time at all, my skin was unmottled and my stomach improbably flat. Why had I ever touched refined sugar? The simple sugars present in natural foods—like the dextrose in milk and the fructose in fruit—didn't trouble me so much. But processed foods heavy on the sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup offered none of the health benefits of fruit and milk. The caloric density of artificially sweetened foods is itself a major problem, and in addition, they can seriously screw with our insulin response over the long term. The more refined carbohydrates we eat, the higher our insulin requirement, and the harder, over time, our bodies must work to produce appropriate insulin. According to The New Sugar Busters!, "too much insulin promotes the storage of fat, elevation of cholesterol levels, and possibly the deposition of plaque in our coronary arteries," though a doctor friend tells me that refined sugar is by no means uniquely responsible for this chain of calamities.