Dr. Robert Lustig is an unassuming-looking fellow with a medium build, gray hair and a laser-like focus. He's good with Power Point and is comfortable throwing about phrases like “multivariate linear regression analysis.” As his YouTube video “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” opens, he stands at a lectern in an anonymous looking hall, looking every bit like that professor whose chemistry lectures put you to sleep every time. You'd never suspect that a 90-minute educational lecture from this man could generate some three and a half million hits, but that's just what happened.
In the first 17 minutes, Lustig calmly drops facts like precision bombs:
- as a society we all weigh 25 pounds more than our counterparts did 25 years ago
- even as our total fat consumption has gone down, our obesity has continued to accelerate
- Americans are currently consuming 63 pounds per person of high fructose corn syrup per year
But it isn't until minute 20 that Lustig throws down the gauntlet: “My charge before the end of tonight is to demonstrate that fructose is a poison.”
And thus was born our family's Year of No Sugar.
The concept was simple: We were not eating added sugar. We would not eat it in the house, we would not eat it with a mouse. No white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, evaporated cane syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, artificial sweeteners of all stripes and no…not even fruit juice. Naturally occurring sugar — such as that contained in a piece of fruit — was fine, containing as it did all the beneficial fiber and micronutrients, and naturally limited the amount we ate — you'd get full before you could eat enough fructose to worry about.
But, in the interest of family harmony, we would have some exceptions too, number one being: As a family, we would pick one dessert per month to have which contained sugar. If it was your birthday that month, you got to pick the dessert.
Up until the year of the experiment, we — myself, my husband, and our two daughters Greta and Ilsa — were a fairly normal family when it came to food, I think. Perhaps a bit on the liberal-organic-dirt-worshipping-side, but nevertheless, still fairly middle of the road. We ate meat. We liked snacks. We liked desserts. Life is short, I reasoned, and although I have my requisite worried-Vermont-mom concerns, (hormone free beef? GMO corn? pesticides in the potatoes?) I tried to keep them in check. I didn’t want my kids growing up being afraid to live.
So, short of going to live under a rock, what can we do? How do we learn to be “moderate” in a culture that is, every minute of every day trying to convince us that moderation is whatever you want it to be?
Although we are no longer Sugar Abstainers, these days the four of us are what I’d call Sugar Avoiders of the First Degree. Here are a few of the things our family took away from our Year of No Sugar:
Number one: don’t drink sugar. If we change nothing else in our culture, we should do this one thing. Not only will we be far healthier, but we’ll begin to realize what we are up against in the Sugar Wars: the ubiquity of sugar, the elevated degree of sweetness we’ve been trained to expect. Tellingly, this cuts out most of our society’s popular options: soda, juice, sugared teas, sports drinks, vitamin waters. What’s left? Water. Lots of water. More water. Milk. Unsweetened tea and coffee. And, due to its vanishingly small percentage of fructose, I hereby give you permission to include wine. You’re welcome.
Number two: read ingredients, always. We have come to a point where it has become all too clear we cannot trust the food industry to have our best interests at heart. The more packages, boxes and bags you read, the more amazed you will be at the number of things you buy, things that are not even sweet, that contain added sugar in all its myriad guises and aliases. Think you know your favorite tomato sauce? Chicken broth? Salad dressing? Cold cuts? I’d be willing to bet if you look closely, you’re going to be surprised. The good news is there’s almost always another brand, further down the shelf, that doesn’t contain that sneaky ingredient, if you take the time to find it.
Number three: order simply in restaurants and don’t be afraid to ask. Once you start to ask, you’ll be amazed at how much restaurant food has added sugar in it. And that’s assuming the staff even knows what’s in their own food, which is not always the case. The usual suspects? Dressings, glazes, broths, marinades and always, always the sauce.
Number four: make sugar special. Skip the crappy cookies someone brought to the office. Try having oatmeal with bananas and raisins on top instead of brown sugar. Save your sweet tooth for that oh-so-special something that’s really worth, you know, consuming a little bit of poison for.
Eve O. Schaub is the author of Year of No Sugar.