TIME Nutrition

How to Quit Sugar for a Year

Sourcebooks - ©Sourcebooks, 2014

One woman's quest to eliminate the sweet stuff, and how she felt when she came out the other side.

“It just made so much sense to me,” says author Eve O. Schaub after watching a YouTube video called “Sugar: A Bitter Truth,” a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). It prompted her to embark on a yearlong quest to put her family on a sugar diet, cutting out everything from table sugar to any food product with added sugar. It was no easy task; they discovered that meant eliminating anything from brownies to cold cuts. In her new book, Year of No Sugar, Schuab documents how they managed their not-so-sweet year. TIME asked the author about her journey, and tips for how to curb one’s sugar consumption.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What inspired you to take this on?
I’ve always been interested in food from a very young age, and I like to cook and bake. I’ve also been interested in how food correlates with how we feel, and our health. I was a vegetarian for two decades, so I have been on some other food-related paths. I was really ready to hear the message when I watched the YouTube video. Something about it really clicked. Everywhere I went after that, I felt like I suddenly had sugar vision and I saw what everyone didn’t see. I thought, ah hah, what if we stopped eating sugar entirely, and what if we tried to do it for a year?

How long did it take you to go grocery shopping?
It used to take me about 45 minutes to do a normal shopping trip, and this one took me an hour and a half. I should have brought my magnifying glass and my dictionary. I was reading and reading and astounded by how much I didn’t know. It made me mad, because food shouldn’t be this hard. I was stubborn about reading every last ingredient because I wanted to make sure we were following our own parameters. But once I did that recon, it was done. I knew what we could buy and what was off-limits.

Any tips for navigating the grocery store. Any surprising items to avoid?
Going straight to produce is great. Not everyone wants to make their own crackers, for example. There are some things that are really hard–I wouldn’t say you can never find a no sugar version—but it can be very hard. And they are things that are not sweet, so they’re unexpected. For example, bread is a big one, especially the sandwich breads. My family went to the bread aisle and came up with 250 some different varieties of bread, and we could only find a variety from one manufacturer that did not contain added sugar. But there are plenty of other unusual food products with sugar. I found sugar in sausages, tortellini, tortillas, mayonnaise, ketchup, cold cuts. I ultimately came to the conclusion that there is almost nothing they will not try to put sugar in.

Is it possible to dine out on this diet?
It is—we did. First, we found out which places were making their own food. We were astonished to find that some restaurants did not necessarily know what was in their own food. We learned how to ask questions. Once we got to the point that we knew what restaurants made their own sauces and dressings and knew what was in it, we would go back again and again. They got to know us and would ask how it was going.

Was it hard to travel?
You have to plan snacks ahead. At every convenience store, you’re lucky if you can find a banana. They will try to have healthy snacks. They will have things like yogurt, granola bars, and power bars. But sadly they often as much sugar as a candy bar, up to 25 grams of sugar.

Was dessert ever a possibility?
Just because we weren’t having sugar didn’t mean we weren’t having dessert. I did a lot of experimenting with old favorite recipes of mine. I would alter things I always made, like cookies and bars, with things like bananas and dates. We made banana ice cream, which we loved.

Your family ended up using dextrose often. Can you explain what that is?
It’s not fructose. I found the question of dextrose confusing. I asked Dr. Robert Lustig, and he was very kind in replying and letting me know that dextrose was glucose, so for our fructose-free purposes, it was perfectly fine. It’s about one-third the sweetness of table sugar, and it’s made of corn. Right now, as far as I know, you can only get it by mail order.

How did you survive the holidays?
The holidays can be especially challenging and there is this sense that we need sugar to celebrate. We need to mark the occasion with something even more crazy special and sweet than we are already having in our every day lives. It can be very difficult to navigate that delicately because you don’t want that person to come away feeling rejected because you didn’t eat their meal. We would let it be known that this is something that we would be doing, and ask if there was anything we could bring. That way we have at least one thing we can eat. Once you do the research, you know where it is. You know it’s going to be in the ham because if the glaze, it’s going to be any potato salad and coleslaw. We knew that when we went to aunt Carol’s house, the safe thing for us would be the mac and cheese.

How do you get kids on board?
My kids were the most excited when they were actively participating. They would love making banana ice cream themselves. Kids get so excited about food and where it comes from and watching food cook, and I think that’s the key to getting kids to care about food and love the taste of fresh, healthy, and homemade food.

What can people expect from cutting their sugar consumption?
Not eating sugar affects everyone in different ways. None of us really lost weight, but we were not looking to. The kids didn’t seem to be noticeably calmer, but hyperactivity wasn’t something we were trying to address either. I, in particular, had more energy, and that is something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. On a regular basis I would crash and feel like I had a total lack of energy. When I do not eat sugar, I have plenty of energy. We felt healthier and it seemed to me that we did not get sick as much or for as long. My daughters missed 10 to 15 days of school the year before, and in the year of no sugar they missed two to three. That seems like better health.

Is this easier for someone who likes to cook?
I think it helps a lot if you like to cook. If I had trouble buying bread, I knew I would enjoy making it at home, if I could find the time. But you don’t have to love to cook to take in less sugar. There are lots of ways we can cut of sugar consumption and feel better. For instance, cut out drinking sugar. Have a sparkling water instead of a soda. For people who say they don’t have time, I wish we could place more emphasis on food as being important and worthy of our time. Perhaps we don’t have a lot of time, but making your own tomato sauce takes about 20 minutes.

Do you still avoid sugar?
After we finished our year, everyone expected us to go on a sugar binge to make up for lost time. We found that we had really lost a lot of our craving for super sweet foods. It was a little rocky at first because we had no rules. It had been hard on no sugar, but it had been clear. Over time we came to a middle ground, which I call “high level sugar avoiders.” I refuse to buy things that have sugar in them as an added ingredient, especially if it’s something that’s not sweet, doesn’t need it, and no one knows it’s there. We will have a sugary sweet once in a great while. I’d say 99 times out of 100 we are not having sugar, but for a special occasion we will have something. It will be small, and it will be special.

Do you recommend other people try this?
They don’t have to because I did it for them! The best advice I can give is to be aware and be judicious. Being aware means reading ingredients and asking questions. Being judicious means making sure you don’t get on that sugar escalator so you don’t have a little today, then more tomorrow, then more after that.

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