“Quitting smoking is easy,” my grandfather used to say. “I’ve done it dozens of times.” He was witty, I’ll give him that, but he was addicted to tobacco, which killed him in his 80s. I’m like my grandfather (less the wit), in that I’m addicted too. But my addiction is dismissed and joked about by our society and egged on by the gigantic industrial food complex which makes money from it. Like many Americans, I’m addicted to sugar.
Scientists and medical professionals argue about whether one can truly be physically addicted to sugar, as one can be physically addicted to tobacco or methamphetamine. I’m not a scientist, so I’ll let the experts battle over whether sugar fits the definition of a true addiction.
I’ve quit eating sugar dozens of times, but that insidious non-food substance has repeatedly crept back into my diet. Does that make me an addict? It makes me unhappy, as I crave sugar, even while comprehending how terrible it is for me. That sounds like a form of addiction to me.
No Addiction is Benign
Why do I keep eating sugar? The answer is obvious: It tastes great! It makes food taste great! It’s a treat, a habit, a delightful start to the day and a delicious end to many a meal. And it doesn’t make me sick or give me a hangover. But my muscles ache after I eat sugary foods, and for years I suffered from terrible headaches that ended when I stopped eating most sugar.
We all know addictions to tobacco, alcohol and Fentanyl can make us sick or die. But the dangers of a sugar addiction are not yet woven into our collective consciousness. My childhood dentist told me sugar would rot my teeth, but for most of my life, no medical professional ever warned me that sugar is an addiction that can kill you.
But that has changed. Recent research implicates sugar in many diseases including Alzheimer’s and obesity, which is linked to cancer. Sugar is a major contributor to diseases that kill loads of people every year. Not all by itself, for sure, but sugar is a sweet friend who stabs you in the back. It’s possible to quit drinking or smoking or taking drugs, but our bodies and brains can’t live without sugar.
Allow me to explain. What exactly do I mean by “sugar”?
A Digression into Science
There are three main types of sugar: glucose, fructose and sucrose.
Glucose is the stuff that your brain and body gobbles up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you didn’t have glucose in your body, you would wither away and die. But you don’t need to consume glucose all by itself. It occurs naturally in many foods we eat, and the human body conveniently converts carbohydrates into glucose and feeds that glucose to our cells.
Fructose is fruit sugar. It’s found in all fruits and in some fruits we think of as vegetables like tomatoes, as well as in many vegetables like onions, corn and broccoli. (Yes, broccoli.) It’s also found in high fructose corn syrup, a highly-processed sweetener derived from corn. High fructose corn syrup is very sweet, and quite cheap, which is why it’s found in lots of processed foods and most sodas. It’s been linked to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning its composed of two sugar molecules bonded together: one molecule of glucose and a second molecule of fructose. Sucrose is that white granular stuff made from sugar cane or sugar beets that we dump into our coffee, mix into frostings and cupcakes, and gobble up in candy bars and ice cream.
We think of sucrose as table sugar, but we ought to think of it (and high fructose corn syrup) as poison, like cyanide, anthrax or sarin. The difference between sucrose and sarin, for example, is that sucrose is a very slow killer, whereas sarin will kill you in seconds.
Here Come the Statistics
Sugar, in the form of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup, contributes to the death of Americans every day. Nearly half of the 240 million adults in America are diabetic or pre-diabetic. In 2017, 353,000 Americans died of diabetes or diabetes-related causes. More than 42 percent of Americans were obese in 2017. Heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans, and more than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure.
All these diseases are linked to eating a nutritionally deficient diet, one very high in sugar. Only 12.2 percent of Americans are metabolically healthy, meaning 87.8 percent of Americans have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides (fat), high glucose (blood sugar) and are overweight, all preventable risk factors for heart disease.
I don’t have time to lay out the entire case against sugar (when I refer to “sugar” I mean the bad actor, sucrose, and the even worse high fructose corn syrup) for causing the epidemic of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in the United States. Fortunately, there’s a book called The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, which you must read if you want reams of studies convicting sugar as the main culprit in this national health catastrophe.
Should you want a quicker explanation of how sugar is killing Americans, please watch this video of a decade-old presentation, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, by Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California San Francisco. Or watch this video of Dr. Lustig speaking earlier this year on the same topic. Lustig argues that sugar is such a dangerous food additive that it should be regulated along with alcohol and narcotics.
Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
The glycemic index of a food is a number from 0 to 100 which represents the amount your blood sugar (glucose level) rises two hours after eating a serving of that food. The glycemic load is calculated by multiplying the food’s glycemic index by the grams of available carbohydrate in that serving of food and then dividing by 100. Got it? The University of Sydney (Australia) figured this out and came up with a handy searchable database that lists the glycemic index and glycemic load of many foods.
Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (below 55) are absorbed more slowly by the body, meaning it takes longer for blood glucose (and insulin) levels to rise, which is easier on the body’s digestive system. Glycemic load figures out the carbohydrate content of a typical serving of that food and calculates how fast a serving of that food will increase blood glucose.
Some foods, like fruits, have a high glycemic index but low glycemic load. For example, a raw apricot has a high glycemic index of 57, but a low glycemic load of 7, since an average serving of raw apricots is too small to create a big jump in blood glucose levels. Sugar, of course, has a high glycemic index.
I pay attention to glycemic index and avoid high-carbohydrate foods such as corn (glycemic index 62) as often as I can. But glycemic index can be deceptive. Sugar substitutes often claim they offer a lower glycemic index than sugar, but that difference can be slight. For example, table sugar (sucrose) has a glycemic index of 58, and coconut sugar (promoted as a healthier alternative to table sugar) has a glycemic index of 54, not a huge improvement.
How Do I Quit this Monster, Sugar?
If only I had a simple answer. A doctor I consulted 15 years ago suggested I quit eating sugar. I cut all sugar out of my diet and lost 10 pounds in a month! I felt great! But the sugar and most of the pounds returned after about a year or so. The insidious lure of cookies, cakes, brownies, ice cream, desserts in restaurants, snacks and other sugar-laden foods drew me back into my old eating habits.
Shortly after visiting that doctor, I changed my entire family’s diet to eliminate both gluten and dairy. I also took sugar out of my ill child’s diet, but not completely. Gluten-free cookies stayed on my shopping list, as did dairy-free ice cream, sugary gluten-free cereals and other sweet, delicious treats.
At that time, I didn’t believe sugar was all that bad for most people. I knew it rotted teeth and made one of my children sick, but no one else in my family got outwardly sick from eating sugary foods, so why take it completely out of our diet? Why deprive all of us of the birthday cakes, ice cream bars, and boxes of cookies we all loved? I wish I’d known then about the danger of eating sugar. I would have kicked sugar out of my life much sooner.
Sadly, my family was eating far more sugar than I realized. Recent changes to food labeling laws have revealed how much added sugar is in the processed foods we eat, and the news is disturbing.
Sugar Hides in Plain Sight
The Food and Drug Administration recommends adults limit sugar consumption to 50 grams per day. The American Heart Association recommends women limit added sugar intake to less than half the FDA’s recommendation, or 24 grams per day, and men to 36 grams. My nutritionist says adults should consume no more than 18 grams of added sugar per day.
A quick perusal of my pantry finds there are 3 grams of added sugar in 1/2 cup of our favorite organic pasta sauce; 1 gram of added sugar per teaspoon of organic Worcestershire sauce; 3 grams of added sugar in a tablespoon of organic ketchup; 4 grams of added sugar per tablespoon of organic barbecue sauce; and 6 grams of sugar in 1/2 cup of our beloved curry simmer sauce. Despite my careful shopping, my family still eats too much added sugar.
I’d expect to find added sugar in sweet foods, like the Kind bars we all love that contain 5 grams of added sugar each. But savory sauces don’t need sugar. Americans have grown used to the taste of sugar in nearly everything we eat, so manufacturers oblige. One of my children recently added honey to our sugar-free, organic (expensive) ketchup, because it didn’t taste “normal.” Had my child never eaten Heinz ketchup (4 grams of sugar–from high fructose corn syrup–per tablespoon), that would not have happened.
So, here’s the problem: How do we eliminate sugar from our diet if it’s ubiquitous in our (processed) food?
Ha ha ha. Everyone loves Rules. No, there are no rules here. I have a few guidelines, things I do to reduce the amount of sugar my family and I consume. But rules only get broken, so forget rules. Basically, take small steps, find substitutes for sugary foods, and don’t give up. I’ve kicked most sugar out of my life, but it’s a slow process with missteps and backtracking. The road to a sugar-free life is long, so my best advice is to keep trying.
1) Start small
Soda is a good place to start. If you drink a couple cans of soda a day, stop, please. (And don’t go substituting that soda with “diet” soda. Ugh. Read about artificial sweeteners below.) One can of soda contains about 40 grams of sugar, more than double the daily limit my nutritionist recommends. If you can’t stop drinking soda cold turkey, then do it slowly. Cut down to one can a day.
Drink flavored seltzer. Buy a seltzer maker. I have a Soda Stream which I bought on sale for about $70. It’s saved me a lot of money on bottled seltzer. When I want “soda” I mix frozen organic fruit with seltzer and sweeten it with a few drops of liquid stevia. It’s an acquired taste, but worth it to avoid consuming all that sugar–in the form of high-fructose corn syrup–found in most soft drinks.
My husband used to down two or three bottles of Snapple every day. He loved peach tea Snapple. When I started learning about the danger of high fructose corn syrup, I realized he had to stop that Snapple habit, or he’d get really sick. So, he cut back on Snapple to once a week. Eventually he substituted bottled iced tea, sweetened with sugar, not really an improvement. After a while, my “sugar-equals-poison” campaign worked on him, and he shed the bottled tea habit too. Now he drinks unsweetened tea or seltzer.
Soda is not the only culprit when it comes to pouring a lot of sugar into your body very quickly. Fruit juice is almost pure fructose, the sugar that causes fatty liver disease. Juices contain a wee bit of nutrition, but not much. Eat whole fruit, with all that healthy fiber, or blend whole fruit into smoothies. But limit fruit juice. I love fruit juice, but I try to think of fruit juice as poison too.
Sugar, which hides behind a lot of names, is found in nearly every processed food in your pantry (and mine), including savory barbecue sauce, ketchup, crackers, pasta sauce, pickles, etc. Look around your pantry, fridge and freezer. Try to find a processed food that doesn’t have any added sugar. It’s not easy. Here are some other names for sugar: corn syrup, agave, barley malt, dextrose, maltodextrin, molasses, honey, evaporated cane juice, and so on.
Is there one sugary item you can eliminate from your diet? After a long search, I found a sugar-free ketchup that tastes good. Yes, it costs more than the organic ketchup I used to buy, but I barely taste the difference. One of my children loves to eat burgers smothered with ketchup. By buying sugar-free ketchup, I eliminated a lot of sugar my child was used to eating, and my child hasn’t even noticed.
2) Read the Back of the Label
Turn that bottle, box, bag or package over before putting it into your shopping cart. Take a look at the “added sugar” line on the label. Added sugar is the amount of sucrose the food manufacturer adds to the food to make it taste good. Many foods contain natural sugars, which are listed on the label under “sugar.” But it’s “added sugar” i.e. sucrose or high fructose corn syrup we must worry about. If “added sugar” is more than 10 grams per serving, place the item back on the shelf, and find a substitute that contains less added sugar.
I was snacking on Brussels sprouts chips (healthy, right?), when I started reading the label. Ooops. The fourth ingredient was “organic sugar.” Now, what was that doing there? The chips were 1) organic and 2) savory. Why the need for sugar? First, flavor, and second, sugar is a preservative. That’s right. Food tastes better and lasts longer if you preserve it with a bit of sugar. There’s no nutritional need for sugar in Brussels sprouts chips, but there it is, and I, label-reader, sugar-avoider, found myself eating it.
I forget to read labels closely sometimes, but please be better than me. Teach your children to read labels too, even younger kids. My children often put foods back on grocery store shelves when they find a bottle of, say, a “healthy” drink that contains 32 grams of sugar per serving, nearly double the daily limit of added sugar my nutritionist recommends. Once you get into the habit of reading the “added sugar” line on labels, you’ll be shocked by the amount of sugar in foods you’ve been buying.
Pay attention to portion size listed at the top of the nutrition label. It varies quite a bit from product to product. Manufacturers can manipulate “portion size” to deflate the amount of added sugar in their foods. Portion size on bags of granola I looked at recently ranged from 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup. Most of us eat more than 1/4 cup of granola at a time, so the added sugar content listed on the label on bags of granola can be misleading.
3) Find Substitutes for Sugar
I use a lot of different substitutes for table sugar. Some are natural ingredients, like maple syrup and honey. Others are so-called non-nutritive sweeteners (sugar is non-nutritive, but it does have a lot of calories), like stevia and xylitol. I mix and match natural and non-nutritive sweeteners until I find a combination that works for each recipe. If the food doesn’t taste good, I won’t eat it, even if it’s sugar-free. We all want great-tasting food, and there’s no reason to settle for less.
It took me years to get used to the taste of stevia in my coffee, but now I prefer it. Xylitol plus coconut sugar makes a great substitute for sugar in baking. Monkfruit plus erythritol plus maple syrup sweetens chocolate pudding and other goopy desserts.
Xylitol and erythritol are sugar alcohols with a glycemic index of zero. Sugar alcohols are very sweet, but you can’t substitute them one-for-one with table sugar, despite what their manufacturers claim. I always mix them with natural sweeteners when I’m baking or making desserts. I have to do a lot of fiddling around to find a mix of non-nutritive and natural sweeteners that works well in each recipe.
Sometimes sugar sneaks into my recipes in the form of sugar-sweetened chocolate chips. Recently, I started baking with Lilly’s chocolate chips, which are sweetened with stevia. They taste pretty close to sugar-sweetened chocolate chips, and the difference isn’t noticeable in cookies.
Maple syrup and honey are loaded with fructose, so they don’t reduce glycemic load, but both contain a few nutrients. Some people with digestive disorders tolerate natural sweeteners like maple syrup, while sugar (sucrose) makes them feel ill. Other natural sweeteners I use are coconut nectar, honey, rice syrup and date sugar.
My favorite non-nutritive sweeteners are stevia, xylitol, erythritol, monkfruit and vegetable glycerin. I like chicory root fiber, a zero-calorie sweetener, but it’s difficult to find. Other non-nutritive sweeteners pop up on supermarket shelves from time to time, so read labels and judge for yourself whether it’s useful to you or not.
4) Eat Fruit
I bought a Vitamix blender a few years ago to encourage myself to eat more fruit. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but it did. In warm weather, I have a smoothie for breakfast most mornings. During the winter, I make smoothies when I’m craving something sweet and fruity. Drinking smoothies has helped me eat a lot more whole fruit. I also sneak greens into my smoothies, making them even healthier. I don’t like eating apples or bananas, but I love them in berry smoothies because they add a sweet, thick base to the smoothie, balancing the tartness of many berries.
If you don’t like smoothies, find other ways to add fruit to your diet. One of my children loves mangoes, so I buy them often. Another child loves to use frozen strawberries instead of ice cubes in drinks. I like blending frozen fruit with seltzer, especially on a hot summer day. My husband loves bananas, so I keep them on hand.
Some fruits contain more fruit sugar (fructose) than others. Grapes are quite sugary, pineapple is very sweet, as are bananas and mangoes. I pay attention to warnings not to eat too many of these fruits, but I don’t ever limit consumption of fruit in my house. If you’re diabetic or have a metabolic disorder, consult a health professional, of course, because you may need to limit fruit consumption. In my house, we eat as much fruit as we like.
5) Avoid All Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame, saccharin, sucralose (Splenda) are all artificial sweeteners I never buy or use. The research is not definitive, but it’s not exactly positive either. Sugar isn’t healthy, but neither are these sweet fakes, despite what their manufacturers claim about their safety. There is evidence artificial sweeteners actually make people gain weight. Research into the safety of these artificial sugar substitutes is not well designed, making conclusions about safety murky. I avoid artificial sweeteners and use non-nutritive sweeteners (sugar alcohols like zylitol or erythritol) or natural sweeteners (organic rice syrup, organic coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey) to sweeten my food. As my husband likes to say, “When in doubt, leave it out.” I leave artificial sweeteners out of my food, always.
6) Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave
In addition to sugar, I stay away from high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to cardiovascular risks and other illnesses, and agave syrup, a natural product which is almost pure fructose and carries some of the same risks as high-fructose corn syrup. Neither sweetener contains the fiber found in fruit, which slows digestion.
7) Acquire a Taste for Less-Sweet Foods
If you eat less sugar-sweetened food, you’ll start to notice the flavor of sugar in foods that don’t require it to taste good. One of my children recently asked me to buy a box of Cliff Bars, which are sold in the natural foods section of the supermarket. They don’t contain artificial ingredients, so I bought some without looking at the sugar content on the label. I ate one of them and was shocked by how sickly sweet it tasted. A closer reading of the label revealed that each two-ounce Cliff Bar contains 21 grams of sugar, well over the daily limit of 18 grams of added sugar my nutritionist recommends.
I’d love to make everything we eat from scratch to avoid all added sugar, but who has time for that? I make my own spaghetti sauce during the summer, when tomatoes overflow our farmer’s markets, but during the rest of the year, we eat bottled organic pasta sauce which contains added sugar. I’ve bought sugar-free tomato sauce, but no one in my family liked it. I’m still looking for a great-tasting organic pasta sauce that’s free of added sugar.
Getting used to eating less-sweet food is an ongoing challenge for me. I use substitutes for sugar that taste less sweet, and my family is slowly getting used to the flavor. I scored a major victory this year when one of my children requested a small cake and no sorbet for a birthday party because my child no longer enjoys eating a globlulous dose of sugar on that single, celebratory day.
Repeat after me, “Sugar is poison, sugar is poison, sugar is poison…”
Addiction counselors will tell you that if you’re addicted, you have to avoid the substance you are addicted to completely. That’s true of tobacco, drugs and alcohol, for sure, because you don’t need those substances to live. A food addiction is slightly different. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s no way to avoid eating if you want to continue living. And since many foods you eat are converted to glucose, a type of sugar, inside your body, well, sugar will be with you until your last breath.
I’ve been fighting to get rid of sugar in my diet for a long time, and I’m mostly succeeding. I used to eat a bag of cookies and a couple bowls of ice cream every week, and now I don’t. As recently as three years ago, I still brought cookies home every time I visited the supermarket. Gradually, I tapered off buying sweet snacks, and now I almost never buy them. I make cookies and cakes at home on occasion, I eat stevia-sweetened chocolate, I eat Kind Bars and Larabars. which are sweetened with dates. I try to keep front and center in my mind the idea that sugar is a food additive, not a normal ingredient in cooking.
And I’ve tried to de-program myself from the lies I was fed about sugar when I was young. Four years ago, scientists uncovered the fact that Harvard researchers were paid by the sugar industry in the 1960s to vilify fat and exonerate sugar, a campaign that lasted well into the 1990s, when low-fat sugar-filled cookies were still marketed as healthy. The sugar industry still refuses to acknowledge the role its product plays in our nation’s ill health.
Changing your diet is a slow process. If you eat sugar now and then, it won’t kill you. Eating it every day in nutritionally empty foods, well that’s a recipe for disaster. Do your best, expect setbacks, and don’t stop trying to kick sugar out of your life forever.