Sugar has been my lifelong enemy. Ever since I was a child, my sweet tooth would get out of control. Cavities, weight gain, headaches, low energy – all the bad stuff that follows a sugar binge have ridden bitch on my life, all my life.
I have been able to kick sugar for a little while, but it always roars back. I can go for a few weeks without having anything, and then I start up again. I am trying again to find a system that sticks.
So I am trying a Seven-Day Sugar Challenge published recently in The New York Times. It has been hard going with a lot of fits and starts throughout January. In brief, the seven-step challenge is:
- No sugar or grains of any kind at breakfast (fruit is OK).
- Avoid packaged foods (and reject any that have added sugar of any kind).
- Eat fruit (but no bananas or grapes – sugar bombs that they are).
- Drink only water, coffee or tea (no added sugar or flavorings).
- Eat spicy food to ward of sweet cravings.
- Eat roasted vegetables to heighten natural sugars.
- Reward yourself with a small piece of dark chocolate (80%-90% cacao, low sugar).
I have never made it to #7, so I can’t attest to how that goes. But here’s how the other six steps have gone for me, from hardest to easiest.
Hardest: #2 – avoid packaged foods, especially those with added sugar.
In the United States, sugar is in everything. I mean, everything. And not just one kind of sugar, either – usually several varieties of sugar lurk in the most unlikely places. Food manufacturers do this to hide the amount of sugar in a food, since ingredients on he label have to be listed by volume.
For example, we had friends for brunch last weekend and served up some bloody Marys. I didn’t have any, but I listed to everyone rhapsodize about how delicious the bloody Mary mix was. Why so tasty, you wonder? It’s basically candy in a bottle:
Sugars of various kinds appear seven times on this label. Yes, fruit concentrates and molasses count! If all those sugars were counted as one “sugar” on this label, it would probably be the third ingredient after water and peppers.
The other problem in the United States food system are foods that have health halos – basically foods that are packaged as organic or otherwise “healthy” but in truth have a lot of shit in them. Cereals are the worst – my husband is constantly buying so-called “healthy” cereals that have as much sugar – gram for gram – as a candy bar.
Breads are tough too. I sometimes bake my own bread, so I know that a bit of sugar helps the yeast get busy faster. But there’s no excuse for something like this:
This organic bread has two kinds of sugar – right after the wheat comes “organic cane sugar” (seriously – it’s the THIRD ingredient if you don’t count water) and further down the list of all these grains and seeds you get some molasses.
I found some French bread that had no sugar in it, but it went stale after two days. Sugar is a preservative too. There are these so-called “sprouted” breads in the freezer section that have no added sugar, but I am sorry to say the texture and taste didn’t thrill me.
Finally, I hit on tortillas – I found some with no added sugar, so I am doing wraps and burritos instead of sandwiches for a while to see how that goes.
Hard: No grains or sugar at breakfast
Most important meal of the day, ’tis said. And hard to avoid grains and sugar.
I often have breakfasts like this with plain Greek yogurt, and don’t ever eat sugar-sweetened yogurt or sweetened fruits. Luckily, I have been a black coffee or tea drinker for a while and never go for sweet coffee drinks. But I always crave carbohydrates in the morning, and I often reach for some toast or other carby thing later in the morning if I have none at breakfast.
It’s really important to make this effort because if you start the day with sugar, the rest of the day tends to go downhill quickly. Think of each day as a blank slate – you don’t want to crap up that slate first thing, do you?
Other breakfasts I have enjoyed include eggs in various forms, apple slices with peanut butter, roasted veggies with olive oil, and ricotta with berries. You have to be careful with breakfast meats such as bacon, ham and smoked salmon, because a lot of it is cured with – you guessed it – sugar!
The Times got pushback for putting the kibosh on oatmeal for breakfast – plain whole oats, no sugar added. People are really devoted to this breakfast, apparently.
This has been HARD for me. Whine whine whine. I soldier on.
Easier: Basically the rest of the list is pretty easy and even enjoyable.
Water – no prob. Once in a while – maybe once a week – I used to drink a Vitamin Water Zero. Now I have zero Vitamin Waters, and it’s all good. If I crave something bubbly, some Pellegrino with a lime or lemon wedge does the trick.
Spicy food – also no prob. I can’t say if this trick has really curbed sugar cravings, but in general, the more flavorful your food is, the more it satisfies you. Of course, it was hard to find spicy condiments without added sugar. Finally I found this salsa:
Ingredients are just tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, vinegar, garlic, spices and herbs. It’s sooo good – I put it on everything!
Roasted veggies – I had been doing this anyway, so it was an easy win.
I roast up a batch of veggies a couple of times a week. The roasted tomatoes are delicious as a topping on meats or pastas. Roasted larger tomatoes put through the blender make a great alternative spaghetti sauce too – with no added sugar. Jarred sauces are loaded with sugar!
Easiest by far: Eat Fruit!
I love fruit. I eat 2-3 pieces every day and will reach for fruit first if I crave something sweet. Often fruit packs a bigger punch if I pair it with a bit of protein or fat, like whole-milk ricotta, peanut butter, or cheese.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with fruit, so I like to buy different things every week. Out of season fruits are sometimes good frozen (just be sure there’s no added sugar). I keep cherries, blueberries and strawberries in the freezer at all times in case the craving strikes.
Next step – No-sugar February
I have been playing with these sugar-busting tactics all month and am ready to go for it 100% in February. If I make it the whole month I will reward myself with #7 – a piece of dark chocolate.
Who’s with me?