Brow Beat

Year of No Sugar Reads Like a How-To Manual for an Eating Disorder

Year of No Sugar is one of those book titles that, with their telegram-like urgency, succinctly tell you exactly what to expect beneath the cover. Eve O. Schaub, a Vermont-based writer, became convinced in 2010 that fructose—the simple carbohydrate that makes sugar sweet—was toxic after watching a lecture by childhood obesity researcher Robert Lustig that argues that point. She decided that she, her husband, and her two daughters should swear off added fructose in all its forms (sugar, honey, juice, etc.) for the duration of 2011, and that she should blog about it; the blog resulted in a book deal. “I was a writer, after all, and I had been looking for a new project to focus on,” Schaub explains in the book, which was released earlier this month and is currently No. 52 on Amazon’s list of best-selling memoirs.

There are many good reasons to reduce or eliminate added sugars from your diet: Sugar consumption is associated with diabetes and heart disease, and research indicates that sugar messes with your body’s hunger and satiety cues in a way other foods don’t. Sugar may indeed be toxic at a certain level of consumption—the dose makes the poison, as the adage goes—though it’s not yet clear at what consumption level sugar becomes dangerous. Not even sugar’s most vehement opponents, like Lustig, argue that sugar is an acute toxin. Lustig (and Schaub) liken its long-term effects to those of alcohol, a substance that healthy people have been known to use in moderation.

Moderation, though, does not get you a book deal. Year of No Sugar reads like a how-to manual for an eating disorder. Schaub becomes obsessed with eliminating trace quantities of fructose from her diet: Mayonnaise, salad dressing, crackers, and deli meat are out. She frets over the fructose content of lemon juice—which she determines contains 0.53 grams per lemon—and balsamic vinegar, which she describes as “not a vinegar in the traditional sense, but rather an aged syrup made from grapes. Fruit juice! Gak!” She finds herself thinking about food more or less constantly and finds that her project drives a wedge between her family and the community. “Turns out, at least for me, the social isolation of being on a different wavelength from the rest of the world around you was one of the most difficult parts of all.” At the same time, Schaub devises ways to sweeten foods without breaking her resolution. She improvises desserts sweetened with dates and bananas (naturally occurring fructose is OK in Schaub’s book) and with brown rice syrup and dextrose powder (sweeteners that contain glucose but not fructose).

For a project that stems from such a good idea—eat less sugar—Year of No Sugar comes across as a maddeningly arbitrary yet worryingly fanatical exercise in self-control. And yet the parts of Schaub’s journey that most resemble symptoms of orthorexia nervosa are played for laughs. She jokes that she has a “Little Control Freak” on her shoulder. In Schaub’s world (and that of her editor and publisher, apparently), a hyper-controlling attitude toward food isn’t a reason for concern; it’s a completely normal trait. And cutting out fructose entirely seems to her not an unrealistic fantasy, but a magical solution to every conceivable health problem, “the Occam’s razor, the simplest answer, I had been waiting for” (not to mention a profitable premise for a memoir).

Year of No Sugar makes much of the fact that sugar is in practically everything, and that it’s easy to be oblivious to its ubiquity in American life. “Could it be that we were really all just addicts sucking away at our soda-straw hookahs, never making the obvious connection between our ‘drug’ of choice and our rapidly declining health?” Schaub asks. (Rhetorical restraint is not her forte.) “Most of all, the question I couldn’t let go of was: in a society as awash in sugar as ours, how do you escape from the opium den? Is it even possible?” (As Slate’s Daniel Engber noted in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year, “We’re more afraid of sugar than we’ve ever been.”)

Year of No Sugar is framed as an escape from the “opium den,” but it buys into one crucial American myth: that there is one weird trick somewhere out there that will make you healthy, skinny, and happy. Leave it to an American to take astute sociological and medical observations—that the proportion of sugar in the average American diet has increased over the past few decades, that sugar intake has been shown to correlate with chronic diseases, that sugar is increasingly added to processed foods that don’t primarily taste sweet—and turn it into a diet plan. If there’s one thing we’re more addicted to than sugar, it’s purported silver bullets. Schaub has drunk that proverbial Kool-Aid, even if she’s avoiding the literal kind.