Medical Examiner

Footloose and Sugar-Free

The odyssey of my no-sweets diet.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I always thought I had a pretty virtuous diet—unless you counted the cookie I had with lunch every day and the half-pint of ice cream after dinner. My metabolism was efficient, so why worry? But then, last summer, shortly after going off the birth-control pill, I woke up one day with bad skin. When topical remedies failed me, I began to wonder whether cutting back on sugar might help. The science behind the sugar-acne equation was apocryphal at best, but overhauling my diet still seemed worth a try. And so, on the stroke of midnight this past New Year’s Eve, I resolved to give up sugar, long one of my favorite substances.

The average American consumes a shocking 150 pounds of sugar a year, or roughly 20 teaspoons every day. Such through-the-roof concentrations of added sweeteners may contribute to all sorts of health problems beyond the obvious obesity: high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hyperactivity, insomnia, and, yes, acne. And that’s not all: Sugar could also act as an immunosuppressant and cause respiratory problems like asthma. And a recent Harvard study posited a link between simple carbohydrates and decreased fertility.

The World Health Organization has recommended cutting our sugar intake in half, to no more than 10 percent of our total calorie consumption. But even 10 percent sounded like a lot to me, so I decided to rule out all high Glycemic Index substances that would spike insulin production—at least for the first few weeks. That meant not just no Ben & Jerry’s but no booze, no baguettes (or pizza!), no mashed potatoes, and minimal fruit and dairy.

In a stroke of luck, a close friend volunteered to wean herself off sugar at the same time. She also suggested that we formally chronicle our efforts online to dissect every triumph and rough patch on our journey to sugarlessness. And while our resulting blog was pathetically short-lived, our two-person support group indisputably served its purpose.

We both learned pretty quickly that preparing our own food was the key to eliminating sugar. For me, this meant a narrowing of my daily diet. If I were some brilliant self-trained chef, I might’ve used the experiment to broaden my culinary range, but I’m not, so I didn’t. In any event, like David Lynch, I’ve never minded having the same meal every day. I like what I like, and I was pleased to discover that a good deal of what I like is naturally sugar-free. I began breakfasting on either scrambled eggs or, far more frequently, steel-cut oatmeal sweetened with either defrosted berries or grated apple and cinnamon. And despite my Seinfeldian passion for cereals—particularly those ornate granolas that masquerade as health foods—I forced myself to pass right over that aisle of the grocery store.

For the other major meals, I ate a stripped-down version of my old diet—lots of salads (homemade dressings only), three-ingredient soups, beans and brown rice, chickpea stews, quinoa medleys, and whatever other “slow” carbohydrates I managed to work in. (My one reach—a curried bulgur dish—was an embarrassing failure, never to be repeated.) For snacks, I had raw cashews and tamari almonds and guacamole and bricks of Gruyere in various combinations.

Dull? Rather. A detriment to domestic harmony? Very possibly. My husband soon regretted introducing me to William Dufty’s Sugar Blues, the seminal (and hilariously camp) 1975 screed against all things sugared. Though he admired my discipline, he constantly mourned our cleaned-out pantry. Still, he couldn’t argue with one unanticipated benefit of our righteous new lifestyle: a dramatically lower grocery bill—yes, even in these times of agricultural crisis and despite the outrageous asking price of almonds these days. Turns out it’s the packaged, processed foods that add up the fastest, the two-bite scones and frozen pizzas and other such vanquished staples of our household. Plus, maybe I was just eating less.

I liked saving money, and once past the initial withdrawal period, I started to feel pretty good about my random self-betterment scheme. In no time at all, my skin was unmottled and my stomach improbably flat. Why had I ever touched refined sugar? The simple sugars present in natural foods—like the dextrose in milk and the fructose in fruit—didn’t trouble me so much. But processed foods heavy on the sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup offered none of the health benefits of fruit and milk. The caloric density of artificially sweetened foods is itself a major problem, and in addition, they can seriously screw with our insulin response over the long term. The more refined carbohydrates we eat, the higher our insulin requirement, and the harder, over time, our bodies must work to produce appropriate insulin. According to The New Sugar Busters!, “too much insulin promotes the storage of fat, elevation of cholesterol levels, and possibly the deposition of plaque in our coronary arteries,” though a doctor friend tells me that refined sugar is by no means uniquely responsible for this chain of calamities. 

Either way, I thought I was sold. But then, on the morning of the New Hampshire primary, seven days after my diet began, I woke up craving a Starbucks chai, and I mean craving a Starbucks chai with every molecule of my being. I called my friend, hoping she’d talk me off the cliff. Before she could pick up, I slammed down the phone.

Ninety seconds later, I was waiting in line at Starbucks, and I was psyched. Would I care for any snack with my beverage? Well, now that you mention it, I most certainly would! Since when was 7:32 a.m. too early to enjoy a delicious triple chocolate cupcake? Five o’clock somewhere, indeed: That cupcake was gone before I’d stepped back out into the blizzard. For my first taste of sugar in a week, it was only so-so, but then I’d never been big into Starbucks pastries. I still couldn’t wait for the chai—that chai promised to be the most amazing, explosive taste sensation of all space and time. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t. Like, not at all. Truth be told, it was actually pretty nasty—monochrome and syrupy and a tad poisonous-tasting. I sipped and I grimaced, but eventually I gave up. I simply couldn’t finish the drink—I, who have never not finished a paid-for foodstuff in all my life! And the weirdness wasn’t yet over, either. A few minutes after dumping the chai, I collapsed back into bed and passed out. Before 8 a.m.

Over the course of that month, a pattern emerged. After about six days on the wagon, I would leap out of bed gripped by a raging obsession with some very specific proscribed food: pad thai, say, or a plain white bagel or a Mrs. Fields’ semisweet chocolate-chip without nuts. I would then hit the streets—often still in my pajamas—in pursuit of that food. Once that food was in my possession, I would consume it on the spot, with or without chewing.

Then, just as inevitably, would come the crash. Proof of sugar’s power—the flooding of my system with insulin and the subsequent drop in my blood-sugar level—would knock me off-balance and send me crawling back to bed. After extended periods of living off complex, slow-release carbohydrates, I was clearly no longer inured to these rollercoaster blood-sugar fluctuations. There was another stumbling block, too: I just didn’t like fretting over food all day long. My whole life, I’ve taken pride in not being one of those girls. You know the type I mean: the food-fixated, calorie-counting, scale-owners of our species.

And so, after a month of extremes, I decided to take the middle path. When I wanted to eat fruit, I would eat fruit. If I wanted a slice of pizza or a meal in a restaurant or an entire log of goat cheese while watching cable news, I was allowed that, too. As a result, I found myself slipping up less often than before. I no longer lunged for the bread basket, and I still mostly avoided desserts. (And, Starbucks aside, straight-up desserts had always been my undoing, not soft drinks or store-bought salad dressings or other common sources of “hidden” sugars.) But I was no longer limiting these indulgences as some empty test of self-control. It seemed I’d just lost the urge. Who knew that the sweetness of the milk in a cappuccino could be so satisfying?

These days, I’m mostly surprised by how well I’ve kept it up. I’m also surprised by how completely unnecessary so much of the food I used to eat was, and how little I miss those ice-cream benders. But I’d be lying if I claimed that my sugar cravings have vanished altogether. Chai is one thing; chocolate is still chocolate. Yet even my relationship with that essential food group has changed. Before going sugar-free, I had never favored dark chocolate over milk. On the contrary: I had only scorn for the pretentious Dagoba devotees of my acquaintance. Now, though, I wonder whether my Butterfinger days are gone for good. Even a bar with the once-unfathomable cocoa content of 73 percent tastes textured and complicated and just sweet enough.

A sharpened sense of taste is by no means my only gain. Have I mentioned my sparkling complexion? When minor flare-ups recur, it is generally within eight hours of a sugar binge. (Laugh if you like; the empirical evidence is too powerful to ignore. And a recent study supports this still-vague link between good skin and a low glycemic load diet.) Another unexpected boon: My periods are as regular as when I was on the pill, and preceded by zero PMS.

But if I’d hoped eliminating sugar would motivate me to balance a five-hour-daily meditation practice with a rigorous course of triathlon training (and I sort of did), I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the experiment. I do not feel 10 years younger or sprightlier or even 1 percent invincible. I am still lazy and achy and frequently hyperactive. Still, we measure progress in baby steps. And it’s been more than two months since I’ve banged on the door of Mrs. Fields dressed only in a nightgown and winter coat.