There seems to be tremendous interest right now in the health effects of sugar in our diets. Many people say that it is sugar, rather than fat, that is leading people to be overweight. Documentaries like “Fed Up” talk about both the addictive nature of sugar and how the idea of “eating better and exercising more” makes little sense when the environment makes it practically impossible to eliminate sugar additives from your diet in the first place. No matter how hard you try, the deck is simply stacked against you, so the thinking goes.
So 21 days ago I set out to see if it was possible: could I eliminate sugars from my diet and what would be the impact on my behavior and general sense of well-being? I didn’t go into this trying to fix some specific problem or to lose weight. Rather in the end I learned a lot about how it felt and really how hard it was to do it.
The ground rules of my test
First things first, what did this experiment mean to me? I planned to eliminate foods containing sugar or sugar additives as ingredients in food. That would include anything appearing on a label such as sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, malto-dextrine and many other items. This was not intended to be a test of one type of sugar against another or their respective nutritional values. As an athlete I wanted to keep some carbohydrate in my diet so I kept WHOLE fruit (not fruit juice) and some carbohydrate (such as rice or pasta) so long as those foods didn’t include sugar additives. Most bread, for example, includes various types of sugars (depending on the recipe) so most bread was out. I also kept some cheese in my diet, which includes lactose (sugar from milk) but I would not have eaten something like sweetened yogurt or even sweetened almond or soy milk because of the added sugar in those products. Why keep cheese, you ask? Because I have been trained to have desert after a meal and a little cheese and fresh fruit was about my only choice.
In the beginning I thought, “this will be easy” (seriously I did!) because I cook at home a lot. I figured that so long as I was cooking, I simply wouldn’t add sugar to what I was cooking and I would live on meats, nuts, vegetables and whole fruit. But it only took about one meal to figure out just how hard this was going to be. Even cooking at home, nearly every condiment and sauce in my pantry for preparing foods had sugar in it. To my astonishment, this included most of your basic condiments such as mayonaise, ketchup, bar-b-que sauces and the like. The first cook-at-home meal, was pretty plain until I got out to the store to buy new versions of pretty much everything in the fridge. It didn’t stop with condiments either. I was floored to see sugar in places that I thought I could most definitely eat — like bacon (MEAT!), beef jerky (ALSO MEAT!), potato chips, and bread.
I replaced many things with alternatives, most of which tended to be locally made or small-batch products. I found mayo, fresh garlic sauce, hot dogs, and peanut butter, all without sugar, but it certainly took some doing. The first lesson of this is that if you look at the labels, you may be surprised at where you find sugar as an ingredient.