A month without sugar

Goat cheese pita with pomegranate, pistachio and mint. You should avoid added sweeteners like corn syrup, maple syrup and honey, but sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy is acceptable.
Goat cheese pita with pomegranate, pistachio and mint. You should avoid added sweeteners like corn syrup, maple syrup and honey, but sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy is acceptable.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Saying no to sugar forces you to make changes and might reset your sugar-addled taste buds

It is in chicken stock, sliced cheese, bacon and smoked salmon, in mustard and salad dressing, in crackers and nearly every single brand of sandwich bread.

It is all around us - in obvious ways and hidden ones - and it is utterly delicious.

It is sugar, in its many forms: powdered sugar, honey, corn syrup, you name it. The kind you eat matters less than people once thought, scientific research suggests, and the amount matters much more. Our sugar habit is the driving force behind diabetes and obesity epidemics and may be a contributing factor to cancer and Alzheimer's.

Like me, you have probably just finished a couple of weeks in which you have eaten a lot of tasty sugar. Do not feel too guilty about it.

But if you feel a little guilty about it, I would like to make a suggestion.

Choose a month this year - a full 30 days, starting now or later - and commit to eating no added sweeteners.

Go cold turkey, for one month.

I have done so in each of the past two years, and it has led to permanent changes in my eating habits. It was not easy but it was worth it. It reset my sugar-addled taste buds and opened my eyes to the many products that needlessly contain sugar.

If you give up sugar for a month, you will become part of a growing anti-sugar movement. Research increasingly indicates that an overabundance of simple carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, is the No. 1 problem in modern diets.

An aggressive, well-financed campaign by the sugar industry masked this reality for years.

Big Sugar instead placed the blame on fats - which seem, after all, as if they should cause obesity.

But fats tend to have more nutritional value than sugar, and sugar is far easier to overeat.

Put it this way: Would you find it easier to eat two steaks or two pieces of cake?

Fortunately, the growing understanding of sugar's dangers has led to a backlash, both in politics and in our diets.

Taxes on sweetened drinks - and soda is probably the most efficient delivery system for sugar - have recently passed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado.

Mexico and France have one as well, and Ireland and Britain soon will.

Even before the taxes, Americans were cutting back on sugar. Since 1999, per capita consumption of added sweeteners has fallen about 14 per cent, according to the Agriculture Department.

Yet it needs to drop a lot more - another 40 per cent or so - to return to a healthy level.

In Singapore, a 2012 survey conducted by the Health Promotion Board found that more than 40 per cent of teenagers aged 13 to 18 drank sugary drinks daily.

In general, a can of soft drink contains about 35g to 45g of sugar, or between seven and nine teaspoons per can.

"Most public authorities think everybody would be healthier eating less sugar," says Dr Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

"There is tonnes of evidence."

A good long-term limit for most adults is no more than 50g (or about 12 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, and closer to 25g is healthier. A single 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52g.

You do not have to cut out sugar for a month to eat less of it, of course. But it can be difficult to reduce your consumption in scattered little ways.

You can usually find an excuse to say yes to the plate of cookies at a friend's house or the candy jar during a meeting. Eliminating added sugar gives you a new baseline and forces you to make changes. Once you do, you will probably decide to keep some of your new habits.

My breakfasts, for example, have completely changed.

Mine used to revolve around cereal and granola, which are almost always sweetened. Now, I eat a combination of eggs, nuts, fruit, plain yogurt and some well-spiced vegetables. It feels decadent, yet it is actually healthier than a big bowl of granola.

How should you define sugar during your month? I recommend the definition used by Whole 30, a popular food regimen (which eliminates many things in addition to sugar). The sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy is allowed.

"Nobody eats too much of those," Dr Nestle says, "not with the fibre and vitamins and minerals they have." But every single added sweetener is not allowed. No sugar, no corn syrup, no maple syrup, no honey, no fancy-pants agave.

Read every ingredient list, looking especially for words that end in "ose". Do not trust the Nutrition Facts table next to the ingredient list because 0g of sugar on that list really means "less than 0.5 g". Get comfortable asking questions in restaurants.

And avoid the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas too.

Part of the goal, remember, is to relearn how a diet that is not dominated by sweeteners tastes.

I have always liked fruits but I was still surprised by how delicious they were during the month.

Finally, be careful not to violate the spirit of the month while sticking to the formal rules: Have only one small glass of juice a day, and eat very little with added fruit juices.

There were certainly times when I did not enjoy the experience.

I missed ice cream, chocolate squares and cocktails.

But I also knew that I would get to enjoy them all again.

The unpleasant parts of a month without sugar are temporary, and are tolerable. Some of the benefits continue long after the month is over. If you try it and your experience is anything like mine, I predict that your new normal will feel healthier and no less enjoyable than the old.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2017, with the headline 'A month without sugar'. Print Edition | Subscribe