The Latest Wacky Food Adventure: A Year Without Sugar
Why would anyone put her family of four through a radical food experiment that would deprive her children of Halloween candy and chocolate-chip cookies?
A cynic who happens upon Eve Schaub's recently published book, Year Of No Sugar, might say that banning sugar from your home for a year to document the effects on your family is no more than a gimmick veiled in a health halo, and a harsh one, at that. "This experiment was pretty much guaranteed to wreak all kinds of unpredictable havoc with our lives," Schaub admits early on in the memoir. "I loved it."
But Schaub's year without sugar wasn't quite as miserable as it might sound — though it had its frustrations, for sure. And a commitment to avoid something so ubiquitous in our food supply — and so deeply embedded into how we celebrate– is actually a pretty revelatory endeavor.
The Schaubs became experts in the complex world of sweeteners, and with that expertise come worthy questions that few people on Earth have asked about the nuances of so much hidden sugar on our health. The family also claimed surprising health perks — fewer colds and coughs, better gastrointestinal functioning and fewer energy crashes — from a sugar-free life, the likes of which we all might enjoy.
But let's back up for a second. Back in January, I outed myself as a sugar addict. While I don't tend to binge on pints of ice cream or entire packages of cookies, I've become increasingly wary of sugar's power over my mind and my body.
So I was naturally curious about this Vermont family's food stunt, if wary of it as just that — a stunt. Year of No Sugar is modeled on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which the novelist worked on a farm and lived on local or homegrown food for a year, and Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon's Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, in which the couple spent a year eating only food produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment. And all these stunt men and women can thank Henry David Thoreau for the original eco-stunt: Walden.
As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker in 2009 in her critique of eco-stunt books, there is something a little disingenuous about writers professing concern about a massive problem — climate change, or obesity and metabolic syndrome, in the case of Schaub — and then tackling it in a highly personal, bookselling way that is not likely to affect the underlying policies that perpetuate the problem.
But Schaub, a freelance writer, is earnestly modest about her intention, which is "just trying to begin the conversation about sugar."
The conversation began for her in 2010 when she and her husband watched Dr. Robert Lustig's video "Sugar: The Bitter Truth." Something about the University of California, San Francisco, pediatric endocrinologist's insistence that fructose is a poison clicked for Schaub. (Some 4.5 million people have clicked — and viewed — the video, too, since it came out in 2009.)
She describes it as something like an awakening, albeit a nightmarish one. She was "totally freaked out," she writes. The video had convinced her that "sugar is everywhere, it's making us all fat and sick, and almost no one realizes it."
She admits she bought into his argument that sugar is the biggest demon in the food supply with zero skepticism, "hook, line and sinker." (Not everyone in the nutrition community has, and Lustig has many critics.) The most life-changing implication for Schaub was that "the body can't tell the difference between the high fructose corn syrup in processed foods like ketchup and grandma's lovingly baked molasses cookies," meaning all sugar had to go.
"Dessert to me was, and is, an ultimate expression of love ... I made the connection at an early age that sugar is the food equivalent of love," she writes — so this was huge.
But suddenly, and a little suspiciously, sugar went from love to narcotic: "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's life before the experiment seemed pretty typical for a middle-aged mother. She loved chocolate; she loved to bake. She and her husband dabbled in vegetarianism and various diets. And they also ate pretty healthfully. Schaub didn't allow her daughters to eat Doritos or go to fast-food chains. They weren't overweight, and despite eating sugar every day, they weren't sick.
Yet Schaub still wanted to take on the obesity epidemic by embarking on a year of obsessive label-reading, weird baking and recurring bouts of anxiety — which flared even during a family vacation in Italy — about the sugar that might be sneaking into her body. Noble? Maybe.
The Schaubs did make exceptions: Each month as a family they'd pick one dessert that could contain sugar. The two girls, ages 6 and 11 during the experiment, had autonomy outside the house to decide what to eat.
And the family made some wonderful discoveries about how to keep sweet treats in the mix. Whipped frozen bananas make a delightful soft-serve banana ice cream. Mashed banana can be substituted for white sugar, and chopped dates for brown sugar in many recipes. And dextrose, an obscure corn-based sugar you can buy on the Internet, is fair game in a fructose-free house.
Schaub shares some poignant moments, too, of the social strain of opting out of sweets at events like a community fundraiser and a potluck memorial service with a "long and huge table filled entirely with sweets." In these settings, surrounded by friends and neighbors, she noticed that by forgoing sugar, her family existed apart.
Removed they were, but healthier they also might have been. Schaub notes that her daughters' school absences went from a combined total of over 20 to just five per year, and she concludes they were healthier during the year of no sugar than the previous three years. Her own energy levels were higher and steadier, and everyone's bowel movements were far more regular.
At the end of the year, of course, the Schaubs do return to sugar, but with far greater moderation. Over the course of the year without it, they became much more sensitive to sweet flavors, and craved them less. When I spoke to her by phone this week, she said, "I certainly feel that there's a place for sugar, but it's gotten totally out of control. In our family, we eat it now in small amounts, for special occasions. That's what sugar is designed to be: small and special."
Her experiment has also prompted her to reflect on how serious a challenge minimizing your sugar intake really is in the U.S. "You can't have an occasion without food, and in our culture you can't have food without sugar," she says. "You're going to find sugar added everywhere, but we don't have a sense of how pervasive it is, how it could be hiding in three to four different places, under different names in one food product."
New Yorker writer Kolbert, who questioned the real impacts of the eco-stunters in 2009, might say that if Schaub really wanted to do something about sugar, she could lobby her kids' school — which she complains inundates the children with sugar — to regulate the sugary treats. She could push for a soda tax in the state of Vermont.
But she is a writer, and she's moving on to another topic close to her heart: clutter. Still, according to her publicist, 10,000 people pledged to join her on Wednesday for the Day Of No Sugar.
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