There are plenty of reasons for American families to put the brakes on sugar consumption. Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, liver cirrhosis and even dementia have all been linked to diets overloaded with the sweet stuff, much of it added to processed foods and sweetened beverages. Still, cutting back can be daunting. Pawlet, Vt.-based writer Eve Schaub and her family found out how tough when they went (mostly) sugar-free for 12 months. She recalls the challenges and victories in the new book Year of No Sugar: A Memoir. Schaub spoke with USA Today's Michelle Healy:
Q: Your daughters, Greta and Ilsa, were 11 and 5, respectively, when the family initiated this project three years ago. Their initial response?
A: They burst into tears. They very quickly realized that this was going to affect so many different parts of their lives. Ilsa immediately asked about her birthday and Halloween and the Easter Bunny.
Q: Parties and holidays, especially those focused on kids, are typically laden with sugary treats. Your daughters still participated?
A: After careful consideration, we decided on the Birthday Party Rule for the girls. If they were at an event where everyone around them was having a sugar thing, cake, dessert, what have you, the decision whether or not to have it was totally up to them. That was helpful for me in a lot of ways: One, the guilt factor. But I also asked them to tell me if they decided to have the cupcake at the party. I ended up hearing about sugar coming at them from way more places than just the here and there birthday party.
Q: You built in two other exceptions — a sweet family dessert once a month and allowing each family member one personal exception. Why?
A: It seemed key since this was about taking away power and autonomy. The exception gave everyone a security blanket so they could still have that sense that they hadn't totally abandoned everything. We each chose something pretty mild, considering. I had a glass of wine in the evening; my husband Steve, diet soda, which of course, brought a whole separate set of things to worry about. I talked the girls into jam because I thought we could get a lot of mileage out of it, whether on peanut butter sandwiches at lunch or on toast in the morning.
Q: How difficult was it ferreting out hidden sugars in foods when shopping?
A: I felt like I should have brought a magnifying glass for all of that teeny tiny type and a dictionary because of all of the aliases that sugar has been given. There's the strange and unfamiliar, like invert sugar and treacle, and then there's the ordinary stuff that sounds positive, like organic evaporated cane juice. And it's everywhere. The chicken broth and beef broth really startled me. The crackers. I continue to be astounded by that. Things like tortellini, sausages, cold cuts surprised me.
Q: Taking your lead from obesity research Robert Lustig, among others, you zeroed in on eliminating all fructose-containing sweeteners. Not only high-fructose cane sugar, but things like agave, honey, even fruit juices?
A: We asked two questions: Does it have fructose and is that fructose extracted from some other source? Sugar is made up roughly of half glucose, half fructose. And fructose, according to the research, is the bad stuff. It's the part our body can't process, that turns into fat and results in all kinds of terrible things happening in our body. The things that correlate to all of these health crises that are now at epidemic proportions.
Q: Did going sugar-free mean an increase in time spent cooking and preparing meals?
A: There's no doubt that if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of making sure your mayonnaise doesn't have sugar in it, that your bread doesn't contain sugar, that your chicken broth is sugar-free, and so on, you're going to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
Q: Ultimately, were you healthier after a year of no sugar?
A: None of us lost any noticeable weight, and the girls didn't have problems with hyperactivity to begin with, so I didn't notice a big change in their demeanor. But we all had a sense of feeling healthier, having more energy. And we noticed that over time, very sweet things became more and more disgusting to us. If I ate very sweet things, I got a pounding headache. And all of us were pooping more. People are often squeamish talking about that, but it's such a big indication of good health.
Q: More than two years later, have you gone back to sugar?
A: We hover somewhere in the middle. I'd classify us as high-level sugar avoiders. Part of me is just stubborn, and I say sugar just does not have to be in tomato sauce, darn it. And even if I don't have time to make my own, I'm not buying the one with sugar in it because I'm just mad about it. However, yes, I buy mayonnaise. It has a tiny amount of sugar in it. During our year of no-sugar it didn't matter if there was a fraction of a gram, we didn't have it. Now, I'll have mayonnaise, or bacon, or some other things you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find it in. It's not the end of the world if you have that fraction of a gram.
Some no-sugar lessons the Schaub family learned and continue to live by:
• Make easy homemade versions of grocery staples that have hidden sugar: salad dressings, pasta sauce, pizza dough, quick breads.
• Avoid fruit juice, soda or store-bought desserts.
• Use dextrose (glucose), a simple sugar for everyday baking and cooking.
• Check ingredients list at grocery stores. If sugar used as a filler ingredient is one of the first items listed, don't buy.
• Order simpler items at restaurants. If it has a lot of sauces, it's probably hiding a heap of sugar.
•Have a larger conversation about sugar with the whole family — especially at major sugar holidays like Halloween and Christmas.