30 days without added sugar

“Please have some sugar!”  

That was the plea from my wife and daughter when I was midway through my #NoSugarChallenge. They noted I was <ahem> more irritable and unpleasant than usual. Whether that was a lack of sugar or just my personality, we’ll never know.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

What and why

I was inspired by my older son to try this challenge. We debated rules: Does maple syrup count? Agave? What about dextrose? Pretty quickly we settled on avoiding anything that included white or brown sugar, corn syrup or similar derivatives, or artificial sweeteners. We agreed that eating an apple, for example, or granola with real maple syrup, was acceptable. 

For most of my life, my approach to food was simple: if I liked it, I ate it. Over the last ten years, though, I have become more mindful of what I eat. My view of sugar in particular has changed as I saw my mother die of diabetes, and learned how one of every three people in the US will develop this preventable disease

I had tried similar challenges related to meat and alcohol. Now it was time to try a sugar challenge.

The immediate benefits

Starting from the first day, I became increasingly aware of sugar in my diet. I started reading more labels, and was often surprised at how sugar had insinuated itself into so many things. 

For the most part, it turns out, I don’t eat much added sugar. I like baking and enjoy ice cream, but for these 30 days I could easily avoid them. Dark chocolate, though, was a different matter. I have a habit of having a few pieces after dinner, and I really wanted that chocolate. To deal with my craving, I’m sure I drank more wine and had more second helpings than usual.

I also failed twice while I was on a business trip. Once was on purpose. At a nice restaurant with a friend who was looking forward to sharing dessert, I made a conscious decision to participate. The other time was an impulse, when some lovely-looking rice pudding was served for free after an Indian meal. I did not resist.

At the end of the challenge, I opened some chocolate I had purchased specifically for the occasion. I looked at, smelled it, and savored it. Just a few pieces. It was heavenly.

The absolute best part

The biggest benefit actually didn’t have anything to do with sugar, but with the practice itself: I became more confident, with a reinforced sense of self-control. I first experienced this when I became a vegetarian:

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

That feeling has increased with each challenge and with new habits like writing, meditation, and playing piano. For most of my life, my fear of big changes was matched only by self-criticism for my lack of discipline. Now, in mid-life, small experiments with my habits have changed my life.

The Stoic philosophers, along with modern psychologists, say that self-control is something to be developed, and that doing so makes for a happier life. I think they’re right.

What would we do if terrorists were making 27 million Americans deathly ill?

My mother died the way big companies fail, the way people go broke: gradually, then suddenly. She was diagnosed with diabetes in her 40s. Back then, we had little understanding of the disease or of nutrition. So we didn’t pay much attention to it except for occasionally chiding her to eat better or control her sugar.

Then, in her 70s, she grew increasingly stiffer and struggled to get around. She was short of breath after shorter walks. She moved less and less.

When she broke her hip, her body couldn’t fight her post-surgery infection or heal itself. She had a hole in her leg that never closed. “This isn’t living,” she told me as she looked up from her bed. She died a few weeks later.

Killing us softly

Seeing my mother die that way made me more mindful of the link between what I was eating and what my health would be like in my 60s, 70s, and beyond. The prospect of dying like my mother scared me into paying attention.

So I became increasingly aware of how the things that are making us sick are actively promoted, even celebrated, everywhere. I had grown up singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”  You could argue we didn't know better back then.

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke Commercial - 1971

But now? 44 years after the Coke ad I grew up with, we’re still programmed to associate joy with the things that are killing us. And the people who make money from doing so will protect their interests by all means at their disposal.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview with Coca-Cola's president of sparkling beverages in North America. It was in response to proposed legislation limiting the size of sodas that can be sold. The parallels to tobacco executives denying health claims are both striking and chilling.

Q: But critics call soft drinks "empty" calories.

A: A calorie is a calorie. What our drinks offer is hydration. That's essential to the human body. We offer great taste and benefits whether it's an uplift or carbohydrates or energy. We don't believe in empty calories. We believe in hydration.

Q: Because sugary drinks have been linked with obesity, some suggest soft-drink makers place "warning" labels on cans and bottles.

A: There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.

Terror at home

Type II diabetes - the kind that’s preventable as opposed to the kind you’re born with - is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States and it’s considered under-reported. One of every 10 adults in the US has diabetes. The Center for Disease Control projects that number to double or triple by 2050. If you have a child born after 2000, there is a 33 percent chance they will develop diabetes. If your child is black, there’s a 50% chance.

All these people are dying gradually, then suddenly.

CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospitalNow try the following thought experiment. Imagine we discovered that the diabetes epidemic was the result of a secret terrorist plot. What would our response be? Think of how we respond to other terrorist acts that affect a few hundred or a few thousand people. We wage wars and sacrifice some of our basic rights in the name of protecting ourselves. Imagine what we would do if terrorists were killing so many of us.

But the enemy is here at home, and it’s everywhere. Soda is just one product. There are thousands of others that are making us sick. We’ve grown so used to it that it’s just the way things are.

One thing you can do

My children mock my anger at the “evil major corporations.” Perhaps they’re right to do so. It seems silly to think anyone can change the sugar industry, government policies, advertising, and all the aspects of a system that’s killing us.

But there is one thing every individual can do that can make a difference: be mindful of what you eat and drink.

Consume whatever you want. Just make sure it’s your choice and not the result of corporate programming trying to make money from your misfortune. The more informed you are, the more you know about food and what’s in it and how it affects you, the easier this is. Think for yourself. Is this what I really want? Is this in my best interest or some corporation’s?

Over the holidays, my daughter passed an ad picturing Santa Claus offering her a drink, encouraging her to “open happiness.” She asked why companies would want to sell something that makes people sick. She wanted to make a video to warn other children. She’s 7 years old.

"That's my girl," I thought. And it gave me hope.