If fat was the star dietary villain for the past few decades, sugar is quickly stepping up to take its place. The sweet stuff figures prominently in the recent documentary Fed Up. There are websites, such as I Quit Sugar, devoted to eliminating sugar from the diet. And several books published this year chronicle or advocate similar nutritional journeys, including Year of No Sugar — which recounts a family’s quest to rid their lives of added sugars — and The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, written by Dr. Mark Hyman, who just so happens to advise the Clinton family on matters of healthy eating.
According to Dr. Hyman, there may be no worse evil clogging up America’s diets than sugar — in all of its insidious forms. As his book title suggests, he advocates total avoidance for 10 days to give the body a break from junk and processed food, rebalance blood sugar and help kill a sugar addiction.
Eve Schaub, the author of Year of No Sugar, started wondering about the topic after watching Sugar: The Bitter Truth, a video lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, of the University of California, San Francisco. “After I came to the understanding that sugar isn’t just a harmless pleasure, I wanted to see how hard it would be to completely exclude it from our lives,” Schaub says.
Sugars do have a profound effect on the body. “Your blood sugar spikes very quickly and you feel a rush of energy, but then your blood sugar crashes quickly and want to eat more sugar,” says Ximena Jimenez, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They digest so fast that hunger isn’t completely satisfied.”
Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, but they don’t have quite such a dramatic effect. “Those foods contain fiber and protein which means they take longer to digest and are more satisfying,” Jimenez says.
Not surprisingly, the Schaub family found their anti-sugar lifestyle to be a struggle — at least in the beginning. “When we told the kids, they burst into tears,” says Schaub, who also found that the time she spent grocery shopping doubled until she became familiar with the many aliases sugar goes by and could tell which products to avoid.
Added sugars – which might also appear on food labels under the names cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, sucrose, dextrose, honey, corn sweetener, honey, agave, high fructose corn syrup and countless others — are found in obvious products like cookies, cakes and candies. But they also turn up in numerous places one might not expect it, including cereal, ketchup, pasta sauce, barbecue sauce and salad dressing.
Most experts agree that limiting added sugars is a healthy choice. Current guidelines recommend no more than six teaspoons (about 100 calories) daily for women and nine teaspoons (about 150 calories) for men. As a frame of reference, the average 12-ounce can of soda has about eight teaspoons.
Too much sugar in a diet increases a person’s risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It can also raise triglyceride levels, which increases risk of heart attack and stroke. “But I never tell people something is totally forbidden, since that taboo often makes you want it even more,” Jimenez says. “All foods — even sugar — can fit into a balanced diet, so I think there’s nothing wrong with incorporating a small treat on occasion.”
It’s an idea that, to some degree, the Schaub family has put into practice since the book experiment ended. “We don’t have to be quite as strict as we were during our no sugar year,” Schaub says, “but I still refuse to buy foods at the store which have sugar in them as an ingredient. We will have dessert once in a while, for a special occasion — but it’s very small and very special.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.