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What I Learned from a Year of No Sugar

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As more of us question how much sugar we eat because of possible connections to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, we started wondering: What would it be like to give up sugar? Eve O. Schaub, a writer in Vermont, decided to find out. For 365 days, Schaub and her husband and two daughters cut out all added sugars. She documented the experience in Year of No Sugar (out in April), Below is an excerpt, plus her best advice for following in her footsteps.

Originally, when I first contemplated the idea of a Year of No Sugar, images of cravings, temptation, and deprivation came to mind. My personal mental picture involved me in an Old West-style showdown with one of those wonderful square Ritter chocolate bars: "Let's go, chocolate," I'd sneer, perhaps from under a sombrero. "You and me. Mano a mano." You know, if chocolate had hands.

But in truth what I was finding was that the hardest moments weren't solitary, quite the opposite. In fact, if I could just home-school the kids and avoid all restaurants and social events for the year—in other words if we could just move to a new address under a convenient rock—the project would be a comparative snap. Turns out, at least for me, the social isolation of being on a different wavelength from the rest of the world around you was one of the most difficult parts of all.

For example, one day in April we attended the biggest local event I'd seen in my 14 years in our town: a fundraiser to benefit the owners of a general store that had burned to the ground in the middle of the night two weeks prior. The event was so sudden, so shocking, so deeply upsetting to the community, that within hours plans were being fomented on Facebook for what would eventually blossom into a huge community expression of support and love. The resulting blow-out event featured a pig roast and chicken barbecue, a silent auction of more than a hundred items, a bake sale of gargantuan proportions, live music by a local honky-tonk band, a swing set raffle, tractor rides, and face painting. Phew! We showed up to find hundreds and hundreds of people already in line for all of the above. But most of all they were in line for the food.

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Now, we'd been doing no sugar for months now, so you might think by this point I'd have figured this food thing out, right? But then there's that annoying fact that I can be—only sometimes, mind you—a little slow on the uptake. Honestly, amazingly, it really didn't occur to me that we wouldn't be able to eat the majority of food on the menu for this event until we were already there. Meat and pasta salad? Fine, right? Wait, no—pasta salad would have mayonnaise, the pork and chicken had barbecue sauce, so, um, what else? Baked beans, coleslaw…sugar was certainly in most of the menu items, if not all of them. And you can't very well go to an event like this, with hundreds in line behind you waiting their turn, and start asking volunteers nit-picky questions about the pasta salad. You just can't.

Fortunately, we had been assuming we'd eat there later in the afternoon as an early dinner, and we had eaten lunch, so we weren't starving. Instead, we focused on everything else: We bought event t-shirts, we bid on items at the silent auction, the kids swung (swang?) on the raffle swing set and got their faces painted. Practically everyone in town made an appearance that afternoon, and in a town of just over 1,000 people that amounts to a great big party where you know virtually all of the guests. Now, in our neighborhood, a fundraiser is considered a walloping success if it raises anywhere near the thousand dollar mark. At the end of this particular event an unheard-of $30,000 was raised to help storeowners Will and Eric, who wandered around the event looking dazed by the outpouring of support.

I came home with an empty feeling in me that only partly had to do with the fact that it was getting to be dinnertime. Everyone in the community had come together to help our neighbors Will and Eric, and we were a part of that, certainly. But we all know food is symbolic, food is important. When people break bread together it means something. At least for the time being, our family was, in some small way, existing apart.

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The day before the event, like everybody else, we had gone to drop off our family's auction donation at the firehouse. It was very social, everyone standing around and marveling at the variety and quality of different auction items, ("Have you seen this one?") But what I really reeled at was the bake-sale table. Goodies of every conceivable shape and size were crowded across two nine-foot tables, jostling for space, in the process of being neatly cataloged and labeled by my friend Rhonda. Rhonda was one of the event's organizers, and also a reader of my blog who regularly posted comments and links to interesting sugar-related articles she came across.

Staring wide-eyed at the spread of frostings, sprinkles, chips, jellies, and coconut cream, I joked with Rhonda that I should take a photo of the awe-inspiring spread to post on my blog. "Oh no!" she said, genuinely taken aback, "but…this is good!"

Her reaction stuck with me, because I think it has everything to do with how inextricably emotion and food are intertwined in our culture. I mean, of course it's good, right? The outpouring of emotion was physically visible in response to what was a shocking and violent event. People wanted to express love and comfort in the name of Will and Eric, to literally wrap them up in all that is warm and good and predictable, in an effort to make up for the scary thing that had changed their lives forever. What better way to do this than with a nice coffeecake or tray of raspberry thumbprints? We all understand, implicitly, when dessert is intended this way, as a concrete manifestation of love.

What Rhonda's comment made me realize is that it's all well and good to demonize sugar when you're talking about the Big Bad Corporations, sneaking high fructose corn syrup into our ketchup and mayonnaise; it's another thing entirely to go after grandma's lovingly baked molasses cookies. The problem is, nutritionally your body can't tell the difference between the "bad" sugar (from Big Food Inc.) and "good" sugar (from Grandma). Fructose is fructose. And an excess of fructose consumption, now at its highest levels ever and still climbing, is making our society sick.

I imagine that one day, when the data has become so abundant as to be incontrovertible having a buffet of sugar that rivals the actual food will be considered as socially unacceptable as smoking on airplanes or littering out your car window—things which we as a society once accepted as completely normal yet now we have come to realize the destructiveness of. Nobody's trying to say we can't smoke or drink or throw things away; they're just saying we have to be careful—much more careful—about how we go about it. Same with sugar.

Excerpt adapted from Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub, Sourcebooks, April 2014

Read on for Schaub's best advice for cutting back on sugar.

Top Tips to Skip Sugar

1. Don't drink sugar. If you do only one thing to limit your sugar intake, avoid sugared drinks: soda, sweetened teas, vitamin waters, sports drinks, and yes, juice. New studies are proving that consuming sugar in liquid form makes you feel less full than the equivalent amount of sugar in solid form. What's left? Unsweetened coffee, tea, milk, and water, water, water.

2. Rethink your snack regime. So-called healthy snacks (flavored yogurts, granola, dried fruits, bars) often have as much or more added sugar as a candy bar. Instead, seek out no-added-sugar alternatives: raisins, nuts, plain yogurt with fresh fruit, popcorn, hummus with veggies, or no-sugar crackers. Several varieties of Larabar are composed entirely of no-added-sugar dried fruit and nuts; I keep these in my purse for Snack Emergencies.

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3. Read ingredientsalways. I used to think I read ingredients all the time, but I was wrong—I read them sometimes; other times I just assumed that I already knew what was in a product. However, if I learned anything at all from our Year of No Sugar, it's never to assume. Go ahead: Check your tortellini. Your smoked salmon. Your mayonnaise. Your sausages. Your chicken broth. I'll wait. [Tweet this tip!]

4. Remember that sugar is sugar. During our Year of No Sugar the question we found ourselves asking the most was, "but what about…?" So we developed a litmus test: Is the sugar extracted from some other source? Then it's B-A-D. An apple, with all its corresponding fiber and micronutrients still attached is fine—the natural sugar is not extracted. But maple syrup? Honey? Evaporated cane syrup? Organic fruit juice? Extracted. Added sugar by any other name is still added sugar.

5. Order simply at restaurants, and don't be afraid to ask. Once you start asking, you'll be amazed at how much restaurant food has sugar added. If it has a lot of sauce, it's probably hiding a heap of sugar, so avoid the usual suspects of sneaky sugar: dips, dressings, gravies, glazes, soup broths, and marinades.

6. Try cooking and baking with alternative sweeteners. My two favorite sugar alternatives are dextrose powder and barley malt syrup. Dextrose powder is made from corn and I use it in place of granulated sugar; barley malt syrup is a good replacement for viscous sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. Because they are about one-third the sweetness of regular sugar you'll need to experiment to find the right balance of ingredients, but once you do you'll see you can cook and bake practically anything without added sugar. If experimenting isn't your thing, the subscription website How Much Sugar is a treasure-trove of no-added-sugar recipes.

7. Don't make it a big deal. The last thing people want to hear is how "good for them" something is. Sugar in our culture is synonymous with fun, so saying something is sugar-free is tantamount to saying it is fun-free, not to mention probably taste-free. Instead, the proof is in the pudding—or the cake. I find the best strategy is not to mention that the Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting you brought to the potluck has no added sugar...and then watch as the entire thing disappears, down to the crumbs.

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8. Make dessert special. Most of us aren't planning to give sugar up forever—even me. Making sugar a special treat helps me not feel like I'm constantly denying myself or trying to live under a rock. Instead, I have only the things I really care about, once in a while: on a weekend or on someone's birthday. You'll find the less sugar you have, the less you crave it, so it's suddenly a lot easier to walk right by that box of store-bought cookies at the office. Instead, save your allotment of added sugar for something truly special, and because it's special, you'll enjoy it all the more. [Tweet this tip!]