I was sick last week. Not the kind of sick where you can stagger around and take the kids to school in your pajamas and sort-of, kind-of get stuff done even though you’re miserable every minute. No. This was more the kind of sick where a bullhorn could be announcing imminent, catastrophic nuclear attack and you wouldn’t even bother to raise your head to say “good.”
So needless to say, I wasn’t getting much done besides an alarming amount of sleeping. When I wasn’t busy winning the academy award for “Most Pathetically Miserable,” I was reading. Which was good, because in the beginning few weeks of our Year of No Sugar, I did an Amazon search for books related to “sugar-as-toxin.” A few clicks later I was the proud owner of a small stack of tomes with such cheerful names as Suicide by Sugar. Well! If that doesn’t sound like a fun summer beach read, I don’t know what does.
Now that I’ve plowed my way through most of those paperbacks I have a few thoughts. Firstly, you can skip Suicide by Sugar: Why Our Sweet Tooth May be Killing Us, by Nancy Appleton PhD. Honestly, I couldn’t finish this one, I found it so annoying. Call me petty, but in a book that addresses a topic of health and human biology, I find back-cover references to “Dr. Appleton” misleading: this is not an author who attended medical school. Additionally, her prose is rambling and uncompelling.
What exasperated me the most, however, was chapters like “140 Reasons Why Sugar is Ruining Your Health.” Appleton says she’s been collecting these reasons “for about twenty years,” and they range from the just plain obvious (“5. Sugar in soda, when consumed by children, results in children drinking less milk.”) to the truly strange (“25. Sugar can lead to alcoholism”) Huh? I mean, I believe sugar to be the root of many modern evils, but even I balk at the assertions that it leads to polio, appendicitis, epileptic seizures and cancer of the rectum. No citations are given to lend credence to any of the “reasons,” and no explanations are offered. If sugar really does cause these maladies, we need a little more support for these assertions than just Appleton’s assurance that she read it somewhere, at some point. By the time you reach number 140 you half expect sugar to be found responsible for global warming and that weird fungus that’s killing all the bats.
Like many books that try to change our thinking about what we eat, Suicide contains a wrapping-up, “what to do now” chapter and an appendix of recipes. I’m definitely planning on trying Appleton’s Coconut Rice Pudding… however, if I work up the nerve to present my family with her “Beet Root Dessert” there might be a mutiny.
A much better book is The Sugar Fix: the High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making You Fat and Sick, by Richard J. Johnson M.D. The only book on the subject I found by an actual physician, Johnson is way better at telling his story in logical order, while peppering it with key compelling facts such as the Harvard study “of more than 90,000 female nurses (which) found that women whose daily diets included one or more beverages sweetened with sugar or HFCS… had an 83 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.” (p. 44) I’m sorry, did he say eighty-three percent?? Now, that’s a statistic that makes you sit up and take notice.
Johnson correlates over-consumption of fructose to all the usual suspects: cancer, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, liver and kidney disease, etc. He recommends a “Low Fructose Diet,” by which he means between 25 and 35 grams of fructose per day. And although I’m not a big fan of counting-while-eating, it is fun to consult Johnson’s handy reference guide and compare the differing amounts of fructose present in, say, an apple (9.5g), a 12 oz soda (20.2g), and a McDonald’s M&M McFlurry (30.1g). Gout sufferers will be particularly interested to read what Johnson has to say about the connection between sugar, purines, and the over-production of uric acid. Also intriguing is his argument for increased dairy consumption, which he says acts to counter-balance the impact of fructose.
One thing I don’t understand is why Johnson feels compelled to include instructions for things like “Grilled New York Strip Steak with Portobello Mushrooms and Garlic Butter.” Now, sure, if you’re ordering steak in a restaurant you might want to check to be sure they aren’t marinating it in maple syrup or using pre-packaged ingredients for the sauce which inevitably have sugar, MSG and a host of other hidden baddies … but at home? If you need to be told how to prepare a steak at home without adding sugar to it, then you have my condolences. You need more help than just this book.
Another bone I have to pick with Johnson’s recipes is that he loves Splenda: all four dessert recipes he includes use it. I’m sorry, but if it’s taken us over a hundred years to figure out what’s wrong with sugar…? I don’t really want to replace it with the next thing that will turn out to have been poisoning us a few decades from now. I’m just saying.
Now, if you’ve read this blog much at all you’ll know that the first one of these books that I read is far and away my favorite: Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat by Australian author David Gillespie. (Be sure not to confuse this with the American title Sweet Poison which discusses the adverse effects of aspartame.) This- along with the YouTube video by Dr. Robert Lustig- is the resource I keep coming back to again and again. Gillespie isn’t a PhD, or an MD, but rather trained as a lawyer. Perhaps because of this, he assembles the case against sugar convincingly, persuasively and even entertainingly.
Gillespie has a flair for the simple statement that resonates: “Fructose was killing me and everyone else as surely as if arsenic were being poured into the water supply.” (p. 148) He has a great sense of humor that illuminates his material, which could easily be too dry or too darn scary to be enjoyable: “If obesity was a disease like bird flu, we’d be bunkered down with a shotgun and three years’ supply of baked beans in the garage.” (p.101) This author makes reading about fructokinase and GLUT proteins as easily comprehensible and pleasant as I imagine it can possibly be. It is Gillespie, too, who conceives of using dextrose powder as an alternative sweetener… truly an “aha!” moment if there ever was one. Of all the non-fructose sweetening alternatives we’ve tried this year (from using bananas and dates to ogliofructose) dextrose has, for us, been by far the most successful.
Although he doesn’t include a recipe section in the book itself, the recipes Gillespie includes on his website are excellent. No messing around with useless topics (“How to Make Sugar Free Salsa!”)- these are real no-added-sugar desserts, with no Splenda in sight. Admittedly, you do have to pony up an annual membership fee to join the section of the site where the best recipes are, but honestly? It’s worth it. The Coconut Cake recipe alone is worth it.
From Gillespie’s own initial moment of realization, to his research into the history and biochemistry of sugar, to the scientific data that exists and that which he extrapolates to draw disturbing parallels between our consumption of sugar and our incidence of disease, Sweet Poison is by far the best told story of the bunch and therefore the most likely to actually change your behavior in a way that matters.
In the book’s final chapter, Gillespie distills his take-away message down to some very simple “rules”: “Don’t drink sugar. Don’t snack on sugar. Party food are for parties. Be careful at breakfast. And- there is no such thing as good sugar.” (You hear that, all you Agave-heads?)
Instead of counting calories or grams or servings of fish oil or whatever other improbable fussiness some health experts would have us commit to in the pursuit of health, happiness and next year’s swimsuit fashions, it is “Gillespie’s Rules” that seem to me to make the most logical sense. Isn’t that the Occam’s Razor maxim: the simplest solution is usually the correct one? So when people ask me “What will you do when the No Sugar Year is over?” I think the most likely answer is that we will follow these deceptively simple sounding rules.
Because of the culture we live in, and our collective unwillingness to examine what is really making our society explode with disease… I’m pretty sure it will still be very, very hard.