April 20, 2015 § 5 Comments
I can’t be sure, but I have this vague idea that once upon a time people ate food. Just food. They didn’t talk about it in terms of calories, or grams, or “free sugars” or “percentages of energy intake.” They talked about it in terms of food.
And to a certain degree I think it would be kind of nice to get back to this idea that food is for eating, not for counting, or measuring, or hiding in the bottom of our sock drawer, or whatever the latest medical advice is. I don’t know if you’ve noticed? But it seems the Era of Nutritional Advice is not exactly doing us a whole heck of a lot of good.
Of course the oft-noted irony is that despite the fact that we are all inundated with recommendations from every conceivable source about what we eat, and how we eat it; we are less healthy than ever. We have epidemics of things our grandparents considered extremely rare- like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease- as well as things we’ve unwittingly invented- like metabolic syndrome. Worst of all, this generation of children is the first on record predicted to live shorter lives than their parents.
In the wake of the World Health Organization’s recent nutritional recommendations I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of nutritional advice, and where it gets us. When the WHO advises people- as it did a few weeks ago- to try to limit their “free sugars” to “5% of total energy intake,” I know the twelve or thirteen people who actually paid attention to that report probably wanted to claw hysterically at their refrigerator doors and scream: “WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN???”
I’m here to tell you that, as a person who’s spent the last several years thinking about, writing about, and generally obsessing over the impacts of sugar on our health, I don’t know what the recommendation means- not instinctively, anyway. So, besides the physicians and nutritionists, who the heck does?
Practically nobody. Instead, the highly motivated among us (read: fanatical) sit down and try to figure it out with pencil and paper and a few good internet searches. Upon further research we learn that an average adult diet might consist of about 500 grams of food per day. This would mean that 5% of an average “total energy intake” would be 25 grams. Which, if we know that 4 grams equals about one teaspoon of sugar, would translate to roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Of course, this is wildly nonspecific— do I eat 500 grams of food per day? Do you? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?— but unless we want to wander around describing every last mouthful we ingest to a computer app, or invent an implant that will automatically count it all up for us and display the information on our wrist or forehead or something- broad generalizations will have to do.
But here’s some practical info that these generalizations translate into, that the groups like the WHO or the Department of Health and Human Services won’t- can’t– come out and tell you in so many words: effectively the new recommendation means don’t drink soda or juice. Why? Because:
– a 12 oz can of Coke= 10 tsp sugar
– a 20 oz bottle of Coke= 16 tsp sugar
– a 15 oz Naked juice smoothie= 17 tsp sugar
See? If, as we’ve just figured out, the average adult recommendation is not more than 6 tsp sugar per day, than have one can of soda and already the alarms are going off: you’ve had nearly two days worth of sugar right there, not including anything else you might eat or drink that day. Have a larger soda or a “healthy” juice smoothie? And that alarm becomes a blaring siren: that’s nearly three days worth of sugar.
Hopefully by now people are starting to get the message that there’s a scary amount of sneaky sugar hiding in virtually every product for sale in our supermarkets… in our bread, in our chicken broth, in our mayonnaise… and so on. Two pieces of bread might contain one tsp sugar, a serving of chicken broth might contain ¼ tsp sugar, a tablespoon of mayo less than that. Certainly we need to be mindful of how all these small sources of sugar add up throughout the course of our day. Yet, as you can see, none of these sources can hold a candle to the blast of sugar that your system receives when you drink just one juice or soda.
So if the WHO were to recommend the biggest, simplest, most practical step people could take in the reduction of dietary sugar and improvement of their long-term health? Clearly, it would be to stop drinking soda and juice.
But OhMyGod can you imagine the mess the World Health Organization would be in for if they started telling people not to drink juice or soda anymore? Previous attempts to stem the sugar tide— such as banning the bucket soda or taxing sugar-sweetened beverages— have resulted in such indignant histrionics that you’d think Mountain Dew had been mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. So what would outright telling people just how bad for them their favorite drinks are do? I’m pretty sure all-freaking-heck would break loose. Panic in the streets… mass hysteria… dogs and cats living together…
But it could be worth it. I know it sounds impossible now, but if soda and juice were relegated to the category of Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, (along with doctor-recommended cigarettes, parachute pants, and deep fried butter on a stick) maybe it would mean that we could all stop with the calorie/gram/percentage-counting madness— all of which obfuscates more than it clarifies— and instead of having a “dietary energy intake” we could just go back to what I like to call: “eating food.” And be healthier in the bargain.
A crazy idea, but it just might work.
January 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Very excited to have an excerpt from a Year of No Sugar on Shape magazine’s site, along with my list of “Top Tips to Skip Sugar.” Check it out!
December 9, 2013 § 7 Comments
Is it April yet? How about now?
As if receiving the advance reader copies of Year of No Sugar this past Friday wasn’t exciting enough– the wonderful PR people at Sourcebooks are up all night designing lovely things like this “6 Ways to Live Sugar Free” promotional sheet… how cool is this?
Click on the image to the left to see all three recipes.
April 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Here’s my situation: currently, I am somewhat frantically pulling together a book ( a fascinating book!! Soon-to-be described as “unputdownable!!” Coming to a New York Times Bestseller list near you!!) about last year, our family’s Year of No Sugar. In the book I am spending lots of time writing about spending more time cooking food at home from scratch, the direct result of which is that I have officially become busier and less available to cook food at home from scratch than ever before.
You have to love irony.
But the time has come, I suppose to put my money where my mouth is- or at least my cooking where my free moments are, which is to say, few and far between. I know that the conundrum of being torn between commitments to work and wanting to feed my family well is hardly unique, but if I thought last year was a challenge, this year is certainly proving to be even more so.
I’m not sure if it helps that I feel terrifically guilty about our new state of being, about the fact that we’re eating out on average two or sometimes three times a week compared to only once a week previously. It’s not even that we’re suddenly eating lots of sugar in doing so… we’re not. In fact, we’re still eating at the same we-really-do-make-it-ourselves establishments we found refuge in during all of our No Sugar escapades last year. We’re still being incredibly moderate when we do indulge in a dessert- rather than ordering three or four desserts, ordering one dessert and three or four spoons instead. We’re still avoiding soda and juice as if it were rat poison, still packing school lunches at home, still even making my own bread and tomato sauce from scratch.
So what’s my problem, exactly? For one thing, I’m too lucky. I know that there are lots of people who couldn’t afford to eat out this much, and certainly not at the nicer kinds of places that are likely to have cooked their meals from scratch. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have discovered Kate- the talented caterer who lives a mile from my house and who offers wonderful home-cooked soups, quiches and biscuits once per week for pick-up straight out of her kitchen. Out here in the country- where we like to brag that you have to drive half an hour to buy a carton of milk- her appearance on the scene with fresh, homemade, convenient take-out made with local ingredients is nothing short of a Food Miracle… if I have a Food Fairy Godmother I think it might be Kate.
Is it okay that I’m this lucky? Somehow it makes me feel like I’m cheating. Other times it’s still hard to get the dishes done, the piano practicing complete, the homework read, the activities attended and the children showered and in bed before we have to get up and do it all over again- even with those crutches. There’s some weird, control-freaky part of me that is reluctant to give myself a break and remember that we’re all human and to -as they say- take it one day at a time. Reminding me of those things is one of the things my husband is here for, apparently- because he’s awfully good at it, even if he does have to repeat himself a bit. As he points out, I can’t spend all morning making a homemade lasagna and then beat myself up for not accomplishing any writing, and neither can I write all afternoon and then be annoyed at myself that I didn’t make every item on our dinner table from scratch.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We can’t have our cake and eat it too (if you’ll excuse the sugar-based proverb.) When I was pre-teenager my mom began law school: I remember it well- it was the same year she started buying Swanson Hungry Man dinners. There it is, right? The modern day trade-off- the liberated woman bargain, if you like- in a nutshell.
We can’t eat like crap because it’s convenient and then be surprised when our health suffers. Neither can we spend our lives grinding our wheat berries by hand and churning our own butter, and ever expect to accomplish anything but the relatively thankless and quickly forgotten job of getting ourselves fed for one more day. Somehow we have to prioritize the things we care about. How do you choose between your ambition and your food? Your life’s work and your family’s health? You don’t, of course, but maintaining that balance is excruciatingly hard; a highwire act on rollerskates. In a rainstorm. I’m trying my hardest, but still, like any mom- I question myself. I wonder… could it be better?
November 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
If you had asked me to define “Game Supper” before I moved to Vermont 14 years ago, I probably would’ve guessed a potluck involving Scrabble, or possibly Bridge. Not only was I a “city mouse,” but I had been a devoted vegetarian for over a decade. To me, “game” meant only one thing: Monopoly.
I can imagine how horrified that version of me would’ve been- the me who insisted that our sit-down wedding dinner for one hundred consist entirely of vegetables and fish- to encounter the amazing annual phenomenon that is the local Game Supper.
Lucky for me, I’m a carnivore now. These days our whole family looks forward to enjoying the spoils of the hunt even though we didn’t get up at the crack of dawn to go sit in a cold tree stand sprinkled with deer urine for several hours. Then again, who knows? At the rate we’re going, maybe in another ten years we’ll be doing that too.
Every November (read: deer season) each town around here has their own Game Supper benefitting deserving local causes such as the volunteer fire department and the sixth grade annual field trip to Boston. We’ve been to the Pawlet Game Supper for the last few years and the menu is reliable: Moose Meatballs (the whole reason to go), Bear Steak (to say you’ve had it), Chicken and Biscuits (for the very squeamish,) and Venison, Venison, Venison. Venison Stew, Venison Steak, Venison Sausage, and if you’re in luck maybe Gib made his famous Venison Salami- only one piece per customer please, supplies are limited.
Of course there are sides- mashed potatoes and squash- if you have any room left on your plate, which you won’t. Salads, rolls and paper plates filled with cocktail-sized blocks of Vermont cheddar wait on the tables once you’re done running the buffet line. And if you’re still hungry- which you won’t be- and still eating sugar, there’s always the football-field sized dessert table, with slices of apple, lemon merengue and chocolate pie making kids drool from all the way over by the fire exit sign.
But the word on the street was that “Rupert’s Game Supper is better.” So this year it was time to check that one out too. Which is how I came to try beaver. It’s also how I came to spit beaver out into my napkin .0395 seconds later.
If anyone ever asks you to define what “gamey” tastes like, you should send them to try a nice dish of beaver. One friend remarked that eating beaver is like “eating an oil slick” and I have to say I couldn’t agree more. But I tried it.
Another key difference between Pawlet and Rupert’s suppers is that they wear funny hats at the Rupert Game Supper- antler headbands, chicken hats, sombreros- you name it. Nobody I asked knew why.
This year, however, I had a whole new appreciation for our Game Suppers as the one local event we could attend with confidence in our Year of No Sugar. The distinctions were crystal clear, with one or two exceptions: the meat was on one side of the room, and the sugar was on the other. After all the back handsprings we’ve done to ferret out fructose this year, the clarity of this division was quite comforting.
Which returns me to an increasingly familiar refrain: the idea of going back in time a bit in order to avoid the health impacts our over-processed, over-convenient lifestyle has bestowed upon us. There is a point at which all these hippy-dippy themes- no sugar, no plastics, no pesticides, eat local- start to converge; suddenly we begin to see what it is we’re driving at- what great-grandma used to cook. And much of it looked a lot like the Game Supper.
Although I’m pretty sure Great-Grandma never wore a funny hat.
July 27, 2011 § 2 Comments
So here we are on the plane coming home from our family trip to Italy, and I’m not at all sure how to feel about the way No Sugar went over the last two weeks. On the one hand, you could say we did really well… we drank cappuccino while everyone around us had gelato. We drank water, water and more water. When we met up with relatives and extended family in Northern Italy they were kind enough to make special requests for us at restaurants and to engineer no-sugar versions of things like Barbecue Sauce for us when we ate in. We held fast to our individual exceptions and steered clear of so many fun European treats we would’ve loved to have: Nutella, flavored yogurts, those funny little snack cookies that Europeans do so well. We looked the other way when passing elaborate shop windows filled with pyramids of chocolate truffles, fancy meringues and exotic looking candies.
And, as I mentioned before, sugar is easier to separate out in a place like Italy, easier to spot than in America where its presence is so much more insidious and pervasive. It’s true that ordering water instead of soda is actually considered a respectable option in Europe, whereas in America it’s somehow slightly looked down upon as slightly odd or cheap. (“Oh, you’re just having water?”) And sure, I was well supplied with my big bag of Snacks For Emergencies including Larabars, coconut cookies and any fruit we managed to pick up along the way… not to mention that we guiltily threw away more sugar than I care to think about: complimentary Swiss chocolate bars, Italian Baci, a large tub of “Tiramisu” ice cream.
Yet, like some sort of mutant slime from a cheesy horror movie, I kept feeling sugar creeping back in... around the ancient marble door frames and through the windows’ bulky wooden shutters, following us like shadows along the tourist-jammed streets. Small things, mostly. Once, Steve accidentally came home from the supermarket with a large vanilla yogurt rather than plain. Once, while staying the night in a B&B I put granola on my plain yogurt in desperation to avoid the Nutella and sweet yellow cake that constituted my other breakfast options, all the while looking the other way while my kids ate Cornflakes. (Cornflakes! Horrors!) Once, in a cafeteria across the street from the Duomo, we picked out what we thought were strawberries and yogurts for the girls’ snack, only to discover all that white stuff was whipped cream… not yogurt. Once, while having our unsweetened cappuccinos for a snack, we were sufficiently crazed with peckishness that we ate the hard little gingerbread cookies that had thoughtfully been placed on the saucers. Yes, these are the things that keep me up at night: whipped cream ambushes and postage-stamp-sized complimentary cookies.
Then again, other things are bigger. Twice our whole family succumbed to the siren song of gelato- (only once, in my opinion was worth it: peach, with little bits of skin throughout.) With an average of 95 degrees each day in Florence, and an average of fourteen tourists slurping a cone for every ten you passed on the street, keeping it to only twice was quite the superhuman effort.
Once, I heard our affable waitress describe the Tiramisu dessert as “buonissima” and I- swept away by the joy of a delicious meal and the fact that I was understanding far more of the Italian conversation than I had expected to- impulsively ordered two for the girls… only to have it not be all that “buonissima” after all. Phoo.
Once, we partook of thin slivers of a delicious Crostata Ciocolatta which was the birthday dessert of our now eight-year-old cousin whose family we met up with in Northern Italy. This was in the Dolomites, an alpine region of Italy so far to the North that prior to World War One it was part of Austria… and, as it turns out, a very dangerous place in which to send my husband off to the bakery. The first time he found the bakery as if in a trance, wafted in on the scent of a fresh apple strudel, which he promptly bought- helplessly- only to then give away to the extended family we had met up with. The second time he came home with a combination of sweet and not-sweet pastry, and by the third time he was arriving home with little marzipan hedgehogs and delicately wrapped bars of chocolate embedded with animal crackers or hazelnuts. I knew we had to get out of there, quick.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that none of these “sweet” treats, when tried, yielded that sugar blast Americans are so fond of… While an apple strudel or chocolate pie in the United States wouldn’t be considered worth it’s salt if it failed to make your teeth ache, the things we tried in bites here and there truly surprised us: apple strudel actually tasted like apples; the chocolate pie tasted of pastry and cream. No explosion of sweet; no King Kong-sized portions. When we saw a Ben & Jerry’s in Florence, I wondered what the Italians thought of flavors like Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough Ice Cream and Phish Food (doesn’t that have caramel and gummy bears in it?), when juxtaposed with the elegant subtlety of a, say, peach gelato? Do they think we’ve completely lost our minds?
Back in Florence, on the last night, after very kindly being served complimentary biscotti as we tried to pay the dinner bill (help!) Steve and the girls had a goodbye treat of yet another gelato (that’s three, for those keeping score) while I abstained. By that time I could feel the ground moving beneath me. I agonized as I packed my suitcase. We had had so much more sugar here than we would have at home, yet so very much less than we would have had if not for The Project… What did that mean? Had we been good? Or not so good? Both, I imagine. In fact, I suppose the answer was that we were human.
Oh, and yes, we had a great time… thank you. Of course, most vacations, no matter how much fun, have to end. Lucky for us.
June 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
Now that we are creeping up on- dare I say it?- halfway through our Year of No Sugar (!!!) there is a very pleasant law of dietary inertia setting in, that is: a person not eating sugar tends to stay not eating sugar. Compared to our shaky beginnings on January first, we’ve acclimated significantly to the challenges of shopping differently, eating differently, and talking to people about it. I still make mistakes, dumb ones, like just the other day when, for variety’s sake, I picked up a package of Applegate Farms organic ham slices at the health food store instead of the usual Applegate Farms organic roasted turkey, without double-checking the ingredients… um, Eve, hel-lo? Still, we’ve gotten to a point where we might be what you’d call… fairly well used to it.
To celebrate meeting the nebulous milestone of being “fairly well used to it,” Greta, my eleven year old daughter and I did a short presentation for her fifth grade class which we might’ve titled “Yeah, Like, What the Heck is Greta’s Family Doing, Again?” I was nervous. I realized that for all the talking and reading and thinking and agonizing I’ve done on this subject, I haven’t spoken before a group about it at all. Sure they’re fifth graders, not a congressional inquiry, but nonetheless I had visions of difficult biochemistry questions being lobbed at me by kids who aren’t about to give up their chocolate-covered Twinkies without a fight.
Worse, as I made up my notes for the talk, I was having trouble striking the right chord somewhere in between being the world’s most boring health teacher (“Can anyone tell me the incredibly fascinating difference between lactose and galactose? Hmmm?”) and scaring the pee out of them (“Well, according to what I’ve been reading, sugar causes obesity, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer, not to mention elephantitis of the pores, rampant yellow toe fungus, the end of the world and not getting asked to the junior prom!!! AIIIGHHHH!”)
Most of all, I worried about the same thing all mothers of pre-teen girls worry about: budding eating disorders. The last, last, LAST thing I wanted to do in the course of discussing important topics like the national epidemic of obesity, was to inadvertently encourage some fifth grade girl not to eat. Have I put enough pressure on myself yet? Just wait till I have to talk to The New York Times– I’ll melt into a little savory puddle on the floor.
But I think it went okay, after all. I focused on some key terms and statistics I thought might perk their interest: how every man, woman and child consumes on average 2.7 pounds of sugar per week (I held up a five pound bag of sugar to demonstrate one person’s two week allotment. Interestingly, the kids seemed rather unfazed by this), what a “Western Disease” is (guesses included “pneumonia” and “malaria”- so good we talked about this one), and how doctors decide whether a person is a healthy weight, overweight, or obese. I mean, you hear about an “epidemic of obesity,” but what does that really mean?
I put the BMI (Body Mass Index) formula on the board: weight in pounds times 703, divided by the square of your height in inches. Amazingly, the kids really perked up at this. There were sudden shuffling noises as kids grabbed for pieces of paper and pencils, presumably so they could calculate their own BMI, although I have to admit that I wasn’t about to start figuring out what sixty-six squared is on paper. I demonstrated how I got my own BMI by plugging in my own height and weight… and whipping out my handy dandy calculator.
The other two most popular part of the hour was more predictable: when Greta distributed my most recent dextrose dessert effort: carob chip brownies. I was delighted to see that everyone ate their entire brownie- which to me equals success, not just for my changed palate, but to kids who may very well view sugar as one of the four food groups. That’s one of the things you can still say about kids at this age- they haven’t learned to varnish their opinions yet in the name of politeness. Most fifth graders aren’t going to eat a yucky brownie just to be polite to someone’s mom.