Published on September 9th, 2012 | by Andrea Bertoli4
the sweet life: learning to live without sugar
Recently I had to face some health issues that necessitated a pretty serious shift in my eating habits. Sugar is one of the things that I eliminated, along with dairy, breads, and alcohol. I’ve always been a very healthy eater, so while other aspects of the transition are going well, I’ve found it incredibly challenging to avoid sugar in it’s many forms. There are three main reasons sugar has proven to be the hardest to eliminate: firstly, sugar is an ingredient in many foods that are not necessarily sweet (veganaise, breads, crackers, prepared foods); secondly, as a chef I find natural sweeteners to be an essential flavor component to most sauces, dressings, and other recipes; and thirdly, I really miss chocolate.
Reason #1: Sugar is hiding everywhere
Sugar is found in places where you would expect (bottled teas, bottled dressings, etc.) but also in some unlikely spots too. For example, I was happy to nibble on some of our deli’s great ‘mock chicken tofu salad’ before it dawned on me that I should check the ingredients of Veganaise. I was pretty surprised to find that brown rice syrup is the second ingredient of this mayo-replacement, so I abandoned my tofu salad. I’ve also been really disappointed in my search for crackers and prepared foods (from restaurants, delis) that don’t contain sugar. The first solution to this is to simply make every single item at home, but that’s not always practical. So, the second solution is just to become very diligent about reading labels and not assuming anything about packaged or prepared foods. My snacking now includes Mary’s Gone Crackers (whole-grain and yummy!), rice crackers (not rice cakes), and other quick homemade snacks like nori rolls. I’ve also been bringing small meals with me everywhere, so that I have a quick, wholesome foods and don’t need to resort to quick-fix foods that may contain sugars.
Reason #2: Sugar is an important flavor
Though I love baking, most of my time in the kitchen is focused on whole grains, vegetables, and healthy proteins. But it’s fair to say that the sauce is what makes the meal, whether it’s a miso-tahini sauce, almond-hemp dressing, a creamy sesame dressing, or my favorite barbeque sauce. These sauces are all savory, but the flavors are balanced by a small amount of sweetness, either sugar, honey, or agave. There is something really magical about the way a drop of honey makes a dressing really come to life, allowing all the flavors to work in delicious harmony. One solution is to use a sugar replacement- the most natural of which is stevia. But I find the taste of stevia a bit strange and cloying, and so I’ve just opted to go without. My tastebuds have adapted to the relative sweetness of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice, and the dressings are still pretty good. But they’re maybe not quite as good as they could be.
Reason # 3: I miss chocolate
I am happy to ignore the ice cream, cookies, and pancakes hiding in my freezer, and the jars of honey stashed in my cabinet. But what I truly miss is the richness of a good dark chocolate. Good quality dark chocolate is a favorite food of mine- as an afternoon treat, or after dinner, and just a few bites is usually enough. I’ve tried to eat cacao nibs with coconut butter, but it’s just not the same thing. I have no good solution to this problem, other than simply ignoring it. I’m sure there will be chocolate sometime in my future, but for now I simply go without.
Aside from dealing proactively with these health issues, another benefit of this no-sugar kick is that I keep losing weight. I am naturally a skinny girl, but without sugar (and without the refined carbohydrates it’s usually paired with), I’ve dropped about five pounds in just a few months with no effort. And my skin looks better than ever! It makes sense actually: sugar is not actually good for us! In her book The Kind Diet, Alicia Silverstone names white sugar as ‘nasty stuff’ that we should try to eliminate from our diets (along with meat, dairy, and processed foods). She explains that sugar leaches vitamins and minerals from our body, yet we become addicted to it in the truest sense: we eat sugar and then we crave more. She talks about feeling hungover, tired, and cranky after eating even small amounts, despite her normally clean diet. Interesting, right? Even though I’ve continually crave cookies in the afternoon, now that I’m not eating sugar I know that indulging in sweet treats would make me crash hard, and I know that it’s not worth it. Instead I eat snacks of grains, veggies, filling nut butters (often by the spoonful!), very minimal amounts of fruit, and/or drink some naturally sweet teas (green or hibiscus). I am open to the fact that there might- or might not- be some cookies and candies in my future, but either way, my relationship with sugar has been fundamentally altered, and I won’t likely be indulging as I did in the past.
I’m sure there are lots of other folks out there that are changing their diets too, so hopefully this post is a helpful reminder that we never struggle alone in these things. I will be posting later about different ways to find sweetness without sugar. If you too have health issues that have necessitated a change in your diet, what changes did you find the hardest? What have you learned along the way?