Recently, I looked at the ingredients list on a package of bacon to make sure I could eat it. We buy our bacon at home from a farmer on Vashon, who makes it with meat from his own pigs, using only a few ingredients, simply. And it’s damned good. But we were away from home and the bacon was being offered to me. So I checked the label, as I always do.
Quickly, I discerned it was gluten-free. It said so on the label. But within a moment, I didn’t really want any. Here is the list:
“Cured with water and less than 1% of salt, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, propylene glycol, sodium phosphates, maple syrup, sodium erythorbate, natural and artificial maple flavor, corn syrup, caramel color, sucralose, sodium nitrite.”
Set aside the chemicals that home cooks don’t use. This bacon contains sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup, and sucralose. Why in heavens name does bacon need five kinds of sweeteners?
Merely gluten-free isn’t good enough for me anymore.
I wrote about this recently, but having to go gluten-free was a starting point for me on a journey to really choose the food I eat. Learning more about real food, and being lucky enough to have access to great ingredients, has been one of the most powerful educations of my life. I don’t write about this much, but I’m actually a diehard science geek. The past few years, and particularly the last few months, I’ve been spending hours perusing PubMed, looking for scientific studies on celiac, gluten, foods that inflame our bodies, and particularly on sugar.
I’ve been thinking about sugar, and whether or not I should be eating it, for years. If I think for a minute about what sugar gives us, I know that it’s nothing but sweetness, a treat, empty calories that race straight to our livers and make us feel logey at best and fat and sick and tired of being sick and tired, or diabetic and at grave risk for terrible diseases and death.
I’m not talking primarily about the homemade cookies we make, although I have been thinking about those a lot too. Really, I’m talking about Americans’ seeming incessant craving for sweetness in everything we eat. According to Robert Lustig, pediatric oncologist at the University of San Francisco and a leading advocate for Americans to stop eating so many sweeteners, a recent study shows that 80% of the more than 600,000 food items in America are laced with added sugar. Food items? Those are the food-like products that come wrapped in plastic and labeled. Guess how many gluten-free food products are loaded with sugar? Most of them.
I’ve been reading studies lately that suggest, quite strongly, that folks who are living gluten-free are at a much higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than the rest of the population. Why? Because so many people who are living gluten-free are living out of boxes, searching for replacements for the foods they used to eat, made with gluten-free flours. Most of those boxed and packaged foods aren’t made with whole-grain flours or coconut flour, which is full of fiber and low on the glycemic index. They’re made with super-starchy flours with no real nutrition. And lots and lots of extra sugar.
As Lustig says, “There is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one, that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrelevant to life. People say oh, you need sugar to live. Garbage.”
I have learned this year; I have thrown away sugar.
* * *
For years, I baked. I baked and figured out ratios and played with flours and baked some more. And I love baking. I love the planning, the imagining, the fiddling with the rules, the way eggs slip into dough and strengthen it, the wait for the bread to rise, the smell of warm chocolate chip cookies coming out of the oven. Mostly, I love the joy on people’s faces when they take the first bite of gluten-free pie and seem surprised with joy.
But boy we did a lot of baking for years. To be honest, I felt almost required to bake. Folks who are gluten-free write to us in droves every day. “Can you convert my grandmother’s recipe?” “I just want my son to feel normal.” “How am I going to survive the holidays without my favorite cookie?” This is our job, our livelihood, this website. I want to help people. It was a potent combination.
For years, we went through big packages of sugar fast in our house.
The last year or so, I finally started developing recipes and photographing them just before we had people over for dinner, or in the early Sunday morning hours before we took a plate of gluten-free doughnuts to the good folks at church. If I was baking for other people, then I had to give away the baked goods to other people. Still, I had to taste and test and taste again.
This winter, I was terribly sick. I’ve written about it in glances, but not fully. There were cancer scares, terrible pain, bloating, weight gain, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, depression, acid reflux, anxiety, and all that unknown. After months of expensive tests and scary times, I figured out that the medication I was on to try to prevent breast cancer had turned in my body. It threw me into early perimenopause, which changed my body chemistry, and then my body just didn’t like that medication anymore. Briefly, my blood sugars were so high that I was considered pre-diabetic. I also had the start of fatty liver disease.
When I finally stopped taking the medication, on the advice of my oncologist and doctors, my body felt an immediate relief. A month later, all my tests came back healthier. That could have been enough for me.
But it was just too close to illness for my taste. Nothing tastes better than health. Nothing. Damned if I’m going to let myself grow that sick again. Ever.
I read and asked questions and read more and more studies. I talked to everyone I know about their health and diets. I opened my mind. I admitted what I already knew. I had to change my life.
Also, I watched my daughter. Lucy eats everything. She has a great palate and an open mind. That’s not to say that every meal time is a perfect calm of her eating her entire dinner. Turning five, she is already pickier than she has ever been. But this kid eats kohlrabi and bacon and capers with excitement. Until a few months ago, she used to grow giddy excited about the idea of an ice cream cone. She tasted the ice cream cone, loved it, and after five bites, she threw it away. Every time. When we asked her why, she said, “I had enough of it. It was really good!”
I wish I had that talent in me.
So, since she seemed to have such a temperate appetite for sweet things, we let more and more sugar slip into her diet. Birthday party cake. Strawberry festival cotton candy. A free cookie from the bakery at the grocery store. A little treat in the middle of the afternoon. And it seems that she had just enough sugar to get her addicted. Lately, we have heard a lot of “Mama, can I have a sugary treat, please?” She hasn’t thrown away an ice cream cone in awhile.
I do not want my daughter to struggle with her weight or immoderate eating the way I have all my life.
Look, I’ve known for years that I should look at the amount of sweetness I eat. Back in 2011, like so many of us, I read Gary Taubes’ electrifying piece for the New York Times, “Is Sugar Toxic?” I read it, thought about it, read it again, shook my head, and couldn’t shake it. I read his book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. I thought and thought about it. I knew so much of it was true. Why have I always been active, walking every day and taking yoga and swimming and eating mostly healthy foods and still unable to lose weight. But I didn’t want that book to be true for me.
I watched Dr. Lustig’s compelling talk about The Bitter Truth of Sugar. I stopped eating white bleached sugar and replaced it with more honey and maple syrup. I focused on slowing down, cutting my portion size, breathing while I ate and really being mindful. Still, no real change.
But this summer, I really began looking at the way I eat. After we were in Italy, I was once again struck by how folks there eat. Sure, there’s pasta. But every Italian I know loves good meats, cheeses, vegetables in season, coffee, fresh fruits, and only a little bit of sweetness. There’s a little sweet in the morning. Maybe the occasional dessert. But that’s it.
So I decided to be an Italian for awhile. I challenged myself to save the taste of anything sweet until the end of the evening. That included fruit, granola made with maple syrup, energy bars, or any tastes of what we were testing. Instead of baking, I focused on the grass-fed beef and pork we buy from farmers, the wild salmon from Alaska we love, nuts and seeds, good cheeses. I started cooking more with leaf lard and coconut oil. I ate all the kale from our garden I could eat. I ate more and more and more fresh vegetables, which I love so well, along with the occasional quinoa fritter or buckwheat crepe. I found that I was more full, more satisfied, and much happier without sweetness.
About a week into this, I had a small dish of a cherry crisp we had created for another site. The sugar in it was so sweet that I had a headache immediately. That night, my acid reflux was so bad that I couldn’t sleep for hours.
I was done. No more sugar for me.
* * *
Since then, in the past month or so, I have been sleeping well. I haven’t suffered any acid reflux. I have lost a lot of weight without ever feeling deprived. I also focused on moving more, sleeping longer, and going back to meditation to find my breath again. The inflammation I have been carrying around for years is finally starting to calm.
It turns out that merely being gluten-free may not be enough.
National Geographic has a fabulous cover story this month, about sugar and why we can’t resist it. I highly highly recommend it. The writer, Rich Cohen, told a story that fascinated me.
“One day, perhaps [twelve million years ago], a cold wind blew through this Eden. The seas receded, the ice caps expanded. A spit of land emerged from the tides, a bridge that a few adventurous apes followed out of Africa. Nomads, wanderers, they settled in the rain forests that blanketed Eurasia. But the cooling continued, replacing tropical groves of fruit with deciduous forests, where the leaves flame in autumn, then die. A time of famine followed. The woods filled with starving apes. ‘At some point a mutation occurred in one of those apes,’ Johnson [a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver] explained. It made that ape a wildly efficient processor of fructose. Even small amounts were stored as fat, a huge survival advantage in months when winter lay upon the land and food was scarce.
Then one day that ape, with its mutant gene and healthy craving for rare, precious fruit sugar, returned to its home in Africa and begot the apes we see today, including the one that has spread its sugar-loving progeny across the globe. ‘The mutation was such a powerful survival factor that only animals that had it survived,’ Johnson said, ‘so today all apes have that mutation, including humans. It got our ancestors through the lean years. But when sugar hit the West in a big way, we had a big problem. Our world is flooded with fructose, but our bodies have evolved to get by on very, very little of it.’
It’s a great irony: The very thing that saved us could kill us in the end.”
And this is the thing. All the people who deride those of us who are inflamed and can’t lose weight? You don’t know your biology. It’s our deep primal desire for sweetness, and the sugary sweetness that is in nearly every food, that holds on our fat, not lack of willpower or laziness. People who look thin, including those who love to derogate those who are fat, might be holding onto fat around the viscera and die from it later. You can be overweight and be healthy. You can be thin and be in danger. Sugar might be killing some of us.
* * *
Do I think that sugar is toxic for everyone? Nope. Life is rarely that simple, is it? There are clearly people who are hard-wired to eat sweet things in moderation, to have a treat occasionally and be healthy as can be. I don’t think that’s me. I need some time without sugar before I can look at it again. It might not come back. Perhaps having celiac means my body is inherently more given to inflammation than someone else’s, and I need to be more careful than a healthier person does.
But do I think all people should give up sugar? And am I going to try to guilt you into stopping it now? No way. We all have our own bodies and lives. I adore pastry chefs and bakers and the work they do. Keep on, my friends.
Our friend Laura, who is diabetic, said that having something sweet around is vital if her blood sugar drops too low. Protein gives such a long, slow burn of energy that it wouldn’t revive her fast enough. And having sweet things in our life, but far more moderately, is giving us the chance to have wonderful conversations with Lucy about food and its function in our bodies. I don’t want to be the parent who bans her from ever having sugar, because she’ll rebel with secret stashes of candy in her room. But Danny and I both think it’s reasonable to make her wait until after dinner to eat anything sweet. We’re trying to teach her to respect the sweetness at the end of the evening.
Am I giving up baking? No way. I love it too much. I also know that I love playing with alternative sweeteners as much as I love playing with new flours. I adore coconut sugar, which is much lower on the glycemic index than bleached white sugar. Raw honey is a joy, each kind slightly different in taste. Grade B maple syrup makes a darned fine banana bread.
However, I do not believe that my path to better health is to switch that deeply ingrained need for sweetness to all-day treats with alternative sweeteners. I’m still only eating something sweet at the end of the evening. Most of the time, it’s a ripe peach, a handful of blackberries, or cherries off the tree. When you give up sugar, you can taste how sweet a roasted beet actually is.
All I know is that we haven’t put up a new baked goods recipe in months and no one seems to have minded. Danny and I both love great food, real food, not food-like products that come in a box. We’re here to share our joy and our discoveries and recipes for foods that feel essential to us.
I don’t want to miss any more life being tired or sluggish or slow. I want to be here.
Life without sugar is much sweeter than I imagined it to be.
* * *
If you are interested in looking at how many sweeteners you eat, and how you can cut down on them, or quit, I have a couple of recommendations.
Sarah Wilson, a force of nature from Australia, who also suffers from an autoimmune disorder, took her health into her hands a couple of years ago by quitting sugar. She has a fabulous website called I Quit Sugar. With the help of nutritionists and doctors, she developed an 8-week program to help you wean yourself off the sweet stuff and focus on more essential foods instead. She doesn’t leave you hanging without help. The program, and her cookbook, contain wonderful recipes for gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free foods. I’m pretty crazy about this raspberry ripple recipe.
Diane Sanfilippo, author of the website Balanced Bites and the wonderfully informative book, Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle, has a 21-day sugar detox program. It’s smart and clear and geared to help you do this successfully.
If you have any inkling that you might need to give up sugar, it’s worth a try.