How’s the Sugar Free Experiment Going for Erik?

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image:

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image:

In short, not well. The first day Kelly announced she was going to forgo processed sugar I downed half a bag of chocolate chips. After all, I reasoned, they would go bad if someone didn’t eat them. I have a sweet tooth

Throughout Kelly’s sugar free experiment I continued my usual breakfast of Grape Nuts and rice milk. With neither grapes nor nuts, this cereal is little more than processed carbohydrates with a vitamin pill and 5 grams of sugar (in the form of malt syrup) per half cup serving. The rice milk contains maybe 3 grams of sugar for the amount I’m using each morning. If I go by the guidelines of the American Heart Association I shouldn’t exceed 36 grams of sugar per day.

Before Kelly began the experiment I objected that demonizing sugar is symptomatic of American diet trends that always have to have a villainous scapegoat. Look back at the past 100 years of food history and you’ll see fat, carbohydrates and protein (and, most recently, gluten) taking turns as public enemy number one. Sugar, I reasoned, was the next gluten. I’m sure the big food companies are gearing up to offer plenty of unhealthy low and no-sugar options in response to recent bad publicity. Root Simple reader Rebecca, commenting on Kelly’s anti-sugar post says,

Some colleagues of mine just recently (finally!) published a paper from a huge, ambitious study in mice, where they gave each mouse one of 25 diets containing different levels of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, and tracked feeding and lifespan. It seems to me like Americans really like to cling to stories that single out specific ingredients (see: gluten, sugar). But most foods contain a mixture of things. Evidence from the mouse study and studies in other animals suggest that many animals *jointly* regulate the intake of protein and carbohydrate, but with protein exerting a stronger effect on feelings of satiety – interestingly, the mice didn’t regulate for fat, they just ate whatever amount of fat was packaged along with the protein and carbohydrate. In tracking lifespan, they found that mice given lower-protein, high-carbohydrate diets actually had the longest lifespan and other indicators of better health compared to mice on high-protein foods. They were actually most interested in refuting the “caloric restriction” hypothesis of ageing, which ignores the type of calorie involved. But I think there are broader implications.

I watched Robert Lustig’s video six months ago, and I do think he makes some important points (plus I learned a lot about the biochemistry of intermediate metabolism from him). However…I’d still go back to this whole idea of vilifying a single ingredient. Americans are all still eating way too much processed food overall, and processed food is the larger culprit, in my book, especially because it’s cheap to add fat, carbohydrates, and salt to processed foods, but expensive to add protein.

The study Rebecca mentions is behind a pay wall but you can read the abstract here. Rebecca’s point is a good one. Human nutrition is enormously complicated and current bad health trends are not reducible to one single factor. The fact is that we have limited knowledge about all the complex interactions and feedback loops in human nutrition. This in not even to mention equally important factors such as how nutrition interacts with human customs, rituals and beliefs.

That said, processed sugar is definitely bad. I have no doubt about that. And I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that processed foods as a whole are what are making us unhealthy. But as I discovered in my own life, it’s difficult to avoid sugar. It’s in everything the big food companies make.

Making time to cook from scratch and eating a diverse variety of foods looks like the only way out of the food mess we’re all in.

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  1. “I downed half a bag of chocolate chips. After all, I reasoned, they would go bad if someone didn’t eat them.”

    Well done, Erik! That’s precisely the logic my husband uses. He’d probably be overweight if he didn’t have such a physically demanding (brutal) job.

    I, too, am cursed with a sweet tooth. From the deepest part of my being I believe that a life without chocolate is not worth living. Despite this, I’ve never had a weight problem, but I did become alarmed at the amount of added sugar I was eating, so I came up with a plan that works for me. I eat a low-sugar, high whole-food breakfast around 11:00 am (I’m just not hungry earlier) and then I make our dinner for about 5:30, lots of vegetables and a small amount of pasture-raised meat. Nothing in between meals. In the evening when we sit down to watch whatever PBS program is on, I allow myself to have something chocolate and I’ve found it doesn’t really take very much to satisfy, even though I don’t put an actual limit on the amount. On the other hand, when I used to nibble on and off during the day I would lose track of how much I was actually eating; I could easily eat a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies over the course of the day, but I sure can’t eat that many at one sitting in the evening, two is usually enough.
    It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what I had been doing.

  2. We do demonize certain foods. In reality all food is good for you and it turns out your mother was right, eating in moderation is also good for you.
    However the average diet in our countries is so far from that concept that we are always on the lookout for a scapegoat. If I cut out sugar that means I can eat everything else…and lots of it.

    We need to get back to shunning processed food and cooking from scratch.
    Michael Pollen is so right. Eat Food, real food, not too much and mostly fruits and vegetables.
    That is the secret to being healthy and the weight loss is a bonus.

  3. ‘Making time to cook from scratch and eating a diverse variety of foods looks like the only way out of the food mess we’re all in.’

    I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for this series, I think you guys have some of the best, most grounded, most realistic takes on recent food fads and “bad guys”, gluten included, I’ve seen anywhere.

    I also have a major sweet tooth, and giving up all sweet foods would just be too sad, what’s the point if I am totally unhappy?! However, I have been trying to eat more fruit and fewer cookies, etc. And I also find that a little bit of something really good is more satisfying than a lot of something mediocre.

  4. We have a really confused relationship with food in this country, it would seem. It is so hard to find good things to eat in the average grocery store. I read the book ‘French kids eat everything’ recently – a Canadian woman’s account of her year living in France with her husband and 2 small kids. They just have a very sensible approach to food, and this approach is so much a part of the culture, and the government is on board with encouraging it. I wish I had been raised that way.

    • True! I have an inner French voice in my head, leftover from hanging out with a bunch of French people for a while, and I can hear this voice scoffing whenever I get too weird or American about food.

      Eat good food, never junk, eat in a variety of foods in moderation, eat with your friends, have a glass of wine, add some butter, take time for cheese after dinner. Relax.

  5. Erik,
    Are you giving up Grape Nuts? I tried those once and they really tore up my gums. Plus, the noise in my head was unbearable. I never finished either of the only two bowls of Grape Nuts I tried.

  6. I like Michael Pollan’s other quote- don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. Leaving aside the fact I’m not sure mine would ever have seen an aubergine, that’s got a lot to be said for it.

    • I don’t know how old you are, but I bet your grandmother has seen an eggplant (aubergine). I still would not eat an eggplant no matter how highly my grandmother held it in esteem.

    • Lol! I think my granny has seen one, but not sure she’s ever eaten one! (She’s 95.)

      Bear in mind I live in the UK, and in the 20th century the British people seemed to forget that we spent hundreds of years embracing foods and flavours from around the globe and largely ate meat, potatoes and boiled vegetables 😉 Two world wars didn’t help, but many in my grandparents generation are very suspicious of ‘foreign’ food. Pasta, for example, is macaroni cheese, macaroni milk pudding and spaghetti Bolognese if you’re feeling daring. Garlic is right out.

      I love eggplant (I’d recommend Baba Ghanoush if it’s the texture you don’t like) and I don’t think she’d have eaten fresh pineapple or other ‘exotic’ fruits either (she lived in a tiny village and was not well off- I’m sure more worldly great-grandmothers in England did), but I’d still include them as real food. Cheese strings, not so much!

    • I really like that quote of his, too, and the basic “Eat food…” advice. Is he also the one who said to “shop the edges” in the supermarket? Whomever said it, it’s great advice, at least in the US, where all the fresh foods are on the edges of the stores and the processed foods in the middle aisles.

  7. Given my love for flavors my British Isles/Scandinavian ancestors would certainly not enjoyed, I take that comment more as *someone’s* great-gran, not necessarily mine.

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