“It’s important to understand that this wasn’t simply a whim or a fun, kicky idea or even a masochistic challenge. Rather, it was really and truly the result of being convinced, in a fundamental way, that sugar is everywhere, it’s making us all fat and sick, and almost no one realizes it—and then wanting do something about it.”
When Eve Schaub’s husband showed her the YouTube video “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” by Dr. Robert Lustig, he probably had no idea what he was getting himself into. Schaub was both persuaded and horrified by Lustig’s argument that the amount of added fructose in our food is making people fat and sick. “Forget a lightbulb above my head,” she writes, “this was an acetylene torch” setting her imagination afire. Schaub proposed that her entire family, including her husband and two daughters, try to give up eating added sugar for an entire year.
Schaub embarked on her experiment because she was convinced by Lustig’s argument, but it isn’t necessary to be a believer to enjoy her book. Regardless of whether you accept Lustig’s argument that fructose is harder for the body to process and use than glucose, the fact remains that sugar is omnipresent in our food supply. It is in packaged and processed foods as a filler, a preservative, and a flavour-enhancer. It is hiding in things that don’t really need to be sweet at all, from bread to peanut butter to pasta sauce. With a good sense of humour and an eye for interesting situations, Schaub shares the difficulties she and her family members faced over the course of the year.
Year of No Sugar might more aptly but less succinctly be titled “Year of No Added Fructose, With a Couple Exceptions.” No added fructose meant avoiding everything from plain old white sugar, to high fructose corn syrup, to maple syrup, to agave, but each person was allowed to pick one exception Schaub was still allowed to have an occasional glass of wine, which does contain some sugar. Her husband opted for Diet Dr. Pepper, which doesn’t contain sugar, but violated their no-artificial-sweetener rule. Her daughters both got Pollaner’s All-Fruit Jam, which was sweetened with added fruit juice. The family also had one sweet dessert per month, a measure designed to help alleviate the pressure of the challenge, but which ended up yielding unexpected insights. Schaub’s daughters got their own exception: the Birthday Party Rule, whereby they were allowed to make their own decisions about whether or not to eat any treats they were offered at school, birthday parties, or in other social situations where their mother wasn’t present on the condition they told her what they ate.
While some might regard these exceptions as cheating, they did add a great deal of interest to Schaub’s project. The monthly dessert offered a checkpoint that allowed the family to observe the way their tastes changed when they didn’t eat sugar regularly. After four months, Schaub found many desserts too sweet, and experienced sugar rushes and headaches after eating them. She still craved the sweets, but found herself unable to enjoy actually eating them. The Birthday Party Rule, with the stipulation that her daughters had to tell her when they ate a sweet, showed Schaub just how often her children were being offered sugary treats when she wasn’t around.
Schaub didn’t expect giving up sugar to be easy, but she mostly anticipated the challenge of identifying sugar-free foods, and finding sugar-free alternatives to her kitchen staples. But as anyone with a severe allergy or dietary restriction already knows, dealing with the social implications of a restricted diet can be much more challenging. As Schaub put it, “turns out, at least for me, the social isolation of being on a different wavelength from the rest of the world around you was one of the most difficult parts of all.” Avoiding sugar at home was relatively easy, but restaurants and social situations were another story entirely. Schaub puts her finger squarely on an important social issue when she examines the role sharing food, particularly sweets, plays in our rituals, celebrations, and rites of passage. Christmas proved to be the biggest struggle for her family, with only the fact that the end was in sight sustaining their willpower through those last trying weeks.
As Schaub herself acknowledges, giving up added sugar is definitely not a holistic approach to healthier eating. Restaurant bread almost universally contains sugar, so Schaub often ended up eating potato chips or French fries, or other foods that are high in fat or salt in order to avoid small amounts of fructose. Despite approving of Michael Pollan’s dietary philosophy of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Schaub’s efforts to avoid sugar frequently violated that advice. Year of No Sugar is a memoir about the limited experience of trying to eliminate added fructose. While informative, it is not a diet book, or a scientific treatise, but it proves to be an interesting and enjoyable read, so long as you have the right expectations.
You might also like Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.