January 23, 2007 – by Douglas Brown, Denver Post Staff Writer – Sugar's been good to me. Chocolate. Ice cream. Apple pie. Milkshakes and almond croissants, cardamom shortbread and Russian tea cakes. Hershey's Kisses and licorice whips and warm gingerbread blanketed in whipped cream.
I love sugar. I love it too much. My love has become all-consuming, obsessive, scary. So more than a week ago, after a long stretch of sugar-engorgement beginning before Halloween, thriving during Thanksgiving and reaching a crescendo over the Christmas holidays, I said goodbye to sugar. And honey. And maple syrup, brown rice syrup, stevia, or anything else that might satisfy a yen for sugarcane. My only concession would be clementines.
I was shooting for about a month of abstinence. Could I do it? Would I break out in sweats and shivers without the constant sugar fixes to which I was accustomed? Would craving commandeer my brain, crowding out everything but my desire for a glazed doughnut?
I had no idea. But I was determined to try. I found that whenever I consumed sugar I felt sleepy soon after. It also seemed that whenever I inhaled too much of the stuff, like during the holidays, I'd get sick. I'd asked different doctors if sugar and illness were connected; none gave me a definitive answer.
The Internet, on the other hand, is littered with warnings that sugar weakens immune systems.
I'd already gotten sick during the 2006 holiday season. Maybe, I thought, if I can train myself to reject sugar during this trial, I'll save myself from at least some sicknesses in the future.
In addition, nearly everybody agrees that upped consumption of sugar by Americans has contributed to the country's obesity problem. I'm not obese, but I wondered: Would a sugar drought drop my weight?
I decided to stop Jan. 6, in my parents' Pennsylvania house. I'd spent my time there Hoovering Christmas cookies and all manner of sweets. I even took my girls to Hershey's Chocolate World, where the workers nearly pelted us with free chocolate products.
That same trip took us through the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a slice of the nation where sweets are heralded above nearly all else, except maybe salt, another Amish passion.
There, in the hamlet of Ronks, I bought a shoofly pie. And with a slice of that ambrosial melding of molasses and cinnamon I consecrated my goodbye to sugar.
Ten hours later I was downstairs, all 142.5 pounds of me. My daughters were chomping on sweet waffles drenched in syrup, and I swabbed some wheat toast with sugar-free peanut butter and chewed.
I eyed the white box containing the shoo-fly pie, and the big Tupperware container holding my mother's Christmas cookies. Had I not been fasting, I'd have sampled a little of both.
Later, I took my youngest daughter to an ancient hot-dog cafe near my parents' house that long has been a family staple. The Pennsylvania Dutch-style dogs are salty. Sauerkraut-very salty-jackets them in their little buns. I always get salt-
sprinkled french fries, too. And then I crave something sweet.
My daughter's chocolate milkshake transfixed me. I'd have danced a jig in the middle of the place for a sip. Somehow, I refrained.
And so it went for the week.
I went for a walk in my historic hometown and encountered a fancy new temple to chocolate. I studied, sadly, the display of truffles behind a glass case.
On the plane home, my youngest daughter Ruby put a chewed piece of cotton-candy-flavored Bubble Yum in my cup of seltzer water. I returned the gum to her and eventually took a swig. Sweet bathed my tongue and cheeks, a light clicked on in my brain. The drink tasted like some sort of distillate of cotton-candy.
"Pathetic," I thought. "I'm drinking water spiked with chewed gum. And I'm loving it."
The office was brutal. Sweets often decorate a table just steps from my desk, and the day I returned the table was positively groaning with chocolate products.
I stuck with my earnest little clementines. As the days dragged on, I began to treasure them. Never had they tasted so … clementiney. Could the sugar ban be responsible for the sweet, citrus fireworks exploding in my mouth?
I tried a banana. Same thing. The most banana-y banana I'd ever tasted.
My eldest daughter Stella made chocolate mousse one night near the end of the first week, and I brought my nose near it and sniffed deeply: Chocolate danced in my brain. I could taste some essence of chocolate, even though none of it touched my tongue.
With almost seven days of sugar-free existence behind me, things that my tongue formerly ranked low on the sweet scale had rocketed to the top of the list. A whisper of cotton-candy in a cup of water excited my mouth; a whiff of chocolate mousse hatched cocoa dreams.
I was managing, but I was craving the real deal, something dense with refined white sugar. Especially chocolate. I used the stuff for a pick-me-up every day, usually a few hours after lunch. Beginning the day I launched the fast, my daily dance with late-afternoon drowsiness did not receive its customary chocolate boost. It just lingered.
At the conclusion of the week, I decided to allow myself sweet substances like maple syrup and honey. I draped my peanut-butter-toast with honey, and the sweet punch was so envlivening I could have been eating honeybees. Later, I poured maple syrup on oatmeal and relished the wash of maple down my throat.
I appreciated this benefit of shunning sugar. The flavor of other sweets had improved tremendously. In addition, my cravings for sugar had gradually shrunk. By Monday, I realized I could continue the fast.
I'd lost a pound, too, and I wondered if the next four weeks of the sugar diet would shed more.
Healthy insights, a good question. But a few days into the second week of living sugar-free, I'd have chucked them all for a warm slice of shoo-fly pie.
Week 1 (continued) – “It's easy to find products that don't contain sugar”
So you've had it with Snickers bars, you're through with frozen yogurt, you don't want anything to do with banana splits.
If you like sugar, bidding it bon voyage isn't going to be effortless. You'll crave chocolate. You'll eat a bag of potato chips and grow desperate for something sweet to balance the salt. That tray of homemade oatmeal raisin cookies your colleague brought to the office will taunt.
That's the hard part. Finding healthy substitutes for products with refined sugar, on the other hand, has become easy.
Consider soda. It wasn't long ago that a soda was little more than water and high-fructose corn syrup, which is roundly denounced as an unhealthy sugar substitute.
Izze Beverage Co.: But now companies like Izze in Boulder offer sparkling fruit juices that deliver the soda fizz without the cloying sweetness. Instead of high-fructose corn syrup or sugar, the company uses fruit juice to sweeten its drinks.
The best place to find beverages like this are at Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats Market, and Vitamin Cottage. These markets, in fact, are good spots to find a wide range of products that replace sugar and high-fructose corn syrup with fruit juice and other sweeteners.
Substitutes include honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, fruit juice and fruit, agave nectar, and more.
Lara Bar: You can pick up these Denver-made "power bars" that contain little more than fruit and nuts just about anywhere. If you've axed sugar from your diet, and you're seriously jonesing for some chocolate, try the company's new "Maya" bar, a raw blend of dates, almonds, walnuts, cocoa, cacao nibs, cashews.
After a week without chocolate, I bought one at a Denver Vitamin Cottage and devoured it in the parking lot. And I swooned. I've tasted much, much better chocolate, but thanks to my seven days of sugar rejection, few chocolate bars have so excited my mouth.
Browse the aisles in a place like Vitamin Cottage, read the labels, and you'll find many power bars and other sweets that don't use sugar.
Oh Fudge!: I bought this Seattle product at Vitamin Cottage. It's a spreadable chocolate that doesn't contain sugar or dairy. It's good and chocolatey, although it lacks the richness and the zest of real chocolate sauce. You can taste the fruit juice; since it lacks fat, it isn't luxurious on the tongue. Still, it did satisfy some of my chocolate cravings. I like spreading it on sliced bananas.
The best solution to the sweets-without-sugar dilemma is to make your own, and there are loads of cookbooks and websites offering recipes for everything from chocolate cake to lemon squares.
Powdered fructose: A sweet substance made out of fruit sugars is available in many grocery stores.
Stevia: A potent herb 300 times sweeter than sugar, is also widely available, particularly in health-food stores.
Staff writer Douglas Brown can be reached at 303-954-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.