Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Would Half-Pint Eat? A Primer on Sugar

My last post announcing my decision to give up sugar for a while sparked some interesting discussion on my Facebook page and with my real-life-face-to-face friends, so I'm back to elaborate a bit more on what I mean when I say 'I'm quitting sugar' and more on Sarah Wilson's book that got me started. Wow. That was a run-on.

First, let's talk sugar.

The word conjures up images of the white, granulated stuff, but sugar comes in many forms. There's brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, anything that ends with '-ose,' anything that talks about 'syrup' or 'juice.' The list goes on and on. I found this list that seems pretty exhaustive. Some of them sound virtuous, but they're not. They're all sugar. And each one is pretty much as bad as the next. Even the highly demonized high-fructose corn syrup isn't significantly worse for you than regular sugar. 'Natural' sugars are problematic, too. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good for you. Tobacco is natural! So is arsenic. We live in a fallen world, people. But one sugar compound is particularly nefarious, and that's fructose.

I used to think fructose was better than regular table sugar. Fructose! That's fruit sugar! Fruit is good for you, so fructose must be fine as a sweetener, right? Wrong.

As it turns out, fructose is particularly troublesome for your body to metabolize, and here's why: table sugar (sucrose) is half glucose, half fructose. The two compounds are held together by a tenuous bond that is immediately severed when it hits the stomach. The glucose circulates throughout the body, giving energy to all your cells. Excess glucose will be stored, but your body will burn off glucose as needed. Glucose is actually your body's preferred energy source.

Fructose, however, goes directly to the liver. A little bit can be used, but the rest will be stored as fat. Our bodies were designed to metabolize about 6-9 teaspoons of sugar per day. Most of us--even those of us who are mindful of our eating--are taking in a lot more. My sugar research has involved a lot of talk of how cavemen ate, but really, we don't have to go back that far.

Just think Little House on the Prairie. Ma cooked at home from whole ingredients. There were no convenience foods stuffed with sugar, produce was not shipped across the globe year-round. The Ingalls ate what was in season, whatever could be harvested or Pa could hunt down and shoot. Even their sweets were seasonal.

Little House in the Big Woods details how maple sugar is made, and you learn what Pa went through to score some honey.

Both honey and maple syrup? Lots of fructose. This is a massive bummer, since as a New Englander, I practically have maple syrup coursing through my veins. I think maple syrup is a theistic proof, so you know I'll be back to moderate consumption one of these days. But you have to remember what it took to procure these fructose-laden delights--they weren't available year-round at the A&P. Any fat stores accumulated got them through the lean late-winter months when provisions were low.
You really had to work for your fix back then.

Does all this mean fruit is bad? 

NO! Fruit contains many micro-nutrients, water and fiber. The fiber in fruit serves as a protective mechanism--you're unlikely to consume crazy amounts of fructose in fruit because the fiber will fill you up. Though I'll admit I've tried in an apple orchard on a crisp, autumn day. Still, Wilson posits eating more than two small pieces of fruit per day could be over-kill.

The main problem is that sugars are now all over the place, and available all the time. If you refer to the list I linked above and poke through any packaged food item in your pantry (even the 'healthy' ones), you will almost certainly find at least one type of sugar in every. single. item. Even things that you consider savory contain sugar. This will be particularly true for North Americans, as our tastes have been cultivated to sweet.

One interesting thing about fructose, however, is that it is actually quite low on the glycemic index. The way fructose is metabolized means it really doesn't elevate blood sugar levels. Consequently, a food that is very high in fructose can still be labeled 'low-GI.' Just because you see a product labeled as such, don't assume it's low in fructose. Caveat emptor.

The other scary thing about fructose is that it doesn't flip the switch of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is is suppressed to tell your brain that you're full--time to stop eating! But fructose just doesn't register. Any calories you take in from fructose will be over and above what your body needs to be satisfied.

More on the Book

The 8-week sugar 'detox' I'm doing does allow for some sweet flavors, but not for a few weeks in the middle of the two month period. So yes, I'm off fruit for a couple of weeks. A lot of people kind of freaked out when they heard that, but really, it's only for two or three weeks.

And this brings me to something I really like about Sarah Wilson's approach to quitting sugar. A lot of people will throw science at you and leave it at that. You'll hear 'studies show X, so do X.' But some people hate X, or for some other reason they can't go straight to X. So they end up doing nothing. But there is a place where science and real life converge. That's the place that interests me, and that's how I try to approach health and fitness. That's what Sarah Wilson does, too.

The first week of the program just has you tapering down your sugar consumption. She doesn't have you quitting cold turkey, because she recognizes that's just too extreme for a lot of people. The second week she introduces fats, which is brilliant. Fat is yummy! Fat fills you up, and so she has you beefing up your diet (heheh, beefing!) with fat and protein. A spoonful of fat makes the medicine go down.

Then you abstain from anything fructose-related for a few weeks. This is partly physical--to rid your system of sugar--but it also breaks the psychological attachment to sweet, that need to have a little nummy-num after a meal. Honestly, I've found even after one week, the sweet flavors in some vegetables and in dairy foods are more pronounced to me. And yes, you can have dairy on the program, so my delicious, full-fat plain Greek yogurt? It's still in the game. Thank you, merciful Lord.

At week six, she reintroduces sweet flavors, and even includes recipes for chocolate treats. She typically uses brown rice syrup as a sweetener, which also freaks a lot of people out. Yes, it's a sugar, but it doesn't contain fructose, and it's really just used in a few recipes. It's not like she has you chugging it from the jar. I made her very yummy Coco-nutty Granola (recipe here) and used less brown rice syrup than the recipe calls for. It gave the granola a nice hint of sweetness, without being too much.

Wilson's approach is also very non-judgey and pretty laid-back if you 'slip up' and have some sugar. She reminds you it's no biggie, and just get back on the horse. I'm finishing up my first week and my clothes are fitting a little better. A friend told me I look thinner in my face. Not that facial bloat was a big issue for me, but I'll take what I can get. I did weigh and measure myself at the start, so I'll give you stats at the end. But any leanness that results from this will just be gravy (note I didn't say 'icing on the cake.') I am really more interested to see if it will help with my insomnia. If it does, I will give up anything--even maple syrup.


  1. Another very informative post, Stephanie. I'm following your detox with great interest!
    I also loved the title of this post and it had me wondering, how is she going to work Laura Ingalls into all this? Haha... I had forgotten about the chapter(s) where she talks about maple syrup. By the way, I love the Little House books and must get them for my kids.
    Back on topic, I understand the difference between the different sugars and how they are digested, but something tells me that someone is working really hard on disproving the innocence of dextrose. Just sayin....
    Like you, I'm more interested in the marriage of science+real life. Sustainability, my new favorite word!
    Happy Sunday!

    1. Yes, I am all about sustainability! Do tell me more about dextrose... not sure I'm following your train of thought...

    2. Sorry, I typed my answer before even researching what kind of sugar is in rice malt syrup! It appears to be very low in glucose -or dextrose, which are the same thing, go figure-. Dextrose is called "grape sugar" in Germany (Traubenzucker) and sold in mini-tablet form to students and athletes as a source of quick energy (Dextro-Energen).
      I guess my point was that sugar is sugar and we're not meant to consume the amount of processed and concentrated sugar that we do.
      My other point was that research is a work in progress and there seems to be new information coming up all the time, and what we think is safe today may be deemed unsafe and unhealthy by some new study next week.
      I'm happy to hear your detox is going well! I think that any reduction of sugar is good and you've inspired me to look at sugars a little closer.

    3. Ok, my understanding is that rice syrup and dextrose are glucose, thus are 'better' sugars to use in moderation. Who knew sugar could be so confusing?! Certainly, to some degree sugar is sugar and reducing overall consumption is best, and that is certainly what Wilson (and everyone else) is recommending. I'm glad she provided these recipes for sweets. It's nice to have some fructose-free treat options, and to see you can have a little sweet without it being drenched in fructose

  2. Another friend posted an article from her website and I'm intrigued by the 8 week cleanse. The longest I've done without sugar is 35 or so days.

    1. Raina, I'm just starting week 2, and so far it's going really well! Far better than I expected. I'm feeling good, enjoying my food, dare I say? Not really missing sugar!

  3. Can't agree more on the hidden sugar. I have only found two brands of chicken broth that don't have it. TWO! It's madness. it is in everything. Absolutely everything. And it makes me mad. The book I mentioned after your last post- The Hunger Fix- takes a similar approach in that you nourish the body & brain with dopamine releasing whole healthy foods that aren't sugar. Dopamine is what gives us the good feeling when we eat. Does Wilson talk about that? Happy detoxing!

  4. It makes me mad, too! I went shopping yesterday and couldn't find bacon without sugar. Bacon? Really?!? I'm looking forward to reading the book you recommended. I'm going to have quite a stack by my bedside!

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