Could you give up sugar for a month? Yeah, me either

I’ll admit that when I heard one of my colleagues at the Tampa Bay Times pitch a recent story about giving up sugar for an entire month, my eyes widened in horror.

At the time, she was a couple of days into her challenge to give up added sugars for February. The idea was sparked by a couple of recent articles, one from the New York Times in particular, that make the case for how bad excess sugar can be to our health. The Times’ coverage was spurred by Gary Taubes’ recent book The Case Against Sugar, which lays out a blunt warning about the overuse of sugar — specifically, how it has led to some of the most widespread diseases in the Western world.

One article is written by Dan Barber, the famed chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, who opens with: “Comparing the dangers of inhaling cigarettes with chowing down on candy bars may sound like false equivalence, but Gary Taubes’s The Case Against Sugar will persuade you otherwise. Here is a book on sugar that sugarcoats nothing. The stuff kills.”

Yikes. Read Claire McNeill’s story here, in which she keeps a diary, chronicling day-by-day her month without sugar. It’s a glimpse into how a person actually has to eat in order to avoid the sweetener that has become ubiquitous in processed foods.

She had a couple of personal rules that allowed her to remain sane: She could drink wine and beer; honey was okay. But overall, no beloved Twix, no Wendy’s Frosty, no doughnuts, for the entire month of February. Eating out was a struggle; going to parties somewhat torturous.

I was taken aback when she laid out her plan because it’s not something I think I could do. I have a sweet tooth (just take a look at all this) that must be satisfied daily, and usually after a meal full of savory, salty food. It’s a Pavlovian response that I am aware of and yet unable (or, more accurately, unwilling) to control. (As kids growing up, I have fond memories of postdinner ice cream or ice pops.)

It reminded me of the key word in most conversations about healthy eating: moderation. When it comes to added sugars, that must go hand in hand with diligence. I might not be able to give up dessert, but I can definitely give up certain convenience foods like pasta sauce, which often harbor hidden sugars. That’s an easy swap for something that can be made easily at home.

The more we are able to cut out unnecessary sugars from our diets, the more we might be able to trick our taste buds. No, freshly pureed tomatoes don’t taste as sweet as the sauce that comes out of a jar, but it may take some time to get used to that. We can savor instead the sweetness of ice cream, the indulgence of a doughnut, the satisfying postprandial morsels that shouldn’t contain as many grams of sugar as the oatmeal we have for breakfast.