This year when I gave up sweets for Lent, I honestly didn’t realize just how much of a sacrifice it would be. The first few days were the worst, coming off all the Valentine’s chocolate and forcing myself to toss a bar of Green & Black’s because just having it in the house, even buried deep inside the freezer, was distracting to the point of insanity. After that, I kind of got used to it and managed to mitigate my afternoon sugar cravings with a few (organic, unsweetened) dried mangoes or cherries. Then, this past week it’s been hard again. Seriously, I was almost drooling while setting up this photo. And yesterday, I accompanied my kids to an Easter egg hunt and found myself standing next to a large bowl of Jordan almonds that almost put me over the edge. My thought process included counting the days since Ash Wednesday and actually thinking something like, “It’s holy Thursday; isn’t that close enough?”
You probably read or heard about this article in The New York Times Magazine or maybe you saw Dr. Robert Lustig’s YouTube Video or appearance on “60 Minutes.” If not, here’s a sampling of what he (along with and more and more medical professionals) believes about sugar:
If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.
Suggesting that sugar might kill us is what zealots do. But Lustig, who has genuine expertise, has accumulated and synthesized a mass of evidence, which he finds compelling enough to convict sugar.
I had read and seen it all, and, weirdly, that wasn’t compelling enough to get me to take a hard look at my family’s sugar consumption — and my own, apparently wicked, sweet tooth — until I experienced firsthand just how addictive the stuff is. Heck, I had even planned an Easter-themed blog post about all the good news that’s been coming out about chocolate lately. But, seeing as how Americans consume about 130 pounds of sugar a year, it occurred to me that we don’t really need any reasons to eat more of it.
Even though I’ve come to believe that sugar, especially when consumed in gigantic quantities, is very bad for our health, maybe even toxic — I am not among the people who think sugar should be banned. (Taxed perhaps…) And far be it from me to suggest that the Easter bunny skips anyone’s house this year. But I do think we owe it to ourselves and our kids to start drastically reducing our sugar intake. The American Heart Association recommends adult women consume less than 5 teaspoons of added sugar per day (about 20 grams); kids less than 3 teaspoons. That’s less than half of a can of Coke. I imagine someone like Dr. Lustig would argue even that’s too much. But since the average person has 7-8 times that every day, it seems like a good place to start.
And the best way to do that, you guessed it, is to eat real food. Packaged processed foods and junk foods are the low-lying fruit when it comes to cutting sugar. If you make yourself aware of these foods where sugar lurks, eat less of them, and work toward eliminating sugary junk (soda, candy, GoGurt, granola bars, Froot by the Foot…), you’ll be so far ahead of the game that the occasional cupcake, ice cream cone, or chocolate chick probably isn’t going to hurt — with heavy emphasis on occasional.
I know it’s hard to police kids all the time, and there is a lot of junk food and candy in the world, but we can control what they eat at home. Well, at least we can try, right? My strategies include avoiding taking the kids to the grocery store at all costs and dodging the Girl Scout cookie sellers on the playground. My greatest hope is that I can convince my kids (and — who am I kidding? — convince myself) that sweets are a treat. You know, for special occasions. I really believe that it would be an incredible gift for my children if they could grow up thinking this way. I know it sounds like something out of Charles Dickens, but maybe by having fewer sweet treats, they will appreciate what little sugar they do get even more. I’m going to get a chance to test this theory in a couple days: The kids gave up all sweets for Lent, too, and I suspect they are really going to appreciate their Easter baskets this year — even if E.B.’s bounty isn’t quite what it used to be.