I am a sugar fiend. This is no secret. Right now, my pantry contains two flavors of Oreos, root beer-flavored off-brand Twizzlers, a half-eaten box of AlohaMacs, a jar of assorted chocolate candies from Whole Foods’ bulk bins, sour watermelon chews, salted caramels leftover from Christmas, and chocolate pandas purchased at an Asian grocery.
Last week, I made Valentine’s Day chocolate my breakfast more days than I’m willing to admit. Buddy the Elf is me.
It’s not like I’m proud of this. I’ve tried to cut back on my sugar intake in the past, but it’s difficult. I get a little bored, get a little hungry, and boom—there I am, standing in front of my pantry, eating stale cookies and wondering about my long term health. On that count, I fall well within the majority of Americans who consume too much added sugar. One estimate has the average intake at just over 100 grams of sugar per day—double the new FDA recommendation, and quadruple the World Health Organization’s most conservative recommendation.
The problem is, overdoing sugar is so easy to do—and it’s not just about drinking soda (although there is that, too). Everything has sugar in it. The bread you turn into toast, the sauce you put on your pasta. Added sugars are sneaky little boogers, made even sneakier by the fact that the food industry refuses to get its act together and make a distinction between added and natural sugars on nutrition labels.
In the interest of all things health, wellness, and unwieldy future medical bills, I decided to test out the WHO conservative sugar recommendation for a week. I wanted to see if it was doable, or if I would turn into a label-reading nutter with a constant sugar-withdrawal headache. So last Saturday, with a full night of sleep acting like the wind at my back, I began my experiment.
The first thing I always do, every Saturday, is visit my favorite coffeeshop and drink a flat white. This, I know I don’t have to worry about. The baristas know not to make my flat white with sugar.
The first small roadblock comes up a couple hours into my visit, though. I’m getting hungry, and it’s only polite to order something else after taking up a seat for as long as I have. The coffeeshop has exquisite-looking macarons, but those are obviously out. There are also croissants, which on any normal day would be a good bet, but unfortunately have some sort of sugary coating outside that will only confuse my numbers. I decide to go home and make myself scrambled eggs with salami and toast. It’s substantial, but the toast officially puts me on the sugar register for the day: 4 grams.
A few hours later I get to feeling snacky. Now is when I would raid the cupboard for something sweet, but because I’m obligated to pass over the sweet stuff, I instead go for the box of Cheez-Its. Bless Sunshine, Cheez-Its have no added sugar.
Lunch rolls around, and so I decide to heat myself up some pork dumplings I’ve got in the freezer. The sugar content in these is minimal, at just 1.5 grams. I also grab a Cutie from the fridge. Fruit, I don’t have to worry about—it’s added sugars I’m avoiding.
Even after the dumplings and Cutie, I’m feeling munchy, and I really would like something sweet. Sure, I could eat a chocolate, but I’m saving my sugars for an evening beer (beer has sugar, right?), so instead I whip myself up a smoothie with some berries, a banana, and some plain Greek yogurt. Sugar craving, vanquished.
Dinner finally rolls around. We go out to a new gastropub downtown with some friends, and the fried green beans I order seem to have some sort of sugary sauce on them. I have no way of tracking how much sugar is in it, so I decide to guesstimate it at 4 grams. I also have a Scotch Ale, and after doing some research, I discover that beer actually has no added sugar. Hurrah! I celebrate this with a swig of my husband’s chocolate malt he gets after the meal. The mouthful I get can’t contain more than 5 grams of sugar. And that’s a wrap for Saturday.
Saturday’s Total: 14.5 grams sugar. Nailed it.
This is where things start to get tough. After church, there’s a beautiful spread of sweet pastries set out for coffee hour. I die a little inside and head toward the table with raw veggies, steering clear of the dip, because who knows what it contains? I also grab some chips, salsa, fried rice, and macaroni and cheese. It is an eclectic mix of food, and it’s impossible to know if there was any added sugar in it at all. I count the whole morning as zero grams of sugar consumed. Maybe 1 gram, if you include the sweet Communion wine.
After church, my husband makes us both chai. He measures out the sugar before he adds it: 20 grams for two cups. Split evenly between us, my cup of chai contains 10 grams of sugar. I drink it with a sesame bagel from Panera spread with cream cheese. The bagel, according to Panera’s nutrition facts, contains 3 grams of sugar.
An afternoon snack attack sets in shortly after. I root around for something, anything to keep me away from the pantry, and come up with carrots, salami, and a hard-boiled egg. No added sugar. #win
Dinner is easy. I fry up some luchis and eat them with the leftover potato curry I’ve got hanging out in the fridge. My day is done.
Sunday’s Total: 14 grams sugar. I’m on fiyahhh.
Normally I wake up with a glass of milky, sugared tea in the morning. Today I make myself a cup of black coffee and die a little inside.
I haven’t been grocery shopping in a while, so I throw together a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. The bacon is, coincidentally, some fancy no-sugar-added stuff I got at Whole Foods a couple of weeks back, so the only sugar in my breakfast comes from the 4 grams in my toast.
My Monday is strange—I’m temping at an eye doctor’s office I haven’t worked at since September. The work keeps me busy and my breakfast carries me through, thankfully, until my 12:30 p.m. lunch break. I didn’t pack my lunch, but there’s a Panera close by (I swear, this is not an endorsement for Panera!) so I pick up a Roasted Turkey and Avocado BLT sandwich and pick an apple as my side. The sandwich has 3 grams of sugar. I am killing it.
Snack attacks hit me no matter where I am, and so I can’t resist the box of strange candied fruit leftover from the Chinese New Year sitting in the break room. After a couple pieces, though, I discover why it’s still largely untouched. My unfortunate mistake has cost me an unknown amount of sugar grams—my entirely uneducated estimate is 5 grams. I attempt to get the taste of candied ginger out of my mouth with a Panda Express fortune cookie. This has 3 grams of sugar. I vow never to go near the box of Chinese candy again.
After work, I stop by the grocery store. A man is handing out free samples of sushi. I assume there’s no added sugar in it and let him serve me two pieces of spicy dragon roll. I am amused by the way he says “Sriracha,” skipping the first r and rolling the second. Sirrrrracha! It’s late by the time I get home, and I’m not too hungry anyway. I snack on a leftover luchi and some Cheez-Its and call it a night. I lead a very boring sugar-free life.
Monday’s Totals: 15 grams sugar
I wake up in need of all the sugary things. Alas, I settle myself with a cup of unsweetened Darjeeling tea and a biscotti from the pantry. The biscotti is homemade, and so I look up the recipe to figure out its sugar content. The whole batch of biscotti was made with 1 cup of sugar. Estimating 50 pieces cut from two logs, that puts one biscotti at 4 grams. Which makes sense—it’s not much sweeter than the fortune cookie I ate yesterday.
Since I’m flush on groceries, I put together my normal breakfast: apple slices with peanut butter yogurt dip. Usually I throw an indiscriminate amount of honey into the dip, but today I’m trying to stockpile my sugar grams for a taste of the pint of Half Baked I bought last night, so I leave it out. My world is dark and grey. I resolve never to make this dip without honey again.
By 9:30 a.m. I am starving again, and so I make myself a Second Breakfast (Hobbits, I’m sure you approve) of bacon and eggs—no toast. I also make myself a big mug of milky coffee and measure in 6 grams of sugar. I deserve this.
The rest of my morning is busy. Second Breakfast is satiating enough that I don’t eat again until nearly 4:30, when I’m absolutely starving and need to be out the door in 10 minutes. I throw together a bowl of guacamole using an avocado and some Pace salsa (2 grams sugar) and chomp it down with a bunch of stale Mission chips (no sugar!). I also grab a couple strips of chicken breast I’ve got cooked up for salads and a banana, then I’m gone.
By the time I get back home, it’s officially Beer o’Clock. The Hazelnut Brown Nectar I pour myself tastes strongly like hazelnut creamer, but has no added sugar, at least not according to the ingredients list on Rogue’s website. Post-beer, I make the calculation and dish myself out a measly half portion of Half Baked. Its 13.5 grams of sugar, combined with the rest of the day’s total of 12 grams puts me at 25.5 grams of sugar total. I’m over by a half a gram. Sue me. I’m eating my ice cream.
Tuesday’s Total: 25.5 grams sugar. Flirting with disaster.
This morning it’s more Darjeeling, more bagel, more cream cheese, more butter. I may not die of diabetes, but heart disease—weeeeell, that’s an issue to tackle later. The only thing that contains sugar in my breakfast is my everything bagel from Panera, at 4 grams.
I’m working at the eye doctor’s again today; since my husband has the day off, we go to our favorite coffee shop and get some flat whites. No sugar, as per usual. I rule.
I don’t feel like packing a lunch or buying lunch at work, so I grab a couple of bottles of Soylent to tide me over until dinner. I crack the first one open when I get hungry at 10 a.m. The fat content in the drink pounds my empty stomach, and so I pacify it with some Ritz crackers, which I am sure, as I’m eating them, are full of sugar. I’m in luck, though: five crackers only contain 1 gram. Score, after the 9 grams in the Soylent.
Lunch is samesies: Soylent followed by five more Ritz crackers, for a grand total of 10 grams for lunch.
I know I’m getting super close to the day’s limit of sugar, but I can’t resist the weird Chinese dried fruit again today. I take one of the dried white thingies. It’s strange, but more neutral-tasting than anything. I’m sure it’s put me over, but I don’t know by how much. I’ll estimate 4 grams of sugar and call it a day.
There’s no time for dinner after work—I’m a busy lady, after all, with things to do and people to see. By the time I get home, it’s 8:30, and I’m exhausted and starving. I’ve made my husband pick up two Jack-in-the-Box tacos for me. Oh so nutritious, especially when I wash them down with a Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout. The tacos each have 1 gram of sugar in them. The beer, I assume, has none.
Wednesday’s Total: 30 grams sugar. Out of control.
Must get back on track today. I grab a banana and eat it with my black coffee. It is entirely unsatisfactory. (Though I am picky when it comes to my bananas.) A couple of hours later I throw together a real breakfast of—surprise, surprise—buttered toast with scrambled eggs and bacon. Four grams down, and I’m doing okay.
Until the munchies hit. We’re out of Cheez-Its, so I dig into the Wheat Thins. Sixteen crackers sets me back another 4 grams of sugar.
Lunch tacks another 13 grams onto today’s sugar count: two from the dressing I put on my spinach salad and 11 from the Nature Valley bar I eat afterwards. Is this an efficient use of my scant daily sugar allowance? Probably not. But I’m living in the moment. And I want this Nature Valley Bar. Nom.
Dinner is, happily sugar free. It’s my husband’s birthday, so I make him good old steak and potatoes with roasted asparagus. We crack open a bottle of wine to drink with it, but wine is just grapes, right?
Thursday’s Total: 21 grams. That’s more like it.
More like Fri-yay, amirite? It’s the last day of this low-sugar experiment, and I’m ready to take it on.
Except that it’s sort of a weird day. I’ve got a dentist appointment scheduled for 8 a.m. (who does that?) and after that, more work at the eye doctor’s office.
Since I hate eating before I go to the dentist, I make myself a cup of black coffee and go. Two hours later, my face half numbed and a brand new crown to show for all the work, I’m done with the dentist. What I need: McDonald’s breakfast. I order a Bacon Egg & Cheese Biscuit meal, ordering my coffee with two creams and two sugars because I deserve it after the torture I’ve just been through. (I’d really rather have a McGriddle, but that crap has 15 grams of sugar in it, and as we all know by now, sugar comes at a cost these days.) Breakfast numbers: 3 grams from the biscuit, 8 grams from the coffee.
Lunchtime rolls around, as it does. I didn’t pack myself a lunch, and I don’t feel like spending more money; luckily, a co-worker saves the day and offers me a piece of her buffalo chicken pizza. I think this has no sugar added? Really, it’s dicey. I assume none and chow down while watching the first episode and a half of Fuller House.
Later, I get snacky again. The only vaguely appealing thing in the snack cupboard at the back of the office is—yes—the Nature Valley bars, which frankly, I’m sick of. But I take a pack anyway, and add 11 more grams of sugar to my day.
Dinner is homemade pizza. I have friends over and everything. The only thing with sugar is the tomato sauce, also homemade. I think it has a teaspoon in it? Or less? I count it as negligible and pour myself another glass of wine. I’m so close to the end of this experiment, and today has been good.
Except. Then I make some brownies. With ice cream. Because how much of an ogre can I be, not even giving my husband cake on his birthday? He deserves it. And, as it turns out, so do I. Because it’s been a long week, and I’ve been mostly good.
Friday’s Total: 22 grams, pre-brownie binge. Sh*t tons post binge.
This week actually wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be. The hardest thing was the self-discipline I had to practice to not snack on every sweet thing in sight when I got bored. Which is, I suppose, a good thing. The other tough thing was having to guesstimate sugar content when eating non-packaged and/or non-labeled items (like those exquisite fried green beans…man, I’m still thinking about them).
Here comes a rant, though: will the FDA Gods and/or higher-ups please, please, please keep pushing the added sugar labeling requirement? Because gosh darn it, it’s difficult to know when a food’s sugar content is because of added versus natural sugars. Do I really think that my slices of toast had an entire teaspoon of sugar in each one of them? No, not really. Maybe it was lactose from milk or something else—the point is, there was no way of knowing. I know the sugar lobby has argued all sorts of things anti added sugar labeling (“It will confuse the consumer! Oh no! Oh no!”) but in the end, a nutrition label is just a nutrition label, and if people want to eat healthy, they will.
Will I do it again? Well, that’s a complicated question. My body, unfortunately enough, loved this little experiment. I felt great all week long. In theory, I would do this again in a heartbeat. But in practice? Well, there are the leftover brownies, and two types of ice cream in the freezer now, and I also managed to maul a Girl Scout troop on my Friday grocery shopping trip.
What it will really come down to is self-control. The day I had to measure myself out a half a portion of Ben and Jerry’s was pretty freaking depressing. But afterwards, I felt good about myself. I had had my ice cream, and it was fine. The real question now is, will I be able to do it without the pressure of succeeding for an article?
I’m not sure. Today, I’ve already had a slice of cake and a scoop of gelato. But there’s always tomorrow.