13 July, 2010

My Loathsome Lover

I've known for a long time now that Sugar and I are loathsome lovers.

It's been a love-hate relationship that stems as far back as I can remember. Basically, I love it, but it hates me. And yet, as a dejected but obsessed lover often does, I keep going back to it, thinking things might change, perhaps our relationship just needed to mature, or maybe I just needed to be better to it.

Since childhood, I've been a sugar addict. This was not a normal 'sweet tooth'. I remember stealing extra cookies from the jar, or sneaking extra ice cream from the freezer, to satisfy my intense cravings for sweets. In high school, after suffering from headaches and low energy, I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia, a diet which I adhered to for the next year or two, while living with my parents. As soon as I moved out, however, it was back to the same old stuff. I am just never one to turn down a cookie or piece of cake. That would, for me, be total sacrilege. That's an obvious violation of my entire belief system! And when I moved to Europe for four years, I plunged even deeper down the rabbit hole of amazing pastries and candies and waffles and gelatos. The never-ending supply of outstanding sweet treats was right at my disposal. Who was I to refuse?! Come on!

But because of this sweet tooth, and after doing much research, in and out of the doctor's office over many years, I realize that I've suffered from all kinds of maladies that stem directly from this overindulgence of sugar: depression, weight gain, headaches, low energy. Sugar is directly responsible for a good portion of my health ailments. Subconsciously knowing this, I'd occasionally go cold-turkey for a while, but like most abusers and their victims, it would wave to me from nearby pastry shops, promising great things, sending me into delighted euphoric highs, until I was firmly and unabashedly hooked again.

Well, I've had it.

There comes a point in a woman's life when you need to pick your self-worth off the floor and admit when your lover is treating you badly. And, for me, that time has come. The defining moment actually happened last month at the tail end of an evening enjoying a baking class with fellow foodies. In a very short time frame, we made -- and sampled -- about five very sweet desserts, not to mention washing them down with wine. It was, quite honestly, a night of poison for me. I woke up the next morning with the hangover of all hangovers--not from wine (of which I had very little) but from all of the sugar. It took me all day to feel better. That day, I picked up a book I'd bought six months prior, about those who have sugar-sensitivity, called "Potatoes Not Prozac", which talks about using food (not medication) to control health ailments, and it starts by removing health-destructing sugar from your diet. After reading even the first few chapters of the book, I vowed to not eat sugar for the entire weekend and 'try it out'. I felt so much better than I had in weeks. Truly. So, I decided then and there that I needed that to be a lasting feeling.

So, at long last, I broke up with Sugar.

Like it usually is after a divorce, I was sad and forlorn, not able to contemplate a future without it. That might seem overly melodramatic, but for someone who looks forward to the next sweet treat, it feels unreal to look ahead toward a life of possibly not enjoying those things again. But, as the sadness wore off, for the first time in a long while, I noticed that I feel energetic, clear-headed, and liberated.

I take inspiration from my gluten-free friends. If they can live without gluten, I can live without sugar. It's funny, though; I do not have one single sugar-free friend. Maybe, in announcing this change, I will meet more sugar-sensitive people who, like me, yearn for better sugar-free alternatives than just NutraSweet or Splenda. I will just have to experiment on my own for now, as most baking books out there don't really provide all the criteria I need for a sugar-free diet. I need recipes that provide sweeteners that are a) natural (no artificial sweeteners) b) have a low glycemic index c) don't use other simple sugars (white flour or white rice flour) and d) use sweeteners that have a neutral taste. Currently, I am experimenting with xylitol, stevia, and occasionally, I use a little bit of honey or agave (the latter two, in very small doses). Stevia is powerful and you don't need much; it's great for kick-starting the sweetness ratio of a recipe.

I've not only broken up with Sugar but, as I mentioned, also its simple carbohydrate cousins (which act like sugar in your system), such as white pasta and white bread. (Goodbye, French bread! Hello, rustic whole wheat loaves!) It won't be easy, especially when dining out, which is just about one of my favorite things to do. I'm sure I will end up simply indulging from time to time when alternatives just don't present themselves. But, as a general rule, in a day-to-day manner, I just know that I function better as a human being without sugar or simple carbs in my diet.

I've wanted to break up for years. I even went off of refined sugar for Lent. But that wasn't enough. I had to also stop with the simple carbs and also eat more protein. I hate to use the word "diet" but I don't know what else to call a 'new culinary lifestyle', but whatever it is, it is somewhat reminiscent of a diet for those who have diabetes. High protein, low carbs, no refined sugar, and watching foods and how they affect your Glycemic Index. (Anything over 55 GI is probably not good for a diabetic and questionable for a Hypoglycemic.)

I'm already pretty well-versed in adapting recipes, and experimenting with non-traditional ingredients, so I have no doubt that my foray into sugar-free baking will lead to fabulous fun. And pasta? Whole wheat for me tastes just fine. And rice? Well, I prefer brown rice anyway. For the most part, I'm good to go.

You'll be seeing all kinds of recipes for sweets in the upcoming months; I know I'll experiment like mad. Right now, I seem to have a continuing obsession for making sugar-free frozen ice creams, yogurts, and sorbets. If you see sweet recipes on this blog, just assume they are sugar-free. However, I will always add the sugar alternative, so that anyone can make it without buying special ingredients.

I'm sure I will be enjoying food in a restaurant that might raise my glycemic index a bit, and I know I will enjoy a glass of wine now and then (also has sugar). But daily use? Or overindulgence? Is over. I'm here to put a cap on this Sweet Tooth.

Like any breakup, I miss Sugar, but I have no doubt that I will find great partnerships with other lovely  alternatives who treat me like a girl needs to be treated.

And this is where it all begins.

If you have any advice or resources for this newly unsweetened gal in Seattle, please... I solicit them.


  1. A while back now my wife gave up on Gluten (she pretty much had to), and that was a wee bit tough. Recently we too have given up on sugar. Instead, I end up using some honey in recipes as needed, and actually way prefer the results.

    Once we got off the processed white flour products, and on to more whole grains I found that if I tried white bread/pasta again it tasted like stodge with no texture at all. Now, I enjoy whole grain stuff more than I ever did white flour products.

    Anyhow, good on ya. It is pretty amazing what effect sugar and other simple carbs have on health and mood. I never realised myself until getting pretty much off them.

  2. I have a debilitating sweet tooth, as well, but I refuse to do anything about it. I'm fairly sure chocolate is causing my migraines, but I refuse to find out. Seriously, it is my worst addiction. Sugar trumps all. It must be a genetic thing, because the last time I hung out with my dad, he ate all the sugary crust off my creme brulee. I nearly screamed.

  3. I use a lot of sucanat which is unrefined natural cane sugar and because of its light molasses notes, a little goes a long way. It is actually the only sugar recommended by hard core natural people. Two others I use are palm sugar and the Indian jaggery. A little goes a long way and trust me, from having to lose a lot of weight at 18 and living with very little sugar, the taste for it and your tastebuds change. Now every dessert bite feels like 10 at once!

  4. Not to be a killjoy, but:

    For so many, sugar is a part of cuisine. Not necessarily in the raw form, but certainly a part. Can you really represent and cater for 'foodies' without an appreciation and use of sugar? Like me and vine (heh), surely it's an ingredient that needs careful use, rather than avoidance?

  5. I didn't say I would avoid sweets. In fact, I stated that I would be doing a lot of experimenting in the future. And I do not represent foodies. I am my own culinary artist. I represent images and stories; I'm not a chef. (And I would still serve traditional and non-traditional desserts to guests.) So, I can't imagine where abstaining from an ingredient that hurts me would ruin my standing in a culinary world that has niches for everyone... But thanks for your care and concern. And, like I said, I will occasionally indulge when there is no other alternative (ie. I'm in Italy and I have to eat white pasta, or someone's grandma shoves homemade gelato at me). :-) Of course. COMPLETELY abstinence is probably not very doable, particularly while eating out, or traveling.

  6. Also, I should add that I have, and will also have, a deep respect and appreciation for sugar (and simple carbs) and its place in gastronomy. Nothing is changing there. And my sweet recipes will have sugar alternatives for all the people (basically EVERYBODY who reads me) who want to try the recipes and use traditional sugar.

  7. You should check out Heather over at Heather Eats Almond Butter (http://heathereatsalmondbutter.com/). She also gave up sugar and refined carbs and has lots of great substitutions.

    Good luck!

  8. Good luck with the change. I am sure diabetics will be happy with your upcoming experiments. I gave a sugar addict friend, who while zipping up her sleeping bag on a camping trip with me, said "don't be alarmed if you hear me in the middle of the night eating candy, I need it to sleep." ha!

  9. This post so resonates with me. I have long had a love/hate relationship with sugar. There is zero doubt in my mind that it - and carbs in general - affect me in a very negative way. I try hard to moderate my intake, but it's a struggle for me, and I've had little success. I'm impressed and inspired by your post and look forward to hearing more about your process. Good for you for taking the bull by the horns.

  10. Always an interesting thing to do. I tried it (years ago) for 9 months - no, not pregnant. Was all whole grain, fruits and vegetables, almost no eating out. Not sure I ever noticed a great change. Went to a friend's house for a visit - we had take out Chinese food - right down to sweet and sour pork. It tasted great - and with that, I was back to eating sugar. It comes and goes for me, but I know it makes me sad to not have sweets. So good luck with your experiments. Hope they make a difference for you.

  11. How interesting! I can completely relate. I've been going through some gastrointestinal issues and other general "feeling-yuckiness" that I have been able to trace to refined sugar and flour. I still allow myself some sweets, but mostly I snack on proteins instead now; nuts, hardboiled eggs, or canned fish instead of cookies or a bagel.

    I have read that you can tone down sugar cravings by balancing your diet in other ways, but I don't know anything more specific than that.

  12. Best of luck, Jackie. I have a friend who also avoids sugar and while I had a baking business I ran out of the farmer's market and it killed me to not be able to serve anything to her (everything was traditional, rustic eastern European). Good for you, giving up something you love is unimaginably difficult and until you have to do it, you can't possibly understand how difficult it is - I have cried, lost sleep and snuck gluten-laced food in the middle of the night because it is so hard cutting gluten out of my life.

    Have you given brown rice syrup a shot? As far as I know that same friend used brown rice syrup. I'm going out for dinner with her in a week so I'll pick her brain and get back to you!

  13. I feel so fortunate...I've always had a hard time tolerating sugar too, but I really don't have much of a sweet tooth so it works out. I'm wishing you luck and looking forward to reading more!