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Sweet and lowdown

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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David Vanadia’s apartment in Portland, Oregon, is spartan: futon bed, yoga ball, plants trailing along the windowsill. At the foot of the futon is a little mound of brightly colored packaged candy: Milky Ways, Butterfingers, Twizzlers. Across the room, a paper shopping bag overflows with candy wrappers. 

It’s early November, and Vanadia — a trim, bearded man in his late 30s who works variously as a tai chi teacher, guitarist, and anti-sugar activist — is two days into what he hopes is his final sugar binge. 

Since Halloween, when he accumulated the candy strewn around his apartment, Vanadia has eaten nothing but candy. “I really don’t feel so good right now,” he admits. In another 36 hours or so, he’ll throw away whatever’s left and return to refusing sugar in all forms, except, occasionally, honey. 

“No sugar for me means no refined sugars, no corn syrup,” he says. “But it’s virtually impossible to avoid eating anything that’s been sweetened — ketchup, for example.” 

Vanadia may seem obsessive about sugar, but he's not alone in shunning the stuff. Although statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of us — who, like Vanadia, often overindulge come Halloween or Valentine's Day — are taking a hard look at sugar. 

Why avoid sugar? Well, the refined sugars Vanadia eschews are, like your mother always told you, “empty calories” that provide energy without nutrients. Yeah, yeah, you knew that already. But Vanadia, who keeps a blog called Stop Being Sweet, thinks that processed sugar isn’t just unhealthy but downright addictive. 

[%image "cbefore-1" float="left" caption="Candy from David Vanadia's Halloween haul."]

“I have cravings,” he says. “I have trigger foods: chocolate, ice cream. If I eat it, I start to crave it. Then I eat too much, and I feel sick. People in America are eating these foods and feeling bad every day. And it takes a long time to start feeling better; you need to quit for a while, not just a few days. That’s when you really start to notice how much it affects you.”

Americans adore their soda pop and breakfast cereal and ice cream; estimates vary, but the average American supposedly swallows between 20 and 40 teaspoons of added sugar every day. The Sugar Association has stated that a healthy diet can include up to 25 percent of daily calories from added sugar. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization have asserted that added sugar shouldn't account for more than 10 percent of our daily calories. Ten percent of a 2,000-calories-a-day diet is 200 calories. Drink a 20-ounce bottle of soda, and you're done for the day.

“America has one heck of a sweet tooth,” James Surowiecki declared in the New Yorker. “We consume more sweeteners per capita than any other country, and close to 10 million tons of sugar every year.” And we sweeten our lives more now than we used to; as Craig Lambert pointed out in Harvard Magazine, “Sugars added to foods made up 11 percent of the calories in American diets in the late 1970s; today they are 16 percent.” 

Per person, per year, we now eat 30 more pounds of sugar than we did in the 1970s, Gary Taubes reported in the New York Times magazine. We also eat up to 400 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago, Taubes added. Little wonder, then, that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Sugar isn’t the only thing that’s killing us. But as Nina Planck proclaimed in her 2006 book Real Food, “Of all the industrial foods, sugar is the most villainous.”

h3. The unhappy complexity of refined sugar

Those dozens of teaspoons of sugar that we eat every day aren’t always, of course, literal spoons of crystals that we knock back; as Lambert pointed out, they’re added sugar, or sugar added to food and drink that we usually consume without realizing it. 

An apple or a glass of milk has natural sugars in it; these are OK, because you’re eating a combination of minerals, vitamins, fiber, and protein along with the naturally occurring sweet stuff. The refined sugars, however, turn up in snacks, desserts, and processed foodstuffs that don’t typically offer much beyond fat, salt, and calories.  

While stopping short of calling sugar a drug, many experts agree with Vanadia that refined sugar — exaltingly delicious though it might be — has a complex effect on the human psyche and body. “Too many people are consuming huge amounts of sugar, especially from soda pop,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. “That pushes healthier foods, like skim milk or water, out of the diet and promotes weight gain and obesity.”

The alternative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, writing in the New York Times, asserted, “We are constantly told to cut back on fat and sugar, but to my mind the greater problem is the processed food that, over the past 50 years, has increasingly displaced whole, natural food in the American diet. … Modern food technology has transformed slow-digesting grains into snack foods made of pulverized, refined starches that, once eaten, quickly raise blood sugar, promoting insulin resistance and weight gain in genetically susceptible individuals — most of us, unfortunately.” 

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h3. The feedback cycle

The research collated by Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, reinforces Jacobson and Weil’s statements. “The problem is not specifically with sugar, but with things that make your insulin go up,” says Lustig. 

Normally, when we eat, our bodies produce insulin, a hormone that takes excess sugar from our blood and stashes it away in our fat. It’s a neat little hedge against starvation — except, of course, that few people in the First World run the risk of starving. Rather, we have too many food options, and too many of those options aren’t good for us. Our troubles with insulin are the main reason that rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity are on the rise.

“Under normal circumstances,” says Lustig, “as you gain weight, leptin levels start to rise.” Leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. It’s supposed to help keep your appetite, and thus weight gain, under control. “Food makes insulin, which makes fat, which makes leptin, which makes you stop eating,” Lustig says. “That’s a nice circle, what we call a ‘negative feedback cycle.’”

But, adds Lustig, this feedback cycle isn't happening. Not in the First World, and no longer in the rest of the world, either; as countries such as China and India modernize and adopt Western eating habits, they’re acquiring such Western lifestyle diseases as Type 2 diabetes as well. 

“What we’ve determined,” says Lustig, “is that the cycle is not a negative cycle anymore; it’s a positive cycle.” 

Insulin, it turns out, not only converts sugar into fat; it blocks the leptin signal. Sugars — which we consume most frequently in the form of fast-digesting simple carbohydrates, such as soda, instead of slower-digesting complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains — boost our insulin the quickest. 

The fatter you get, as Taubes wrote, “the more insulin your pancreas will pump out per meal, and the more likely you’ll develop what’s called ‘insulin resistance.’” This "positive feedback cycle" is a plus only for your insulin levels, not for you. 

h3. The problem of insulin resistance

Eating, says Lustig, releases dopamine in the brain, which creates a sensation of pleasure. Normally, as you eat and your body produces insulin, the insulin clears out the dopamine, so you stop feeling pleased by your food. 

“But when your brain becomes insulin-resistant, the insulin interferes with the leptin and doesn’t clear the dopamine anymore,” Lustig says. “Instead, insulin stays high, the reward of food is fostered, and you keep eating.”

[%image "cafter-1" float="right" caption="Candy wrappers from David Vanadia's Halloween haul."]

An insulin-sensitive person eats and, with enough exercise, burns off all the calories consumed. But an insulin-resistant person produces too much insulin and thus stashes too many calories as fat. 

“You ate 2,000 calories today, but lost 500 calories to fat,” says Lustig. “You are now 500 calories heavier, but your body has fewer calories than it wants to burn. So now you’re starving.

“How do you feel when you’re starved? You sit on the couch, you don’t want to do anything, you don’t want to exercise, you’re hungry. In a world of free access to food, you eat back the 500 calories. But again, your body shunts 100 of those calories to fat. So now you’re 600 calories heavier. And you still don’t feel quite right. 

“So you go to the doctor and ask, ‘Why am I so fat?’ The doc says, ‘Because you eat too much and you exercise too little.’ But it’s a biochemical drive set up by the high insulin, not you.” 

Taubes came to the same conclusion: “We are simply hungrier than we were in the 1970s, and the reason is physiological more than psychological.”

Our current problems with insulin, Lustig says, are due to a number of factors, including genetics, stress, and lifestyle. “We can’t fix genetics,” he says. “But we can change our environment. You can start with putting in sidewalks; the best treatment for stress is exercise. And the food environment — fructose, refined carbohydrates — is an insulin nightmare.”

h3. Hold the sugar, please

“The first couple of days off sugar, it’s kind of uncomfortable,” recalls Susan Troccolo, a retired technology consultant in Portland, Oregon, who began avoiding sugar a few years ago as part of a no-wheat, no-sugar experiment. (Like Vanadia, Troccolo dropped sugar not as part of a weight-loss plan but to see how it made her feel.) “I was hungry a lot more. It took about three days to just not feel the craving. There’s no question that when I eat sugar, I crave more of it. But over time, with no sugar, I just felt good. Both physically and mentally, without the highs and the lows.”

After a month of no sugar, Troccolo ate a piece of apple pie. The reaction, she says, was intense. “Within five or 10 minutes, I felt like I was hallucinating,” she says. “I said to my husband, ‘I may just pass out right here on the floor. If they ask you when you call 911, tell them it’s the pie.’” 

She laid down, and the strange sensations — visions of colorful kaleidoscopes included — faded after about a quarter of an hour. “I thought then, ‘OK, this sugar stuff is serious.’”

Troccolo — who, unlike Vanadia, will occasionally treat herself to dark chocolate or even a holiday sweet — says she replaced the satisfaction of sugar with other, carefully chosen pleasures, such as fresh butter on her vegetables or a delicious piece of cheese. 

“I’m not a stoic,” she says. “Besides, if you’re not making desserts and pastries, day to day it’s not hard to not use sugar.”


h1. How to shun sugar

Avoiding sugar isn't so tough. Don't drink soda; pour a glass of water or milk instead. Serve fruit for dessert. Buy breakfast cereals with no more than 8 grams of sugar per serving. 

Sugar also turns up in plenty of processed products that aren't very sweet, including ketchup, salad dressing, peanut butter, soup, bread, crackers, and barbecue sauce. So read labels; corn syrup, molasses, honey, sorghum, concentrated fruit juice, and any substance ending in "-ose" are all added sugars. 


These days, Troccolo says, she’s grateful for the absence of daily sugar cravings. “If I were to get philosophical about it,” she says, “craving sugar was equivalent to the sort of craving you feel when you’re not happy with your life.”

As part of his anti-sugar activism, for the past two autumns Vanadia has taught sugar workshops at a local Whole Foods supermarket. “The workshop format is basically sharing personal stories with each other about sugar issues,” he says. 

One workshop attendee came because his father was a big sugarholic. A woman came because she had recently moved to Portland from the Midwest and ate sugar to deal with her loneliness. A second woman recalled her mother baking sweets for her as a child, and said that today she bakes to feel close to her mother.

“We all had someone in our families who loved sugar; we learned it as behavior,” Vanadia says. “We all have emotions attached to sugar.” 

His Halloween candy binge, says Vanadia, used to be an annual ritual, but he plans to quit for good. “Sweets are such a reward,” he says. “But, as someone told me, it’s like you’re celebrating a year of sobriety by getting drunk.”

For his last hurrah on Halloween, Vanadia and his girlfriend hit the streets of Portland dressed, respectively, as a bag of sugar and a honey bear. Made of canvas and painted pink-and-white, like a bag of C&H sugar, Vanadia’s outfit proclaimed “Pure Cane SUGAR” on the front and “” on the back.

“Trick-or-treating is totally ridiculous, but so is feeding this stuff to our kids,” Vanadia says, riffling his hand through the bars next to him on his bed. “Why sugar? Why not give out toys, for example?”

A sea of toys, instead of an ocean of soda? Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

Also on Culinate: More on the dangers of soda.

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