Food does not have ingredients,
food is an ingredient.
I never drink soda, cringe at the addictively deceiving smell of french fries, and do my best to avoid anything with GMOs and artificial crap. So this unexpected challenge from my brother to remove all sugar from my diet for a month was a shock. To think of all the other things he could have chosen. But Ben has been logging everything he consumes, down to the peanut, for the better part of a year. So there was no arguing with his in-tune observation. Challenge accepted.
To My Sweet Surprise
To be clear, the challenge was to eliminate all refined sugars. Easy enough, I don’t ingest much sugar as it is—I think. But after religiously checking ingredients for sugar, corn syrup, sucrose, and a gwap of other sweeteners, it’s no wonder the average American eats 3 lbs of sugar a week; it’s in everything! Needless to say, Ben was right. I consumed way too much sugar and had no idea.
The Sugar Stakes
If I failed to withstand from sugar, I would owe Ben a crispy $ Benjamin. I also gave him a 30-day challenge of his own—a brotherly competition is the only motivation a bro needs.
The struggle wasn’t so much withstanding from sugar, but rather finding food without some variant of sugar in it; welcome to America. During the start of my no-sugar challenge, I found myself in Bend, OR at an airport with 8-hours to kill until a connecting flight. Soon I found the airport had no sugar-free options for me and feeding my grumbling belly water wasn’t going to last much longer. Suitcase in hand, I found the closest grocery store two miles from the airport. This is where I began to learn a few nifty sugarless shopping tricks.
3 No-Sugar Shopping Tips:
Tip 1: Become Ingredient Label Literate
First step in avoiding sugar is being able to detect what it hides in. Best way to do that is to read the ingredient label on everything you eat and look up anything you can’t pronounce. Time-consuming? Yes, at least during the beginning. But wow, what a concept, actually understanding what your eating. Don’t worry, there are plenty of apps that help you scan the barcode:
Here is the list I avoided when ingredient label-checking for my no sugar challenge:
Agave, Aspartame, Barley Malt Syrup, Beet Sugar, Brown Sugar, Cane Juice and Cane Syrup, Coconut Palm, Confectioners’ Sugar, Corn Sweeteners and Corn Syrup, Date Sugar, Demerara, Dextrose, Erythritol, Fructose, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Glucose Syrup, Granulated White Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, High Maltose Corn Syrup, Honey, Invert Sugar, Jaggery, Lactose, Maltodextrin, Maltose, Maple Syrup, Molasses, Muscovado, Rice Syrup, Saccharin, Sorbitol, Stevia Rebaudiana, Sucanat, Sucralose, Sucrose, Sugar, Sugar Alcohols, Erythritol, Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, Isomalt, Lactitol, Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, Tagatose, Turbinado Sugar.
As you may have noticed, companies often strategically divide their sugar content into more than one alternative to make total sugar content appears lower on the ingredient list.
Tip 2: Food is an Ingredient
The ingredient for carrots is carrot. For chicken, it’s chicken. The sugars the human body needs to survive occur naturally in these unprocessed foods. If it comes in a box, 9/10 chances it has an added sugar in it.
When my foodie expert friend Emma caught wind of my sugarless month, she sent me this infographic as motivation, which was revoltingly effective. That, paired with her sugarless homemade granola was a huge help early on in my challenge.
Here’s some ‘sweet’ knowledge and advice from J. Stanton who shows how bread is essentially a big ball of sugar and how it’s processed through our body.
Tip 3: Shop the Perimeters
This bet is open to anyone who wants to take me up on it: 100 to 1 odds that if we throw a rock in the center of a standard grocery store, it will hit something with sugar in it (humans count).
The isles of a grocery story are where processed foods live. So when shopping, avoid the isles unless you know exactly what you’re going in for (peanut butter, beans, grains, etc….). Unless of course, you have plenty of time to kill and you want to do some light ingredient list reading.
Shopping the perimeter of the store will expose you to the raw sugarless essentials: produce, veggies, meat, bread, eggs, etc.
Sugar’s Not All Bad
Fact is, we need sugar to survive. But like fat, there are good sugars and bad sugars. Sugar, after all, is a product of nature.
When I was 4, I ate an entire vine of grapes—by my own mini self. Impressed, I showed off the empty vine to my mom, and she responded, “I know why you like those so much, because they’re so sugary.” Sugar? In grapes? I thought grapes were fruit, not candy … I remained confused by grapes for years until I learned that sugar is naturally found in fruits and other foods.
So yes, your body needs sugar to live. But putting the wrong sugars in your body literally kills you.
Here is a list of natural sugars your body would prefer (in moderation):
Glucose, Muscovado, Jaggery, Demerara, Stevia Leaf, Organic corn (or glucose) syrup (not high fructose!), Raw Honey, Maple Syrup, Brown, Rice Syrup, Barley Malt Syrup, Black Strap Molasses, Unrefined Coconut Palm.
And here’s an extensive list of most all sugar substitutes with a description, glycemic index and what type of sugar it is.
So What Did a Sugarless Month Teach Me?
This challenge was immediately enlightening to how our culture abusively takes advantage of the dopamine effect sugar has on our brain—by adding it to everything they can. But hey, I get it, it’s cheap, easy, extends shelf live, and supports the main goal of every business (at least what the taught me during business school), “The goal of every business is to make a profit”. Unfortunately, for most food companies that means making a profit is a higher priority than the health of humanity. Keeping that in mind, shopping by brand is another great tip when shopping. If you know what demographic a company is after (eg. health conscious, cheap, sugar-high addicts, etc.) then you can start to trust which brands are looking out for your best interest. The best way to learn that is to read the ingredients, not the tagline or marketing slogan.
I also realized that going without something you’re use to can sure make you more aware of its presence. There was a moment in the middle of the challenge when I bit into a peanut butter celery stick and could instantly tell the peanut butter had sugar in it. An ingredient check was followed by a call to Ben to inform him of my defeat. He forgave the mistake and allowed me to continue the challenge.
Lastly, this no-sugar challenge forever changed my diet and way I look at food. That Cane Juice in Clif Bars can add up quick if it’s a regular go-to backpack snack—so guilty. By seeing food as a source of energy versus something to temporarily cure that hole in the stomach, we can better select whole foods that will let the body run more efficiently.
Let’s revisit the definition of food to remind ourselves why we eat:
Now ask yourself, why would you eat something like sucrose (processed sugar) that has been proven to do the opposite of maintaining life and growth?
We tell companies what to produce with what we buy. Vote with your dollar and teach others how to lead a healthier, happier, less sugary life. Sure it can be more expensive to buy real food, but as a wise friend once told me, “the last thing you should put a budget on is what you put inside of your body.”