Recently, my friend Debra Jang, who’s a certified health and life coach, launched the Five-Day No-Sugar Challenge for her clients and any interested guests. It seemed a worthy project: the addiction to refined sugar is a scourge of contemporary Western life. This stuff, at scale, is making us fat and clouding our brains and killing us early; and it’s in almost everything on the grocery-store shelves. Going cold turkey for a short time seemed like a noble thing to try.
I’m in! I told Deb. But five days is too much. How about one day?
“Whatever you like,” she said. “Just know that it’s hardest in the beginning, and you’ll see more benefit the longer you go. But one day is better than no days.”
5 AM. First coffee of the day, no sugar. Tastes like ditchwater. This is gonna be a long day.
8 AM. Jen snipped an article from Leslie Beck’s nutrition column in The Globe last night. It makes the case for eating a high-protein breakfast. This is thought to slow stomach emptying, so the usual post-meal spike in blood sugar is blunted. Deb talks a lot about this, too. So we pound down some eggs. Also Adams natural peanut butter – not on toast (cuz pretty much all bread contains some sugar), but on a sad corn tortilla.
The girls have decided to join me in the no-sugar challenge, in solidarity. It’s very kind, but I wonder if it’s wise. Maybe at least one of us on firm land here, and not addled by brain circuitry that’s being disrupted, in case sound decisions have to be made.
By 9am I have already knocked three things over.
Noon: Am compensating for no processed sugary food by eating twice as much of everything else. Mostly fruit. (Its natural sugars come gift-wrapped in fiber, so they’re allowed.)
Homemade mulligatawny soup is pretty decent – lots of spices in there. Spicy is the new sweet, at least for one day.
But the howling fantods are coming. I can feel their breath on my neck.
3:30: Really struggling now. Insane cravings for the leftover Halloween candy in the pantry, which I hadn’t even thought about in weeks. Hard to concentrate. Think I’ll … take a nap.
The value of voluntary self-deprivation experiments like this one (and this one) is that they reveal just how dependent we have become on certain things that barely register as we consume them. I knew I was addicted to sugar; I just didn’t know how badly. “Go easy on yourself” blamewise, Deb says. We flog ourselves for our weak willpower, but really it’s the food conglomerates who should be getting called on the carpet here. Their chemists have systematically re-engineered our taste buds, elevating our sweetness preferences. Willy Wonka-like, they’ve taken us gently by the hand and walked us all the way to a “bliss point” beyond anything found in nature.
Sugar substitutes? (Basically all the words on the label ending in “ose”)? Well, they’re not quite the get-out-of-jail-free card they’re made out to be. “Your body is detecting sweetness but not getting a payoff,” Deb says. “So they actually make you end up craving sugar more.”
6pm Impossible (meatless) burgers for dinner. No buns. Instead we use lettuce leaves.
I bring out the condiments. What’s a burger without mustard and ketchup and relish? Oh, wait. Damn. There’s added sugar in all of it.
“Guess I’ll settle for just mayo,” I said glumly.
“Fourth ingredient,” Lila says, reading the label, and whisking the mayo bottle from my grasping fingers.
“There’s no sugar in mayo. That’s a misprint.”
“Dad!” she says. “You should not be putting more food on your food. That means you don’t like your food.”
“Well I don’t like my food. Not like this. It needs to be … corrected. With sugar.”
If quality of life in general is about “squaring the curve” of general decline, then this no-sugar experiment is about a different kind of re-contouring. It’s about “flattening the spikes” of blood sugar. Turning mountains into mesas. No peaks, but no crashes either.
I miss my spikes.
Lila pops out of the kitchen holding a pomelo: “If you’re craving sweetness, try this. These fellas are absolutely jacked with sugar.”
By early evening little mirages start appearing around the home. What’s that? A lovely chocolate cookie on a plate! Wait, no: just a leftover burger patty. The mind wants what it wants. At least once a minute my concentration darts from the task at hand to muse on the Nanaimo bars in the downstairs freezer. It’s hard to get any deep work done at all.
Years ago, while researching the Olga book, I got my genome partially sequenced. There, lurking in my DNA, was the gene FGF21: the so-called “sweet-tooth” gene. Inherited from both sides of the family, very likely. Dad was furtive about his snacking: I’d find the ice cream bowl in the sink in the morning. Mom was a flagrant chocoholic.
I start pulling out eyebrow hairs.
We are kind of all grumpy together now, like premenstrual college students whose cycles have synchronized in the dorm. Jen’s missing sugar in her tea. And chocolate. You could live without chocolate, theoretically. You could also live without touching anyone, or turning left, or using verbs. Some kinds of deprivation are hard to defend.
I duck into the pantry for shopping bags and every single thing in there that’s verboten all-but jumps off the shelf. Even the dog biscuits look tempting.
Lila asks if she can come to the grocery store too. I only realize later that it’s not for her, it’s for me. She’s like my parole officer, trying to keep me on the straight-and-narrow. “Look at that giant tower of paper towels!” Distraction.
I snatch a bag of chips off a low shelf. Read the label. One gram of sugar. For the love of god, why?
Got my frozen berries for smoothies, my pumpkin in a can, my nine-dollar loaf of no-sugar keto bread.
Cannot muster a smile for the cashier.
“Are you sure it’s the food you want and not the taste of the food?” Lila asks on the way home.
“It’s the taste.”
“Yeah, well. That’s why they’re developing flavoured sprays. When you think you’re hungry you just spray the inside of your mouth with the taste you’re craving. No more hunger. It wasn’t the food.”
The mathematician Paul Erdos was once coaxed into giving up his trusty amphetamines for 30 days. At the end of it, his friend congratulated Erdos on the effort. “But I didn’t get any work done,” Erdos fumed. “Congratulations: you’ve set back mathematics by a month!” It’d be sheer hubris to suggest my no-sugar day set back anything but my mood. But there’s no doubt that we lean on chemical assistance to prod the brain to go to places it couldn’t normally reach. And to keep our spirits up as we doggedly try to make our own tiny dent in the universe.
Today was an exercise day, but I didn’t have it in me. Instead just went to bed. Jen tossing and turning. Thinking dark thoughts. Dark nighttime thoughts. Dark chocolate nighttime thoughts. Now we’re both awake, waiting for merciful release from the stockades.
In the morning I’m feeling quite a bit better, though. I ate enough popcorn yesterday to stuff a mattress. But my conscience is clean. The Big No-Sugar day is over.
One day was the bare minimum requirement. One day with an option to re-up.
But then I spot something on the table. It is a tower of delicious-looking muffins. Made with rolled oats and bananas. No sugar.
Beside it a little sign, in Lila’s unmistakable handwriting:
One. More. Day.