My ultimate spring break destination was like that of any respectable college student: the fridge. After being away from home without that endless trove of accessible delights since January, I was more than ready to replace Allison pizza and Hinman soft serve with the real deal. Home is where the heart is, sure, but for anyone with a campus meal plan, it’s also where the food is.
I headed directly for the ice cream after stepping out of the car, but just like my eternal struggle with black eyeliner, my final grade in EECS 111 and that basketball game against Gonzaga, things don’t always go the way I planned. Life throws ya curveballs, and mine just so happened to be an empty freezer.
“Where’s the ice cream?” I asked, pulling out the freezer drawers just to make sure it wasn’t hiding. “Should I put it on the grocery list?”
“Not until after Easter,” my mom said. “We all gave up sugar for lent.”
There was a thud as the freezer slid shut, but it also might have been my heart breaking. Giving up anything for lent is an annual tradition in the Catholic faith and in my family, but it has only persuaded me to go as far as eliminating candy from my diet, maybe chocolate or custard. Never all three. That was the holy trinity of sacrifice.
“So in this whole house, there’s not any sugar?” I moaned, my face falling.
“No fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, molasses, honey or corn syrup!” My mother laughed. “But it’s not so bad – we’re actually cheating a little bit. We’re allowed to have fruit.”
Oh. How generous.
For a moment I fumed internally, unsure why they would do such a thing to torture someone so excited to eat without swiping a Wildcard first. What madness had I stumbled upon? Who had replaced my family with these sugar-free impostors? And where could a girl find Ben & Jerry’s?
Hurt but still not defeated, I reached into the fridge instead to make a sandwich. “Does bread have sugar in it?” I laughed sarcastically.
I’d been looking for that typical polka-dotted bag of Wonderbread, a staple for any middle-class suburban family. My mother had to show me its replacement: a thick, round loaf that resembled bread a baker had slaved over for hours instead of an overgrown Twinkie.
“You won’t believe how long I had to look to find bread without sugar,” she explained. “So don’t eat all of that. It’s a delicacy.”
I grumbled under my breath as I grabbed a plate. Sliced lunch meat was off the table because it was cured with sugary preservatives and sugar-free jelly was an oxymoron by nature. Left with few ingredients at my disposal, I ended up having a sandwich of all-natural peanut butter and disappointment.
This better be worth it, I thought, munching on chunks of actual peanuts. There has to be a reason that people give up sugar… there has to be some benefit…
For the next week, I figured out what life was like without added sweeteners. Would my life improve? Would I feel healthy and fit? To find out what I’d be like without added sugar, I decided to partake in the Lenten promise… and I learned a thing or two about nutrition along the way.
Discovery #1: Food without sugar tastes like food
It was actually this first sandwich that caused me to reach this epiphany. Imagine if you could taste literal peanuts in your peanut butter. Imagine if your bread audibly crunched when you bit into it. Imagine if you could actually differentiate between tea flavors or coffee beans because there was no sugar in your latte to mask the taste. It might not taste as sweet, but if I learned one thing about my perception during this little experiment, it is that food without sugar tastes like real food.
Discovery #2: Sugar is in literally in everything.
As previously mentioned, there are not many shelves in your pantry where sugar hasn’t reached its sticky fingers. Savory snacks like pretzels, crackers, and trail mix aren’t safe, and even plain chicken broth has added sugar!
My dad thought he’d help us out by making dinner, but there was always at least one ingredient on the plate that we had to call him out on because he’d inadvertently added some sweetener. The rub on that pork? The glaze on those carrots? The dressing on that salad? Nice try, Ken. Thanks for playing.
It wasn’t his fault, though. Seventy-five percent of packaged foods contain sugar, so if you aren’t sure where to look, it’s easy to be fooled. So how can you tell what includes sugar and what doesn’t? You have to read the labels. The main culprits of hidden sugars include processed grains (most slices of bread contain a teaspoon of sugar or more!), seemingly-healthy smoothies (a single Naked smoothie has two times your recommended daily amount), and all types of yogurt - even fat-free.
Discovery #3: We don’t need sugar
Sugar is the body’s main energy source, but we get enough from fruit and carbohydrates to knock any added sweets off the food pyramid. That being said, as with most elements of your diet, sugar is completely safe in moderation. Adding some honey to your tea isn’t going to kill you, and neither is eating processed grains from time to time. Sugar isn’t inherently bad, but there’s just not any reason that it needs to be in a person’s diet – especially when Americans eat five times more than would be considered healthy.
Northwestern Medicine recently did a study that found the optimal amount of sugar to be 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is nearly impossible given that you can get that entire amount in one can of Coke, cup of yogurt, or chai tea latte. Am I realistically going to be able to cut my intake down to the recommended amount while still living off a campus meal plan? Probably not. But I can consciously try to replace my sugary Norbucks purchases with plain tea, replace my salad dressing with a dash of balsamic, or go easy on the Hot Cookie Bar.
Discovery #4: The sugar-free life has its benefits
After a week with my new and improved sugar-free family, I bet you’d expect drastic results. Did I lose 10 pounds? Do I have that ideal bikini body? Do I feel lighter and at peace with myself? Was I motivated to start doing yoga and drink green tea? No. Not in the slightest. In fact, nothing changed at all, other than the fact that I stopped constantly yearning for Thin Mints. Life without sugar was – surprise! – exactly like life with it.
So if there were no noticeable changes, then why would someone bother to limit his or her intake? Is there a reason to eat without sweeteners other than Catholic guilt?
Definitely. Removing sugar from your diet has been proven to decrease chances of heart attacks by thirty percent, lead to clear skin, decrease anxiety, and make sleeping easier. In the short run, my family noted that they hadn’t noticed any of these changes, but there were a few benefits.
For starters, my mother said she stopped having headaches. My sister noticed she had more energy after school for dance practice. And everyone admitted that they stopped longing for sweets. Medical journals claim sugar to be more addictive than cocaine, so after the initial withdrawals of sugar sobriety subside, you can stop constantly reaching for it. When you give up Cinnamon Toast Crunch, you stop Craving those Crazy Squares.
The bottom line? Figuring out how to avoid sugar is the hardest part, but eating without it isn’t nearly as difficult. Sure, a couple of Girl Scout cookies here and there would have been nice, but I didn’t need them. Who needs dessert? Spring Break is pretty sweet on its own… no sugar added.