Alec Baldwin and My Sugarless Life

Two years ago next week I found myself trying to get to sleep in a Halifax hotel and so, as I often do, I listened to a podcast, the episode of Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing where he interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig about the evils of sugar.

Toward the end of that interview Baldwin asked Lustig what public policy changes he recommended to lower sugar consumption; Lustig responded, in part (emphasis mine):

I would think very strongly about limiting access of sugar beverages to infants and children, like zero. There is no reason for it. And there’s something your listeners need to understand: there is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one, that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrelevant to life. People say oh, you need sugar to live. Garbage.

(Here’s the audio of the clip).

For some reason, on that sleepless cold Halifax night in a strange hotel that simple statement hit me over the head like a hammer.

It seems silly to say, but it had never occurred to me that we don’t actually need sugar.

Sure, I knew that it was a good idea, for a host of reasons, to not have “too much” sugar – what kid who grew up in the carob-infused 1970s didn’t know that – but the notion that there wasn’t actually a need to have any sugar at all was something I’d never considered.

Over the years I’d had friends who would tell me “oh, I cut out sugar,” and I always heard that in the same spirit one might hear “oh, I cut out breathing”: it seemed like a foolhardy, impossible task.

But there, then, that night I decided to give it a try.

Partly as a personal challenge (it did indeed seem like a foolhardy, impossible task).

Partly as a way of figuring out how much sugar I actually was consuming.

And partly because, if Dr. Lustig was to be believed, I had a decent chance of improving my health if I did.

And so, when we got home to the Island a few days later, I just stopped.

It wasn’t a full-on puritanical “no sugar will ever touch these lips” kind of cold turkey, but it was as close as I could practically come while still allowing for the occasional piece of birthday cake.

And what did I find? I was eating a lot of sugar.

For example, a couple of times a week I’d have lunch at Tai Chi Gardens, a tea house around the corner from my office. In the summertime I’d always order a lemon iced tea with my lunch, reasoning that it was “handmade” by people I knew and therefore must be much better for me than if, say, I’d had a Coca-Cola at Subway.

But then I watched how much sugar goes into a lemon iced tea and I realized that sugar is sugar is sugar, and I started to order my lemon iced tea without sugar.

Among other things, I also stopped eating: ice cream, chocolate bars, dessert after lunch and supper, sugar in my coffee, sweets at bake sales, a cookie here or there, a handful of chocolate chips when they presented themselves; essentially I stopped eating all the “discretionary” sugar I’d been eating before, without obsessing about the hidden sugars in many prepared foods.

The effect was immediate and dramatic: I began to crave bread like never before. And when I say “crave” I mean “involuntarily bake bread at 10 o’clock at night because I really, really need to eat some bread.”

That lasted about a week.

And then… I lost my taste for sugar. Indeed the occasional lapse – a Mars bar at the movies, a piece of birthday cake at a family party – would not only no longer make me feel “better” as it used to but, in fact, would have the reverse effect, making me feel nervous and uncomfortable. It was a tremendous and convenient disincentive to sugar-eating.

And now two years have passed.

There’s no doubt that I confronted the amount of sugar in my diet, and came away surprised at how much I’d been consuming.

Health-wise, I have only a vague largely anecdotal feeling that my health has improved. Certainly I’ve lost some weight – about 20 pounds over two years. And I feel like my immune system is considerably improved (those winter colds that last days for others seem to pass through me in a few hours). But I’ve no idea whether I can chalk any of that up to sugar or not.

I still eat sugar, of course: it’s hard not to when it’s found in all manner of things including in salt (yes, one of the ingredients on our box of salt is “sugar,” albeit trace amounts). And I have a banana muffin most mornings for breakfast which I know contains more sugar than I can probably imagine (breakfast is a challenge for a non-egg-eating mostly-vegetarian). But I’d hazard a guess that I’ve been able to cut out about 95% the low-hanging obvious sugar in my diet.

Otherwise, I’ve been able to make some observations from this new vantage point.

The “sugar industrial complex” is everywhere and no more so than on television; by happy coincidence we cut off our cable television a few months before I cut off sugar, and with it I lost most exposure to Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait commercials, Mr. Big chocolate bar commercials, Coca-Cola commercials, and the like. I’m certain that made early days easier.

There may be no nutritional need for dietary sugar, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a cultural need for it: there are holes in our day to day western life that we fill, generally, with sugary things. Coffee breaks. The time after supper. Birthday parties. Christmas parties. Hallowe’en. It’s not that these times are practically difficult to deal with – I’m not jonesing for sugar – but I do notice the holes nonetheless, and, in a strange way, I mourn the loss of my participation in them. The display case at my coffee shop is filled with intriguing-looking scratch-made desserts, and bypassing them and just ordering coffee leaves me feeling the same way that former smokers have described feeling when they go to bars after the quit… they miss having something to do with their hands, something to fill the time with. It’s weird.

It’s not powerful – more like background radiation – but it’s weird nonetheless.

All other things aside, perhaps the greatest lesson I take from this experiment-turned-lifestyle is that, when in the right frame of mind, I am capable of making substantial lifestyle changes. That’s a good thing to know, and makes we wonder what other things I could accomplish if I found the rationale and put my mind to it.