OK, so best thing might be a little over-stated. That award should probably go to marrying my husband, or giving birth to our children, or finding Jesus… but hey, it was a really, really good thing to do and probably the only resolution of a New Year’s type that I have ever made and kept – probably because it wasn’t really a new year’s resolution but a conscious decision to change a lifestyle habit forever. Barring a Mince Pie amnesty at Christmas….. But as my friend Niky quite rightly said, that just makes me more human. There are no awards here for extreme single-mindedness. Thank goodness.
My interest in the no-sugar thing began – being brutally honest – when reflecting on how amazing some-one I met looked. Considerably older than me with 4 grown-up children under her belt, she was glamorous, fit and toned with hair and skin that radiated health. Really, I was expecting her to feature in a shampoo advert or something. She also lived in California, which I am sure helped, and whilst I was not unrealistic enough to expect my natural body shape to morph into hers, I couldn’t help but wonder what kept her looking so good. Now, it is entirely possible that she spends an awful lot of time down the gym and an awful lot of disposable income on high-end cosmetics, but I had also heard that she never ate sugar. And it got me thinking.
Now, I’ve always been sporty and relatively fit and healthy – growing up with a world-powerlifting champion for a Dad (yes, really – obscure but true!) means a lifetime of being in and around gyms and being bombarded with information about nutrition. But let me reassure you, I am neither a gym addict or a stick-thin dieter. In fact I am no where near stick thin, and I don’t think I’ve been on a diet in my life. I think I might actually in be morally opposed to them. And I love food. I mean I really love it. I love growing it, cooking it, eating it, eating it with other people….. everything about it should be celebrated in my opinion.
Except, we now live in an age where food isn’t exactly what it used to be. It’s definitely not what it was in my parents generation, when bananas were considered an exotic luxury never to grace the table of a working-class family. Where takeaways didn’t exist and you only ate fish on a Friday and meat twice a week and your parents would never have bought a bottle of wine to just drink at home on a Saturday night in their lives. Where sweets were a treat bought home once a week if you were lucky and eating out meant your Dad saving up his luncheon vouchers from work for almost an entire year.
But, with the changes in food production that have occurred in the past 50 years have come a fundamental change in our relationship with food. During that time, argues Barbara Kingsolver in her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, post-war munitions plants turned their focus to producing fertilizers rather than explosives. And the subsequent explosion in yields of corn and soya crops in the US, along with intensification of farming, genetic modification and a wholesale change in farm subsidy policy, has led us to where we are today – with the US alone now producing double the amount of calories needed to feed their own population every day. And unfortunately that surplus doesn’t make it through to the , 21,000 people that poverty.com estimate die from starvation or hunger-related illness every day, it has just created a whole new industry that spends vast amounts of money finding new ways to get more empty calories (otherwise known as High-Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, which is a form of SUGAR by the way!) into the foods we already eat and inventing new high-calorie highly processed foods we don’t know we need yet.
Of course, there are probably many other socio-economic factors that have also impacted the way we eat today. We have a higher standard of living and can afford more treats and luxuries. More women work, so less of us have time to cook from scratch. Most of us – men and women – work longer hours than we used to, also impacting time that could be put to either food production (gardening) or food preparation. And those things – coupled with the cheap and easy availability of food from supermarkets, bought at a crushingly low price from farmers who are forced to find more and more intensive ways of farming in order to continue to scratch a living – have meant our diets have changed significantly when compared to that of our grandparents.
And so the convenience food industry was born. Although, it is hardly convenient when we look at the impact that it has had on our health outcomes. Cancer, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, dementia – they are all on the rise. Despite all the advances in healthcare and medicines, we are the first generation to be predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than our parents. And that is what is known as the toxic environment that we live in today.
Over the years, my response to this has been to try and think more about what I eat, and what I consume generally in life. I have made steps to eradicate chemicals from my home, my cleaning cupboard, my make up bag. I have attempted to buy more fresh, local produce and think about what is in season where I live, rather than assuming it’s OK to eat cucumbers all year round and green beans from Kenya just because I want to make a Thai Green Curry in December. Sugar was, for me, simply an extension of this re-connect with the natural. An attempt to align myself a little more with what nature intended and away from the chemically-altered and the processed.
Because even if I couldn’t always explain why I thought it was the right thing to do, I had this sense somewhere deep down that it just must be. I’m far from perfect but I take heart from what Mrs Kingsolver said at the end of her book: “If a friend had a coronary scare and finally started exercising three days a week, who would hound him about the other four days? It’s the worst of bad manners -and self protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society – to ridicule the small gesture…. Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.”
So if you are thinking about it, give it a go. If I can do it, so can you – and you wont regret it. I promise.
More resources on a sugar-free life:
The Sugar Trap: Health writer Calgary Avansino has caused a stir with her two-week special on Sugar in The Sunday Times Style Magazine. Read it here:
The Bitter Truth by Robert Lustig. Watch the video of his famous University of California lecture here:
There is also a book by the same name, available from all good bookstores!
And this one is also a good, basic explanation to get you started: Is Sugar Toxic by Gary Taubes in The New York Times: