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If you give up sugar, know it will follow you

Some might say I'm a quitter.

In a way, they're right. If I don't need it, I don't want it. And if I don't want it, I give it up.

The habit started when I stopped texting. I kept the habit up when I quit Facebook. When I tried to go vegetarian, it didn't last.

But even if it flops, I do enjoy the occasional step toward simplicity. It's liberating. Figuring out what I need and getting rid of what I don't has been good for my soul. For about three years, it has been my trademark.

So a few weeks before New Year's Eve, I caught nobody off guard when I announced that next, I'd give up sugar.

The sugar I sought to stay away from is not the kind we find in, say, fruits and vegetables. It's the added kind — what we find in desserts and most of the food we buy in bags and cans and boxes. As an experiment, I decided I'd give most of it up for all of 2010.

On Dec. 31, I had my last hurrah: two cannolis and a root beer float. The next day, I started what I call my "sugar free" year.

I made the decision off the cuff, but I could have seen it coming. Since childhood, sugar and I haven't gotten along.

A handful of Oreos after school meant I'd fall asleep before I finished my homework. It meant my mom would have to shake me to wake me up. The sweeter the treat, the worse I felt: shaky, moody, depressed. The symptoms, I thought, must mean my body is sick. But the symptoms actually meant my body had something to say.

"If we're tuned in to our (body), it tells us all kinds of things," said Kristie Salzer, a licensed and registered dietitian in South Tampa.

What each body says is different. Some bodies can handle a lot of sugar without a revolt. Others, like mine, will tell you when you've had too much of it. Over time, I've realized sugar's wrath has little to do with how many sweet snacks I eat. It has a lot to do with how much sugar is in even just one of them.

"Early in the 1900s, a typical diet may have had four teaspoons (of sugar) a day, or 13 pounds per year," said Salzer. "Now, it's estimated that we eat 30 teaspoons a day, two to three pounds per week."

That's equivalent, she said, to consuming 20 5-pound bags of sugar a year.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with sugar," Salzer said. But "we don't have a nutritional need for it. It supplies no nutrients."

Too much of it isn't good, either.

"If you start eating cookies every time you're sad and you find that you feel better, over time — unless you add other ways of working through that feeling — you start going to sugar more and more," Salzer said.

Sometimes, she said, we eat so much of it because we don't even know it's there.

"People have gotten so busy they don't cook as much," said Salzer.

Convenient grocery store options like frozen dinners may have more sugar added than shoppers expect, she said.

I wanted to give up sweets and all other food with added sugar, except for bread. As it turned out, that wouldn't be so easy. Salzer is right when she says that sugar shows up everywhere.

It's in pretzels and seasoned nuts. There's no yogurt for me but plain. And so far, I only know one brand of salad dressing that doesn't have added sugar.

I could handle it all without a complaint until I realized what else is off limits: barbecue sauce, ketchup and mayo. I ate many-a-boring burger for the first half of the year, but I changed the rules last month. I just can't quit my condiments.

Quitting added sugar forced me to study labels. It meant I'd give up a lot of what comes from bags and boxes. It meant my taste would change.

Unsweetened applesauce, for instance, used to be bland. Now, I can't imagine a sweeter version. I can, in fact, live without chocolate. I can even eat fruit while my friends eat cake and still come away feeling satisfied.

Salzer says there's a reason for that.

"If you concentrate on (getting) whole foods, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, you just don't have room in your diet for" an excess of sugar, she said.

How good you feel after you eat — and how bad your food doesn't make you feel — is a bonus. And it confirms what I've kind of always figured.

Added sugar? I don't need it.

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or aspenceley@sptimes.com.

If you give up sugar, know it will follow you 08/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 1:47pm]
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