I love sugar. But lately people have been saying mean things about my sweet friend. At first I was defensive. But hearing so much negativity has made me question my relationship with sugar. But breaking up it is not so simple: the dichotomy of the growing anti-sugar rhetoric and the increasingly elaborate sugar-creations I see on social media is making my head spin.
Can I still eat sugar and be healthy too?
My fond(ant) relationship with sugar started when I was young. At primary school sugar came out to play every day. No one questioned the sticky pink finger buns at the tuckshop, the bags of mixed lollies at the corner shop, or the Coco Pops that featured regularly at breakfast.
These days on Instagram I see M&M-encrusted donuts sitting on top of creamy Freakshakes exploding with ice-cream and chocolate-covered pretzels, and I gasp with delight. But Iately I’ve also seen lots of #Sugarfreeseptember, and praise for That Sugar Film on social media. It’s slightly annoying.
But as well as my annoyance at the sugar-dodgers, I feel growing shame that I’m still eating something that an increasing number of people view as “bad”.
Sometimes sugar is the baddest of bad boyfriends. Sugar will ride in on its Harley, take you to the fun fair, thrill you with its sweet kiss on the roller coaster, then dump you till it’s ready to pick you up again.
Can I learn to live without the thrill? The thought of not having it deflates me. But I’ve heard so many accounts of health improvements after quitting the “white poison” that I’m now thinking maybe sugar doesn’t love me back.
I concede that the layer of fat around my middle could be a ticking time bomb for chronic illness. But then it could be the butter and soft cheese at wine time that’s contributing to my spare tyre. And the fact that instead of quitting sugar, I’ve quit Fitness First.
Sarah Wilson quit sugar and now many others are spruiking the sugar-free message. Food bloggers, health writers, the school mums and a new breed of toned-arm tuck-shop lady at our new sugar-free school canteen.
But despite the appearance of increasingly elaborate desserts in some quarters, I feel my love for sugar is being forced underground in the circles I move in, along with my secret sugar-porn collection: my Adriano Zumbo documentary, Women’s Weekly birthday cake books, plus a whole photographic shame-file of sugary trash that I’m too embarrassed to upload to Instagram. I’m beginning to feel like Mad Men‘s Don Draper at a smoke-free AA meeting.
One school mum approached me in the playground recently and hissed in my ear; “I’m four days sober.” I was a bit shocked. “Well done!” I enthused, thinking how well she’d hidden her drinking problem. Until I realised she was referring to sugar.
Even Jamie Oliver is now in on the act with his documentary Sugar Rush. Apparently by eliminating sugar from his diet, he has lost 12kg in 12 weeks. Jamie, you’re breaking my heart; I remember your Chocolate Pots.
Do I really have to break free from sugar’s sticky embrace in order to lose weight and be “healthy”? Can’t I keep sugar around for weekend fun? And which sugar do I need to break up with? Glucose, or just its evil twin, fructose? What about cousins dextrose and maltose?
I once lost 20kgs by cutting portion sizes, eating low-fat and exercising. I still ate a bowl of sugary low-fat frozen yoghurt most nights and Pad Thai and cake once a week. But I also wrote down everything I ate and counted calories. This gave boundaries to my eating, but was tediously time-consuming. Losing weight became a maths challenge. And since I’ve lost the 20kg, it’s found me again.
Maybe if I simply quit sugar, I wouldn’t have to obsess over numbers. But Donna Hay has weighed in, telling The Daily Mail in 2014 that she thinks elimination diets are a new form of disordered eating. Hay says, “There are rules around everything in life and to put strict, extreme rules on food too, makes me sad…We’re all so serious everywhere else in life, so why put rules on food too? It’s about balance.”
But I think balance means different things to different people. I finally saw That Sugar Film. It didn’t annoy me as much as I thought it would. The main message is that “healthy” foods like diet yoghurt, processed breakfast cereals and canned baked beans, contain more sugar than you think. Eating like this everyday, it’s very easy for the spoonfuls to add up. Too much sugar contributes to fat around the internal organs, which can lead to metabolic disorders.
The film’s director Damon Gameau recognises that it may be difficult for some to completely cut sugar from their diet at once. He acknowledges it’s OK to have a glass of wine or bowl of ice-cream sometimes but perhaps not on a day when you’ve eaten lots of processed food.
Perhaps the anti-sugar sentiment will help our society deconstruct the way it eats. With less processed food and refined sugar in daily life, it makes those special sugary occasions even more special. As Jamie Oliver notes in Sugar Rush, it’s not about the cake (although we shouldn’t eat too much of that either), it’s about all the hidden sugars in processed foods.
So will I be quitting sugar? Not likely! I have too many pretty baking books and sugary Instagram accounts to follow. And I do love Special K at breakfast. But I will reduce my sugary processed food in everyday life, and make sure that when I do eat sugar, it announces itself in a delicious, artistic creation worthy of the occasion I’m celebrating. The benefits make sense and it doesn’t seem too hard.
I think I can still meet my boyfriend at the fun fair from time to time, so I can have my cake and eat it too.
But I think Def Leppard summed it up best…
Take that, sugar-quitters.