Saturday, January 19, 2008


I would've been a more diligent blogger this week, only the thing is, last Saturday, I fell off the wagon hard. It started with Thai food and frozen pizza (classy, I know) and ended with a terrible up-all-night rasping dry cough that lingers still. Causality? I'm not sure. But it does explain my silence. More soonest.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


A question in from Peter, fellow participant in our experiment:

P: Now, does “sugar-free” mean giving up cookies, cake, candy, the obvious stuff, or does it mean that I have to scan every single list of ingredients and not eat things that have, say, brown rice syrup in them? For example, do I have to give up my beloved Kashi Organic Promise Cinnamon Harvest cereal because it has some organic cane juice crystals in it?

L: Sadly, I suspect (but can’t say for certain) the answer is: you can't really give up the cookies without giving up the Kashi. It’s not the organic cane juice crystals that pose problems; it’s that all processed/refined/“simple” carbohydrates act as sugars in the body.

P: But are the cane juice crystals refined? Are we giving up white flour too? Is this an all-refined-carbohydrates fast? Will I have to give up my beloved Stacey's Pita Chips? (Which have sugar in them, but I'm sure just a touch.)

OK, here goes my garbled yeoman’s parsing of a distinction I don’t fully understand myself. It seems to me the problem with these snacks and cereals is less the sugar content than the grain composition. While Kashi is certainly superior to Cheerios, both are refined carbohydrates that swiftly raise the body’s blood sugar level and trigger the release of insulin in the system. So organic cane juice crystals-versus-high fructose corn syrup isn’t really the issue.

I’m turning to Sugar Busters! (a good deal more interesting than the cover suggests) for some clarity: “Controlling…our body’s insulin requirement is the key to having our body lean and healthy. Today’s sugary, highly processed foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which immediately create a big demand for the hormone insulin.” Foods with refined sugar and processed carbohydrates require the “secretion of large amounts of insulin to regulate your blood sugar” and “cause a dramatic increase in your body’s need for insulin.”

OK, check. But again, so what? What’s so terrible about the production of insulin? Well, the Sugar Busters! experts have found “nothing good about high average levels of insulin in the body. Insulin not only causes the body to store excess sugar as fat….[it] can also stimulate the liver to make more cholesterol.” There’s also the emotional roller-coaster side of things to consider: refined sugar/carbs + insulin = a quick burst of energy followed by an equally precipitate drop in blood sugar, loss of energy, etc. That’s why eliminating these foods can also help regulate moods and curb depression, insomnia, and so on.

This is not to say that all carbohydrates are bad; by no means. It’s the simple, or “fast,” refined carbohydrates—the kind in bagels, pastas, and Kellogg’s products—that turn immediately to sugar and prompt the secretion of insulin. By contrast, complex/“slow”/unrefined carbohydrates (and here I’m borrowing Ann Louise Gittleman’s Get the Sugar Out, on which more presently) “are made up of long chains of simple sugars.” Slow carbs “are much more complex in structure than simple sugars and require longer digestion to be absorbed.” The process of breaking down these chains slows down the release of sugar into the blood, which results in longer-lasting energy that your body can use as needed, rather than simply store as fat.

The basic principle is: Choose carbs that take longer to digest. The less processed the food you eat, the less insulin you’ll secrete, and the less out-of-whack your blood sugar response will be. More or less. Granted, many natural foods—white potatoes, beets (hélas) sweet corn—also require high levels of insulin to digest. But I think I’ll tackle this thorny subject in my next less-self-absorbed-than-usual entry on the role of the Glycemic Index in this whole good-versus-bad carbohydrate debate.

If you think this explanation sucked, try this aggressively incoherent Newsweek article, which both of us read over and over without even sort of understanding:
“Fat, Carbs, and the Science of Conception”

week 1

dear L:

here are some dispatches from seven days without sugar (almost):

on new year's day I sat on the couch reading women who run with the
wolves (don't ask). i absorbed feminist readings of folktales and
absentmindedly popped hershey's kisses into my mouth, dropping the
christmas-colored wrappers to the side. at one point my mother came in
to ply me with "margarita cake". only in texas. my defeat for the day
was already sealed, so i gave in.

jan 2: i flew to new york on the very early flight. i remembered the
indignities of the airline breakfast on the first leg of my journey:
hydrogenated corn syrup figured heavily, along with a thin, white
colored liquid that called itself milk. i got the closest thing I
could get to whole food in the airport: eggs, hashbrowns, and a
biscuit. now that i think about it, the biscuit could have had sugar.
i went to the library that afternoon and avoided my typical stop at
the bodega en route, a small victory. i came home in the evening and
tried to salvage what i could from my pre-holiday shopping, not
wanting to waste good farmer's market fare.

jan 3: this is when i turned off the phone and stopped checking email
and started my hibernation. suffering for art and and suffering to
give up sugar are well-matched pursuits. i had a few figs from my last
trip to the market, and i savored them, trying to really notice how
the taste felt in my mouth. i didn't go out and didn't have sugar in
the house. this was a completely sugar-free day.

jan 4. did i say there wasn't any sugar in the house? i forgot to
mention the jar full of fair trade Malawi-grown raw cane sugar from
Wholesome Sweetners that I bought thinking I was going to have a
pre-Xmas baking spree. I don't sweeten my tea and I don't really bake,
so it was something of an aspirational purchase. The package had a
picture of hottie chef (and fellow Harlemite) Marcus Samuelsson
touting fair trade and offering a recipe for some citrus gingerbread
mix. Inspiration.

Don't worry, I didn't stick a wet finger into the sugar jar in a
moment of desperation. At some point i realized there were 5 lorna
doone cookies hidden behind a picture frame in my bedroom. no, i
didn't put them there like some kind of fiend. i had a houseguest
before the holiday. i'd taken the cookies to her with a cup of tea. i
guess she was giving up sugar, too. (the cookies were in my house in
the first place because of another friend who'd come by for tea).
when i first noticed the cookies i cursed under my breath but
resisted. i spent another sugar free day, making myself omelets and
rice with beans. when night came, after a second day in isolation at
the desk, i collapsed in bed friday night around 3am. I wanted a
reward (note this impulse for future sugar attacks). i reached up from
my bed to the bureau where the cookies were stashed behind the picture
frame. i didn't turn the light on, i didn't need to. i ate three
cookies, the taste exploded onto my tongue, and i can only presume i
fell into a blissful, if somewhat guilt-ridden, sleep.

jan 5: redemption. saturday is my farmer's market day, when i go down
to union square with the other smug local foodies to marvel at the
goods on offer and my own good judgment in supporting my local
foodshed, etc. 1st stop is always the integral yoga food shop, where i
get odd bits and pieces, like grains and beans which they sell in
bulk, or kombu (said to stop the gas if you soak it with beans). in
the long line of yogis i noticed a refrigerator case holding maple
syrup. i wondered what you would think, but i decided to get it
anyway. i didn't know much about maple syrup, but I knew it was more
wholesome than sugar and i needed something to get me through the
lorna doone moments.
then I went to the market itself, and stoically looked straight ahead
when I passed all the stands of brownies, blondies, fresh donuts, and
other market treats. I usually always have a cup of apple cider and a
brownie while shopping. To console myself, I made sure to take samples
of sliced apples. I bought a bargain bag of apples and pears for some
healthy sweetness, picked up what leafy greens are still available at
this time of year, eggs, goat cheese. my regulars. At Whole Foods I
never bother with the pre-packaged, pre-processed "food products" (to
borrow Michael Pollan's genius epithet) that belie the chain's name,
so there wasn't much in the way of temptation there. Just horrifying
crowds. I got some fruit, but they were sold out of my second favorite
milk: Sky Top's whole, nonhomogenized milk from pasture-raised cows.
(my top favorite is in Sussex, and pretty much fresh from the cow). I
hadn't eaten breakfast in my rush to get downtown, so I gobbled more
samples in the citrus area: luscious blood oranges and grapefruit.

that night i went to a meeting, where dinner was a veggie burger. just
remembered I used ketchup, and I forgot to look at the label for
sugar. someone brought a bean pie, which I eyed a few times in the
kitchen while resisting a nibble. did much on some chips,
unthinkingly. probably sugar in those, too.

jan 6: made myself a breakfast of steel-cut oats, with a drop of
buttermilk, a drop of coconut milk, cinammon and maple syrup.
Delicious. I was on the phone with you while eating, and we decided
maple syrup was allowed for our month. I looked it up and it
supposedly has lots of vitamins and minerals!

i had friends over for dinner, quite at the last minute, when i wasn't
completely in the mood to entertain and the house was in a state. i
made a potato/leek/carrot gratin from an Alice Waters recipe found in
Elle; a tomato-black eyed pea soup inspired by this blog, and tweaked
with additions of ethiopian black barley inspired by a recipe in Body
& Soul. I made skillet cornbread from the Anson MIlls recipe, which
warns "sugar never entered its mind". (My cornmeal is from the very
exciting Wild Yeast Mill in New York) I planned to serve a
blood-orange, pomegranate, salad for desert (topped with maple syrup),
But then I forgot to serve desert. We were all enjoying ourselves and
it slipped my mind; the good company lifted my mood. So, more
interpersonal sweetness equals less sugar?

jan 7: manic monday. hard to get back to the subterranean writing
state after the weekend. at least my house is somewhat clean (a good
reason to entertain when not quite in the mood). i had leftovers for
lunch and eventually went to the library. when I came home I had a
slight desire for sweetness, not overpowering, but tangible, which I
decided to combat by cooking dinner right away. Is this a tactic?
Fight sweet with savory? I made your own lentil-leek-carrot recipe
that sustained me while in scotland. I had some rooibos tea, which has
a sweet aftertaste I enjoy.

jan 8: today I had an absolute sugar attack. I could feel those places
on my tongue that light up in moments of deep craving, a monster that
is only satisfied when I have left the house in the middle of the day,
gone to the bodega, and endured flirtacious yemeni shopkeeprs and
lines of lotto-ticket buyers in order to buy a package of oreos
(name-brand or off-brand), fig newtons (theoretically nutritious, but
who am i kidding), or those six pack mini donuts. normally, i stuff
them in my purse, dash back down to my end of the block like a
fugitive, and usually tear into the packaging before I've even made it
up the stairs to my apartment.

Instead of falling back on bad habits tried to pay attention to the
intense sensation, and then decided to make lunch (leftover lentil
soup; my breakfast was eggs, kippered herrings and the last bit of
cornbread). I went to the library, racing past the bodega. The sweet
craving returned while I was working. I resisted going out for a
snack, as I've done during so many library sessions (the bodega
closest the library has really delicious and chewy chocolate chip
cookies). When I got home I administered rooibos for the sweetness and
had the last of my blackeyed peas. Even as I type this, my tongue is
tingling for a little sweetness; I wonder why this has been such an
issue today. Is it true that sugar cravings can be signs of other
deficiencies, like magnesium or zinc? Or is it a brain chemistry
thing, like not enough dopamine, meaning that I need to get laid? In
other news, did you know that William Dufty, the author of Sugar
Blues, was also the ghostwriter for Billie Holiday's apocryphal
autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues?

your own,

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Dearest S,

Right, so we obviously should’ve started this weeks and weeks ago, as we endlessly discussed our sugar-free spree, but we didn't, so for now the best I can offer is a summing-up of my first Week Without. Or maybe just my first day.

I spent most of New Year’s Eve driving 20 mph through a snowstorm in eastern Iowa; a trip that usually takes 5.5 hours consumed closer to 9. A-- (pardon the Marquise of O-- pretension, but you want to be anonymous, too) had to get straight to the rally in Ames, so we couldn't stop for the usual roadside trans-fatty family-dining experience. At a gas station in Grinnell, I picked up some Snicker bars fashioned into Nutcracker men and a bag of locally dipped chocolate pretzels. Once at the event, I made for the “buffet tables” and loaded up on the copious-yet-nasty Chex Mix, artichoke dip, lemon squares, and brownies provided by donors. By midnight, I was stomach-sick from such unaccustomed quantities of nasty processed food.

A good thing, too—hitting bottom always helps. By the morning of New Year’s Day, I was totally committed to the new sugar-free me. First stop: the continental breakfast bar of the Heartland Inn. Now, I’d been a little worried about this first challenge—how much easier if I’d been at home, with my Costco quantities of organic oats. Would I be strong enough to silence the siren song of lemon poppy-seed mini-muffins and the self-pouring waffle station? God, but I love those waffles. Best to be done with it as quickly as possible. I went straight for the only kosher choice—hardboiled eggs—and closed my eyes to the rest. I dropped two eggs in a bowl, poured some black coffee (forget giving up coffee, all right? Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc), and went straight back to the room, where the overpowering aroma of human sweat wafting off the carpets did much to diminish my appetite. Done and done.

This early success steeled me against the legion temptations awaiting me at campaign HQ, that long crammed table of cakes (both homemade and store-bought), and snicker-doodles, and actual Snickers, and Tootsie Pops and, basically, you name it. If the sugar content was sky-high and the shit tasted good, it was there. In general, I find it very, very hard to refuse food that is both a)free and b)right in front of me. You must force yourself to adopt a different mindset, to re-orient first your brain and then, with any luck, your palate—the same rhetorical shift I made when I first became a vegetarian. I look at the basket of Butterfingers and I tell myself, over and over and over: This is not food that I eat; this is not real food and therefore I do not eat it; this food might as well not be here since it is so precisely the opposite of that which I do eat… Until, eventually, word becomes deed, belief replaces mantra, and so on. Right?