Yesterday I made pancakes for breakfast, and drizzled maple syrup over the top. This was to celebrate a birthday in our family. Normally for breakfast we’d be eating eggs fried in coconut oil, free range fatty bacon, with broccolini or 10 brussels sprouts.
When I say ‘normally’, we’ve been eating like this for over 2 years now: I hesitate to say the ‘Paleo Diet’ because although Loren Cordain created a longterm bestseller out of this branding, it’s too easy to poke at with the skeptic’s stick. People who eat a Paleo diet are already aware that the Paleolithic Era was very long and contained many different cultures who ate many different things, and that it’s impossible to recreate a Paleo diet these days anyhow because we don’t have access to the same seed stock etc etc.
Apparently it’s easier for a human to change religion than to change diet longterm.
So we eat a Paleo template diet, which doesn’t include added sugar, and with people I don’t know really well, these days I talk about our food choices as little as possible. That’s still quite a lot of talking, because food always comes up. Book club conversations go a little something like this:
“Would you like one of these [magnificent looking baked goods] that I made this afternoon?”
“No thanks, I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Oh that’s right. You don’t eat anything these days, do you?”
“I gave up sugar two years ago, yes. Still on it. Yes.”
“Oh, but these don’t have much sugar in them.” *sugar crystals on top of sugar biscuits glint under firelight*
“No thanks. They look delicious, though. Oh, look at that knitting. What are you knitting? Anything? Anything at all?”
“You do need a bit of sugar in your diet, you know.”
And at this point I reach a conundrum: Do I argue with this, or do I let it go? Because the fact is, humans don’t need sugar in order to live a healthy and full life. Specifically: there is no metabolic pathway which relies on fructose or glucose or any other kind of sugar in order to function properly. This sort of conversation can get uncomfortable, because first it depends on a definition of ‘sugar’. Humans may not need sugar, since our bodies can be well adapted to fat. Nor can humans avoid a bit of fructose, because fructose exists in tiny amounts in green vegetables, to let humans know that the leafy thing not poisonous. There is no fatally poisonous plant out there which includes fructose. Which explains why we like it so much. Ergo, we can’t avoid fructose because we can’t healthily avoid vegetables.
I did a lot of research before changing our diet completely. The following fact resonates with me the most, and I keep coming back to it:
There are many different healthy diets around the world, from cultures who eat very little besides sweet potatoes, and others who eat little other than goat’s milk and blood. But there are two things which unite all healthy diets, transcending time and space. Healthy diets are:
1. High in fibre
2. Low in sugar.
SO LOTS OF PEOPLE ARE GIVING UP SUGAR NOW
And we are part of the zeitgeist and not at all hipster. Indeed, we are the cliche.
People do mean different things when they say, “I’m giving up sugar”, from
- “I’m no longer adding sucrose to my hot beverages,
- to “I switched from sucrose to artificial sweeteners in everything” to
- “I kicked sugar out of the house but I’ll still eat it if it’s offered to me, to celebrate some special occasion, or National Catfish Day” to
- “I’m giving up added sugars but also refined carbohydrates, which break down to glucose in the body and elevate the blood sugars in the same way table sugars do”
- to “The only sugar I ingest comes in the form of green vegetables, which I eat alongside organic, freerange meat, because I’m living in ketosis for health reasons.”
We started off closer to 4, but have settled between 3 and 4, with celebratory food limited to the birthdays of immediate family members and Christmas.
Yesterday’s pancake celebration was appreciated mostly by the resident 6 year old, who demonstrates a very human need for rituals which surround celebrations — this is something we all seem to need — but since this family eats (super expensive) free range bacon on a regular basis, switching to any other kind of food for celebratory purposes actually means a lowering of nutritional standards, and in our case the pancakes feel like the food people have survived on in times of need. Indeed, the Disney version of Little House On The Prairie shows the family stopping on their journey west to eat pancakes, which they only ate because they had nothing else. Flour products start to feel like the food of peasants. (And for much of the world, pancakes would be a step up. Acknowledged.)
Anyway, I had a slight bellyache after eating those pancakes, which is super common for those of us who have switched to eating nothing but whole foods.
A woman called Eve O. Schaub wrote a memoir called Year Of No Sugar, and in this article she explains the feeling you get when you’ve been eating really well for ages then you suddenly eat something highly processed: You really, really do feel like crap. I don’t care if it’s placebo — it’s a thing.
I could write a book-length memoir about this topic, too. But I can’t be bothered and apparently it’s already been done, so here are the main things I’d like to say about giving up sugar in Australia. These are different things I might say about giving up sugar in Japan. In Japan it would be easier, especially if you live in the north, where there is no tradition of adding sugar to everything. In fact, I did by default give up sugar when I lived in Japan some years ago.
The situation is much different in Australia.
WE CELEBRATE EVERYTHING WITH SUGAR
About 2 years ago I approached the director of our daughter’s preschool and asked if they might reconsider their birthday cake tradition. With a roll of 70 kids, there was cake dished out every week, and that’s on top of the ‘cooking lessons’ they get — gingerbread men, easter eggs made of cheap ‘chocolate’ products, flavoured milk (to teach stirring) etc. I was asked to write a letter about this to formalise my complaint, so I did, and a year after that the director finally got around to putting a stop to the cake tradition. (Coincidentally, she had given up sugar herself, because the nutritionist had put her on an exclusion diet to remedy a skin complaint). By that stage our kid was due to leave preschool anyhow. (For all I know, the birthday cake tradition started up once me with the gob left.)
The start of primary school was celebrated with gingerbread men, because it’s apparently impossible just to read a classic tale about a gingerbread man without also eating one. Every fundraising meal deal includes food which is not only full of sugar, but of ethically dubious dinosaur shaped chicken-meat, fried in damaged oils. Almost everything from the school tuck-shop includes sugar. When the students volunteer to do an important job such as MC assembly, they are rewarded with a chocolate brownie. I first noticed this school culture when attending their information session, so at the interview I told the principal that we’re a sugar-free family and I don’t agree with sugar being used as reward. He told me I didn’t have a thing to worry about, that their reward system involves blue stars blah blah blah, but sure enough, sugar features highly each week in class. I pack no sugar in our daughter’s lunchbox but she gets it not only from birthday parties but from the place where she is required to be every day of term, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
ON THE TOPIC OF SCHOOL LUNCHES
You won’t find an Australian school which allows peanuts or tree nuts — these are common anaphylactic allergies in Australia. So the Paleo recipes you find online which rely on nut flour aren’t permissible as part of a lunchbox. Nor is dairy, sometimes. Well, my daughter can take dairy, but she has to sit on the ‘dairy seat’, which is hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, and so if I do pack berries with heavy whipping cream, the kid chooses not to eat it.
Since treating refined carbohydrates as sugar means giving up bread, no bread. I can see why bread became popular, though. Sandwiches are really convenient.
Obviously, school lunches need to be brought from home when you’re a sugar-free family. The thermos is your best friend. You end up making large dinners, and sending leftovers for lunch. You’re rewarded with a healthy kid who never has a day sick, but it does all take time, and time is a resource that many people don’t have much of. Summers in Australia are hot — our child’s school isn’t air-conditioned(!) and so you’ll need to include freezer packs around the salads and meats and boiled eggs. (Though you’d need to do that anyway. That said, we never had freezer packs and we turned out all right. *taps cane angrily*)
SOME PEOPLE GIVE UP SUGAR FOR AGES THEN START EATING IT AGAIN DESPITE THE HEALTH BENEFITS. WHY?
Before I got rid of sugar I was seriously worried that I might not be able to do it. I figured I was addicted (in the broad sense of the term), that I just liked it too much, that eating life would be unsustainably boring, and I already don’t smoke or drink… I figured I might, if I were lucky, be able to give it up for a few months, and I’d see how I felt, then keep going if it were worth it. (People on the Internet and in books said that it was.)
Sure enough, it is worth it, for all the reasons that many others have already gone into. But in hindsight, my worries were misplaced: I thought that giving up sugar would be like going onto a permanent restriction diet, constantly salivating over things I could no longer eat. In fact, what happens about a week after giving up sugar is that your taste starts to change. Fruits start tasting sweeter. Carrots start tasting sweet like fruits. Feta cheese started (weirdly) tasting like Russian fudge. (It was after making a shit tin of Russian fudge — and obviously scoffing way too much of it — that I started this whole ‘journey’, as they say.)
If you keep with it, you’ll probably end up making other dietary improvements, such as replacing damaging fats with healthy ones, or switching flour products for starchy vegetables, or taking up a sport or buying kettle bells… (It has taken two years, but I’ve now done all of these things) so it’s hard to know how much of any health improvement can be attributed to the elimination of sugar. Commonly reported, and true of me: you won’t get colds very often, and when you do it won’t be for long. Minor health complaints you didn’t really know you had will miraculously disappear. You’ll be able to work with your brain all morning AND all afternoon without thinking of food or sweets or coffee (assuming you also gave up coffee… as I had to do *sniff* in reluctant acknowledgement that heart palpitations are not a Good Thing). Your brain, in short, works better. And the brain is really quite important and something you should look after. You are your brain.
And anyone who has given up sugar for any length of time already knows this, but here’s why it’s hard:
- Sugar is in every damn thing. Even in supermarket meats. WHY DO THEY PUT SUGAR IN ALL THE SAUSAGES? Sugar with meat? If you’ve given up sugar, you know this combo is just wrong. I even found sugar in tinned corn. And in sauerkraut. (That stuff is meant to be sour.)
- You can’t get sugar free fast food anywhere. If you’re at the mall, don’t rely on the sushi bar, either. That shit’s full of damn sugar. The Japanese eat it on special occasions for a reason.
- People are always forcing sugar onto you, and more so, onto your kid. We even got stopped by the rubbish truck driver one year because he wanted to give my kid a big bag of lollies at Christmas time (which lasts an entire month — an entire month of nothing but high fructose corn syrup). She loved it, and it was nice and well-intentioned and everything, and she still remembers that part of the footpath very fondly, but people don’t realise: Other people are giving your kid sugar All. The. Time. Stage whispering “Is it all right if I give her a lolly?” doesn’t cut it, either.
- We live in a drinking culture. Beer and wine is hyper-sugar. That’s the way to think of it. You can’t really cut out sugar unless you cut out drinking, or at least switch to hard spirits. I never drank in the first place so for me it was a non issue. But if you ‘give up sugar’ and continue to drink, you may not get that wonderful effect of a change of tastebuds (which is probably a change in the brain not on the tongue but heigh-ho), in which everything else tastes sweet, in which case you have lost something.
- And this brings me to the most important difficulty: Cutting out sugar is flat out antisocial. Until you change your diet to something which is radically different from that of your friends and family you may underestimate how important food is to socialising and friend-making. No one wants to invite the non-drinking, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, grain-free people to dinner. You probably haven’t been to a social gathering lately which didn’t involve food. Hell, I just got invited by cold-call to a solar panel information session at Yass Soldiers’ Club and they wanted me to tell them if I was going or not ‘for catering purposes’. (I don’t think they were offering spicy lamb bites.)
IF YOU’RE CONSIDERING GIVING UP SUGAR, HERE ARE SOME POINTERS FROM SOMEONE WHO’S KEPT WITH IT FOR OVER TWO YEARS, AND PLANS TO KEEP GOING FOR LIFE
1. Read up about fats, and eat a bunch of healthy ones. (Fatty fruits like avocados and olives; coconut oil and good quality butter for garnish and frying; avoid transfats and seed oils — there, I just saved you a whole bunch of reading.) Unless you increase your fat intake (assuming you’re following the government’s low fat recommendations) you’ll have real trouble subsisting on a sugar-free diet. You do need to get your calories from somewhere.
2. Pick your conversations. Be aware that food is a very political thing. You might as well talk about religion or abortion rights, really. Women especially — we all have some sort of relationship with weight-loss diets, which gets enmeshed with body image issues, which is conflated with self-worth. Women have absorbed the low-fat, high-carb (by default) message more thoroughly than men have, and you won’t be persuading anyone who isn’t ready to listen. This includes correcting people who are straight out wrong: A wise person once said, you don’t have to turn up to every argument you’re invited to. You can just say, “Gotta die of something,” when people point out, again, that putting cream in your coffee is going to kill you dead. (My husband works in a big office and they’re used to him now, and to his cream clogging up a space in the communal fridge, but he had months of that.)
3. Your friends will be the ones who like you even without the food and alcohol lubrication. So you may end up with fewer friends, but better ones. Some of them may even change their diets along with you. Birds of a feather, and all that.
4. You can’t support different diets under the same roof. Not long term. My husband needs to be milk and gluten free, so we all are. Gluten is particularly insidious, because even a tiny amount makes a difference and spends at least 6 months in the body (though I’ve heard varying times around this length.) So we can’t have bread crumbs floating around on the bench. (Besides the fact lots of people who advocate sugar elimination also advocate elimination of gluten products, and I’m inclined to believe those people now.)
5. Health improvements are rapid at first, but keep on keeping on. If you’ve given up sugar, you’ve probably given up processed food. If you’ve given up processed food you’ve probably given up man-made transfats (I say ‘man-made’ because they do actually occur in nature), and it takes 2 years for the body to get rid of those, because our tissues use them as building blocks. So if you go on an elimination diet for six weeks and your particular health complain doesn’t improve, try it for two years and then see. (Though six weeks is pretty magical, mostly.)
6. Eating well is expensive. People say it’s not. In Australia, it is. If you compare eating well to buying all your foods in the form of Big Macs, then yes, you’ll come out better off eating whole foods, because Big Macs are expensive last time I checked. But if you are sensible, budget-wise, and have been bulking your meals up with pasta and other flour products then yes, switching from flours to sweet potatoes, and from crackers to tree nuts, and doubling your vegetable intake, you’re going to be spending more on your food bill. (But less at the doctor’s, and less on medications.) It may seem like you’re spending way more at the supermarket/butcher’s because you’re no longer splashing out on incidentals at fast-food venues, because you never thought to include those in the food bill in the first place.
7. Find a doctor who’s on board with this stuff or who at least doesn’t try and get you off it. I don’t actually know how my doctor feels about my switching to a so-called high fat diet because I HAVEN’T HAD TO GO SEE HIM YET. Hooray me. I can tell you what the dentist said, though. Fantastic gum health. (And I hadn’t actually been in for a pro clean in almost two years.) This is particularly gratifying because I have severe gingivitis in my recent ancestry, which is apparently a window into heart health.
8. On that note, you can’t just switch your diet without a good intellectual understanding of why you’re doing so. I read a bunch of books (Gary Taubes, William Davis, Udo Erasmus, Nora Gedgaudas, Sally Fallon et al) and listened to a heap of Paleo related podcasts before a switch flicked over in my head. Some of these people are anti-vaccinations. I just thought I’d mention that, because I am pro-vaccination. Strongly. Long story short, use your thinky things, do a lot of reading, and practice skepticism as best you can, given your level of philosophy and science training. Rule for life, that.
I am stoked with our high fat, low carb way of eating. It has been a bit hard, but not in the ways I expected. We gave up nothing and gained so much*.
*Mainly, my husband now controls his severe asthma without 2x daily Seretide. This has been the most obvious health improvement of all.