A month ago, I issued a Food Day challenge – to go without added sweeteners of any kind for a whole month. Frankly, I didn’t think it would be very hard for me because I already cook most of my food and don’t add sweeteners very often. I was wrong. Three things made it difficult for me to live up to this challenge: not checking labels as avidly as I should have, an increase in stress and deadlines in my life, and the surprises and necessities of my first pregnancy. I also “cheated” a couple of times so I could take part in traditions and festivities although I tried to make the best choices I could in those situations.
Why would there be sugar in that?
I ran into my first problem on Day One of the unsweetened challenge. My husband had just bought a huge package of smoked salmon to put on salads and mix in with scrambled eggs. It’s an easy source of fat and protein, and luckily, we have access to wild Pacific varieties, which are recommended by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Unfortunately, the particular smoked salmon we purchased had an extra ingredient: brown sugar. We weren’t going to let the fish go to waste, so I grudgingly ate the sweetened salmon throughout the week.
After the fish incident, I started looking more closely at the foods I was buying and using. I’ve been reducing my intake of sweetened products over the past year - getting rid of sweetened nut butter, fruit and nut bars, and other processed foods that were high in added sugars - so I was surprised by how many sweetened products were still lingering in my pantry. Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce, the green variety of Tabasco sauce, gluten-free granola, and my one real vice, Trader Joe’s Lentil Chips, all had added sweeteners. Now, of course, the amount of sugar from a few drops of Tabasco isn’t really a health hazard, but it is a reminder of how easy it is to consume more sugar than you realize.
When life gets in the way.
I advocate a cooking-centric, whole-foods-dominated food lifestyle. This lifestyle requires time and effort, but I’ve always claimed that planning ahead and prioritizing your nutritional needs can make this lifestyle feasible for most people. Over the past month, I have not been one of those people. I’m wrapping up my PhD, with a hard deadline for dissertation submission on Dec. 16th, we’re selling our home, and we’re planning a move across the country. The combination has put me in a major time crunch and has also cut off regular access to my kitchen. Potential buyers can come by at any time to view our home, and they expect to be greeted by a clean kitchen.
The main result of these complications was that I stopped making my own lunch. Instead, I ate out. There are incredibly few restaurant options for a person who doesn’t eat conventional meat or dairy of any kind, and tries to avoid grains, especially those containing gluten. I’ve gotten used to asking servers, cooks, and managers about the ingredients in their food. It’s a bit unnerving to realize how few people involved with getting you your food actually have any clue as to what is in it. Even basic food knowledge is often lacking; I actually argued with a waitress over whether or not butter is dairy (yes, it really is). Places like Chipotle and most casual dining restaurants make their allergy information available online or on special menus, which helps me know for sure what I’m eating. However, sugar isn’t an allergen. And, as I mentioned already, added sweeteners can be in all kinds of foods that one wouldn’t even realize.
That’s right – I’m pregnant! I’m just about four months along and feeling what is apparently very normal maternal guilt over just about everything I do. Getting proper nutrition is important for everyone, but it can be truly essential for pregnant women. With all the other stresses in my life, making sacrifices when it came to eating was a difficult choice because I knew it would affect my baby. However, as important as getting the right calories, I needed to be getting enough calories.
Back when I was eating for one, I could skimp on lunch or skip an afternoon snack if I didn’t have the best food options available. Now, however, I know the baby needs calories as much as I do. Plus, I’ve found that hunger is no longer a nagging sensation but a compulsion that must be addressed whether it is convenient or not. Given my cooking limitations, that meant eating out even when there wasn’t a great option for me. Another side effect of pregnancy is that I have to limit my intake of many types of seafood. Gone are the days of sushi and tuna salad. Seafood has often been my go-to restaurant food, but now I can only have a few servings a week.
What to eat.
The first time I walked into a restaurant after taking the unsweetened challenge, I realized that, especially with my other restrictions, asking about added sugars was just not going to work. So, I had to make some choices. First, I tried to pick foods that seemed less likely to have added sugars: salad with oil and vinegar dressing, grilled fish or shrimp (within limits), Mediterranean foods, Thai curries, Indian food, and Chipotle burrito bowls. My nutrition intake definitely suffered from eating out because I ate far fewer fresh vegetables or sautéed greens. And I’m sure there were added sugars in my food; I just can’t say how much.
It was a difficult choice: quality calories or enough calories. I compromised by eating some more marginal foods like rice, potatoes, and black beans that kept me feeling full and assured that I was getting enough calories. If I were cooking as much as I used to, I could instead eat a little more avocado, add nuts to my salad, or simply eat larger portions. Another way in which I cut corners was to eat a little more marginal meat, such as beef from cows that were grass-fed but not necessarily pastured. However, I still refused to eat any animal products that included hormones or antibiotics or were from companies that are known to use unethical practices. Again, if I were cooking all my meals, this wouldn’t be a problem.
Overall, I think this was a good experiment. I was able to eliminate added sweeteners from nearly all my breakfasts and dinners throughout the month. For dessert, I ate unsweetened applesauce with cinnamon. I snacked on fruit, nuts, or tahini sauce. I drank water, unsweetened tea, and black coffee (half –caff, no worries!). I never felt like I was making much of a sacrifice. The only hard part was making sure I had unsweetened options, which was a problem any time I ate out.
Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t perfect. A couple of times, I ate a little dark chocolate when I really wanted it. I had sorbet at a fancy dinner with friends in celebration of my impeding graduation. And I kept with my 6-year tradition of meeting a good friend for bubble (boba) tea once a week. Last night, I finished out my month-long challenge with (gluten-free) pumpkin pie and a bit of pecan tart.
I don’t think I’ll ever go totally unsweetened. Completely eliminating a food or substance, as I have had to do with dairy, is stressful and frustrating. Plus, eliminating every drop of added sugars is not really necessary. However, I am even more aware now of where sugars may be hiding in my diet, and I notice the sweetness in my food much more because I eat so few sweet things. Over the next month, the stress in my life should start to decrease, and I’ll be able to get back to cooking. I look forward to being more in control of what I am eating, and what I am feeding that little person growing inside of me. Life will be sweet, with no sugar added.