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Diaries of a Sugar Deprived Mom

Can an ice cream loving family give up sugar for 3 weeks?...OK, 2 weeks?

Photo credit: Getty Images/TheCrimsonMonkey

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“We’d like you and your family to give up sugar for 21 days and write about it,” says the woman over the phone. Moments before we were laughing and getting along great, only now do I realize that she doesn’t like me at all. “So, what do you think?” she asks.

What do I think? I think she has no idea who she’s talking to. I’m the girl who always has candy in her bag. I’m the girl who loves baking cakes and making fudge. I’m the girl who actually wrote a blog for years called “Ice Scream Mama.” Because … ice cream! Even more than wine, that cold creamy confection has saved my sanity and ruined my diet many a night. I’d rather go without dinner. Just the thought of not having a nightly treat to look forward to makes me sad.  “I’ll think about it,” I say, playing it cool and suppressing a deep need to walk to my freezer just to fondle some pints of Rocky Road. “But maybe two weeks would be better.”

“Great,” she chirps merrily, like she hasn’t just asked me to torture myself. “Talk to the family and get back to me.”

The family? Oh, right. Them.

Consumed with my own issues, I forgot about my three boys and my husband. “OK,” I agree and hang up the phone, both terrified and excited. Can we really do this?

No cookies with lunch. No ice cream cones after dinner. No gummy candies on the side. I think about the babka cake sitting in the center of my kitchen island just waiting for me and my 3 o’clock cup of coffee. As a health-conscious person, I know all about those articles claiming sugar is bad for you. But who believes those? Every year a new food is demonized (Fat! Carbs!) and something is glorified (Kale! Acai berries!).  You can’t follow every new food trend. Right?

I groan and reluctantly admit to myself that this is just the challenge my sugared up family needs.

My mind drifts to the cake on my counter; the layers of gooey chocolate.

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Later...

With the whole family on board, we go through the cabinets, noting—and eating—all things we will not be enjoying over the next two weeks on our “informal sugar detox.”

“It’s my last day,” my 9-year-old son cries, like he is going off to war.  “I need the biggest ice cream! The BIGGEST! With chocolate syrup and sprinkles!

The BIGGEST ice cream. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

“Me too!” my 12-year-old chimes in. “With fudge and whipped cream!”

I breathe loudly and dramatically and head for the freezer. How can I deny them their last desserts? Especially when I already polished off the babka. The only one not hitting the kitchen for a fix is my 15-year-old, who has decided this is no big deal.  And maybe he’s right. Or maybe he’s just a big healthy pooper trying to make us all look bad.

Mid-scoop, I pause to watch my husband rummage through the closet for a last bit of chocolate.

Shaking my head, I sigh and lick my spoon.

Day 1: Good “no sugar” morning.

This morning we wake up determined. My middle son is downstairs first and tries a bowl of puffed rice, low-sugar cereal. He grimaces. “This tastes like nothing.”

“Well,” I say, “we’re really used to sugar to flavor things up. I’m sure it’ll taste better once you get used to it.”

He pushes the bowl away. “I think I’ll skip breakfast.”

My 9-year-old, a fruity sugar cereal devotee, downs the cereal, surprisingly without complaint. My oldest requests eggs. Easy.

Making their lunches for school wasn’t even that bad. Turkey on fancy new organic bread. Raisins and granola bars replaced by carrots and hummus; yogurts and cookies swapped for string cheese and chips. I don’t know what they’ll think, but it doesn’t matter—they won’t know till they’re at school and can’t complain to me!

My attempt at a healthy lunch. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

My husband grabs a banana on his way out, picks up the new fancy organic whole wheat bread I bought and studies it. “Hey, you know this has more sugar per slice than the bread you usually buy?” He holds up the two loaves for comparison.

Crap.

I didn’t read the label. Such a rookie mistake. I pout, pissed that I had already screwed up. “It’s not a big deal,” my husband says. “We’re learning.”

I nod. Of course, he’s right.

Now if only I knew what to dunk in my coffee.

Coffee's not so much fun, anymore. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

Day 4: Well, this kind of sucks. I mean … we’re doing great!

My pantry has four new types of low sugar cereals, but my picky 12-year-old has dismissed them all. He also snubs eggs and French toast without syrup. At my wits end, I sigh. “Chicken nuggets?”

He shrugs his OK, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe whole wheat French toast with just a little bit of pure maple syrup is a healthier choice.

It’s been a challenging few days (more so for some than others), and we are largely winging it. As a health aware mom, I’m confused with the gray areas, especially when dealing with simple carbs like white rice and french fries. Technically these foods read zero sugar, but I know in my heart that they are not healthy alternatives. Still, I’m having a hard time convincing the kids. “Come on!” My 9-year-old scowls when I suggest quinoa. “Now you’re getting crazy!”

And maybe I am. We have already banished cookies and cakes, sport drinks, juice and candy. In fact, all of the obvious sugars are gone, along with some less obvious ones like yogurt cups, certain jarred spaghetti sauces and regular white pasta.  We are slowly learning that we could do with a lot less sugar; often without even noticing the difference.

Yet for some things there are no substitutes.

“Like ice cream,” I sigh.  

“And candy!” my youngest adds; his curls bouncing along with him, hyperactive from even the suggestion.

And “pancakes with syrup,” my breakfast-challenged middle one adds.

I look at my oldest. “So, what do you miss the most?”

He shrugs. “Nothing. I’m good.”

There he goes again, being perfect.  But instead of rolling my jealous eyes, I nod, truly appreciating his strength and willpower.

I totally can’t relate.

Day 6: I can’t get no satisfaction – without sugar!

Yesterday, my middle son came home from a friend’s house, recounting with the widest green eyes how he declined the “softest, most chocolatey smelling brownie.”

My youngest resisted the temptation of donuts at a bowling party – a major accomplishment for him, or almost any 9-year-old.

As expected, my oldest is sailing through.

What I didn’t expect was my husband to take up the challenge with true resolve. There is no more juice in the morning. There are no more cookies for snacks. While I have allowed the boys pretzels and chips, because technically they say there is no sugar in them, my husband has sworn them off of his own accord, knowing that they are still junk.

They are all motivated and proud of their healthier eating efforts. I, on the other hand, may be beyond help.

I look forward to my evening ice cream and my 3 o’clock cup of coffee and cookie like an addict. Which I’m beginning to realize is exactly what I am. I’m not a real drinker and I don’t do drugs. Sugar is my vice and I have embraced it. Until now.

I really don’t know how much longer I can take this.

This is as excited as I can get to be snacking on edamame. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

Day 7: Sugar junkie.

Soooo cranky.  

Oh my God! I just realized I’m in withdrawal!!*

I just want sugar so baaaaddd! So o o o bad. It’s totally normal. TOTALLY NORMAL!!!!

*(Some studies suggest that sugar is addictive, possibly even more so than cocaine.)

OK, I’m going to go now. Clearly, I need a moment. Pray for my family.

Day 8: The no sugar highs. And lows.

My friend texts me this morning. “My son wants to do the sugar challenge, too!”

I read it and feel a small surge of pride. She is the second friend to tell me that, and I love that our family’s journey to better health has inspired others.

We are at the start of week two, and for the most part things are going smoothly. There have been no meltdowns or sneaking of snacks. Even when the boys are out with friends, I’m getting phone calls double checking what they can and can’t eat.

Middle - “Mom, is it OK to have a slice of pizza?”

Oldest - “Mom, can I have a bagel?”

Youngest - “Mom, I didn’t think I could have ices, but wanted to make sure.”

Good try, 9-year-old.

My goal when this over is to find the middle ground. Carrots will never replace cookies, but sugary treats are not something we need to have every day (or three times a day). This past week, popcorn has been a big indulgence, along with edamame, whole wheat crackers and hummus, grapes, and banana with peanut butter. I’m hoping these healthier snacks will evolve in status from, “Sure, whatever, if I have to” to a part of our everyday normal.

“Maaaaa!” my son screams from the kitchen, like something is on fire.

“What??” I ask, breathless, relieved not to see smoke.

He is holding a container of whipped cream. His face bright with excitement. “There’s, like, no sugar in here!” he exclaims, thrusting it at me.

“Let me see.” I scan the label and my eyes light as well. “You’re right!” I know full well frozen chemicals – I mean whipped cream – would never be on a list of “healthy foods.” But I don’t care. My son and I gleefully lick and our eyes glaze over.

Not my proudest moment. But look how happy he is. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

I don’t think I’ll be mentioning this to any friends.

Day 11: I speak with a professional and realize I have no idea what I am doing.

Yup. We totally screwed up this “sugar detox” challenge. OK, not totally, more like partially.  

“You’re not really on a sugar detox,” Nina Eng, MS, RD, chief clinical dietitian from Northwell Health, told me. “What you’re doing is staying away from added sugars.”

Until now, I didn’t fully register the difference, and it’s a big one. “The body uses sugar, or glucose, as a source of fuel. You need it. But you need to get it in healthier, more nutritious ways, like through complex carbohydrates—things that have whole grains and fiber in them. These types of foods will be absorbed in a way that will give you lasting energy and keep you full longer.”

Ah, OK. So, we did right by getting rid of most added sugars, but did wrong by swapping sugary treats for snacks, like chips or pretzels. “You always want to choose nutrient-dense foods,” Nina notes. “In order for the body to make the best use of the carbs you feed it, you need to choose whole grains, since they are complex carbohydrates and are a good source of fiber. The body breaks down these foods slowly, which keeps you full and stabilizes blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates, like processed foods, contain added sugars to improve taste. The body digests simple carbs quickly, which increases inflammation and raises blood sugar levels.”

Nina explains that just the idea of looking for no sugar items is missing the big picture. “The amount of sugar on a food label does not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.  The new food label does attempt to clarify this by now including grams of added sugar on the label.”

One look in my sizeable cereal cabinet tells me that I am a victim of food label confusion.

So many labels, so little nutrition. Photo credit: Julie Shapiro

After comparing cereals ranging from what I considered junk to reasonably healthy, I discover that none have much fiber or protein and that the health difference between them is negligible.

My realization? I need to do better.

My 9-year-old’s take? “You mean, I could have been eating the sugar cereals every day for breakfast?!” 

Uh, not exactly, kid.

“Everything is about balance,” Nina explains, which reminds me of what my grandmother used to say. “It’s all about moderation.”

So that’s what we’re going to focus on. Balance and moderation. Exercise and complex carbs. A healthy diet where even a little sugar is OK.

Thank God.

Day 14: It’s a wrap! (Whole wheat, of course.)

“So, I can have French toast with a little bit of syrup,” my middle son says, and we are both relieved.

“That’s right,” I confirm. With 100 percent whole grain bread, an egg, and a drizzle of pure maple syrup, it’s a complete breakfast combining healthy carbs and protein, and a touch of syrup to satisfy the sweet tooth.

Now that our experiment is officially over, like complex carbs, we are slowly absorbing all the new information. (Come on, that’s a solid nutrition analogy!) I’m reading nutritional labels more carefully (Breadgate!), concentrating not just on the sugar, but the fiber and protein as well. If we eat empty carbs like pretzels, we’re going to dip them in things like hummus or peanut butter to create a more healthy balance.

I’m looking at foods through a wider lens that includes portion sizes, and focuses on which carbs are healthy and which aren’t. It’s not just about a number, I keep reminding myself, but the whole picture.  

Right now, my youngest son is at a baseball tournament and before he left he told me in no uncertain terms that sugar would be had. We had already talked to death about how healthy food makes a healthy, strong body. Now was the time to smile and say, “Have fun.”  

My son had some of this sport drink. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

My husband, who is also the team’s coach, took my approval for himself as well. “Churros!” he cried and they both danced around joyously.

My oldest gave in yesterday at an ice cream shop with his grandparents and younger cousins, enjoying a scoop  of peanut butter treasure and some quality family time.

“I think we did pretty good,” I say to my middle guy, handing him his breakfast.

“I’m the last one who hasn’t given in,” he says proudly.

He’s right. Last night, while the other boys were engaged, I quietly made myself a giant ice cream cone and hid in the kitchen, enjoying every last lick. Even now I feel a small surge of serotonin from the memory.

Sugar has always been a sweet spot for me and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, I have integrated it into our family culture, as well as our diets. When my boys were toddlers, I gave them lollipops in their strollers to keep them quiet while I shopped. At 3, I used little candies as encouragement for going potty. Right or wrong, I’ve used sugar to both reward their successes and soothe their failures. Which is why I’m so excited that we did this challenge. And also relieved – not just because it’s over, but because we learned so much.

Healthy eating isn’t a two week challenge. It’s a life commitment, and it takes some effort and discipline. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat ourselves. Which is why I’ll be making multigrain pasta with grilled chicken and broccoli for dinner and my family’s favorite peanut butter marshmallow fudge for dessert.

For me, that’s a celebration of a new beginning and a happy ending.

Our happy (and healthy) family. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Schindler family

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Published January 9th, 2018

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