It’s in our cereals, in the ketchup we put on our burgers, and in the canned tomato sauce we layer over our pastas. We add it to our coffees. We add it to our homemade cookies. And we reach for food that’s loaded with it when we’re “craving something sweet.”
In my first memory of sugar, the added sugar that’s in candy and most desserts, I’m barely 6 years old, it’s Christmas Day, and I’m lying on the lime green carpet in my grandparents’ basement. In this three-story row home in Northeast Philadelphia, the basement is actually the first floor. My Dad parked in the alleyway, and my parents, my siblings and I entered the house through the basement door that faces the alley. We passed the pearly white washing machine and dryer and crossed under the wood-paneled door frame to see the white painted stairs on our left. After ascending the stairs, we cut through the kitchen, where my grandparents, aunts and uncles were laughing and sharing peanuts and cocktail shrimp. My cousins were spread out across the light brown carpet, with plastic figurines, board games, and other new toys scattered in front of each of them.
This should have been the most exciting part of my day, that moment when presents were handed to me and I was instructed to open them. Instead, it had started to feel uncomfortably hot, standing there in that family room. My palms felt clammy, and I had a feeling of needing some fresh air. Then it hit me: I’m going to throw up.
I rushed out of that room and down the basement stairs as fast as my 5-year-old legs could carry me, hearing my Dad’s voice behind me, asking if I was OK. And then I was on the basement floor, that hard green carpet underneath me, and every chocolate Santa, every green and red M&M, and the rest of the contents of my Christmas stocking that I’d consumed that morning was spit back out into a pile of yellow mush.
Part of the Celebration
I wish I could say that that after I threw up in my grandparents’ basement on Christmas Day in 1990, that that was the last time that I’d eaten candy, or at least that much candy in one day, but it wasn’t.
Growing up, my parents were strict with sugar, rarely keeping dessert in the house except for a single box of chocolate chip cookies that my siblings and I were allowed to eat only after we’d finished our dinner. They didn’t buy us sugary cereals, like the Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs my friends were consuming for breakfast, they didn’t drink soda, and they never had candy in the house.
Except for on holidays and birthdays.
On these special occasions, my siblings and I were allowed to consume as much candy and dessert as we wanted. And it was a mainstay in the celebration. On Easter, my Mom filled our baskets with jelly beans, chocolate bunnies, and marshmallow Peeps. On Halloween, we crammed as many treats as we could into the orange plastic pails we carried from house to house. And on our birthdays, bags and bars of our favorite candies were included in our gift boxes and with our cards.
The tradition of including the person’s favorite candy with his or her birthday gift continued into adulthood. And so did consuming large amounts of candy, on holidays and often on other days.
In the past few years, sugar has earned a pretty negative reputation. Too much added sugar, the kind found in those chocolate Santas, can cause obesity, diabetes, and wreak havoc on your cardiovascular health. If you want to read about just how much damage added sugar can pack, check out this article from Harvard Health.
Of course, sugar isn’t the only enemy on the shelves. There are other foods and ingredients that medical professionals warn us about, like fried foods, and salt (or too much of it).
As an adult, I’ve followed most of my doctor’s advice when it comes to staying healthy. I avoid fried foods, I’ve replaced white breads with whole grains, and I’ve started cooking with olive oil. I exercise 5-6 days a week, get 7 hours of sleep a night, and drink plenty of water. I try and limit alcohol. I don’t smoke.
But, until recently, I refused to give up added sugar.
I took handfuls of Starburst from the candy jar in the cafeteria at work. I bought the 99-cent bag of gummy bears from CVS and ate them in the car after the gym. I never skipped dessert at parties or corporate meetings. If I received a bag of my favorite candy from my fiancée, like sour gummy worms or Skittles, the bag never lasted more than a few days. At one point, I discovered that I was eating some kind of candy every day.
Having a self-proclaimed “sweet tooth,” I never even considered attempting to eliminate, or even limit, sugar.
Old Habits Die Hard
Indulging in sugar every once in a while, even if that means eating an entire bag of Sour Patch, isn’t the worst thing for your health. But since I’d worked tirelessly to stay healthy, the part of having no holds barre when it came to eating sugar just didn’t make sense.
If I was skipping French fries at lunch, and drinking water instead of soda, why was I allowing myself to eat 10 Starburst at 9 am? (That habit of eating candy in the morning has never left me).
Holiday or not, months before my birthday, I kept making an exception for sugar.
The Sour Reality
Then, this spring, I heard on a health show that women are supposed to have 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily, according to the American Heart Association. 6 teaspoons is 25 grams.
So, I wondered, what is 25 grams?
25 grams is half the amount of sugar in a single, regular-size packet of Skittles. That means that one bag, marketed as a single serving, contains 50 grams of sugar.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but I never actually read the labels with any context. Sure, I saw the sugar count in the Nutrition Facts, but it didn’t mean anything until I realized just how much over the recommended limit most candy, my favorite kind of food with added sugar, is.
A Sweet Escape
On April 29 of this year, I stopped eating candy. I haven’t had a single Starburst, Jolly Rancher, gummy bear, or any of my other favorites since that day.
At first, it was tough. I couldn’t sit near the candy jars at work, or even walk by them. I found that drinking a flavored seltzer water helped satisfy the craving.
Eventually, weeks went by, and I lost the craving for a spike of sugar in the morning, or after the gym.
As far as other added sugars, I haven’t quite eliminated them, but I only eat dessert on holidays and for birthdays, and I try and have just one serving.
Though I may reintroduce a few pieces of candy down the road, I’ve enjoyed not having that I’m going to throw up feeling.