Imagine the holidays with no sugar. Yes, I mean the white stuff or brown-colored white stuff. I also mean edible things your body interprets as sugar: grains (almost all flours), lactose (a glass of milk), super starchy vegetables like white potatoes, fake sweeteners (ewww) and alcohol (aka crack sugar). Imagine the holidays without those?
If you aren’t already living that reality, this thought might seem horrifying, if not improbable. Why would you want to do that?! I’d pause now and explain my reasons for no longer eating sugar. But you know what? If your mind doesn’t want to go there … and your mind probably does NOT want to go there … you’ll argue with, rather than accept, those reasons. Push them away. And that’s totally fine. I spent years experimenting. A good choice in one decade wasn’t necessarily a good choice in another. Healthy eating is a process. There is a lot of gray area.
We can endlessly debate, for example, whether or not to eat maple syrup, honey, stevia, rice syrup. (A little, a little, perhaps, no.) Whether or not to include sweet potato. How much carb overall is “right”? I can share my science-informed choices and hard-earned strategies but I only really know what works for me. Meanwhile, you’ll read this primarily to find out how I gave up sugar while still eating plenty of sweet food.
Spoiler: The story doesn’t end that way. It does have a happy ending though. Unless “happy” means “and then she ate all the Ferraro Rocher.” Then no, it’s not happy.
I was prepared to face this year’s sugarless reality. I’d had months of nourishment sans all those sugar things. I feel physically better than I’ve ever felt. When I had “a little bit” at Thanksgiving, I felt like I’d been hit by a flu bus. Which lessened my desire to re-experience that during my holiday downtime.
Yet, when the holiday downtime arrived, there was an undercurrent dampening my experience, a residue of “wtf is joyful without sugar?”. I especially miss my husband’s hot toddies.
Almost twenty years ago, when I gave up gluten (which made me seriously ill for decades while I was misdiagnosed with other things and occasionally called a hyperchondriac), I replaced gluten treats with fake gluten sugar treats. I once ate an entire bag of gluten-free Oreos I found in a health food store because I hadn’t had a cookie in years. Simultaneously consuming approx. 4,689 grams of sugar. Even with sugar, I was physically well beyond anything I could have anticipated – night and day – so it wasn’t difficult to stay gluten free. I also needed to give up dairy and those two changes were all I could handle.
Nowadays, I react, with varying intensity, to all types of grains and sugars beyond a tad of maple syrup. I lost twenty pounds last year when I gave them up. In two weeks. Without eating fewer calories overall.
My hunch is that I’ve always have reacted but my younger body could manage it because I starved myself a lot, out of habit and a bit of dysfunction. Then I married a man who cooks me delicious, appetizing real food. I’ve learned to cook vegetables. Meanwhile, I discovered what my body can and can not tolerate on a daily basis.
My single-paragraph soap box (feel free to skip to the next!): Nobody actually needs cookies or a Mars bar or craft beer. We may want them; we are certainly trained to desire them. A century of storytelling linking “feel good” food with “the good life” have made bad food choices so ubiquitous, we can only imagine “curbing” our choices or “limiting” them. But our bodies are not made happy by a birthday cake – we are drugged by the birthday cake. There’s a difference. We go to the doctor to treat our diet-related diseases but we will never be cured by a system that profits from the rise in them.
I know this post may seem radical and vigilante. Perhaps you think I’ve lost my f’n mind. If so, I’ll whisper this in response “I’ve gained my mind.” I have arrived in a mental space where I crave plants, especially fresh produce grown nearby. I add eggs or locally-raised meat (sometimes) and I am far more satisfied after eating than I ever was before. I eat three meals and I look forward to them. That was not true before.
Regardless of where you draw the line, my question is this: Rather than give up this food or that food, seeking moderation … what would it be like to simply eat food in its natural state? To buy, instead of manufactured food, ingredients?
Trust me when I say, the happy holiday ending is a surprise to me. In my 20s, I subsisted on nicotine, air, Smartfood and drama. I did cook for my son, avoiding sugar (and was told by a friend that it was child abuse not feed a one-year-old birthday cake and Happy Meals.) Unfortunately, I cooked us many foods containing gluten, so made myself sicker in the process. My heart, diving deeper into authentic food, was in the right place though.
Here are some foods I enjoyed over the holiday, including Christmas dinner. Over the next few days, I’ll add links to recipes so you can enjoy them too.
- Crispy brussel sprouts with pomegranate, walnut and cranberry pear balsamic
- Pan-seared Filet mignon topped with fresh herb butter
- Chocolate mousse parfait with strawberries, greek yogurt, pecans, walnuts and condimento drizzle
- Beef stew thickened with butternut squash (Instant pot FTW)
- Cauliflower-crust pizza with spinach, mushrooms and olive oil (meat optional)
- Farmer focus chicken wings with buffalo sauce
- Kale Caesar salad (we eat this almost every day)
- Creamy blueberry and pecan quick dessert
- Individual squash pie (side dish, great with roasted chicken)
Need some inspired reading to encourage you towards cooking? Here are a few mentors that constantly inspire me:
- How to Cook Everything and Dinner for Everyone (good for delicious vegan alternatives) by Mark Bittman
- The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (My husband quotes Kenji almost as often as The Wirecutter.)
- Everything by Micheal Pollan and his family
- Whole Food Cooking Everyday by Amy Chaplin
- Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden
- The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
- An Everlasting Meal for a more-poetic approach
- Forks Over Knives recipe app
- The Netflix series Salt Fat Acid Heat or the movie Chef
- My favorite cooking memoir Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (for those who liked Wild)
- A few classics: Great Good Food (I’ve worn out three), The Moosewood Cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen (though sadly skipping the bread section)