Recently, 21 intrepid souls gathered in Mount Airy to attempt what many Americans might consider an impossible quest: go cold turkey on sugar.
Don't laugh. Though scientific opinion is far from unanimous, there is tantalizing evidence that sugar can be at least as neurologically rewarding as some addictive drugs, helping to explain why it can be so hard to kick the sugar habit.
The first step, though, is finding where sugar hides. As Gary Taubes points out in his new book, The Case Against Sugar, everything from breakfast cereals to tobacco may contain the stuff. It can evade the scrutiny of careful label readers, masquerading as glucose, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, and sucrose.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, average consumption of added sugars amounts to 75 pounds of sugar per person per year. And some people take in a lot more sugar than others; the biggest consumers tend to be younger, less educated, less physically active, and smokers, which means they face numerous health risks.
Members of the Sugar Freedom Support Group at Weavers Way in Mount Airy bring a number of sugar-related concerns to the meetings, ranging from diabetes prevention and management to inflammation, said Pamela Hipp, 45, one of the two organizers. Hipp, who has gone without sugar for nine months, started the group with Marti Bowditch, 65.
"Going it alone is overwhelming," said Bowditch, who works in the finance department at the co-op. "But with a group challenging you, it's much easier."
But the struggle is real.
"One problem with food is that we give it emotional responsibility," Hipp said. "People use sugar to self-soothe. When we eat sweets we think of happiness or comfort, while food is meant to be for nutrition. It's all tied up with consolation and emotion."
Bowditch agrees. After her mother's death, she remembers entering a Checker's restaurant and ordering a large Coke. Drinking it, she immediately felt happier. "I was shocked," she said at the memory. Now that she's working on abandoning her sugar habit – she once downed five Cokes in a single sitting – she notices the change.
"When you give sugar up all these emotions come to the surface," Bowditch said.
There is also the question of sugar cravings. For Hipp, the substance proved more difficult to abandon than cigarettes.
"People don't try to push cigarettes on you," said Hipp. "But they will offer you sugar. And it's everywhere."
During her first week of trying to ditch sugar, Bowditch made it until Saturday, when she mistakenly had a small piece of (sugar-cured) bacon and a fruit spread that she "slathered on a waffle" before she identified juice concentrate, a form of added sugars, in the ingredients.
"I read right over it the first time," she said.
Although Bowditch says she does not think she's addicted to sugar, she has noticed that she feels much more energetic since she cut her intake.
So what do you do if you want to stop eating sugar? Participants in the group have been journaling their experience to keep them on the straight and narrow. Hipp suggests that planning meals with healthy fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates (think legumes, whole grains) to provide satiety. She also recommends having a buddy who is also trying to quit.
"Giving up sugar can be very isolating and leave you socially vulnerable," she said, pointing out that there is sugar at just about every celebration. "It helps to talk to someone about it."
Bowditch has increased her fat intake, even adding a pat of butter to her morning cup of matcha tea.
"It tastes terrible," she admitted, "But it holds me through a walk in the morning and reduces cravings."
She has also found the weekly meetings a useful tool.
"There is strength in numbers," she said. "It's definitely easier to say 'My group is not doing sugar' as opposed to 'I'm not eating sugar.' "