Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Old Perspective on Sugar

They lurk around the corner of every cubicle. Glossy, fluorescent, just waiting to ambush the unsuspecting breakfast-skipper: boxed cakes, doughnuts, cookies, candies and pastries, frosted inside and out. They tower at the entrances to supermarkets, intercepting shoppers just before the produce aisle. Nary a Sunday morning passes that I don’t see small children double-fisting doughnuts or frosted cookies during the church fellowship hour.
Sugar is the angel and the devil on all our shoulders. So sweet, but is it really bad for you? Not surprisingly, the Sugar Association says no. Others implicate sugar in every malady from hyperactivity to heart disease.
At its most innocuous, refined sugar provides empty calories. Consuming too many “stripped” calories leads to deficiencies, weight gain, or both. In nature, plant sugars grow together with the proteins, vitamins and minerals we need to metabolize them. Lacking these partners, refined sugars draw nutrients from our bones and teeth for their digestion.
Even if nothing else were true about sugar – allegations about obesity, diabetes, immunosuppression, cancer – the specter of nutritional deficiency is reason enough for me to cut back on the sweet stuff. To get an idea of how far, I look to history.
Our desire for sweetness is inborn and natural. We learn it at our mother’s breast; the sweetness (and fat) of breast milk is deeply associated with comfort and love. After we’re weaned, our sweet tooth guides us to the ripest (most nutritious) fruits and vegetables and protects us from poisonous and spoiled foods.
For all but the last fifty years of human experience, sugar was not available in the abundance it is today. It was prescribed as a medicine in some cultures, used as money in others, and in all cases rare and precious. In the amounts and forms naturally available, sugar was a harmless treat.
Sweetness, then, is something to be treasured. It occurs rarely in nature and often at great expense of energy, which should guide how much we eat now. If we had to gather our own honey, maple sap or sugar cane, how much less would we consume? In light of the effort it took, how much more would we value it?
Modern technology has short-circuited sugar’s natural rarity. The average American consumes up to thirty times as much sugar today as a hundred years ago. That must translate to a difference in our body chemistry. Culturally, sweets have become more of an entitlement than a treat, knocking sugar off its traditional pedestal.
In my childhood, Halloween was one of the few magical times of the year that I had my own stash of candy (the others being Easter and Camp-of-the-Woods). Like Charlie and his chocolate bar, I carefully rationed it to last all month. I would save chocolate chip bags just to smell the chocolate lingering on the inside; my siblings thought I was crazy. And then when I was older and could have all the candy I wanted, I gradually lost my taste for it. I still enjoy high quality chocolate and homemade desserts now and then, but I have a new appreciation for where sugar belongs.
Part of adopting a traditional diet includes giving sugar back the respect it deserves – keeping it in its natural forms like fruit and honey, obtaining the highest quality, using it to accent nourishing foods, and saving it for special occasions.
As the proverb says: “If you find honey, eat just enough— too much of it, and you will vomit.” Ancient wisdom at its best.

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