What happens when an Adventist gives up sugar for a month?
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I'm expected to live seven to ten years longer than my non-Adventist husband. This statistical advantage (or disadvantage, since I really like my husband Bryan) reflects the fact that Adventists generally don't drink or smoke, and a lot of us are vegetarians. From the outside, we seem pretty healthy. You can read flattering articles about us here, here, and particularly here, but what the writers miss or ignore is that Adventists have a complicated relationship with sugar.
While strict Adventists use it sparingly, the rest of us enjoy sugar a little too much. As a child, I would circle the dessert table at potluck, gazing at the chocolate cakes, the Rice Krispies treats, the brownies, and the Jell-O fruit salads (the only non-vegetarian items in the fellowship hall). Later, when I attended Southern Adventist University, I knew what Little Debbie was baking because of the scent wafting over the promenade. The owners, of course, were Adventists. My parents laughed at the irony, funny because we were implicated. On road trips, our vegetarianism reduced food options to their most essential: Frosties or milkshakes. With an accompanying potato item, of course.
As an adult, I considered my diet mostly healthy — lots of fruits and veggies, lots of whole grains and tofu. At restaurants, even fast food ones, vegetarian options had improved and on road trips, milkshakes were rare. But at home, I enjoyed sweets. I added sugar to my coffee (my most controversial habit), nibbled on chocolate between meals, had dessert after supper, and maybe a treat after my daughter was in bed.
One night, while surfing the internet, I came upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines on added sugars. The FDA advises that no more than 10 percent of calories should come from added sugar, translating to about 12 teaspoons a day. The World Health Association and the American Heart Association recommended limiting added sugar to five percent of total calories, which for women meant six teaspoons a day, while men got a hearty nine. In short, I ate too much sugar.
As I wrung my hands, Bryan told me about his colleague who had given up sugar and had a mountain top experience eating an apple. He'd tasted, really tasted, its complex sweetness. I wanted to taste, really taste, an apple's complex sweetness.
I decided to give up added sugars (cane, honey, maple) for the month of February and see what happened. Since I already avoided artificial sweeteners, I wouldn't start them.
Bryan, who wasn't one for fads, volunteered to join me. For this first time in our marriage, we would share a dietary restriction.
Day 1: Would coffee be palatable without sweetener? As I brewed a pot, I posted my concerns on Facebook, and almost immediately, an Adventist friend suggested I use this month to also give up coffee. I sighed and poured myself a cup of coffee, adding extra milk. It was more enjoyable than I expected.
Thank you, lactose. I felt braced and ready for the month.
Days 2 & 3: I didn’t immediately crave sweets. I wasn’t feeling crabby or lethargic, either. I was just chronically hungry. Immersed in work, I frequently skipped lunch. Now, I was aware of how reflexively I had used chocolate to bridge breakfast and dinner. Considering how hungry I was, I began to suspect that 20 or 30 percent of my usual calories came from added sugar.
I asked Bryan if he was hungrier than normal. “Not at all,” he said. “Why?”
Day 5: I was taking my first trip to the grocery store. What would happen when I was confronted with all those Trader Joe’s chocolates? Would I have to avert my eyes? Would I cheat? Were sweets, like Oreos, really more addictive than cocaine?
At the checkout lane, I neutrally observed the Ritter Sport bars. There they were. Moderation, I realized, had been harder for me to achieve than abstention. To eat sugar in moderation, my will power got tested multiple times a day, and mostly I shrugged. What’s one small piece of chocolate? What’s one more?
Having a definitive rule was, well, liberating. Would I become a health fanatic?
Day 10: In class, one of my students opened a bag of candy. The colors were so bright they were almost florescent. I had an epiphany: candy is just sugar that's been dyed and retextured. I wouldn’t eat spoons of sugar. Why did I eat candy? For the first time since beginning my experiment, I was repulsed by something sweet.
Day 11: A colleague brought banana bread to work, and I had a piece. It was the most amazing banana bread I had ever eaten — tender, with notes of caramel. Before I reached for a second piece, it dawned on me — most banana bread contains brown sugar. My mountain top moment was fringed with guilt.
Day 14: I cheated again, this time intentionally. If banana bread was so sublime, what would happen if I went all out? Bryan and I were training for a half-marathon, after we returned from a 10 mile run, I poured maple syrup on my sugarless waffles and expected them to be the best thing in my life. I expected to taste, really taste, the maple syrup. Instead, the waffles just tasted like failure.
Day 18: Bryan got the stomach flu and when I bought him ginger ale, he refused to drink it. I didn’t lecture him on extremism because I knew I might be sick next and there was no way I would drink soda. This experiment wasn’t just about health, it had become a test of endurance.
Days 19-25: I was eating a lot of dried apricots. I knew my body couldn’t differentiate between fructose and glucose, but I was grateful for this loophole. It wasn’t that I particularly liked dried apricots, but I depended on the fast energy they provided.
Maybe Adventists didn’t have a sugar problem. Maybe we had a busyness problem.
Day 26: What I missed most about sugar was the indulgence. While driving to work, I started daydreaming about how I would break my fast. Would I finally make the smoky cardamom ginger-molasses cookies I had been eyeing or would I buy artisanal ice cream?
After our daughter was asleep, I whispered to Bryan: “Have you thought about how you'll break your sugar fast?”
“I think I'll just keep going,” he said. It was immediately clear that Bryan had always been the healthy one in our family.
Last day: Because I began my sugar fast on the night of January 31, I planned to end it this evening. After our daughter was asleep, I walked into the kitchen. I hadn’t baked those cardamom cookies after all or bought ice cream. I had chosen chocolate as my indulgence. I broke off a square and bit into it.
It was good, but the sweetest part was when Bryan wandered into the kitchen and said, “Okay, forget it. Just give me a piece!”
It has been several years since my sugar fast. I had hoped the fast would reset my sweet tooth, like it did for The New York Times writer David Leonhardt, but unfortunately, I still really like sweet foods. What has happened instead is that I am more intentional and aware. I now know where and why sugar enters my diet. I try to eat more nuts between meals, and when I grocery shop, I hesitate before buying chocolate.
I recommend a month without added sugar to anyone who wants to learn more about their consumption of sweets. It can be daunting for Adventists to add yet another dietary constraint, but focusing on one month provides an end-point and the experiment should give you a better understanding of your specific relationship with sugar. In fact, I’m thinking about doing another myself. Perhaps this February?
Sari Fordham teaches creative writing at La Sierra University. With her students, she has begun the first international Adventist literary journal, The Roadrunner Review. The first issue is coming out in February. You can learn more about it here: https://roadrunner.lasierra.edu/
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