On Oscar Sunday, I finished a culinary project I started a couple of days earlier: a pear and almond Danish braid. Laminated dough, the one used to make croissants with, is a humongous pain in the neck: it requires an equal balance of resting, proofing and six, yes six, turns, i.e. rolling and folding and rolling again. But if you ever have the patience (and the stamina) to make it yourself, the reward is croissants that have absolutely nothing in common with what we are used to, even those who come from fancy bakeries.
Last October, following my breast cancer diagnosis, I gave up sugar, while waiting to have surgery. Without going into too many medical details, there is a theory that cancer cells feed on sugar so why help them out? Between the stress and the lack of appetite and the disappearance of sugar from my diet, I lost over six pounds in very little time.
When I talk about giving up sugar, I obviously mean refined sugar – not the fructose found in fruit or the naturally occurring sugar in carbohydrates, dairy, vegetables etc. The body needs sugar (glucose) to function: it fuels not just our body but also our brain. But too much sugar quickly converts to fat and we are not designed to process large amounts. According to the American Heart Association, women need no more than 25g (or 6 teaspoons) of sugar a day and men 37.5 g (9 ts), which is a lot less than what most people consume.
While I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I removed processed sugar from my diet, I quickly noticed some changes that kept me on this low sugar diet long after my surgery. I am a pastry chef, so it might seem like an oxymoron I would be the person to forego sugar: I still make delicious confections for others and I reward myself with something I really want (and usually make) a couple of times a month, in addition to nibbling on some dark chocolate when I feel like it.
In addition to the unintended weight loss, I also noticed the following:
- the cravings have stopped. After every meal, I used to reach for a cookie, a piece of chocolate, occasionally a slice of cake. Nothing big but no meal felt complete without a sweet ending. After two or three weeks with no sugar, the cravings were gone;
- my skin cleared up. I have a combination skin, often prone to minor breakouts. Now the breakouts occur only if and when my period is approaching, and my skin is overall a lot smoother;
- I have more energy. I make sure I have a protein packed breakfast and I eat carbohydrates before running or a workout. The high protein diet I am on at the moment to fight off fatigue might have something to do with it but, even before I started, the absence of sugar made me avoid the peaks and valleys of energy and sloth that occurred throughout the day;
- my taste buds and my sense of smell have heightened.
This last point is what keeps me determined to stick with it. Genetically, we are all born with a set of taste (about six) and smell receptors (a few hundreds) and they differ wildly from person to person, which is why you might find something terribly salty and the person next to you will reach for the salt shaker. Tobacco dulls the palate and so does sugar – I have always known that and, periodically when I was working full-time in pastry, I would lay off the sugar for a while to rebalance my palate. I am blessed with very fine tuned taste buds – my genetic gift – but now I feel like everything that passes trough my mouth and my nose is immensely more alive and, for a chef, it is a wonderful sensation. The very boring potato leek soup I made last night had such clear notes of rosemary and leek, so separate on my tongue, it became way more delectable than it probably was.
The bottom line is that food has suddenly become even more interesting and the few times I indulge in a sweet treat, it’s not business as usual but a worthy indulgence I appreciate even more.