A Craving for Sweets


Sweet Taste of Beating the Sugar Habit

I went to the bank and asked to borrow a cup of money.  They said, "What for?"  I said, "I'm going to buy some sugar."

- Steven Wright

by Hubert B Herring

"My name is Hubert, and I'm a sugar addict."

Yes, some groups aim at overeating or food addiction in general, but there are no local chapters of, say, "Chocoholics Anonymous" where I could stand and say that.  Maybe there should be.  To call a dessert "addictive," in fact, is the highest compliment.  Alcohol and drug addiction are starker threats, but with the dismayingly sharp rise in obesity, sugar abuse is no joke.  Many people do fine with the occasional dessert or candy; for others moderation seems impossible.  I know it is for me.  Which is why, for the second time, I have kicked sugar entirely.  This time I hope it sticks.

If I have a cookie, I want another, and another.  If I taste a brownie, I'd hate to confess how many I've been known to devour.  I've gorged on sweets, only to have the bottom fall out of my energy, my body left feeling sick, poisoned.  Cut down?  Eat less sugar?  For years, I tried.  Whenever I had some sweet, I craved more - and usually gave in.

Then, years ago, I came across Sugar Blues, in which William Dufty spells out his theory that sugar is a drug, not a food.  He calls the sugar pick-me-up "mortgaged energy," because "more and more minerals are required from deep in the body in the attempt to rectify the imbalance" in your system.  It was the push I needed.  I remember the moment well: I was reading the book on a plane and, after finishing the bland, boxy little dinner, took a bite of cake.  I looked at the remaining cake, put my fork down, and said, That's it.  I'm stopping.  Cold turkey.  And I did.

Oddly, I had no withdrawal symptoms.  If I have half a chocolate bar and am told I can't have the other half, I'm in agony, but having none was remarkably simple.  When, a few years later, I tackled a runaway coffee addiction, I went through days of excruciating headaches.  But I had no such reaction to cutting all sugar.  With a few exceptions, like a piece of my wedding cake, I stuck by it for seven years.  No desserts.  No sweetened cereals.  No foods with more than a trace of sugar.  (You'd go crazy eliminating it all.)  And I felt great, as if I'd emerged from a gooey, chocolate-coated haze.

I was, I guess, a bit obnoxious about it, ostentatiously turning down desserts at friends' houses and preaching my new religion.  In my apartment, I kept a jar of sugar for guests who wanted to, as I smugly put it, "ruin" their coffee, but I labelled it "poison."  It was the healthiest period of my life.  Among other things, in a few years I'd run five marathons.

So why did I fall from grace?  That wedding cake - I couldn't refuse that - was the start.  Then, on our honeymoon in France, there were desserts I just had to taste.  But what really did it, I think, was the ordeal of being a first-time parent.  I gradually succumbed - and soon I was back to my bad old ways.

The candy bars.  The half box of chocolates at one sitting.  The seconds, maybe thirds, on desserts.  That sick, poisoned feeling, over and over.  I was ready again.  I knew it.  Then, on a hike a few months ago, a friend told me how she'd quit sugar recently, how much better she felt, and I said, "Yes, I wish I could do it again."  The next day I did.

Again, it was remarkably easy, once I'd drawn that line on the table - not one that said, "This cookie and no more."  But one that said: "None.  Period."  And, again, I quickly felt better, healthier, liberated.  Within months, I'd dropped 10 pounds.  To steel my resolve, I read Lick the Sugar Habit by Dr Nancy Appleton.  And steel it did.  Sugar is "more of a pharmaceutical drug than it is a nurturing food," she writes.  "Your sugar cravings are a direct indication that sugar is at work destroying your body."  She gave voice to a lesson I knew was true for me: "One common characteristic of sugar addiction is that one taste... leads to a craving for more, the same way certain drugs create cravings."

I should note that many experts pooh-pooh the idea of sugar addiction.  It is "hard to conceive of an 'addiction' to a chemical that occurs naturally in all of us," said Dr B Timothy Walsh, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia.  But a sweet taste is certainly "rewarding," he said, and "the brain circuits that are involved in the recognition of reward are the same ones (or at least overlap with the ones) that are involved in addiction."

But I know how I react to sugar.

My addiction, before and after, offers some comic snapshots.  Before: I hid chocolate chips around the house, in case of emergency.  After: sitting on a peak in the Adirondacks, after a climb that certainly earned me a treat, I carefully discarded the few chocolate chips from the trail mix.

Source: The New York Times 16 April 2002 "Health and Fitness" section

Sweets to Die For

by Bonnie Liebman and Jayne Hurley

You've been so good.

Breakfast was cereal and skim milk.  Lunch was soup and salad with low-cal dressing.  Dinner - you promise - will be flounder, baked potato, and broccoli.  Don't you deserve a little reward?  Say, just one of those tempting Cinnabon rolls they sell at the shopping mall... or maybe a Double Fudge Brownie from Mrs Fields?  What harm could they do your arteries?

No more than a McDonald's Big Mac plus a Hot Fudge Sundae (that's the Cinnabon) or two slices of Domino's Extra Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza with two pats of butter melted on top (if you go for the brownie).  That's what we found when we tested some of the most popular sweets sold at malls, coffee houses, and sandwich shops.  Surprised that a brownie or cinnamon roll packs as much fat as an entire meal - not to mention ten to 12 teaspoons of sugar?  Don't be.  Those two aren't even the worst.

We're getting fatter.  During the 1980s, the percentage of obese Americans leaped from one out of four to one out of three.  We're also becoming a nation on drugs... cholesterol-lowering drugs, that is.  Since 1980, prescriptions for drugs like Mevacor have jumped tenfold.  By 1992, doctors were writing 26 million of them a year.

Yet so many people say they're more careful about what they eat.  What are they doing wrong?  Maybe - just maybe-all our "little splurges" deserve a slice of the blame.  You know: cookies, muffins, croissants, scones, and other mouth-watering sweets.  They're no longer just in the dessert section of the menu, on the coffee break tray, or baked from scratch in the family kitchen.  They're everywhere - In airports, shopping malls, Starbucks and other trendy coffee or sandwich places.  Some eating establishments - like Mrs Fields or Cinnabon - sell nothing but sweets.  And they're bigger.  On average, a typical pastry from an upscale restaurant is at least twice the size of a similar item by Entenmann's, Little Debbie, Pepperidge Farm, Sara Lee, you name it.

How do we know?  We tested 16 popular sweets sold at Au Bon Pain, The Cheesecake Factory, Cinnabon, Mrs Fields, Starbucks, and Vie de France.  Mind you, we weren't expecting the nutritional equivalent of Brussels sprouts, but we also didn't expect a pecan roll to have 11 teaspoons of sugar and more artery-clogging fat than an entire breakfast of two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and two pancakes.

Here's the run-down, from least to most saturated plus trans fat (they both clog arteries).  At least now when you splurge, you'll know the cost.

AU BON PAIN Lowfat Triple Berry Muffin (260 calories & 4 grams of fat - 1 of them saturated)

Au Bon Pain makes the lowest-fat item we analysed.  It weighs four ounces - twice the size of a "typical" muffin.  Nevertheless, its four grams of fat are within striking distance of a McDonald's Fat Free Apple Bran Muffin.  Not bad.  The 260 calories are about what you'd get in some low-fat frozen entrees or a low-fat fruit-flavoured yoghurt - not negligible, but a lot fewer than what you'll find in most pastries.  We didn't test Au Bon Pain's other low-fat muffins, but their numbers are probably as good.

AU BON PAIN Blueberry Muffin (430 calories & 18 grams of fat - 4 of them saturated or trans)

Here's why you should make sure that your muffins are low-fat.  Thanks to added margarine and butter, this 4-ounce muffin harbours 18 grams of fat and 430 calories... not unlike a Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Frosted Donut plus a one-ounce bag of potato chips.  According to numbers from the company, its Carrot, Corn, and Chocolate Chip Muffins are even worse.

MRS FIELDS Debra's Special (Oatmeal Raisin Walnut) Cookie (240 calories & 12 grams of fat - 5 of them saturated)

With 600+ bakeries, Mrs Fields sells more fresh-baked cookies than anyone else.  Unfortunately, she bakes some of the fattiest ones on the planet.  True, the oatmeal cookies are two to five times larger than those made by, say, Pepperidge Farm.  But even ounce-for-ounce, the "Mrs" squeezes in twice as much saturated fat.  She may call it Oatmeal Raisin Walnut, but it's really a White-Flour-Butter-Sugar-Egg cookie with a Smidgen of Oatmeal.

STARBUCKS Cholesterol Free Blueberry Scone (420 calories & 15 grams of fat - 7 of them saturated or trans)

Want a little something with your Tall Caffè Latte?  Starbucks's scones - they're oversized biscuit-like pastries - look innocent enough, especially the ones that carry a "cholesterol free" label.  If you're one of those people who think "cholesterol free" means "safe for your heart," this scone will trick you.  Its seven grams of saturated or trans fat use up a third of your daily limit... not exactly "heart-healthy."  Even so, the "cholesterol free" scone has about half the fat of Starbucks's regular scone.

MRS FIELDS Milk Chocolate Chip Cookie (250 calories & 13 grams of fat - 8 of them saturated)

It's twice the size of a Pepperidge Farm Nantucket Chocolate Chunk Cookie, and five times the size of a regular Chips Ahoy!  But that alone doesn't explain why this two-ouncer contains five teaspoons of sugar and as much artery-clogging saturated fat as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.  Maybe it has something to do with a recipe that calls for butter, whole eggs, and more chocolate chips than flour.

MRS FIELDS White Chunk Macadamia Cookie (270 calories & 16 grams of fat - 9 of them saturated or trans)

Okay, so they taste good.  But why would you want to blow half a day's saturated fat on a single cookie?  Pepperidge Farm's smaller Tahoe White Chunk Macadamia Cookies aren't exactly inedible.  You could eat one of them instead and get only a third of the sat fat.

VIE DE FRANCE Butter Croissant large (350 calories & 18 grams of fat - 11 of them saturated)

Think a butter croissant is like a roll with butter?  It is if you usually smear on almost five pats.  Blowing half a day's saturated fat on one food is a recipe for coronary overload.  Even a medium Butter Croissant has enough sat fat (8 grams) to make your arteries shiver.  Save the 250 calories and 13 grams of fat for something better.

STARBUCKS Cinnamon Scone (530 calories & 26 grams of fat - 13 of them saturated)

It may not look like two pork chops with mashed potatoes and butter.  But that's how your arteries - and hips - will see it.  The 500+ calories is a quarter of a day's worth for men over 50 and all but the most-active women.  And the 125 mg of cholesterol gobbles up a third of your daily max.

VIE DE FRANCE Chocolate Croissant (430 calories & 23 grams of fat - 14 of them saturated)

Let's see.  What could you have in place of this little treat?  A corned beef sandwich?  A six-inch Subway Cold Cut Combo or Steak & Cheese sub?  Nope.  None has as much artery-clogging fat.  The subs can't even match the croissant's 430 calories.

CINNABON Cinnabon (670 calories & 34 grams of fat - 14 of them saturated or trans)

The sweet aroma of Cinnabon's Indonesian cinnamon seduces millions of shoppers, air passengers, and others each month.  At some locations you can even watch the cooks slather margarine on the raw dough and cream-cheese frosting on the fresh-from-the-oven rolls.  (It's mostly the margarine that supplies the trans fat, which raises cholesterol about as much as saturated fat does.)  A quick snack to tide you over to dinner?  Only if you think of a McDonald's Big Mac plus a Hot Fudge Sundae as a snack.  Maybe you know someone who can afford to use up half a day's fat and nearly 700 calories on a nutritionally worthless food.  We don't.  If you can't just turn your head and walk on by, at least go for a smaller Minibon instead.  That way, you're likely to blow only 250 empty calories and 13 grams of fat - five of them saturated or trans.

MRS FIELDS Double Fudge Brownie (420 calories & 25 grams of fat - 15 of them saturated)

Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and Little Debbie don't come close.  Their brownies have no more than three grams of saturated fat in smaller, far-more-sensible servings.  Mrs Fields turns a brownie into a meal.  Her 2" x 3" mixture of sugar, butter, whole eggs, chocolate liquor, flour, and chocolate chips may seem petite.  But it's got the fat and sat fat of two slices of Domino's Extra Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza plus two pats of butter.

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY Lite Cheesecake (580 calories & 29 grams of fat - 16 of them saturated)

The Cheesecake Factory specialises in excess.  In addition to a complete dinner menu, it offers more than 30 kinds of cheesecake.  The Lite Cheesecake lives up to its promise.  It's got about half the fat of The Cheesecake Factory's Original Cheesecake.  That's a little like having to pay "only" half of a $500,000 hospital bill.  Down just one slice and you can kiss goodbye almost 600 calories, two-thirds of a day's cholesterol, and three-quarters of a day's sat fat.  At that rate, you couldn't stay under a day's quota even if you followed your dietician's advice to eat cereal with 1% milk for breakfast, cottage cheese and fruit for lunch, and chicken breast with spinach for dinner.

AU BON PAIN Almond Croissant (630 calories & 42 grams of fat - 18 of them saturated)

A Banquet Extra Helping Meatloaf Dinner may look worse.  But an almond croissant is worse.  More than 600 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat.  Guess you could just eat celery for lunch and nothing but kidney beans for supper to shoe-horn this little baby into your diet.  And that's for the average Au Bon Pain Almond Croissant.  It seems that the pastry chefs don't make each one precisely the same size.  Of the 12 we sampled, the largest supplied 23 grams of artery-clogging fat, seven teaspoons of sugar, and 820 calories.

AU BON PAIN Pecan Roll (800 calories & 45 grams of fat - 20 of them saturated or trans)

A breakfast platter like a Denny's Grand Slam has two slices of bacon, two sausage links, two eggs, and two pancakes.  It uses up three-quarters of a day's fat and saturated fat.  So does a single Au Bon Pain Pecan Roll.  Nearly all of its key ingredients are fatty: pecans, almonds, shortening, margarine, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil.  And lotsa fat - plus 11 teaspoons of sugar - means lotsa calories.  Surely, your trim, muscular physique can handle an extra 800.

AU BON PAIN Cheese Danish (520 calories & 31 grams of fat - 23 of them saturated or trans)

Eat just one cheese Danish and... poof!  There goes your quota of bad fat for the day.  For that much fat and that many calories you could have had half a pint of Ben & Jerry's Vanilla Caramel Fudge Ice Cream.  You can always jog for an hour to work off the calories, but the fat will still break your heart.

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY Original Cheesecake (710 calories & 49 grams of fat - 28 of them saturated)

It's not easy to find a food that fills up all of today's - and half of tomorrow's - quota of artery-clogging saturated fat.  A Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza plus two Dairy Queen Banana Splits would do it.  So would a single slice of The Cheesecake Factory Original Cheesecake.  Yet, every year, millions order one to finish off a full dinner.  Enjoy it now ...it won't be on the menu at the Coronary Care Unit.

Ingrid VanTuinen co-ordinated the food purchasing and testing.  Juliann Goldman, Wendie Rosofsky, and Trish Treanor helped purchase and process the food.  They tested samples of 16 popular sweets at 70 restaurants in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.  They made a "composite" from 12 samples of each item (equal portions of 12 Cinnabons were mixed together, for example), and analysed the composites for calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sugar.  They also tested some composites for trans fat.

Source: cspinet.org Nutrition Action Newsletter June 1996 produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest

More good news: According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

bulletA 24-oz Baskin-Robbins milkshake has 1,070 calories, including 50 grams of fat (32 of which are saturated).
bulletA 12-oz Mud Pie Mojo from Cold Stone Creamery has 1,180 calories and 60 grams of fat (26 of which are saturated).
bulletA 20-oz Reese's Peanut Butter Cup cyclone from Friendly's has a whopping 1,470 calories and 72 grams of fat (28 of which are saturated).
bulletA 24-oz Toffee Coffee Cappuccino Chiller from TCBY has ,200 calories and 47 grams of fat (30 of which are saturated).
bulletA 10-oz Ben and Jerry's Brownie Special has a mere 1,020 calories and a mere 40 grams of fat (only 22 of which are saturated).

See also:

bulletWe're All Addicted (in the section on Drugs) - for more on food addictions including refined sugar.
bulletFat City (further on in this section) - for facts on figures...

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