Experience report: One week sugar-free with the whole family – the surprising results of an experiment

This article comes from the stern archive and first appeared on August 23, 2022.

Experience report: One week sugar-free with the whole family – the surprising results of an experiment

This article comes from the stern archive and first appeared on August 23, 2022.

I love snacking. Even as a small child, I used to sneak into our pantry. Not a day went by when I didn't indulge in Toffifee, gummy bears or children's chocolate. My parents were pretty relaxed about it. In any case, I can't remember any discussions we had about this.

Then I became a mother. My daughter is now seven and my son is three years old. And we also have sweets every day. My husband and I often have discussions about this. He thinks I'm too soft. And I think he's too strict. In any case, I wouldn't have changed anything about our sugar consumption if the Stern editorial team hadn't suggested two weeks ago that I could write something about a sugar-free diet. Then the idea for the experiment came to me. And the editors liked it. Why not, I thought to myself. It's a great experience. I was very euphoric and told my family at dinner: "We're going to go sugar-free for a week!" My daughter immediately countered: "You can forget about that. I'm not taking part in it." Bam. Great start!

I start researching. What actually is sugar and why is it supposedly so harmful? I came across an article from "quarks.de". It explains that not all sugar is the same. For example, there is glucose (dextrose), fructose (fruit sugar) and lactose (milk sugar). Then there is starch and sucrose, which refers to industrial sugar. The sugar that occurs naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products is not unhealthy. For a healthy diet, you should even eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, as well as smaller portions of dairy products. However, what is harmful is the excessive consumption of industrially produced sugar. We consume far too much of this, an average of 30 kilograms per year. However, the WHO recommends that so-called 'free sugar' should only make up a maximum of five percent of the total energy intake. That would be 25 grams per day, which in turn would be nine kilograms per year. So we eat more than three times as much sugar as we should. And that has consequences: overweight, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases. Even certain cancers are said to be linked to excessive sugar consumption. All reasons to reduce sugar, I think. It's clear to me that we're leaving all sweets, Nutella, chocolate muesli, cocoa, jam and the like off the list. But where else is there sugar in it? I study every pack. From ready-made sauces to pasta to apple juice. I keep noticing that the nutritional information says “carbohydrates of which sugar”. Is this sugar I can eat or not?

When I researched it, I found out that this term refers to the sugar content of the food. So it can mean natural or added sugar. What is important is what is on the ingredients list. If the word sugar is found there, it is added. But other terms also indicate added sugar - such as sucrose, dextrose or raffinose. To reassure myself in this regard, I contacted a friend who is very knowledgeable about nutrition. He recommends that I pay attention to the list of ingredients and avoid processed foods completely, don't go to restaurants and cook as much as possible myself. So I banish all processed foods that contain added sugar from our household, as well as all sweets. And I'm amazed at what I discover in the different corners of the children's room. My husband suggests packing everything into a large box and putting it in the basement. Then, we hope, there will be fewer conflicts.

My biggest worry: What will I cook in the next few days? After all, I don't want my children to starve or go on hunger strike. I see this as a real danger, especially for my daughter. I also want to convince them that there are delicious things without sugar. ("Mom, there is nothing delicious that is without sugar.")  First I create a meal plan for the next few days:  Banana pancakes without sugarMeatballs with mashed potatoesPasta with tomato sauce and ParmesanMild vegetable-coconut curry with ricePotato fritters with applesauce (without added sugar, of course )Scrambled eggs with potatoes and spinachWaffles without sugar with honey In the morning there is always porridge, i.e. oatmeal mixed with a mashed banana and boiled with milk. Add honey if desired. (We are lucky that my husband has discovered beekeeping and we have our own honey - 100 percent with no added sugar.) In the evening we have a snack.

We start the experiment in the first week of school holidays. So there is less risk that my daughter will consume sugar uncontrollably, for example at lunchtime. My son wants to eat chocolate muesli in the morning but can't find it. I say it's empty and cook porridge. Then my daughter comes and wants Nutella bread. "But darling, there's sugar in it." Her response: "I hate this sugar-free shit." After all, they like the porridge quite well. Later I'll do a bulk purchase. It's unbelievable how long it takes when you look closely at everything you buy. I'm fastest in the fruit and vegetable department. You really can't go wrong here. For the other foods it takes longer. In the end I stand at the organic bakery and ask whether the bread is sugar-free. Apparently it is. When I order an olive flatbread, I notice that the list of ingredients on the display case says sugar. “Oh, there’s sugar in it,” I say to the saleswoman. "Then I'd rather not take it." She rolls her eyes and takes it out again. “I have to write an article about sugar-free diets,” I say, slightly embarrassed. Otherwise I always roll my eyes when someone makes such a fuss about food. Now I'm the one. That's a bit embarrassing for me. Later there are banana pancakes, which my children really like, and a snack with raw vegetables in the evening. First day done!

"I'm not saying I eat sugar-free," my daughter protests on the second day. Today she is taking part in a holiday pass program and we are thinking: What will we do if she is offered something sweet there? I notice how much it's bothering my daughter. She prefers not to go at all. So I tell her that she doesn't have to say that explicitly and that she can eat something if there is something there. Our neighbors now all know that we live sugar-free and don't offer anything to the children. I'm already thinking about where I won't go in the next few days (outdoor pool, folk festival, etc.) to avoid conflicts. Always sugar-free - by the second day I knew it wasn't for me. First realization: I don't want to permanently ban my children from eating anything sweet. That makes them weird and I don't want that at all.

Today my daughter has a date with a school friend. I write to the mother that we are going 'sugar free' and that she shouldn't give my daughter anything sweet. Later my husband calls me, who has just picked up our son from daycare. "Sorry, I couldn't stop it," he says. "A father handed out lollipops in front of the daycare center." He couldn't say 'no' to that. Everyone is licking lollipops, only our son is standing next to them and crying. That simply does not work. In the evening there are meatballs with mashed potatoes. Unfortunately with ketchup. We still had a small pack in the fridge. ("Otherwise they wouldn't have eaten it," says my husband.)

We wake up well rested. Our son slept through the night in his bed. This hasn't happened often before, so we're really excited. My husband and I have a little time for ourselves today. We spontaneously decide to go for lunch. As we enjoy eating our fried fish with potato and cucumber salad, I suddenly look at him with wide-open eyes. "It's not sugar-free at all!" Shit, we totally forgot about it for a moment. We have to laugh and agree not to tell our children.

It's one of those hot days. 35 degrees. My daughter is playing with the neighbor in the yard. I'm thinking about going to the outdoor pool, but stop! The children might get the idea that they want ice cream. They also have delicious burgers and of course fries. So we stay at home. I make the waffles without sugar. They don't taste that bad, but they still don't come close to waffles with powdered sugar. Our son sleeps through the night again.

Another hot day. “Can I go for ice cream?” my daughter asks. The neighbor has a visit from grandma and grandpa. They are just about to set off together to the popular ice cream parlor around the corner and take my daughter with them. "No," I say and see her disappointed eyes. Sugar free is really hard. Then she comes to me again. "Mom, please, please, please." She looks at me pleadingly. I cave. "All right, go!"

Almost there. I'm relieved because I'm slowly running out of breath. I notice how I'm becoming more relaxed and turning a blind eye every now and then. It's the last day. In the evening the children can grill marshmallows by the fire. I treat myself to one too. Wow, they taste delicious. I still have a sweet tooth, I think to myself. My conclusion: A sugar-free diet is not easy to implement, especially with children. And whether it is really 'healthier' for children to avoid industrially produced sugar is questionable. Because they often feel like outsiders and that can't be healthy in the long term. Still, I'm glad we stuck with the experiment. It showed me how much sugar we consume, where sugar is found and what alternatives there are. Dealing with it consciously is certainly not wrong. Less sweets, cook a lot yourself, look at the list of ingredients. If you stick to it, you'll get pretty far in avoiding sugar.

What really surprised me was my son's behavior. After a few days he started sleeping through the night. In his bed. He only came to us in the morning. He's been doing this for a few days now. Can sugar really influence sleep patterns? I asked myself and researched again. Yes, he can. A 2016 study from Columbia University shows that increased sugar consumption during the day causes you to wake up more often at night and are generally more restless. I'm amazed. So if less sugar means we have more peaceful nights, then I'm willing to go through this torture again. But now we're going on vacation. And vacation without ice cream - that's not possible.

From February 18th to March 24th, presenter Dieter Könnes invites viewers of “stern TV am Sonntag” to work together to reduce sugar consumption in just five weeks under the motto “Simply Sugar Free”. They receive prominent support from actress Tina Ruland, who, together with two other colleagues, dares to quit sugar cold. “stern TV am Sonntag” runs on February 18th at 11 p.m. on RTL and parallel on RTL.

Transparency note: The star is part of RTL Deutschland.