En español | Valentine’s Day was a heartbreaker this year. Instead of whipping up a panful of decadent treats — my passion — I bought my family fudgy brownies from a cafe, knowing in my heart I would have baked better, richer ones.
But that would have meant eating more than my share, too. And I’m trying really, really hard not to do that these days. In my 50s, with two daughters — one of whom entered our lives as a newborn, through foster care, when I was 46 — I’m trying to part with sweets so that I can live a longer and healthier life. That’s the official line, anyway.
Some days, though, it’s all I can do to not get snowed under by the white stuff, to push from my mind those small-batch chocolate bars when writing deadlines loom; to swallow my pride and not bake long-ago-mastered chocolate chip cookies when asked to bring something to book club; to forgo the cocoa malt cupcake with its rippled, darkly dipped cap from the bakery in town when I stop in for coffee.
With me and sweets, you see, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing proposition, especially given how far we go back. Over the decades, they've stepped in as reliable buffers for everything from stress to sadness to too little sleep or even feelings of loss and inadequacy (who makes a better cookie: me or Neiman Marcus? Me, of course.). But it turns out that the little crushes I’ve held since kindergarten not only veiled the uneasy truths of life but also made it progressively harder to face them.
This is your heart on sugar
Last year, the American Heart Association (AHA) announced that too many sugary rewards (like pretty pink macarons) can shave years off your life. But I kind of knew that already because my apple-shaped body weighed more — and more — until, finally, I couldn’t zip my jeans and my doctor said I had type 2 diabetes. It is the kind that can be reversed, and I still believe I can do it with a combination of the pills I'm on and the right kind of diet changes. So does my doctor. (My cousin’s husband did it without meds, and he used to eat a saucer-sized doughnut daily.)
Still, the AHA has blown the lid off my cookie jar as it urges Americans to reduce the added sugar in our diets. For one thing, eating too much of it doesn’t leave enough room on our plates and in our cups for heart-healthy choices like lean proteins, veggies and low-fat milk. For another (no surprise here), too many calories from added sugar can pack on the pounds, increasing the weight our hearts are carrying around and driving up the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Newer guidelines set the daily added sugar limit at 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and at 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. Hello? Sugar is the first ingredient in that baby-size cup of Nutella & Go with Breadsticks that I just swiped from my daughter’s lunch box; it contains 23 grams. That leaves 2 grams in my bucket for the rest of the day.
Back when a treat was just a treat ...
I’ve traveled a long, often rocky road with sweets. My parents lived frugally with one income and four kids; they grew up in New York City when sugar was rationed, and my dad really did find an orange (how lucky!) in his Christmas sock. If we had cookies, they were store-brand graham crackers. I lived for school bake sales, s'mores around the campfire on Girl Scout trips and my friend Irene’s family snack cabinet — with pillowy Sweet Sixteen powdered doughnuts!
Other highlights included the Entenmann’s Chocolate Chip Loaf Cake my Grandma Alice sent over on Sundays; driving to Stanley’s Bake Shop in fifth grade with my mom and peering through the glass as she ordered a yellow-buttercream-rose sheet cake (a full sheet!) and miniature French pastries for a 50th anniversary party; and sprinkle cookies in a pure white box tied with red-and-white twine, a gift from Aunt Tessie.
The trouble was, while eating low sugar overall may have kept our bellies and dental bills slim, I didn’t learn how to regulate my dessert meter. It was all or nothing. Given the chance as a teen, I greedily ate three doughnuts or the whole little bakery box of cookies (alone, in my bedroom). Mom hid her fudge-dipped graham crackers (another rare treat) in the liquor cabinet and Valentine candy on top of the china cupboard so her ravenous family wouldn’t eat them all. As an adult, I was in awe when my nutritionist told me she grew up with bowls of colorfully wrapped chocolates in her home but was not tempted to indulge. What?!
Flash forward to my dream magazine writing jobs, where I made up for lost time. Feeling rebellious, I celebrated each payday by treating myself to a rich, large layered brownie at the bakery in the bus station on my way home from the office. At Woman’s Day, I learned how to write food stories, yes, but also how to master an Easter bunny cake and chocolate butter cookies. At Good Housekeeping, over 10 years as a lifestyle writer, I fell in love with most of what I wrote about — cozy sweaters, red lipsticks and, above all, cream puffs, apple bars and homemade ice cream. The photos made readers want to dive in and make a gumdrop-topped gingerbread cottage or the world’s best lemon Bundt cake — but my captions helped seal the deal.
Problem was, I was also convincing myself. Baking became a passion. And for years, it seemed pretty harmless. I was slim, and coworkers, friends and even bus drivers love homemade cookies. I'd whip up eggnog cheesecake for a party, or the chocolate, oatmeal and coconut chunkies that my friends still clamor for. Attending food shows in the magazine test kitchen was like getting a pass to heaven, especially when we previewed the December issue: rows upon rows of drop cookies, bars, cutouts and more — fairy-sugar-dusted, picture-perfect.
Soon, I was buying up all the best dessert cookbooks, from Sweety Pie's to Rose’s Christmas Cookies. You name it, if it’s a cookbook and it features desserts, I own it. Then it was ingredients, from gorgeous Valrhona cocoa to Lindt Swiss bittersweet bars. I even took orders for “Tarts by Alice Rose” for six months. But eventually, all that fine chocolate, white sugar and butter caught up with me, piling on the pounds and building a baker’s belly.
They don't call it a sugar crash for nothin'
Still, my farewell is hard won. It’s painful when the fourth-grader in my house, who loves my goodies best, begs me to make them — and I want to dress up her girlhood with as many treats as I wish mine had. Equally hard is wanting to share with our older daughter some killer vegan dessert recipes that I have up my size XL bell sleeve.
Yet I know I cannot be present as a kind and even-tempered mother and wife when drowning in sugar’s high tides and rocky lows, no more than if I sipped cocktails all day. My mood spikes over domestic downers like aqua hair dye on the bathroom vanity (big sis), expensive ingredients wasted in a kitchen experiment (little sis) or undone dishes (husband) can scare even our sweet, fluffy white doggy, Sugar, as they did one day last summer. After I fell into a slumber on vacation after an iced mocha and some Cape Cod fudge, our younger daughter, left to her own devices, fell into playing with my good lipsticks and eye shadows. She sure was quiet. But when I woke, I flew into a rage, as I guess a mean drunk might. Poor Sugar’s tail was between her legs, and my hollered words caused hurt — which reset my dial to start all over again in a sugar-laced cycle of guilt and shame.
I am proud to say I am now making shifts, one challenge at a time. For Thanksgiving, I pared down to two pies from four (bye, sticky pecan). At Christmas, I baked one kind of cookie, not the usual six. For classroom parties, I piled my prettiest, rosebud-strewn Limoges platter with ripe California strawberries. To my surprise, the children loved them; every berry vanished.
Closing the lid, day by day
But I need a little more armor when it comes to things like Cinnamon Roll Frappuccinos (51 grams of sugar in the smallest size) or the entire Girl Scout cookie season.
What to do when you swore you would taste just one Thin Mint — after all, you even sold those as a girl, they are a tradition — and then ate a whole sleeve?
Jo Ann Carson, chair of the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, acknowledges that “some people have an addictive nature with sugar, and for them, it’s hard to stop at one serving.”
What's needed, she says, is planning as well as patience, things that bakers like me do tend to possess. “And when you fall off the wagon, just climb back on,” she says. “Sometimes we set goals that are too lofty. When you indulge, end that and move forward. Don’t throw in the towel.”
She also recommends fruit for dessert, to deliver filling fiber and nutrients along with sweet flavor. One holiday, she served elegant pears poached in wine for a finale.
Sometime after we spoke, I pulled out a beloved cookbook, Emily Luchetti’s Four-Star Desserts, and flipped to Baked Apples, filling their cores with a bit of Irish farm butter, cinnamon, French sea salt … and yes, foodie urges aside, I skipped the caramel rum raisin sauce. I also caramelize bananas with Madagascar vanilla (my friend Rachael even suggests bourbon) and just a pinch of brown sugar. Or I toast a pan of homemade muesli with a drizzle of pure maple syrup and unsweetened coconut. For a party with my cookie-loving cohorts, I brought a vegetable tart with a buttery, hand-crimped crust.
Of course, as Carson says, it’s not just the desserts I have to watch but the sneaky sugar that’s in, well, everything, from sweetened iced teas to bread. I’m reading Nutrition Facts labels carefully. The bread I buy now (Ezekiel, from the freezer case) contains just 1 gram of sugar per hearty, fiber-filled slice. And I spread it with almond butter (the kind with no added sugar) — not the strawberry jam I liked, with 12 grams of sugar in one scant tablespoon.
Meanwhile, my husband spoons into a soft, cinnamon-flecked baked apple and says, “Mmmmm, delicious.” I served it in a lovely blue-and-white speckled bowl with just a small pour of cream on top, a treat. And I agree. I can do this, I remind myself for the 200th time, and I will, since breaking up with sugar makes so much more room for the real loves of my life.