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“Oh, my! It’s in everything!” Stanford group encourages people to ditch sugar for a week

Do you sigh for cinnamon rolls, pine for pastries, or lust after lemon meringue pie? You aren’t alone, and Stanford Medicine wants to help. But maybe not in the way you hope.

A Stanford Prevention Research Center group is inviting people this month to the “No Added Sugar Challenge” event, during which participants try to abstain from added sugar — for just one week.

The No Added Sugar Challenge is part of the center's five-year, $10 million WELL for Life program, which intends to enroll 10,000 people who want to share health data that will shed light on what makes us well. Launched last fall, the long-term project has already enrolled about a 1,000 people in the Bay Area.

This month’s no-sugar challenge is both a way to attract more participants to the long-term study and an initial intervention to see how well people can succeed at avoiding added sugars. For the next month, anyone can enroll whenever it’s convenient.

Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine, one of WELL’s main investigators, recently talked with me about the sugar challenge.

What inspired a one-week sugar intervention?

Most of the stuff the Stanford Prevention Research Center does is get people to try to eat better, exercise more, and smoke less. Those are sort of the three pillars. While those are super obvious things, not everybody manages to do them, so our job is always to try to come up with new, cool ways to be more impactful in getting those kinds of things to happen.

We’ve found anecdotally that people are almost universally convinced they are addicted to sugar and can’t give it up. The fun thing is that a lot of people who assumed it would take months to kick sugar actually get over it in less than a week.

They are amazed that they aren’t as addicted as they thought, saying things like, ‘You know it’s weird I don't miss it as much as I thought. I didn't think I could do without sugar, but I just had a piece of fruit instead.’

What are some things that make it hard to give up sugar?

One of the things that makes it hard is that “sugar” has 30 different names, and those damn food companies are just fabulously clever at putting eight kinds of sugar in one product. But it's hard for people to tell that maltose, evaporated pear juice concentrate, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, and honey are all added sugar. So part of the fun of the No Added Sugar Challenge is the realization, ‘Oh my! It's in everything!’ It's really a pretty easy message to communicate.

What do you hope participants will get out of the challenge?

This is really just like a super quick kind of fun, enlightening engagement thing. We’re hoping that a substantial number of participants will think, “Wow, I really thought I was more addicted than I was, and it didn't even take me a week to get off. Wow, that's pretty empowering!”

To get you started, here are 61 names for sugar.

Previously: “It’s an effort to change the world of medicine and health”: WELL for Life launches today and WELL unites project organizers at a wellness summit
Photo by Beth Taylor

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