Victoria, B.C.-based Rebecca Sterritt is a wife, mother of two and the face behind One Year Without, a blog that chronicles her family’s year-long mission to live on a whole foods-based diet, free of sugar or processed foods. After years of sugar-related health conditions, Becca addressed these issues head-on by cutting the ingredient out of her diet. She has now been sugar free for eight years. In November 2015, her “road less traveled” lifestyle became a family-wide experiment as she, her husband and two young children embarked on a mission to go one year without refined sugar and processed foods. Citing One Year Without as her passion project, Becca started the blog to document her family’s journey, in addition to being a source of information and platform for dialogue. BRIKA spoke with Becca about challenges she’s faced, the dangers of sugar and how the conversation surrounding how we see sugar is changing as we speak.
Why do you think so many families are blind to the dangers of consuming processed foods and refined sugar?
The simple answer is that it’s been normalized. For generations now, we haven’t had any food policy limiting sugar. For a while, the science wasn’t clear—I think we’ve known intuitively and in the medical community that we should watch our consumption of highly caloric foods, but the obesity and Type 2 Diabetes epidemic has really spun out of control in the last 30 years. In terms of society being blind to the dangers, food companies are able to market to us, sugar is sold everywhere and it’s available, promoted and cheap. People just assumed it couldn’t be that bad for them since the government isn’t regulating it and it’s sold everywhere. It’s marketed to kids, so how bad could it really be?
Just last week, the Canadian Senate released a report with 21 policy recommendations on tackling obesity in Canada, and the main culprit they have found is sugar. Of the recommendations includes implementing a sugar tax, as well as proper food labeling and changes to the Canada Food Guide to limit processed foods, sugar and carbohydrates.
Do you think proper education is an individual responsibility, or one that should be taken on by the government and education systems?
The problem with sugar’s impact to health, both in terms of obesity and related chronic diseases that it causes—liver damage, for example—is that it’s costing our healthcare system an estimated $4-7 billion annually, and it’s all preventative. There’s certainly the argument ‘No one can tell me what I can and cannot eat.’ The problem with that argument is that we have a crumbling social healthcare system. The other problem is that we’re marketing these foods to kids. It may be right that, as adults, we can make our own decisions to eat sugar or not, but a child doesn’t have that same critical thinking ability or knowledge to make a smart choice. One of the other policy recommendations from the Senate Committee is to ban all food marketing to kids.
I just want to point out that the point of our project is not to say that no one should eat any sugar. We’re doing this to raise awareness about it and to talk about the harms that it does to our body, and to suggest that sugar not be a staple (it’s in 74% of processed foods). We want to put forward that it’s fine, but as a main staple, it’s harming our health. We should reduce our sugar consumption so this no longer happens.
If it’s such a huge cost to our healthcare system, do you the think the government is doing enough to raise these dangers?
No. Up until last week’s Senate report, the Canadian government has not done anything. Most other developed countries—the U.K., Australia, the U.S.—have started addressing sugar, but Canada hasn’t yet. The good news it that in their campaign, the Liberal government committed to making changes. It’s on the docket, but up to this point there are a number of things that Canada has not done. All the major health organizations (Heart and Stroke Foundation, Cancer Society of Canada) have been calling for changes, and the government has not yet made them. The hope is there will be attention given to this issue.
What do you think the key is to get your kids to start to think differently about the food that they consume?
We’re figuring it out—we don’t have all the answers, nor do we have the perfect model for our family. What we have found to work is honesty. We’ve told our five-year-old, who is in school, that the reason we don’t each sugar is because it harms our body. We say things like we want to put food in our bodies that will make us strong. The grocery store checkout, full of brightly colored packaged foods at eye level, is a classic place for a meltdown. He’ll ask us what a chocolate bar is, and we’ll tell him it’s something that we don’t put in our bodies. It might sound extreme, but the response is often “OK,” and then he moves on. Kids are pretty smart—a five-year-old can understand and listen, and in my experience you can have a dialogue about issues that matter.
What has been the biggest challenge on your One Year Without quest?
Not eating sugar, which means eating whole foods, is wonderful—culturally, 80% of the world doesn’t eat processed foods, and we’ve done this for 99% of human history. It’s not the not having sugar that’s the challenge, but the social side of things. Play dates with kids, social functions at rec centers, full of vending machines lined with junk food, and school lunch programs, for example. My son’s school lunch program consists of pizza, chocolate milk, caramel popcorn and ice cream. We don’t order it, but it’s a weekly reminder that we’re doing something differently. If you put kids in an environment surrounded by whole foods, they don’t notice that they’re not eating sugar. If you put them in an environment with sugar, they’re going to want to have it.
It’s also hard for adults in work environments when sugary foods are often so readily available.
Absolutely. But since starting the project, it’s really been an opportunity. When someone passes around cookies at work, I will explain the One Year Without project. Instead of getting an awkward glare, people want to know more about it. It’s an opportunity to engage and talk about it, as a lot of people are aware to varying degrees about the impact of processed foods and sugar on health.
In your experience, is it possible to reduce sugar and processed foods in your diet without making your grocery bill more expensive?
One of the recommendations from the Senate is if we were to implement a sugar tax, to use this revenue to subsidize healthy produce. What we’ve done is really simplified things. I think you can do it either way—I think you can eat sugar and processed foods and spend a lot of money, or you can do it cheaply, and the same goes for whole food eating. You can make eating whole foods more manageable by eating beans, legumes, things like dhals and lots of stews—still complete proteins. We have a food budget that we’re sticking to and so far, I haven’t noticed a difference. It takes a bit more planning to do it in an affordable manner, but it’s definitely doable.
The other component is time. If you’re used to eating takeout or fast food constantly, then of course transitioning to whole foods cooked at home will take you more time. But it’s like anything—you can cook super elaborate meals, or you can cook something simple like rice, steamed broccoli and baked chicken. It doesn’t have to be complex.
What’s next for you and your family once you’ve completed One Year Without?
My husband [Olympian gold medal rower Adam Kreek] didn’t think he had any issues with sugar before starting this project, but he feels so much better. He’s noticed incredible changes, both mentally and physically. I don’t think he will reintroduce sugar to the same extent that he had it before. I know that the kids will have sugar in the future, because that’s the reality of our world. At home I think we’ll continue to not have sugar, or cook with it in small, spice-level quantities.
What’s your advice for someone looking to reduce their sugar intake?
I would say, firstly, you have to want to do it, understand why you’re doing it and commit to the choice. After that, I would say be honest with people. When I first cut out sugar, I was awkward and kind of tiptoed around it. If you explain to people why you’re doing it in an honest rather than obnoxious way, this would probably resonate with a lot of people, which reaffirms your commitment to reducing sugar. The last thing I would say is to do it slowly. This is not a diet—it’s really about your taste buds adjusting. If you cut out sugar slowly, you’ll find that you don’t miss the sweetness, and other foods, like fruit, taste really good. There’s always an alternative—if there are certain foods you can’t live without, I guarantee you can find a substitute recipe that you’ll learn to enjoy just as much.