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Ah, sugar, sugar

Tall, trim and impeccably groomed, H. Leighton Steward, co-author of the best-selling Sugar Busters diet book, assures me that once I've given them up for good, I won't miss potatoes, corn, beets, carrots, foods made with refined sugar or white flour, raisins, watermelon, pineapple and ripe bananas.

Criss-crossing the country to promote the new Sugar Busters Quick & Easy Cookbook, Steward says his program preceded Suzanne Somers' plan, the Carbohydrate Addict plan and Protein Plus -- all wildly popular (and profitable) schemes to take off pounds permanently while still eating meat, cheese and eggs. Last week, these plans and a handful of others, dedicated to the low-carbohydrate way of eating, took the cover of Time magazine.

The theory is simple, and seems to have been verified by a number of physicians, though nutritionists are withholding judgment: Sugar causes blood sugar (glucose) to rise, which in turn causes the body to produce insulin, the "fat-storing" hormone. All carbohydrates are sugars, but they vary in rate and degree of assimilation by the body; hence, some carbs are OK on these diet plans, and some are not.

"You have to get rid of the ones that go to glucose immediately in your body," says Steward

The New Orleans businessman, white-haired and blue-eyed with a slow, easy drawl, says he lost 27 pounds on the Sugar Busters diet, in spite of the fact that, on average, he eats 3,100 calories per day now, compared to 2,400 calories 10 years ago. "There are calories, and there are calories," he says. "Our metabolism knows the difference."

But what about the trend of the last 10 years to cut fat no matter what -- ostensibly to decrease cholesterol and take off pounds? Isn't a ribeye-steak diet really bad for you?

Not so long as the meat is trimmed of excess fat, says Steward, and you skip the baked potato. Further, he hypothesizes that the data on low-fat diets is incomplete, and that what may actually cause weight loss in those diets is that, like his, they restrict refined sugar. "The only thing really common to all the best-selling diets that are working well is that they restrict sugar," he says.

"Think about it another way," he says, crossing his legs and leaning forward in what I recognize as a masterful sales pose. "Our ancestors didn't have sugar in their diets until over 1,300 years ago."

He leans closer and delivers the hook. "Did you know the word sugar does not appear in the Bible or in the Koran?"

This guy's good, and I'm actually beginning to seriously consider foregoing potatoes, white bread, bananas and dessert. But what, I whine, about Thanksgiving?

"Have sweet potatoes instead of mashed potatoes," he says. "You can even add a little pat of butter, but no brown sugar. Did you know you get more beta carotene out of a sweet potato than out of a carrot?"

OK, sweet potatoes it is, I agree, though I know my kids will never go for it. And what about the pumpkin pie?

"Well," says Steward, grinning, leaning back and patting his flat belly, "I kinda feel like you gotta let some folks eat some pie during the holidays or you're gonna start a war in your family."

Sugar Busters Quick & Easy Cookbook (Ballantine Books, $24/hardcover, ring-bound) includes a condensed, simplified explanation of the basic premise of the diet, charts foods into high-glycemic (bad) and low-glycemic (good) categories, and offers suggestions on how to stock your pantry to maintain the Sugar Busters lifestyle.

I tell him that reading the cookbook made me crave a big, chocolate layer cake.

"You're gonna have to suffer through two to five days of sugar craving," he says. "My craving for sweets has just gone away. Your tastebuds adjust."

We'll see, I think, wishing for a bag of M&Ms.

Before Steward leaves, he emphasizes the need for the government to get in on a serious attempt at treating the epidemic of obesity in America, the Sugar Buster way, naturally.

"The food and drug people should change the pyramid -- get rid of the highly processed grain products, don't encourage people to eat potatoes and corn, but to eat a nice, good percentage of carbohydrates, the high-fiber ones eaten by our ancestors." Corn, he points out, has been hybridized into a highly-sweetened, big-kerneled mutant of the maize our forefathers knew.

We shake hands, and I declare my intention to try the diet, at least until Thanksgiving. Steward offers me one more bit of inspiration with a nod and a grin.

"If the good Lord didn't put sugar in the Bible (or the Koran), maybe he didn't think we needed it."

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