Op-Ed Columnist: A Month Without Sugar

I know that Triscuits and pita bread are our friends. They have only a few ingredients, and no sugar. Wheat Thins and most packaged sandwich breads, on the other hand, have an ingredient list that evokes high school chemistry class, including added sugars.

See if you can stay under a healthy limit.

If you give up sugar for a month, you’ll become part of a growing anti-sugar movement. Research increasingly indicates that an overabundance of simple carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, is the No. 1 problem in modern diets. An aggressive, well-financed campaign by the sugar industry masked this reality for years. Big Sugar instead placed the blame on fats — which seem, after all, as if they should cause obesity.

But fats tend to have more nutritional value than sugar, and sugar is far easier to overeat. Put it this way: Would you find it easier to eat two steaks or two pieces of cake?

Fortunately, the growing understanding of sugar’s dangers has led to a backlash, both in politics and in our diets. Taxes on sweetened drinks — and soda is probably the most efficient delivery system for sugar — have recently passed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo. Mexico and France now have one as well, and Ireland and Britain soon will.

Even before the taxes, Americans were cutting back on sugar. Since 1999, per capita consumption of added sweeteners has fallen about 14 percent, according to the Agriculture Department.

Yet it needs to drop a lot more — another 40 percent or so — to return to a healthy level. “Most public authorities think everybody would be healthier eating less sugar,” says Marion Nestle of N.Y.U. “There is tons of evidence.”

A good long-term limit for most adults is no more than 50 grams (or about 12 teaspoons) of added sugars per day, and closer to 25 is healthier. A single 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52 grams.

You don’t have to cut out sugar for a month to eat less of it, of course. But it can be difficult to reduce your consumption in scattered little ways. You can usually find an excuse to say yes to the plate of cookies at a friend’s house or the candy jar during a meeting. Eliminating added sugar gives you a new baseline and forces you to make changes. Once you do, you’ll probably decide to keep some of your new habits.

My breakfasts, for example, have completely changed. Over the past few decades, typical breakfasts in this country have become “lower-fat versions of dessert,” as Gary Taubes, the author of a new book, “The Case Against Sugar,” puts it.

Mine used to revolve around cereal and granola, which are almost always sweetened. Now I eat a combination of eggs, nuts, fruit, plain yogurt and some well-spiced vegetables. It feels decadent, yet it’s actually healthier than a big bowl of granola.

How should you define sugar during your month? I recommend the definition used by Whole 30, a popular food regimen (which eliminates many things in addition to sugar). The sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy is allowed. “Nobody eats too much of those,” Nestle says, “not with the fiber and vitamins and minerals they have.”

But every single added sweetener is verboten. No sugar, no corn syrup, no maple syrup, no honey, no fancy-pants agave. Read every ingredient list, looking especially for words that end in “-ose.” Don’t trust the Nutrition Facts table next to the ingredient list, because “0 g” of sugar on that list really means “less than 0.5 g.” Get comfortable asking questions in restaurants. And avoid the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas, too.

Part of the goal, remember, is to relearn how a diet that isn’t dominated by sweeteners tastes. I’ve always liked fruit, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was during the month. When I needed a midday treat, a Honeycrisp apple, a few Trader Joe’s apricots or a snack bar that fit the no-sugar bill saved me.

Finally, be careful not to violate the spirit of the month while sticking to the formal rules: Have only one small glass of juice a day, and eat very little with added fruit juices.

There were certainly times when I didn’t enjoy the experience. I missed ice cream, chocolate squares, Chinese restaurants and cocktails. But I also knew that I’d get to enjoy them all again.

The unpleasant parts of a month without sugar are temporary, and they’re tolerable. Some of the benefits continue long after the month is over. If you try it and your experience is anything like mine, I predict that your new normal will feel healthier and no less enjoyable than the old.

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Accusations of Fraud at Wells Fargo Spread to Sham Insurance Policies

Ms. Broderick and two of her colleagues, Darron Smith and Thomas Schreck, filed a wrongful termination suit against Prudential on Tuesday. They say they were fired in November for trying to escalate attention internally to their discoveries about conduct at Wells Fargo. Prudential said on Friday that the three were fired for “appropriate and legitimate reasons” that had nothing to do with Wells Fargo.


Three managers in Prudential’s corporate investigation division found signs that Wells Fargo had signed up customers for insurance without the customers’ knowledge.

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A Prudential spokesman, Scot Hoffman, says the company continues to investigate the policies sold through Wells Fargo. Once it is finished, Prudential anticipates “reviewing this matter with our regulators,” he said.

Since bankers are not licensed to sell insurance, Wells Fargo employees were encouraged, without discussing specific terms, to steer customers to either a self-service kiosk in bank branches or a website on which they could sign up for MyTerm, a policy that does not require applicants to take a medical exam. Bankers who sold the product got credit toward their steep quarterly sales quotas.

Some Wells Fargo bankers appear to have signed people up for MyTerm without telling them, according to the three whistle-blowers from Prudential. In some cases, bankers opened MyTerm policies, closed them after a month or two and then promptly reopened them to bolster their sales numbers, the evidence in the lawsuit suggests.

Wells Fargo said in a statement on Friday that it was investigating any alleged improprieties that were brought to its attention.

“As we have consistently reinforced, if we identify any instances where a customer received a product they didn’t ask for, we will make it right,” said Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.

The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey state court, provides elaborate details of how the same issues that have disgraced Wells Fargo — which forced the bank to pay $185 million in fines, to account for its actions in Congress, to replace its chief executive and to apologize profusely to customers — are now showing up at Prudential in the accounts that Wells Fargo handled.


“This definitely was the same kind of conduct that Wells was committing, but through Prudential,” said Julie Han Broderick, a former co-head of Prudential’s corporate investigations division and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Under intense pressure to meet sales goals, which have since been eliminated, thousands of Wells Fargo’s workers used customers’ personal information to create sham accounts in the customers’ names; some incurred fees on those unwanted accounts, which included checking accounts and credit cards. More than 5,000 employees have been fired, and an internal investigation is underway.

The three people who filed the wrongful termination suit were part of an investigations unit at Prudential that was asked to comb for irregularities in the 15,000 MyTerm accounts that were sold through Wells Fargo.

Those in the unit found that some customers who signed up for MyTerm listed addresses like “Wells Fargo Drive” on their applications, according to the complaint. Some of the policy applications listed suspicious email addresses for customers, and the name listed on a policy sometimes did not match the name in the customer’s email address — “for example, where the MyTerm policy holder was Jason Smith, the email address might be for johndoe@wellsfargo.com,” the complaint said.

Additionally, the lawsuit said, “Cellphone numbers were listed as emails, such as 1234567@verizon.net, which was very similar to how fraudulent bank accounts were opened at Wells Fargo Bank.”

The MyTerm policies were “sold predominantly to individuals with Hispanic-sounding last names concentrated in Southern California, southern Texas, southern Arizona and southern Florida,” the lawsuit states. Those four states also accounted for the bulk of the sham accounts created by Wells Fargo’s employees, according to the bank’s disclosures.

“When we started peeling back the onion, everywhere we looked, it stunk,” said Mr. Smith, a plaintiff, who earlier this year was a featured speaker at a conference focusing on insurance fraud.

Missteps and Scandal

From sham accounts to releasing client data, Wells Fargo has drawn negative attention several times over the past year.

An unusually high rate of the Prudential policies that Wells Fargo sold in its first year had lapsed — 70 percent — and many were dropped after only one or two months. In some cases, customers never made a single premium payment.

There was also a suspicious pattern of MyTerm policies being closed and reopened, suggesting the unseen hand of a banker trying to buoy sales numbers. For example, “18 clients who purchased the MyTerm policies allowed them to lapse, or they were canceled and then repurchased them two more times,” the lawsuit states.

A former Wells Fargo employee said the bank made no secret that it wanted employees to push various insurance products.

“We were like insurance salespeople without the license,” said Michael Barborek, a former Wells Fargo banker in Orange, Tex. “They wanted us to offer it to everybody who came in.”

To meet their sales goals, some bankers in his branch would sometimes buy cheap policies for their friends and relatives, pay the first month’s premium and then cancel, according to Mr. Barborek — a blatant violation of regulatory rules and Wells Fargo’s own policies. Managers, facing their own pressure to make numbers, looked the other way, he said.

The life insurance product is quick and easy to buy: A customer can complete the application in 15 minutes by answering a few basic medical questions online, without ever speaking to a licensed insurance sales agent. Prudential then, with the permission of the applicant, checks databases, such as pharmaceutical records, to assess the health of an applicant before deciding to issue a policy. The average annual premium is $288.71 for a policy sold through Wells Fargo, which continues to offer MyTerm.


Thomas Schreck, the third plaintiff in the suit against Prudential. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

According to the Prudential employees’ lawsuit, one person who contacted Prudential appeared to have had funds removed from his Wells Fargo savings account by a bank employee to pay for a policy he said he had not authorized. And others who called Prudential were confused about how much they owed each month in premiums, and why.

As is not uncommon with whistle-blower cases, the three employees did not have entirely clean slates at Prudential. They said Prudential told them it was putting them on unpaid leave after another employee had turned over a series of text messages, most more than a year old, in which they were complaining about others within the corporate investigations division.

They contend that the text messages are being used as a pretext by the company to dismiss them for complaining about the handling of the MyTerm investigation.

Mr. Hoffman, the Prudential spokesman, said that the termination of the three employees was “entirely unrelated to Prudential’s business with Wells Fargo and Prudential’s decision to examine the sale of the MyTerm product.” He declined to elaborate on the reason for the firings, noting that Prudential does not comment on employment matters.

Mr. Hoffman said that Prudential began reviewing issues with MyTerm sales after complaints from customers in 2015, and expanded the review after news of the Wells Fargo settlement with regulators became public.

Before they were fired, Ms. Broderick said, she and her two colleagues ran into obstacles when they pressed others at the insurer, which is based in New Jersey, to investigate their findings more aggressively and to notify regulators. They were kicked out of Prudential’s office in Newark, N.J., and put on unpaid leave just days before Thanksgiving, she said.

“We were totally shocked,” Ms. Broderick said. “The game plan was to sweep this under the rug.”

In addition to the suit they filed in State Superior Court in New Jersey’s Essex County, the three intend to file a Dodd-Frank whistle-blower complaint next week with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said one of their lawyers, Christopher Chang, a former Manhattan prosecutor.

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Health Insurers List Demands if Affordable Care Act Is Killed

Insurers could decide within a few months whether to pull out of the state marketplaces for 2018, a deadline they are pushing to have delayed.

The trade group, one of two major groups representing insurers, was a major force in the passage of the law in 2010 and is expected to be influential in its discussions with Republicans. While its clout has been reduced by the departure of large members like the UnitedHealth Group, the organization has a powerful voice in Congress.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the other major trade group, has not yet said what it needs from Republican lawmakers to continue operating in the market.

Ms. Tavenner, a former Medicare official in charge of overseeing the creation of the state marketplaces, brings deep knowledge of both the government’s and the industry’s roles in health care. She said her group had begun meeting with members of Congress and their staffs.

Hospital groups also held a news conference on Tuesday to warn of what they said would be the dire financial consequences of a repeal if the cuts to hospital funding that were part of the Affordable Care Act were not also restored.

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Peeling away pieces of the law could lead to market chaos.

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While insurers say they do not plan to fight the Republicans’ efforts to repeal the law, they are in no hurry to see it unwound. And Ms. Tavenner said the industry would support a delay so it could prepare for the changes. “We would love to see a three-year time frame, as long as possible,” she said.

The marketplaces, now three years old, have not become as robust as expected by many of the people behind the Affordable Care Act. Even President Obama, who pushed the law and the marketplaces through Congress, has suggested some improvements.

Some of the largest insurers, like UnitedHealth and Aetna, have stopped selling policies on some of the state marketplaces after losing hundreds of millions of dollars, and other insurers say they are still debating whether to stay in the market. Many have raised their premiums sharply.

Ms. Tavenner acknowledged that the current law “needed to be improved.” But she emphasized that there was widespread agreement among Republicans about the need for some the law’s provisions, including covering people with expensive medical conditions. President-elect Donald J. Trump has also signaled his support of this popular provision. “There are common starting platforms,” she said.

Ms. Tavenner did not give many details about her group’s positions, but she said its top priority was to stop the immediate threat of eliminating the subsidies for plans sold to low-income people. House Republicans have already sued to block these payments, and the lawsuit is now delayed. If the new administration chose not to defend the lawsuit, the money would disappear, and insurers would probably rush to the exits because fewer potential customers would be available.

Another of the industry’s concerns is ensuring that enough young and healthy people sign up to stabilize the market. Republicans have discussed eliminating one of the law’s main tools, the so-called individual mandate, a tax levied on those who do not enroll.

In talking with Congress, Ms. Tavenner said, her members are emphasizing the need for some alternative, especially after criticism by insurers that the penalty is not large enough to persuade enough people to enroll. “There’s not one magic solution,” she said. She pointed to some of the provisions in Medicare that encourage people to sign up before they become sick. And she discussed some options to ease how insurers price their policies to be able to offer plans that are less expensive to younger people.

She also argued that the insurers had no desire to return to the time before the law was passed, when people with pre-existing conditions were routinely denied coverage in the individual market.

Still, the industry seems willing to embrace some of the ideas being discussed by Republicans, including giving individuals more choices of plans and more accountability for the cost of their health care. Republicans also seem eager to put the states in charge of some of the details of how coverage in both the individual market and Medicaid will look. Ms. Tavenner said the industry had a long history of working with state insurance regulators.

Republicans are discussing other ways to stabilize the market, including the creation of high-risk pools, where people with expensive medical conditions might be covered, bringing down the coverage costs for everyone else. “We would hesitate to rush back to that,” Ms. Tavenner said. In the past, those programs, typically run by the states, have not been adequately funded, she noted.

The insurers are also beginning to discuss a potential overhaul of Medicare, pushed by the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, who favors so-called premium support, or vouchers, as a way for people to find coverage. “We’re not big fans of that approach,” said Ms. Tavenner, although she said the industry would be open to discussing it.

Ms. Tavenner said the industry wanted to know more about what the Republicans were planning, including information on the fate of the Medicaid expansion under the law. “We still have more questions than answers,” she said. “We don’t want to disrupt individuals who are relying on our coverage,” she said.

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