JUST SAY NO
I don’t think of myself as having a sweet tooth. Sure, I enjoy some ice cream every now and again, but do I have an issue with sugar? No way. Or, that's what I would have said if you'd asked me before I banned sugar from my diet for a week. Whether you're looking to limit your sugar intake due to a health condition such as type 2 diabetes, are trying to lose some weight, or just want to take a break from the sweet stuff or cut back a bit, read on to find out what the experience of a sugarless week was like for me.
(Note: Before making any changes to your diet, be sure to consult with a health professional. The following is based on personal experience and should not be construed as medical advice.)
Banning sugar for me meant no white sugar, brown sugar, fructose, honey, agave, or fruit. The only exception would be a half cup of berries a day, which is about 7.5 of the 50 grams that are the recommended daily intake for an adult female. I would also avoid foods that have sugar added, like ketchup and most yogurt, as well as beer, wine, and cocktails with any added sweetness.
NO FAKE SWEETS, EITHER
The other rule I gave myself: no artificial sweeteners. Sure, they're not technically sugar, but they have some potentially undesirable health effects, and felt like cheating in this case. The only source of added sweetness that I would allow myself was Stevia, a natural sweetener 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, low in calories, and recognized as one of the safest of the sugar substitutes. I ended up just using it once, but it was good to know that it was an option.
I go to the gym around three times a week, and normally reward myself with a few squares of my favorite dark chocolate. Not that I need the chocolate, but it sure helps. What if, without my reward, I wasn't as faithful in my gym habit? What if I was cranky more often without sugar? Or tired? Could I really do this?
I knew that, without a game plan, that it would be all too easy to go off track. So, I browsed the internet for advice from people who had gone off sugar as well. From what I read, I would need lots of good protein and fats to stay full, and some of my favorite veggies around for snacks.
Next, a trip to the grocery store was in order. I picked up staples like eggs, whole grains, and veggies. I also let myself splurge on some favorite foods — cultured butter, Spanish olive oil, organic avocados, and unsweetened local greek yogurt. If I was going to make it, it would take lots of healthy fat and protein.
PICKING A DAY
I chose to start on a Wednesday. I didn't want to start over the weekend, when I was out and about and could easily give in to the temptation of a donut at my favorite coffee shop. I also didn't want to start on a Monday, because if it happened to be a terrible Monday (likely), then my willpower could very easily disappear when I came upon my favorite chocolate. Wednesday was far enough away from the start of the work week that I wouldn't be cranky about having just ended my weekend, but also far enough away from the next weekend that I could get my act together for a few days before being tested by weekend bliss.
I don't love eggs for breakfast, but they ended up making the most sense. I initially wanted to do a not-so-sweet cereal, like Cheerios (one gram of sugar per cup, thank you very much), as a quick and healthy start, but then I looked at the sugar content of milk, which was 12 grams per cup or a quarter of my recommended sugars for the day. Sure, it wasn't added sugar, but lactose is sugar — and that was more sugar than I was comfortable with.
Eggs it was! I prefer them scrambled, and decided to treat myself by stirring in a bit of cream cheese and chives midway through cooking. The whole thing took all of five minutes to prepare, and I was impressed at how delicious it was. I added a tablespoon of milk to my coffee, and felt smug about how easy this was going to be.
That smugness lasted until 10:30 am, at which point I noticed that I was getting hungry. Strange. I pushed on until noon, at which point I was ravenous. I grabbed a cobb salad, and finished it in approximately three minutes. Still hungry, I grabbed another cup of coffee and doctored it up with a dash of stevia. I felt a bit better, but still didn’t feel completely satiated. Actually, a nap sounded good.
These feelings of hunger and exhaustion were the case for the first few days. Despite eating perfectly filling meals, I spent more time than usual feeling hungry and/or tired, as my body slowly adjusted. I spent most of my time thinking about what I was going to eat when the week ended. Donuts! Ketchup on French fries! Ben & Jerry's! Even bananas! Working out helped keep my energy up, but I did miss my chocolate treat — at least for the first few days.
Thursday was awful. My mother, not knowing that I was avoiding sugar for the week, sent me a package of her famous cookies — my favorite food in the world. There are much bigger problems in the world than my temporary and self-imposed lack of sugar, but at that moment, not being able to have a cookie was just about the worst thing I could imagine. I quietly, defeatedly put them in the freezer, then texted a friend to meet me at our neighborhood bar. I drank two well-deserved martinis that night.
Friday night, rather than going out, I went to the gym, then went to the store for a couple protein-heavy snacks, like chunky peanut butter (without added sugar, of course), bacon, chickpeas, and the ingredients for keto bread. I threw all the bacon in the oven when I got home to keep in my fridge for when I needed a snack. The chickpeas were used for making fried chickpeas, a perfect salty (and sugar-free) snack. Keto bread was quick, easy, and maybe a bit too delicious — I ate the whole mini loaf for dinner, slathered in butter.
By Saturday, the manic cravings started to subside. I was still tempted by the donuts at the greenmarket and the chocolate on sale at the grocery store — well, to be honest, I bought some of the chocolate, but for later — though it was easier to say no in the moment. As a treat, I stopped by my favorite cheese shop and sampled a few of my favorite creamy cheeses, eventually settling on Nettle Meadow Kunik, a luscious triple crème made with goat's milk and cow cream in upstate New York. At $36 a pound, it's not cheap, but I deserved a splurge.
Sunday was easy. Rather than open myself up to temptation again, I invited friends over for brunch and made shakshuka, my favorite quick and easy dish. Later, when I went to the gym, I barely missed my chocolate reward — the berries felt like a treat when they were the only sweet thing I’d had all day.
Monday is never my favorite day, and I expected it to be even harder after banning sugar for the week. Nope. If anything, I had more energy and my mood was more balanced. I can't remember the last time a Monday was so easy.
The final day. Or was it? I felt so clear and energetic and positive. Waking up was pleasant, my workout was a breeze, and the bumps in my day felt manageable. If being off sugar improved my mood this greatly, I'd be happy to do it for longer than a week.
Other accounts I've read of giving up sugar mention side effects like weight loss and clearer skin, and I did not notice either of those things, though perhaps I would have needed to go longer than a week. My sleep did slightly improve, though, and after that first horrible day, I only needed one cup of coffee in the morning. After the cravings subsided, I wondered what all the fuss had been about.
IN THE FACE OF TEMPTATION
When that next Wednesday came and I could finally have sugar again, I didn't. Instead of rushing to the ketchup, the Ben & Jerry's, the donuts, the brownies, or any of the other few dozen sugary treats I had dreamt about, I had a banana with peanut butter. Christine from four days ago would have been shocked and appalled. But Wednesday Christine didn't want extra sugar, and didn't need it.
NEXT SUGARY STEPS
The first sugar I had was my post-workout chocolate, and that's been the bulk of my sugar since the detox. There is something so satisfying about a few bites of dark chocolate after a good, hard workout. Plus, dark chocolate has loads of health benefits, and just as importantly, I really enjoy it. For me, it's a worthwhile indulgence.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Was banning sugar for a week hard? Of course. Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, after having done it, I think more about the sugar that I eat as part of my day, and indulge far less. If it doesn’t feel like a special treat, I don’t do it. Especially considering all of the evidence that suggests it’s not all that good for us, I’m much better off avoiding it with only a couple well-deserved treats here and there.