Adventures in…Giving Up Sugar

Until this past February, sugar (and especially chocolate) have been my Achilles’ heel. That’s when I stopped eating all cakes, candies, pastries, cookies, and extra sugar…cold turkey. It was possibly one of the harder things, but also probably one of the best. Now, I still eat desserts occasionally, though my exceptions are very limited. No store-bought desserts. No pastries. No frosting. Only homemade desserts, ice cream, and high-quality chocolate. Prior to February, I would’ve called myself crazy and certainly didn’t imagine a future without the amazing goodness of sugar. So why would I do this to myself?

It all started because I chose to give up sugar for Lent…and then chose to keep that going. This started out as a 40-day experiment that worked out really well and I ultimately decided that it was best for me to continue abstaining. This choice is not for everyone – just like vegetarianism isn’t for everyone – and you have to choose your own path. That said, giving up sugar and desserts has been so good for me.

Started Off As A Sugar-Addict

My sweet tooth developed early and developed strong. Ever since I was a little girl, I have LOVED sugar and desserts, especially chocolate. My mom would bribe me to eat my meal with chocolate pudding. Every single time we went out to eat, I ordered the chocolate dessert. I have tasted the local pastries in every place I have visited (see gelato photo from Rome at the top of this post). Oreos and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were staples in my pantry for years. If there was a doughnut or cake in a kitchen, I tasted it. I ordered dessert at every meal. I became a pretty decent baker and would frequently make midnight desserts during college. When I got married, I cared more about how the cake tasted than how it looked (and I cared more about the cake than the flowers or any centerpieces). My favorite wine was Moscato and my favorite cocktails were the sweetest the bartender could make. Thankfully, I have also had a pretty good metabolism and always worked out a fair amount, so I was able to indulge my sweet tooth without gaining much weight. So, I never really thought I had a problem.

Birthday cupcake

my idea of a good time – a crossword and a cupcake!

birthday cake

check out my smile over that birthday cake!

Then over the past few years, there were a few indicators that I needed to eat less sugar. First off, my husband consistently pointed out how much sugar I ate – not in a bad way, but more of in a way that he wants me to be healthy and stick around for awhile. Second, I developed a minor but persistent medical condition with a bacteria that thrives on sugar. When I eat a lot of sugar, it flares up and is extremely uncomfortable. When I abstain, it goes down and life is good. Third, someone recommended Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar, which I read and was astounded at how pervasive sugar is in our modern lives (step aside technology: sugar is the OG villain).  Sugar has infiltrated everything, from dried fruits to fruit juices to cigarettes to bread to yogurt sweet treats everywhere. It is also a (the?) major reason why diabetes has become so prevalent.

Finally, my health has become more of a priority as I’ve gotten older. My metabolism slowed down and I stopped working out as much. While I never needed to buy new, larger clothes, there was definitely a little extra fluff. So this year when Lent rolled around, I decided to give up sugar. The intention was to give it up for 40 days, then I’d go back to my sweet eating ways, just like I’d gone back to other habits I’d given up for previous Lents.

Surviving 40 Days Sugar-Free

During Lent, there were 2 ground rules:

  • No desserts, candy, chocolate, or pastries. No sugary treats allowed.
  • Try to reduce or eliminate other sources of added sugar as much as possible. For example, I switched to a sugar-free coffee creamer, began putting peanut butter on my morning oatmeal instead of brown sugar, switched to La Croix and vodka from Sprite0 and vodka for my preferred cocktail, and began eating plain yogurt (10 grams of sugar per serving) with some fruit instead of vanilla yogurt (24 grams of sugar).
  • Natural sugars were allowed. This mainly meant eating fruits and I ate a LOT of apples, bananas, grapes, and strawberries.

Y’all, the first week was rough. While I didn’t have the cravings or the meanness that some people complain about, it was still pretty hard for me. I was used to having something sweet about once a day. And if there was anything in the kitchen at work, I wanted to try just a bite. Before Lent 2018, I’d have a ¼ of a doughnut, or a particularly small slice of cake just to try it. Now, I couldn’t have any of it. There were definitely good days and bad days, but I managed to stick with it. It was easier because there was a set end time and this was also for my religion. The deprivation certainly did encourage me to pray and reflect, especially at the beginning when it was hardest. People were also very understanding when I turned down goodies, saying that it was for Lent.

To help me, I began to notice several benefits of giving up sugar within the first week and these benefits got even better over time. Over time, the sugar cravings and temptation decreased (though not for chocolate – I continued to crave chocolate the entire 40 days). Things were going so well that my husband advocated that I give up sugar completely. I balked at the idea because the thought of never eating sweets again was too depressing. After some thought (my husband has this annoying thing where he is always right when he gives me advice), I realized that my main objection was that I love chocolate and couldn’t imagine a future devoid of this amazing goodness. So, I compromised and came up with some ground rules for mostly avoiding sugar in my post-Lent life.

I Am Sweet Enough

Lent ended and I continue to avoid eating sweets (most of the time). The benefits I first noticed during the 40 days have only gotten better. When I started to reintroduce small bites of sugar back into my diet, I was surprised to learn that my taste buds had changed! Cookies and cakes that were once amazing are now too sweet for me. For example, frosting is overwhelmingly sweet to me. Cake balls are too much for me – I can’t even eat them and have to spit them out. Delicious smelling cakes are often too sweet and I can only manage a taste.

People are often surprised when I don’t eat sweet treats. They’ll offer me a slice of cake or a cookie, then be shocked when I turn it down. However, they’ve also been fairly understanding. Thankfully, I haven’t run into issues about it. The biggest challenge has been myself – the goodies still look delicious and tempting, especially when I’m hungry. But then as soon as I take a bite, the foods aren’t very tasty.

Benefits of Not Eating Desserts

Here are some of my personal benefits of not eating desserts and cutting way back on processed/added sugars:

  • Lost weight without trying – it’s not that I was intentionally trying to or even needed to lose weight, but 5 lbs slid off me without any effort on my part
  • Easier to wake up (especially on days when I don’t have a glass of wine the night before) – waking up has been a challenge for me my entire life and it has become so much easier the past few months
  • Not consistently constipated – this is a fairly personal observation, but it’s still a key benefit. Looking back, I realize that I had chronically constipated up until this past February and now that isn’t a problem
  • More energy – the afternoon slump is less of an issue now!
  • Can eat more of other foods (now LOVE popcorn) – I must have been eating more sugar than I realized because I can now eat more savory foods, like a LOT more savory foods
  • My taste buds changed – some foods are entirely too sweet now and I can’t eat them

Personal Guidelines for a Low-Sugar Life

I personally am a moderator, meaning I hate abstaining completely. Some people are abstainers and some people of moderators. I am definitely a moderator, so I rarely allow myself something sweet. Here are my personal ground rules:

  • No candy (no little candies, no candy bars)
  • No fruit juices – the POM cherry juice I saw recently had 22 grams of sugar per serving!
  • No craisins – those little sugar bombs have 28-32 grams of sugar per serving!
  • No vanilla yogurt – that sugar bomb has 22-34 grams of sugar per serving
  • No soda – those sugary drinks are the standard for a high-sugar serving
  • No store-bought goodies – if a cake/cookie/brownie/doughnut/pie is bought, then I don’t eat it
  • No pastries – no doughnuts, bear claws, danishes, or anything else you might find at a doughnut shop or Panera.
  • No dessert at restaurants
  • No goodies in the house – I don’t buy it, so it doesn’t come home with me, so it doesn’t tempt me when I’m weak
  • Occasionally eat the cake part of homemade birthday cake (eat around the icing) – no more than 1 slice a week or I don’t feel well
  • Occasionally eat amazing high quality, dark chocolate in small quantities
  • Ice cream allowed (small scoop) – nothing fancy like chocolate chip cookie dough or something with a lot of toppings; just plain vanilla or chocolate ice cream

Advice For You If You Want to Go Low-Sugar

Giving up sugar was hard, without a doubt. It was particularly hard because I was addicted to it. That said, it has been a very good decision for me. If you’ve thought about giving up sugar too, here are a few suggestions based on my experience:

    • Figure out why you’re giving up sugar. If you are anywhere near as addicted as I was, you need an extremely good reason or you’ll go back. For me, religion is what did the trick.
    • You might have to try a few different ways. My husband’s advice wasn’t enough. My medical condition didn’t work for me. The information in Taubes’s book wasn’t enough.
    • Try giving it up for a set period of time to see how it goes. You can get through 3 weeks of almost anything, especially if you take it one day at a time and have back up plans.
    • Figure out a compromise if you’re a moderator. No sugar was all fine and dandy during Lent, but not sustainable for my regular life. I love to indulge myself every now and then, but I don’t need to eat candy. I do enjoy ice cream and amazing chocolate though, so I give myself permission to enjoy them every now and then.
    • Don’t give up. If you really want to be healthier, you’ll have to work at it. If you slip, that’s okay. Acknowledge the slip, forgive yourself, and get back to it. Nobody is perfect, but we can improve bit by bit.
    • Have an alternate snacking food. I started off with tortilla chips and eventually moved to popcorn. That meant that after dinner, I had a bag of popcorn instead of a dessert.
    • Glance at the nutrition labels for everything you eat (within reason). You’ll be surprised at how pervasive sugar is. If you can, search for a low or no sugar substitute. It takes some effort, but it’s doable. In my case, I use sugar-free coffee creamer, peanut butter on my oatmeal instead of brown sugar, and plain yogurt with fruit instead of vanilla yogurt.
    • Write down your rules. Putting anything in writing is very powerful and will help you.
    • Even if you have exceptions, don’t tell people. They’ll see that cracked door and blow it wide open. Next thing you know, you’re back at square one. Keep the exceptions to yourself.
    • Be firm. When someone offers you dessert, say, “No thank you. I don’t eat dessert (or pastries).” If they press you, you can say you have a medical condition. If they press you more, you can say it’s personal. That usually does the trick. Or, you can say it’s for Lent if it’s during Lent.
    • Look on the bright side. Chances are, you’ll start losing some weight. You might not be constipated anymore. You might sleep better. You can eat more savory foods. You might reverse diabetes. I know I definitely enjoyed fitting into my clothes easier!

Your Turn

Enough about me! What about you? Have you ever given up something that you loved and realized life is better without it? What was it? Also, have you given up sugar? What has your experience been since giving up sugar?

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