I Gave Up Sugar for 30 Days—You’ll Be Surprised What I Learned
No sugar, no problem?
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When someone tells me I can’t have something I want, I tend to covet that thing even more. Which is why I questioned my sanity after agreeing to give up added sugar for 30 days. Thirty. Days. Not only do I love the overtly sweet foods like glazed doughnuts, homemade chocolate chip cookies, cream cheesy carrot cake and just about any flavor of ice cream, I’m a condiment junkie. My refrigerator is stocked with multiple brands of ketchup and mustard, at least three different salad dressings at any given time, and barbecue, steak and hot sauces galore. I’ve never paid attention to the added sugars. I just shake, slather and enjoy.
Lately, though, it seems that everywhere I turn headlines are shouting about the health risks associated with added sugar. Words like “toxic” and “deadly” are used to describe sugar’s effect on the body, making it seem as though all forms of processed sweets rank right up there with tobacco as public health enemy No. 1.
But here’s the thing: Sugar is a lot like other substances our body doesn’t need in order to function. In moderation, it’s fine. In excess, it’s harmful. So in the name of science, I agreed to cut out added sugar for a month to learn more about what I was eating and how to get my diet in a smarter, more informed place. It wasn’t easy. I quickly learned that sugar is hiding in so many packaged foods. But by the end of the journey, I was able to find that sweet spot (pun intended) where I could continue to enjoy a variety of foods at portions deemed appropriate for my best overall well-being. Here, I’ve shared some of the most important lessons. My hope is that the ideas can work for you, too.
1. Expert Advice Is Priceless
I’m not kidding when I say I didn’t think much about the added sugar I was consuming. I really didn’t even know how to look for it or calculate it. So I enlisted the help of Taste of Home Senior Food Editor, Peggy Woodward. A registered dietitian nutritionist, Peggy took a look at a typical entry in my food journal and informed me that I was eating about 18 teaspoons of added sugar a day. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that women consume a maximum of 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily. Guys get 36 grams or 9 teaspoons. Yikes! I was downing more than double what is considered healthy.
With Peggy’s assistance, I was able to identify my trouble spots before the clock started ticking on my 30-day adventure. I knew, for example, that I would be drinking my coffee black, skipping the morning yogurts, cutting out some of my beloved condiments and halting my weekend wine, among other sweet indulgences. If you have the opportunity to have a nutritionist analyze your eating habits, I highly recommend it. It got me started on the right path and continues to give me focus.
2. Food Labels Are Your Friend
When tracking grams of added sugar, I first had to understand how to read a label to know the difference between foods with processed sweetness and those containing natural sugar from fruits and dairy products. Processed, or refined, sugars are basically empty calories. They cause a spike in your blood sugar levels (and a related surge in energy) and also lead to equally speedy crashes. Natural sugars, by comparison, metabolize slower and are loaded with health benefits, including fiber, vitamins and minerals, and a slew of disease-fighting antioxidants.
Currently, food labels list grams of sugar, but they don’t break the total down between the two types. The Food and Drug Administration will be changing that with new labels that are expected to go into full effect next year. Until then, Peggy suggested I look at the ingredients list. In general, food products with fewer ingredients are less processed and, usually, better for you. And the less sciencey the ingredient names sound, the better. If a product contains added sugar, it will be listed in this portion of the label. The closer sugar is to the top of the list, the more of the ingredient the product contains.
Because labels for added sugar, like dextrose, maltose and fruit juice concentrate are less obvious, I made myself a cheat sheet in the Notes app on my iPhone. Sugar Science offers a complete list of all 61 added sugars on its website. By the end of my first week, I felt good about how to spot added sugar and was able to find a selection of approved breads, snacks and condiments that I actually liked—a lot.
3. The First Week Is the Hardest
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I’ve read several accounts of people giving up sugar for 30 days. They talk about withdrawal symptoms kicking in around day 14, evidenced by crankiness and raging headaches. I experienced none of that. Instead, my first week was tough—only because I realized I had several bad snack habits to break.
On a normal, eat-all-the-sugar-I-wanted day, I’d typically eat a late afternoon snack like a granola bar, some beef jerky or a fruity yogurt—all of which have lots of added sugar. At night, I looked forward to a glass of wine with dinner. And more frequently than I care to admit, I’d nibble on cookies or eat a couple scoops of ice cream while watching TV.
By day three, I felt like I was obsessed with the snacks that were now off limits. I joked that I was seeing cookies everywhere. To get my mind off of sweetened treats, I drank water during the day and herbal teas in the evening. I suspected all that water is what makes people’s skin look better on the no-sugar diet. But my trips to the bathroom increased exponentially—including in the middle of the night.
At my age, I like sleep more than sugar, so I had to find alternative ways to get through these tough times. A few that worked in the evening: I downloaded Calm, a meditation app. When I started feeling the urge to snack, I went into my bedroom, shut the door and used the app to breathe and help quiet my mind. Turning off the TV and reading a book also helped.
To get through the afternoon snack attack, I put a bowl of Rockit apples on my desk. Three bites of these tiny wonders and you’re done—with the fruit and the cravings. I also brought a stash of mandarin oranges to work and replaced my granola bars with Larabars and Rxbars, two of my new fave no-sugar-added treats. By week three, I didn’t need any of it.
4. Writing Things Down Works
Countless studies have shown that expressing thoughts and feelings in writing is good for your health. And people who keep a journal while attempting to improve their diet have greater success keeping weight off.
Personally, I’ve preferred to use smartphone apps like Lose It and MyFitnessPal. But I decided to hop on the bullet journal bandwagon this time around. A social media phenomenon, the bullet journal is basically an old-school planner with prompts to write down daily thoughts and activities. I chose a fitness-oriented journal called Commit 30, which encourages users to establish and track goals one month at a time.
Whereas apps like MyFitnessPal are based on tracking what you’ve already eaten, Commit30 got me in the habit of planning ahead. I established my first monthly goal—to eliminate sugar. At the beginning of each week, I wrote down how I was going to achieve that in the days ahead. At the end of each day, I chronicled my actual behaviors and choices, what I experienced during the day that may have triggered cravings, and how I dealt with it.
The bullet journal was the tool that helped me spot the pattern in my snacking habits and test various solutions. And Commit 30 had an extra bonus: stickers! There was something about affixing rainbows, unicorns and motivational quotes to my daily journal entries that made me look forward to the activity each day. In fact, I liked it so much, I still keep it up today.
5. Planning Ahead Helps
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I tend to be an eat-on-the-fly girl. It’s why I chose yogurt for breakfast and why I often skipped lunch when meetings piled up. Because avoiding sugar means eating a lot less processed foods, I knew I couldn’t get away with this haphazard approach to eating. So I read up on meal prep best practices. One of my favorite pieces was a terrific first-person article from Taste of Home on how to cook and chop everything in bulk.
Frankly, I never would have pictured myself as a person who would do this. But now, one of my favorite things on Sunday afternoons is roast a chicken or turkey breast, and slice and dice it along with all my veggies. I store the foods in separate Snapware containers and make myself salads and sandwiches each evening after dinner. I even bought a cute little bento box for transporting my meals to work. Bliss.
6. You’ll Have to Get Comfy Asking Questions
I am not one of those people at a restaurant who grills the server for the details about a dish. I’m not a picky eater, nor do I have allergies or other food issues that make asking questions necessary. So it was difficult for me to speak up when ordering—but I had to. I travel a lot for my job, so eating out is common.
The first time was hard. I tried to be self-deprecating. “I’m going to be one of those really annoying people,” I said. “I’m not eating added sugar…so is there a cocktail, entree, yadda, yadda…that you recommend?”
If a restaurant is known for offering healthy fare, you’ll have no problem—even with the drinks. But expect to be looked at like an alien when you’re at a chain restaurant. I found myself ordering salads without dressing, and asking for olive oil and lemon on the side. It was depressing. Eating out is not fun when you have to avoid sugar. You can’t control preparations and there is no proof that you’re getting what you think you are. Which leads to my final takeaway.
7. Good Enough Is Good Enough
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It’s impossible to be perfect in a situation like this, so I had to get over my own Type A personality. In the beginning, I was stressed about reading food labels. I felt guilty about asking for special treatment, for taking so long grocery shopping and for eating a bite (or three) of my husband’s carrot cake when we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants.
Admittedly, I was thrilled when I hit the 30-day mark. But over time, I had chilled out and recognized that slip-ups are normal as long as you get back on track quickly. And much to my surprise, I didn’t have the urge to return to many of my old fave foods or snack habits. Yes, I did have some ice cream on day 31, but I felt pretty rotten the next morning. And I am drinking wine again. But I no longer put stevia in my coffee, I don’t drink as much diet soda and I’ve kept up with my three favorite lessons: reading food labels to make the best choices; eating a hearty breakfast (instead of a speedy, sugary yogurt); and preparing home cooked lunches, dinners and even desserts.
In addition to these delicious low-sugar recipes from Taste of Home, I’ve learned to substitute pureed fruits for sugar in my favorite baked goods. One of my favorite experiments was baking banana bread with a full-tilt sugar recipe and then using the same recipe but with applesauce in place of granulated sugar. I added dark chocolate chips (healthy!) to both. The verdict? My husband loved the original, I preferred the sauced version. Both were delish!
I didn’t set out to lose weight, by the way. But I did. About four pounds. I also felt less bloated and enjoyed what seemed like really deep sleep (once I got through my late-night tea drinking). To me, the 30 days passed quickly and the benefits were clear pretty quickly. If you want to give the no-sugar diet a try but aren’t sure about a 30-day commitment, consider the recipes in our seven-day plan. If it works, you go week to week. You will be glad you tried.