Every year I write goals about not eating junk food and losing weight. Almost every year I declare failure in meeting these targets, and add them onto next year’s resolution list. I was in the midst of doing just last month when I scratched them out. Not this year.
I’ve spent a lot of years putting myself down for not meeting some invented goal weight. Food became reduced to numbers in, numbers out, numbers on the scale. I have used food to punish and reward. Food and my body have an unhealthy history, and this year I am changing that.
Food is far more complicated than numbers and I’ve resolved that it does not have to be the enemy – not all the time, anyway. Goal weights have not proven helpful, as I have used deprivation and dieting to reach them.
If I was going to put myself through the cliché of New Year’s resolutions, I aimed to have constructive goals that offer the potential of some meaningful benefit.
The New York Times hosted a Seven-Day Sugar Challenge to help people reduce the refined or added sugar in their diets and I used the tips included in that series to help start my own no added sugar journey. This challenge helped me see that I could tackle changes in pieces, although I tried to go as cold turkey as possible. When the seventh day of the sugar challenge arrived, I skipped the dark chocolate they suggested and kept going.
Over the last month, I’ve focused on eating whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, and nuts. I stopped eating convenience and pre-packaged foods, except for the occasional Lara bar. I abstained from sugary drinks including alcohol, and eliminated all office candy and treats.
Approaching what I consume through the lens of no refined or added sugar while saying yes to whole foods set my year off in a powerful new direction, and I wanted to put down some of my initial experiences with this chosen path.
I was uncertain I could give up added sugar. I love corner pieces of cake (three times the frosting as other pieces!), chocolate, and most candy except for Peeps and candy corn. I delight in indulging in at least one sugary treat a day. But I figured that I had nothing to lose by trying, and sometimes it’s good to practice a disciplined approach to things.
I had also noticed that my body was reacting more to sugar in the last year, and ingesting certain sweets consistently resulted in headaches. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of my various health metrics, which have begun to show some fluctuations in the last five years or so. I hoped that reducing the junk in my diet would improve overall health. If anything, I really did not want those headaches anymore.
To help me through the days, I prepared lunches and scoured labels for added sugars. I cut up a ton of vegetables, added snacks like walnuts and almonds, and packed a couple of pieces of fruit each day so that I would not cave to sweet sugary temptation when I became hungry. This made a huge difference in getting through the days without feeling deprived or wanting.
Stress and Bad Habits
One of the first things I noticed with this dietary change was that there are certain times when I reach for sweet things, almost as habit. One day, I hung up from a conference call and immediately craved a piece of chocolate.
Walking around the office, I became aware that there are many opportunities to mindlessly snack. I had always known this, I suppose, but never truly paid attention to it. People bring in candy and cookies and put it on a community table. Others keep little bowls of candy near their desk.
Sometimes I would step outside because I wanted a break and a treat destination gave me somewhere to go with a little reward at the end. I stopped doing that. I still step outside, but skip the candy reward.
Now I know that stress and boredom – especially during the work week – trigger my urge for sweets. Until added sugar went onto my Do Not Eat list, I was largely unaware of when I consumed sweets and what prompted me to seek them out.
Hunger and Thirst
Giving up sugar prompted more awareness of my stomach. I’m not sure if I was actually hungrier, or if I was eating so much candy and junk previously that it somehow quelled my urges.
The second and third week of my no sugar lifestyle I wanted to eat all the time. I drank water and kept nuts, veggies, fruit, and hummus at the ready to deal with the gnawing in my stomach.
Since choosing to not eat added sugar, I have also been thirstier. This was more acute in the early weeks, but I’m still drinking more water than I was previously. The air is drier this time of year, too, so it may be coincidental timing.
During the second and third weeks of adjusting to this diet, I also felt as though I was sweating more than usual, particularly during the afternoon. No idea why or if it was related to dietary changes, but it seems to have evened out now.
I take water with me wherever I go these days. It’s satisfying enough and helps keep my hunger in check.
Food Industry Rage
I have spent more time scrutinizing labels over the last few weeks than ever before. So many prepared foods and sauces contain added sugar! I’m tempted to say countless, but that word has become a misused abomination. Instead I’ll estimate that at least a kerpillion foods and sauces include some kind of added sugar, and it enrages me.
It’s extremely tiring to be constantly on the alert for these hidden sugars, as they are cloaked in various names – cane sugar, fructose, dextrose, and other -oses. It gives me eyestrain and stirs up large doses of anger.
I spent so much time in stores inspecting labels. Even then, sometimes I would get home and see that I had been tricked because I didn’t spot some ingredient lurking in the list.
For example, an herbal tea I bought had stevia in it (no wonder it tasted so crappy!) and something else I picked up had dextrose hiding among the other natural ingredients. Sadly, I had no idea that companies injected our food with so much junk.
Making healthy choices at the grocery store requires a different level of awareness to shop well. It practically requires a Food versus Me mindset. This is dispiriting, but if it is a battle then I am determined to win it.
During January, I read The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes, and it slammed home the ways the food industry uses refined sugars to addict and sicken us, fueling a public health crisis that we somehow accept in our country.
I hate thinking that many food companies are the enemy, but at least I know now to be on the alert and to avoid most prepared foods. After a while, I found Taubes had sufficiently hammered home his points and I’m now reading a more light-hearted book about running, but if you are interested in learning more about his views and research on sugar, his New York Times columns are worth reading.
I’m glad I read what I did of Taubes’ book, as it was his writing in the New York Times that helped inspire me. His very strong case against sugar strengthened my resolve to stick with my new diet.
Despite spending weeks 2.5 to 3.5 in a state of low-grade irritability, I found that giving up added sugar eventually evened out my energy level. In fact, I think it has since increased or at least kept me at a steadier flow during waking hours.
Late last month I participated in a four-day training that lasted from 8:30 in the morning until 6 p.m. Every morning the training site had muffins (which I love) and two of the four days had chocolate something as the afternoon snack.
I was four weeks into the no added sugar life by this time, but this training was a true test of my will. I love nibbling on sweets during trainings! A piece of chocolate here, a hard candy there. It’s my reward for sitting so attentively!
Not this time, though. I emptied out the fridge and brought plenty of snacks – broccoli, hummus, a few prunes (I know dried fruit has a lot of natural sugar, but I exercised restraint on these), nuts, even brussels sprouts one day. I avoided the snack area of the classroom, and ate the food I brought with me.
For the first time in as far back as I can recall, I made it through a training without any candy. Further, despite the intensity of the class, I ended each day with pep in my step. Victory! That has never happened in these kinds of courses, and I attribute it to healthy fueling throughout the day (as well as taking walking and stretch breaks whenever it was possible).
The completion of this training was when I began to believe that the no added sugar lifestyle was bearing real fruit.
With added sugar off the table, I sought out different foods than my usual fare. I cooked lentils, prepared bean soup, and attempted new food combinations (with mixed success). I spent more time in the produce aisles of the grocery store.
As previously mentioned, I ruthlessly scoured ingredients on labels until I totally gave up on salad dressings and most pre-packaged sauces. I found some pasta sauces with no added sugar, but in general sugar-free sauce was like seeking a needle in a haystack. After going without these items, I realized I didn’t exactly miss dressing, rather my tastebuds just liked the indulgence.
I started shopping more regularly at a grocery store that is 1.5 miles from my house, and less at the grocery two blocks away because it sucks in terms of quality produce and meat selection, as well as other staples. That frustrated me as well, because I don’t think that access to quality fruits, vegetables, and meats in a grocery store is asking for the moon, and I would prefer to shop close to my house.
However, by patronizing a better store I became more enthused about my purchases and the whole shopping experience was better. The produce looked appetizing, and it was displayed so that I could see the full variety the store offered. This is unlike my home store, where the produce is all unceremoniously crammed together and in varying stages of ripeness and decay.
As I spent less time in the chocolate aisle, food became more interesting to me, and by weaning myself off added sugar I found that my sense of taste and texture became keener. Maybe that was also because I have been eating a wider variety of foods and flavors.
I’m still a mostly incompetent cook, but purchasing better food stoked my curiosity to try different foods and explore cooking. Cooking is still not among my top ten activities, but I approach it now with greater interest and less as a chore. I have spent most of my life cooking to survive so cooking for pleasure (as well as continued survival!) is a novel experience.
Diet, Not Dieting
Even though it has only been six weeks, I hope I am on my way to a new long-term relationship with food. I don’t want to go back to pining for the corner piece of cake only to be slapped with a killer headache 15 minutes later, and returning for more cake when the headache fades. That was an unfulfilling cycle that needed to end. I wish I’d started doing this sooner, but for whatever reason I did not have the will until now.
Approaching my consumption with a goal of no added sugar steered me to improved food choices. I did not worry about limiting or depriving myself of food, only avoiding added sugar. During this time, I did not diet. In fact, I ate more than I normally do and after the first couple of weeks, I truly felt better.
Even though I felt like I was eating constantly, I did not cut calories or meticulously count them like I would have in the past. After a couple of weeks my body and habits began adapting to my new way of eating. In addition to having better energy, my clothes now fit a little looser. Weight loss was not my primary pursuit, but I have to admit these tangible changes motivate me to continue to eat well.
Instead of taking a pass-fail approach to my no added sugar life, I approached it as an ongoing experiment. When I learned that my herbal tea had stevia, I was mad, but I didn’t declare game over. I threw that tea in the trash, switched to a different beverage, and began poring over labels even more.
While improved health is the primary impetus for eating less sugar and processed foods, I’m also determined to stay a step ahead of the companies that engineer and distribute food that makes us sick and dependent. It’s abhorrent. Now that I see the ways that unnecessary and toxic ingredients intrude into our diets, I want to eliminate them from mine.
I didn’t experience a momentous physical transformation, which I had unrealistically dreamed would occur. I read testimonials of people experiencing some powerful changes – improved sleep, boundless energy, and lots of weight loss.
As for me, I felt thirstier, hungrier, and more irritated than normal in the early weeks. After three or four weeks my body and mind felt better. The changes have definitely been gradual, though significant and well worth it.
My eating habits warrant further refining, but this month showed me that I am more adaptable and disciplined than I thought. I have the fortitude to avoid junk most days, and I have the planning skills, time, and budget to treat my body better. Successfully eliminating added sugar from my plate has sparked a new and better way. It’s now my goal to continue.
If you have any of your own stories or lessons learned from doing something similar, I would love to hear them. Any books or resources you think I should check out? Please share, as I’m eager to keep learning and to make full use of my DC Library card!