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!
I am glad you are having success in cutting out sugar. I gave up sugar around 2007. Back then I was semi-addicted to Slurpees and driving by the 7 eleven was difficult but soon it became easy to avoid sugar. In fact, sugary foods like soda and cake became too sweet for my tastes and I didn’t wan’t to eat them any more. I still don’t want to. I also found healthy foods that I used to find bland or bitter to be much more tasty. I can now drink coffee with no sugar, for example, although I still like a little cream.
That’s awesome that you have gone sugar free since 2007 – such an accomplishment! Funny what people’s sweet of preference can be. I’ve never been a Slurpee or pop person, but I have a long list of sweets I have loved through the years.
I have done several Whole30 rounds and every time I get killer sleep, steady energy, basically feel like a teenager physically except for the awkward part. I think sugar and alcohol are the top two things to remove but grains and legumes and dairy weren’t doing me any favors either, and I haven’t gone back to them other than bread at fancy restaurants on occasion and some good cheese sometimes. I definitely choose quality versions now.
I remember seeing some of your posts from your Whole30s. I should talk with you about good recipes for sauces and dressings, if there are in the Whole30 program. Interesting that removing grains, legumes, and dairy had such a positive effect for you. I would like to expand on making improvements in what I eat as the year goes on. I did notice that I craved dairy (or fat maybe?) later on in the month. I confess indulged that craving with some goat cheese brie. I’m not a big dairy consumer so I’m not sure what that was about.
I consciously add sugar to only one thing: tea. But you’re so right about food companies use sugar like tobacco companies use nicotine.
The best I ever felt as an adult was when I lived two blocks from an amazing produce stand in Providence. I became addicted to fresh fruits and veggies while running 60 – 70 miles per week.
Then I moved to DC and fell into convenience over healthfulness.
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Yeah I definitely eat even better in the summer and fall, when the local farmers markets near me are open. Their produce is excellent, and often costs the same as the grocery!
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Congrats on your endaevour!!!
Check up on Stevia. It’s perhaps not as bad as you think (except the ultra refined). It can help you on the path to lower the sugar intake.
Of course, if you don’t like it…
Okay I guess maybe it’s not that bad for a person. Still throwing that tea away tho!
Very, very good start! I’d like to suggest that you read The Longevity Paradox to learn about the damage that is done to your body with some of the other foods you mentioned eating (and things like endocrine disruptors that you may be exposing yourself to). You may think you are now eating healthy, but may be surprised and want to change direction. I’m proof that it makes a significant difference in that I’ve dropped from 166 pounds to 150, no more painful body while starting out on the bicycle (it used to be 10 miles before comfortable), triglycerides down to 66 vs. 145, fasting blood sugar level a steady 95 (was about 115 for years – pre-diabetic), and my wife and daughter noticed my gray hair actually getting darker – after 4 months of eating the Gundry way.
Good luck on your journey!
Mike thanks for your comment, one of my colleagues totally changed his eating habits after reading the Plant Paradox. It seems to have been a very positive experience for him.
MG – Like Ultrarunnergirlkc, I just completed a whole 30 program. I highly recommend the book ”It starts with Food”. It really changed my perspective on eating and health.
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People really love Whole30! Congrats on completing yours, I will check out the book. Thanks Bill.
Mary – I reoriented my approach to food as well, wanting to adopt a way of eating, not dieting. I agree with you that sugar is an ingredient that has insinuated itself into nearly all our food, and I’ve found that nutrition label reading is really helpful. For reading, I’d suggest the Part II section of Dr. Michael Greger’s book “How Not to Die”- the Daily Dozen foods are a great way for me to orient my eating. Wish you much success on your journey, as well. As always, I enjoy how well you write. – John F.
Thanks John, I put a hold on it at the library. The book has a great title, too!
Interesting. I started writing a post a few months ago (that I never finished) about an unplanned experiment I went through several months ago due to some problems I was experiencing. Maybe I’ll end up finishing the post one of these days, as, like you, I’m curious what others do/have done. I know sugar can be a tricky one for many people. I don’t seem to struggle as much with cutting out sugar personally (though my better half is definitely a sugar-fiend) as I do with bread. I have a severe weakness for breads. Not that I’m shoveling it down by the hour, but it’s definitely an item I try not to have in the house so that I’m not tempted. Anyway, I was going to say that I found out through the experiment that I cannot tolerate oats (which was terribly disappointing to me, as I’ve had oatmeal for breakfast every day for the last two decades. Additionally, it’s something that many would consider a “healthy” meal option, yet my body just says, “Nope.” I can’t help but wonder if it’s a part of growing older — That we find we have intolerance to certain foods that we didn’t have earlier in life. I keep finding myself pondering if it’s just that I’ve had too much of it and my body has developed a type of allergy/intolerance or if it was always there and I just didn’t notice? I haven’t quite figured it out for myself. I DO know that when I eat real food – meaning non-packaged, fresh fruits/vegetables, lean proteins, and avoid having a lot of simple carbs my body just feels better. I don’t notice weight loss necessarily, but I don’t feel groggy/spacey and I just feel like a better version of myself. I suppose that’s the case for most of us though — when we eat “real” food and not processed items — it makes sense that our bodies and minds respond in a positive manner. I hope you continue to find benefits in your sugar-light-life adjustment… and as an aside (on a topic that truly isn’t my business, so I apologize in advance and hope you aren’t offended by this comment), I hope you don’t feel as though you need to lose weight. As someone who has struggled her entire life being larger than everyone around her, it took a long time for me to accept who I am and understand that my body pretty much does what it wants, when it wants. Realizing that I would never have long, sinewy legs was a terrible disappointment to me (which it shouldn’t have been, as there’s no reason to think genetically this would ever happen!), but I hate to see anyone beating him/herself up over the body s/he has (though I also always understand the desire for self-improvement, regardless of size/body composition, etc). But, enough rambling from me today!! I hope all continues to go well for you and am glad you took the time to share your experience thus far. 🙂
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Yeah, sweets are it for me! I used to be super into pasta, too, but that has faded in the last couple years. Interesting that you developed an intolerance for oats. Apparently oats were a very popular Q&A topic in the NY Times sugar challenge because, the writer said, people who eat oats totally love their oats!
Regarding your other comment about feeling a need to lose weight, objectively I don’t feel that. It’s really when diet and weight become ways to exert control – if that makes sense – that it has been a problem for me. It’s something I need to keep watch on because I am one of those people who will start weighing themselves multiple times a day and then…. downward spiral! This is also why a focus on limiting the added sugars has been a way for me to let health lead the way.
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” Beating yourself up over body shape ” totally agree with you on not doing it. Seen many people fly past me on their bikes that are so much bigger than myself , I,ve met others that are on constant diets but are never able to lose the weight they want to.
I think the best advice is to be as fit as you can be whatever your size and not to obsess about your weight.
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I’ve been sugar free off and on for about three years, mostly off. Sugar is a bigger issue for me than grains which I also limit. I’m a fan of Sarah Wilson’s No sugar books and cookbooks. Her most recent book not only focuses on sugar-free but zero waste which I found super interesting and satisfying! I’m an abstainer vs moderator. If I say no all the time I do better than saying yes some of the time. I did decide that I would eat cake at weddings and birthdays. We went to several weddings last year and I wasn’t even tempted. Who knew.
Jennifer, I still figuring out the abstain versus moderate, but so far abstention is winning! I purchased a used copy of the book you recommended as well. Thanks for the suggestion!
Thanks Mary for this excellent post (and also for your other posts on cycling), its a lot of work!
I’m one of the 5% (or whatever) who have permanently lost weight, going from 235 lbs at age 17 to 165 at age 18 (used Weight Watchers in 1972 to do that while doing heavy manual labor on a tree farm).
But I’ve yoyo’d 20-30 lbs up-down since. Many overweight people in my family make it a challenge, as well as the increasingly toxic food culture in America (and many other countries, unfortunately).
Cycling helps with the weight control, for sure!
I worked in research for a couple major food companies over the decades and saw what they have done. Kind of frightful. I got hooked on artificial sweeteners which have only recently been shown to be bad for us, increasing appetite and not helping control or lose weight. Have since cut down my use by 80-90% but still love sweets!
I too have noticed some fluctuations in various health metrics like heart rate and blood pressure, like 20 points increase in the latter, since gaining maybe 10 lbs this past year (despite riding 5000 miles). My health care providers just draw a blank when I mention this since I must be at the low end of all their patients. So I’m going back to using an app on my phone to record my food intake and exercise. There’s more to just calories in how we live, of course, but I find this approach has been useful for this numbers/science-type.
RE sugar: pay attention to glycemic index / load. Prunes, which have a lot of sugar, are fairly low in GI because the sugar is still encased in cell walls that slow down absorption in your gut. Refined sugar, including honey, has been released from cell walls and is rapidly absorbed in the blood stream. The only time this is good is when you’re exercising (muscles not at rest don’t need insulin to absorb sugar), otherwise it leads to inflammation which contributes to so much disease. Another reason to avoid fruit juices except when exercising.
I find that Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s email and website are excellent (ignore the fairly trashy “health” ads that must pay for his hosting costs) regarding health and nutrition. He’s a retired general practitioner and athlete who studies the health and nutrition science and summarizes it and puts it into context of the generally accepted scientific community. He stresses eating whole (unground) grains, vegetables, and whole fruit. All the sound scientific data shows this is healthy and also good for the planet.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a front seat to the food industry. It must have been shocking. Thank you for referring me to Dr. Gabe Mirkin, and for the thought about glycemic index. Sadly, I’m only just really understanding that and applying it when I consider the foods I eat. Good luck with your own health journey, Mitch. I used an app for a while last year to track my food and found it to be an excellent way to really track what I eat. Thank you again for your comment!
The sugar god is a tyrant! He demands sacrifices at regular intervals, usually every 3-4 hours. Once you get off of sugar and all the other cheap carbs (I’m looking at you Mr Wheat) your mitochondria relearn how to burn fat.There is an adjustment period of course and your brain will throw some terrible sugar tantrums.Once you become fat adapted those awful gnawing cravings tend to go away. Without the spikes and crashes of my blood sugar my energy levels have become very even. Sometimes I miss a meal and don’t even notice it till later. If you’re looking for good reads on the subject I can recommend “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf, also Mark Sisson’s blog Marks Daily Apple has a lot of background info to binge on. Sounds like your eyes are wide open now! Good Luck on your journey.
Hi MG unfortunately like your previous self I too have a sweet tooth. So much so that I prefer sweet drinks to alcohol. Over the years and given sugar is considered to be as bad as cocaine I have at various times tried to when myself off of it but sadly I always return to eating g sweets as it’s my little treat for the efforts I make by cycling. Hopefully your article will help me try again.
When I have tried to when myself off if sugar I ha d tried like you to eat more healthier food but unbelievably I discovered some of those foods could also be unhealthy if you happen to have a medical condition. An example being that I love eating avocado Bananas but because I have a kidney issue because they are hard to process through the body I have been advised to avoiding eating either of them. Another alternative food I have used is roasted peanuts and would you believe just recently after eating them on several occasions I have felt feint after cycling so I now avoid eating them. However I do still try to eat as healthy as I can and I find your point about sweets giving you an headache intriguing so I will once again try cutting down on sweets as I do suffer from headaches at times as well.
Diet and nutrition are so complicated. In the end, I’m just trying to make incremental changes and not be too hard on myself about these things. It can make a person crazy!
interesting read. I gave up sugar Jan 2019. Just like you, I had done some research and decided to give it a try. Never looked back. Recently I watched a doc. on you tube Sugar the bitter truth, very informative. Worth watching. I have also created some recipes that are sweetened with dates. Muffins, cookies and even baked beans. They have all turned out great.
That’s inspiring! I hope to continue this path, and will have to look at some of the alternatives you mention.
Just wondering, now you have given up sugar how do you fuel when on a Rando?
Hi Frank, sorry for the delay in responding. I’m actually working on a post addresses your question. I will also caveat this by saying that my longest ride this year was around 170 miles, which is shorter than most other years.