I cut out sugar for a week — and it completely changed the way I think about my diet
I don’t consider myself someone with a sweet tooth. I wouldn’t mind if I never touched chocolate again, as long as I could have all the potato chips in the world.
So when my editor asked me to try and go a week without added sugar, I thought it would be pretty easy. I was wrong.
Because my editor is a benevolent and just ruler, she initially said I could have the daily recommended amount of added sugar a day, which the American Heart Association says is about 9.5 teaspoons for adults. We then tried to settle on something a little lower so this would be a challenge for someone who doesn’t eat a lot of sugar to begin with. We decided that I could have natural sugars that comes from fruits, dairy, and natural sweeteners.
But because I am a Taurus and stubborn AF, I resolved to have no added sugar at all. I even decided to steer clear of natural sweeteners like honey and agave. You know, for the content.
I follow Weight Watchers where, generally, food that is low in sugar is lower in points. So I resolved to try and follow my program while still maintaining no added sugar. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it full out.
I did some initial research to determine exactly what I could have during this week. Thankfully because of the popularity of Whole30 and the paleo diet, there is no shortage of sugar-free recipes on Pinterest.
I made myself a Pinterest board of approved meals (which you can see for yourself here) and a shopping list for the week. Unsurprisingly, the list consisted largely of whole foods and barely any processed foods, as those tend to be packed with sweeteners.
I also looked at my favorite snacks and common meals to see how much adjusting I’d need to do. Unless I pack leftovers from the night before, my go-to lunch is hummus, carrots, cucumbers, a mini pita, and some form of fruit. Thankfully I found I could stick with my go-to lunch, minus the pita. R.I.P carbs!
Unfortunately, pretty much all of my favorite snacks were out of the question. That meant no instant oatmeal, PB2 powder, Quest bars, pretzels, bagel thins, Diet Coke, yogurt or veggie straws. I should have taken this to be my first sign that this would be tougher than I thought.
I started out my week feeling pretty good. I prepared some strawberry and banana muffins for the week, which I ate for breakfast. Those lasted me through most of the week and when I ran out, I made carrot breakfast cookies.
Both tasted good since they were flavored naturally with fruit, but a little brown sugar or sweetener would have made them great. They definitely didn’t taste like your average muffin though. My friend who tried one had to slather it in peanut butter to deem it worthy of eating.
I drink my coffee black, so I thought this would be a fairly easy task. I forgot, however, that flavored coffees likely have sugar on the beans. There was no way to find out if our work’s coffee contained sugar, so I had to sit in envy as the hazelnut scent from my co-worker’s mug filled the air.
Lunch wasn’t bad at all because, as I said, I eat the same thing pretty much every day. Though not eating carbs made me more hungry more quickly, I snacked on a banana and almond butter in the afternoons to keep me full and get some carbs in my system.
Dinner was fairly easy. As it turns out, I don’t really cook a lot of sugar-filled meals. The only time I had a bit of a problem is when I thought the pasta I bought containing sugar (it didn’t.) I even cooked for friends during this time, and they didn’t even notice the food was sugar-free.
I aspire to be a ‘Chopped’ chef and absolutely love to cook. I also live in New York City, which has a grocery store on every corner. But if I didn’t know how to cook or if I lived in an area with limited access to fresh produce, I could see how difficult this challenge could be. I couldn’t just Seamless some pad Thai if I was feeling tired, and many quick, calorically-satisfying foods contained too much sugar.
The weekend is when things got difficult. I resolved to be social through this experiment, and it was ultimately my downfall.
I made plans to go out to dinner for my friend’s birthday, which meant doing a lot of research beforehand. I’m used to this because of Weight Watchers, but it usually just requires looking up nutritional info for a certain dish. This weekend I was frantically Googling “What alcohol contains added sugar?”
I was surprised to learn that technically, a lot of wine doesn’t contain any added sugar. It does contain natural sugar or fructose, and may contain more added sugar, depending on the dryness. Whiskey, vodka, and rum don’t contain any added sugar, and don’t even contain fructose. Of course, people tend to pair them with sugary mixers so they’re often out of the question.
After a happy hour of safe cocktails, we went to an amazing Italian restaurant where I was assured the food I ordered didn’t have any added sugar. I picked something actually relatively sweet (it contained walnuts and a dash of cream) and after days without anything starchy or creamy, it tasted like Buddy The Elf’s famous candy spaghetti.
I had one major mishap in my journey. In my “yay, I can have some alcohol!” state, I ordered a sangria, which of course, is usually loaded with sugary liquors and additives. Because I cut down my sugar intake, the headache was definitely worse the next morning.
I did fare far better the next day though, despite my moment of masochism. I made my friend a birthday cake during the day on Saturday, and when the house filled with the smell of Funfetti I nearly ate the entire cake myself.
But I persevered, choosing to instead drink some seltzer, vodka and grapefruit juice while the rest of my dinner guests ate the cake. I also had to watch them all eat tacos while I could only eat the fillings sans shell — an experience I sincerely hope none of you ever have to go through.
On Sunday, out of habit, I asked my boyfriend to pick me up a Diet Coke, because I forgot to make coffee that morning. When I went to open it, I quickly remembered I couldn’t have it and sadly returned it to its chilly home in my fridge. I did, however, make one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
How it made me feel:
Because I didn’t do this challenge for a long time, it’s hard to know what was a result of the challenge and what was just how I happened to feel that week.
The first day after going off sugar, I woke up with a bit of a stomachache. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with lack of sugar, but it definitely felt like a bit of a hangover, which is consistent with what other people have said when they tried to reduce sugar.
The next day, however, I did a 180. I sprung out of bed 15 minutes earlier than normal, moved faster than ever on my run, and enjoyed my plain, black coffee.
I also was able to last longer between breakfast and lunch. I’m normally starving by 12:30, but this week I went until around 2 p.m. before I was hungry. This leads me to believe that I need to incorporate more whole oats into my breakfasts to keep me full.
But as the week went on, the challenge took a bit of a mental toll on me. I had to question every single thing that came across my plate, which gave me a weird, icky relationship with food. I began seeing some foods as “good” and others as “bad” which is just not true. Anything can be “good” in moderation.
Because I steered clear of certain foods, I found myself loading up on “safe” foods, which meant I ate tons of raw vegetables and fruits. By Thursday, even though I had a beautiful zoodle dinner in front of me, the thought of digesting another raw vegetable made me feel exhausted and gassy.
In a big coincidence, my coworker Joanna wrote about her experience cutting out salads due to stomach issues, and I can completely relate. I have never burped so much in my life as I did this week, and though I ended up losing three pounds, the stomach bloat made me feel like I gained five.
Though I normally eat tons of vegetables, they’re often cooked and supplemented by carbs or grains that are easier to digest than quinoa. This was mainly a fault of my own cooking, as I could have included some potatoes or rice in my meals. But in my sheer will to cut out sugar, I didn’t think about that. In short, I went too far.
What I took away:
Added sugar is in almost everything that we eat. Although the average person is eating way too much sugar— about 22 teaspoons for adults and 32 teaspoons for children— it may surprise you to hear that it’s not all exactly coming from mac and cheese stuffed donuts and sky-high ice cream cones. It also comes from processed food, sauces, and other “savory” things that we may think are healthier, or at least low in sugar.
This challenge changed how I look at my own diet. If done the right way, this didn’t have to be so hard. Just taking a hard look at what I eat and swapping a few things out for low-sugar or non-processed food is a good thing, and clearly made me feel good at first. Having more whole foods in my diet is definitely something I’ll be sticking to.
But this also opened my eyes to how dangerous it is to be militant about what you’re eating. If I had a craving for something sugary or even considered something that I thought might be processed with sugar, I felt myself go in the total opposite direction and ate even more raw food because I knew it was “safe” to eat.
And though that may seem healthy, no one should be afraid of food. If I wasn’t doing this for work and, instead, was following a fad diet, this thinking could cause me to depriving myself of some key nutrients for a long period of time.
It’s not healthy to deprive yourself of anything, and that’s why Weight Watchers has been super appealing to me. I don’t find myself desperately pawing at a piece of bread, because I know I can have that if I want to.
Going so far in the other direction though, I felt myself falling into the mindset of militant dieting, and felt guilt and shame about wanting certain foods — that scared me.
We should all strive to be healthier, and yes, cutting down on added sugar is a huge part of that. But if you’re quivering in fear of your Diet Coke cravings, you could be doing your body an even bigger disservice than having the occasional donut.
As always, balance is key. So even though I’ll be cutting down on the amount of processed foods I reach for, I don’t think I’ll be beating myself up about a slip-up anytime soon.