I Stopped Eating Sugar For A Week & Here's What Happened
I love sugar. If you go to my author profile (I will wait while you click it), it clearly states that my favorite food is graham cracker pie crust, which is a delightful food that you make by crushing up graham crackers (which have sugar in them!) and adding more sugar and butter (yum). I love it so much that the thought of giving up sugar for a week is complete and utter blasphemy to my life and my ears. But sugar has been getting a fair amount of bad press lately, and a lot of the hippies that I hang around have nothing but bad things to say about it. I figured, what the hell, I’d quit sugar for a week and see if I magically felt any better. It didn't seem like it would be particularly difficult, and maybe it would even be good for me! And if it didn't make a difference in my health, then I'd have something to point to when people give me crap about being a sugar fiend. It really felt like a win-win.
Besides my love of all things dessert, I actually eat a pretty healthy and balanced, mostly vegetarian, diet. Before getting pregnant I didn't really keep sweets in the house, but because breastfeeding makes me so very hungry, I've basically been eating anything to fill the void for the last eight months. (Which, for the record, I don't think is necessarily a bad thing.) But maybe this experiment was exactly what I needed to rein in my late night ice cream parties. Regardless, I was excited to get started.
The idea was simple: For one week I wouldn’t consume any refined sugar. I would keep my diet more or less the same (that way I would be able to see what kind of affect cutting out sugar specifically had on my body and my mind) which is to say, plant based, lots of veggies, and mostly whole grains. I would still be allowed to eat fruit, but because I know myself (and how much I adore sweet things), I decided not to let myself use natural sweeteners (like honey or agave nectar) as a crutch.
The Night Before
I realized we still had part of a carton of chocolate mouse tracks in the house. To avoid temptation during the week, I ate it all. My wife laughed at me. Whatever, no shame.
My first test: Coffee without sugar. And I’ll tell you, my morning cup just tasted totally off. I don't have a whole lot of vices, but I look forward to my morning cup of coffee and it’s the thing that motivates me to actually climb out of the bed, especially in the winter time. I take my coffee with both milk and sugar, because I both love myself and deserve to be happy. I was really trying not to start out grumpy, and I figured that it was only one week, and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it legitimately sucked to not have the sweet, comforting, first sip of the day. Having a savory breakfast was easy (toast with cream cheese and tomato! Yum!) but I still found myself sulking all throughout my meal, despite my efforts to stay positive.
In the afternoon I packed up the baby and went out to lunch with a friend. When the waiter came by, I accidentally ordered a soda without even thinking about it. I’m not even the kind of person who always orders a drink when I go out to eat, but I had this horrible lingering cough that I picked up, and I thought the bubbles would feel nice on my throat. They did. I was halfway through my delicious, bubbly, lemon-lime sugar water before I realized what I’d done. I felt so stupid and embarrassed, I was just cringing at myself. For a minute I felt like the experiment was ruined, but then I decided to go full steam ahead and pay more attention the next day. Day one was a stumble, not a fall, and I resolved to be better on day two.
Sugarless coffee was still a big old disappointment, but I was so embarrassed from my infraction on Monday that I didn’t even let myself think about it. I just powered through. I felt really humbled on day two because I’d gone into this feeling so smug and I was slowly realizing that this experiment was harder than I thought and expected. The main challenge was just paying enough attention to not accidentally put something in my mouth that I shouldn’t. It turns out sugar is literally everywhere.
My wife was off from work, so I left her with our baby and took the bus up to the cheap grocery store to get some groceries. We needed beans and other food for the week, and what I had failed to remember was that the cheap grocery store is full of cheap candy, and it’s all right in your face the second you walk through the door. The fact that I was trying not to look at it just made it worse, and I basically had to hurry through the store with my head down until I got to the safety of the dried beans.
By the time I was done grocery shopping, I was absolutely starving, and I had a wait before the bus came. I figured hey, this experiment was about not eating sugar, not about eating “healthy” across the board, so I popped into a fast food place to get some fries. It felt like the advertisements for milkshakes were all specifically targeted at me, but I stayed strong! When I bit into my first fry, it tasted so good that all I could think was, “oh no, what if these have sugar on them?”
It was only day two, and I had accidentally cheated on day one, but already I was missing sugar so much that I couldn’t imagine how something would taste good without it. Maybe I have a problem?
I powered through my coffee, and powered through the day. I actually hardly even thought about missing sugar, but maybe it was because I was mostly at home, and since there was no sugar to be had in my house (unless you count the bag of the pure stuff in the cupboard), there was no temptation. I was feeling pretty good about myself. In the afternoon, I took my son to the art museum with a friend.
Thankfully, she did not want to get lunch, so there was no risk. I wondered if maybe I would start to feel some of the supposed health benefits of a sugar-free lifestyle soon. Maybe I would have more energy? Maybe my skin would clear up? It was all very exciting! But by the end of the day, I was definitely feeling the loss. I didn’t even realize before this that I was eating sweets every single day, but I must have been, because otherwise why would three days be such a hardship?
On day four a very strange thing happened. Are you ready for this? The coffee tasted really, really … good, actually! I've never been able to understand people who drink unsweetened coffee because coffee is delicious but it is so bitter that I feel like it really needs that helping hand, but apparently it takes about four days to adjust. Who knew!? (Not me.)
I bragged to my wife about how I’d totally adjusted to my new coffee routine, and she was maybe not as excited about it as I was. She said: "It’s been what? Three days? And one of those you cheated?"
I could see how it was a little amusing, but hey, I was growing and changing and learning! Go me! In the afternoon, she was going to stop at the store to get milk on her way home, and I almost begged her to get me ice cream. Because apparently I hadn’t grown and changed THAT much, and apparently the hippies were all right and sugar is an addiction and I am horribly addicted, and oh, god.
Everything was going fine on day five and I was feeling really, really good. My wife needed to go to the doctor, so we borrowed a car and me, her, and the baby all bundled up to head out to the one clinic that could see her. Of course it took way longer than anticipated, and by the time she had actually seen the doctor we were all starving and it was almost dinner time. My blood sugar was so low I was shaking and definitely not feeling comfortable carrying a squirming 8 month old around a CVS while we waited for a prescription. So we went to a nearby diner, which we’d never been to.
I don’t have any pictures of this, because my phone died right before, but we somehow ended up in a diner with a truly impressive number of baked goods on display. We’re talking about a countertop completely covered in beautiful, tall, majestic looking cakes. A display case filled with chocolate eclairs and cake pops and I don’t know what else but it was all glorious. I wanted to eat them all. I just could not stop salivating. Instead, I got a black bean burger, which was just OK. After our meal, the waitress asked if we had any room for dessert. I lied through my teeth. I had so much room for dessert, more room than you could ever know.
By day six, I had the sugarless coffee thing totally down, and although I did wistfully think of the joys of frozen waffles (you can put Nutella on them!), mornings were getting pretty easy.
The problem was, well, you know that fairly balanced diet I have? As it happens, it’s only fairly balanced, and when you spend your whole day taking care of a baby sometimes you forget to eat. If that happens, your blood sugar can bottom out, and the fastest and easiest way to get it back up is, well, sugar. This is what happened to me. I know that while sweet snacks work quickly in these situations, the thing is that the energy doesn’t last and sweet grab-n-go snacks aren’t really the best option for me! It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if I had had some great, healthy, easy, snacks at the ready, but it was almost grocery day and because I wasn’t otherwise changing my diet, it hadn’t occurred to me to buy more of that kind of thing than usual.
So there I was, mid-afternoon, knowing my wife wouldn’t be home for hours. I was dizzy and I had a crying baby to contend with, and I was making emergency pasta. I was ready for this experiment to be over.
By the seventh day, I was totally over it. It turns out avoiding sugar is kind of hard, because there are small amounts of it in all kinds of things (for example, I've had a nasty cough for over a month but couldn’t have a stupid cough drop). Needing to constantly remind myself that there is sugar in cough drops and sugar in barbecue sauce, made it harder to just enjoy my food and enjoy my life, because it put the focus on what I wasn’t eating. That’s my main problem with diets in general.
I was trying to be positive, but I was really, really struggling. I thought what I would do was make myself a savory food that I really love so that I wouldn’t feel so obsessed. I was getting ready to make myself a really fancy pizza, when I remembered that there is SUGAR in the crust for the yeast. I think the yeast eats most of the sugar, but I couldn’t be sure there wouldn’t be trace amounts remaining, so I had to skip it. My day was ruined.
I hadn’t noticed any positive health benefits yet, I was just frustrated.
Right after the experiment was over, my period started for the first time since having my son. I still think I probably have some kind of sugar-addiction problem, but we are talking about my first period in almost a year and a half, so it makes sense that the lead up to it would be filled with emotions and most especially food cravings. I had no way to know, but this was probably the worst possible week for me to try this.
Would I Quit Sugar Forever?
I still feel like when people compare sugar to drugs they are being a bit overdramatic (and also really unfair to those suffering from actual drug addiction, which can destroy lives) but after this experience, I’m more inclined to listen to claims that sugar is an addictive substance. I still love sweets, and I’m still going to enjoy my dessert from time to time, but I feel like doing this opened my eyes to how out of hand my sugar consumption has become. I also wonder if maybe I would have felt more health benefits if I had done the experiment for longer than a week? I can’t be sure, and I’m honestly not eager to try it again in a hurry!
Especially with as my son grows and starts to enjoy eating food more and more, I really don’t want him to normalize eating massive quantities of sugar. I want him to have a healthy relationship with food, which includes occasionally enjoying sweets without guilt, but not needing it all the time. It’s my job to model that for him!
But, I’m on my first period in forever, so I made my wife go out and get me chocolate ice cream. No regrets.