Sugar has become a dirty word. Once a term of endearment, evocative of all things sweet and nice, it has now become the curse word of the health and fitness industry.
It’s no secret that Americans, on average, are consuming way too much of it, with intakes weighing in at a whopping 130 pounds each year. (If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that number, imagine downing a five-pound bag of sugar every two weeks.) Sugar tops the list of inflammatory foods, which can drive conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and vascular dementia. It may exacerbate depression and anxiety, and more anecdotally has been negatively linked to energy levels and acne. Some go so far as to deem it an addictive poison, capable of altering hormones and ultimately driving obesity.
Cue thousands of people calling it quits on the sweet stuff and shouting from the rooftops how their lives have been transformed, seemingly overnight.
Now, I have a habit of instantly dismissing anything that skyrockets into trendiness the way that sugar “detoxes” have, but color me curious because this registered dietitian right here also happens to have a serious sweet tooth. I fill my day with nutritious foods and genuinely love every bite, but when I do have dessert, I have dessert. Go big or go home has been my general approach in the past. Could my after-dinner sugar habit be the one thing holding me back? What would my life be like without sugar?
So in June 2015 I conducted an experiment in which I was the guinea pig: I stopped eating sugar. In all forms. Cold turkey. For two months. (You can read more about why I wanted to do this “sugar reset” and how I designed it over on my blog.)
And I emerged a totally new person, invigorated with a zeal for life like I had never felt before! It changed my life! All of my troubles were gone!
Okay, so eliminating sugar from my diet wasn’t quite as revolutionary as all that. I didn’t feel shaky, foggy, or lethargic coming “off” it. I didn’t magically start dropping weight or feel less bloated. My skin issues didn’t change a bit. My energy levels throughout the day weren’t dramatically affected.
Here’s what did happen:
– I stopped craving sweets. I honestly, genuinely did not miss sugar-laden foods at all. Even when I “ended” the experiment at eight weeks, I had no real desire to intentionally bring sugar back in; I simply no longer went out of my way to avoid it.
– I really started to appreciate the nuanced, earthy flavors of foods that hadn’t been enhanced by any sweeteners. I fell in love with these overnight oats, which before the reset I would have dismissed as bland. And a single square of unsweetened chocolate spread with all-natural peanut butter? Total party in my mouth.
– I woke up most mornings feeling more rested than usual, and my dreams were, overall, much tamer. (I have super bizarre dreams.)
– I never got “hangry” like I used to. I was very in tune with my hunger, but even when I went a little too long between meals, I never seemed to get irritable or emotionally volatile as a result of it.
– I stopped feeling “munchy” after dinner. I used to always want to curl up with a little something with my evening movie, but after the first few weeks I was able to effortlessly distinguish between this desire to eat and physical hunger.
– Even now, months after reintroducing sugar into my diet, I prefer my foods to be less sweet than I did before.
Sounds amazing, right? Only, I stopped eating at restaurants. Most packaged foods, even otherwise healthy ones, were out. No matter how nonchalant I tried to be, the experiment isolated me from others. Food should enrich our lives, not define it, and I found that both relying on sugar too much and quitting it completely result in the latter.
My experiment was indeed eye-opening, but now, months later, I understand that at its core, it wasn’t about sugar at all. I crave sweetness in moments when I’m least in sync with my body. I turn to sugar because it’s easy. I choose it because it’s always there. “Quitting” sugar was a Band-Aid fix at best, but the real work of tuning into and respecting my body’s cues is ongoing.
My advice? Forget the sugar detoxes. Instead, make honest but nonjudgmental observations about your choices. When do you turn to sugar for pure enjoyment, and when is it simply the easy, don’t-have-to-think-at-the-end-of-a-long-day choice? What void is sugar filling in your life? When do you eat it out of hunger, and when is it out of habit?
Life is too short to eat without intention. This year, I plan to make every bite count.