Six weeks ago, I quit sugar.
I know this sounds really extreme and odd (and yes, I can actually hear you rolling your eyes from all the way over here), but that’s what I did. I quit sugar. In fact, not only did I quit sugar, I quit all things sweet, including artificial sweeteners and, for the time being, fruit.
You want to know why. Everybody has wanted to know why. Everybody has been so confused (and sometimes actually angry) that I would go and do this. That I would go and quit sugar. And, I admit, six months ago, I probably would have reacted the same way. So just hang on a second while I pull out my soapbox…
I don’t want to be one of those people who goes on and on, preaching about what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” I don’t want to tell you what to do or how to be. Everybody is entitled to their own decision making, their own lifestyle, their own ways of seeing and of being. But. I just can’t go on any longer without sharing with you this sort of amazing, sort of life-changing secret of mine.
It started with a box of peanut butter granola bars, which very quickly became an empty box of peanut butter granola bars. It was a weeknight, it was late, and I was sitting on my bed watching something or other on Netflix. And I was hungry. Well, maybe not hungry, per se. Let’s call it taste-curious. Basically, I wanted something to eat. I pulled the box of granola bars from my cupboard, returned to bed, and ate one. Then I ate another one. Then I finished the box. And, in case you’re wondering, yes, I am very embarrassed to admit this. What’s more embarrassing is that after I depleted my granola bar supply, I quickly moved on to a six pack of ripened bananas, sitting atop my dresser. I ate them all too.
Why did I do this? I wasn’t hungry. But the granola bars, they were so sweet and crunchy, the peanut butter was sticky, but smooth — candy-like. The bananas, just a little bruised, but perfectly ripe, perfectly rich, were like sweet, sweet honey. And I couldn’t get enough.
When I was done, I felt very, very unwell — just as I often had after my frequent gorgings of (my very favorite) York Peppermint Patties, during which I always exhibited remarkable endurance and speed. Or how I felt whenever I bought a box of cookies and, like a fiend, just could not keep my hands off of them — so much so that, on a number of occasions, I actually had to throw them away to keep myself from eating any more. It was also how I had felt on Christmas Eve, when I devoured three bowls of Kahlua-chocolate-toffee trifle and then spent the rest of the night in bed wide-awake.
I am not overweight. In fact, in the last year or so, thanks to rediscovering my love for running, I have lost some weight. After the granola bar incident, it is important to note that my concerns were not about weight gain. They were about control, and happiness, and peace of mind. That fated evening, I had no control, I was very unhappy, and I didn’t sleep all night. Something in my body had taken over, and I was just along for the ride. I was sugar-drunk. And, quite clearly, sugar-dependent.
The next morning, I Googled “quitting sugar,” expecting to find some errant, unhelpful results. On the contrary. I stumbled upon Sarah Wilson’s blog. She had written an eight-week quit program and a cookbook, both titled I Quit Sugar. I did more research. So much research. As it turned out, this was something that a lot of people were talking about.
Five things I learned:
- The average American consumes over 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, which, for women, happens to be 17 teaspoons more than the daily recommended 5 teaspoons (20 grams).
- A fruit-flavored serving of yogurt, like the Chobani cups I knew and loved so well, contains around 19 grams of sugar, at least two-thirds of which are added. (Imagine a cup of plain yogurt with 3 teaspoons of sugar mixed in.) I was often eating at least two of these each day.
- The Paul Newman Cabernet Marinara Sauce that I was so obsessed with? 9 grams total sugar in just 1/2 cup.
- A cup of Silk vanilla almond milk, not as good for me as I had thought, contains 16 grams of added sugar — the dark chocolate variety 21.
- Many granola bars weigh in at around 20 grams of added sugar. In a sitting, I had eaten a box containing six bars — and approximately 600% of my daily recommended sugar intake. (And that 600% is not counting the very sweet bananas. Or anything else I had eaten the whole day.)
Why was I eating so much sugar? For humans, sugar addiction (or its binging) is part of our hard-wiring. Back in the good old days of hunting and gathering, when our nutrition relied upon what was available in nature, foods high in sugar were rare. Because these sweet foods were high in calories, and because these calories could later on help one to survive famine, the brain told the body to eat as much of them as was available. The same thing goes for fats. This is part of the reason why we all love cake and we all love french fries. Our gluttony is, in many ways, a survival mechanism.
The problem is that, these days — at least in middle-class America — there is no famine. Only feast. And boy, was I feasting. Our enchantment with sweet foods — once part of a system for human survival — is now, in the context of an only increasingly industrialized Western food culture, a huge, huge issue.
Because nowadays the government actually subsidizes the corn industry — the producers of the inexpensive and now hugely over-abundant high-fructose corn syrup — American processed food is sweeter and cheaper than ever. And not only are we paying for it with our tax dollars, we are paying with our health. According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 27% of Americans over the age of 65 have diabetes. Type II diabetes, once called “adult-onset diabetes,” can no longer be referred to as such, since it’s affecting children and adolescents more than ever. This crisis, which the National Institute of Health estimated cost Americans $174 billion in the year 2007 alone — an increase of 32% in just five years — is a strictly Western crisis. And it is undoubtedly linked to the refinement, industrialization, and errant, irresponsible sweetening of food.
According to Michael Pollan in his book In Defense Of Food, “One of the most momentous changes in the American diet since 1909 (when the USDA first began keeping track) has been the increase in the percentage of calories coming from sugars, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Add to that the percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates (roughly 40 percent, or ten servings, nine of which are refined) and Americans are consuming a diet that is at least half sugars in one form or another — calories providing virtually nothing but energy” (112). Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are added to almost all processed foods, even things you would not expect — breads, salad dressing, cold cuts, peanut butters. Sugar was even the second-listed ingredient in my beloved put-it-on-everything sauce, sriracha. Good grief!
In order to take control of the mechanism that facilitates this sweet addiction, the great and powerful people of the internet (including Sarah Wilson and her cohort) urged me to give it up completely — cold turkey — at least for a month or two, and then wait and see how my body and mind reacted to the experiment.
I decided to cut added sugar out of my diet completely. I also decided to cut out artificial sweeteners, since they were part of the same binging mechanism (and boy, did I have Stevia, Splenda, and Diet Cokes stashed in just about every drawer of my life). And, for the short haul, I also made the decision to cut out fruit and, for the first couple of weeks, to limit vegetables that were particularly high in fructose (like sweet potatoes). I went totally sweet-free, and I haven’t looked back since.
Five more things I learned:
- Now that I don’t eat sweets, I don’t crave sweets. At all. I am in control, and I feel awesome. Better — and happier — than I’ve ever felt.
- I’ve always had trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, and feeling well-rested. Not anymore. I sleep like a champion. And I find that I need even less sleep than I did before. I almost always wake up early, but since I quit sugar, I have regularly been waking up early-early, well-rested and ready to start my day. I feel more productive than I’ve ever felt, and I have a steady stream of energy for the whole day.
- I feel well again. No more headaches, no more fuzzy-headed sugar hangovers in the morning. Cutting sugar also meant cutting a lot of processed foods, which in turn meant cutting out a lot of harmful preservatives and chemicals. There’s a lot to be said for this kind of detoxification — even if its benefits are (as so many people sneer) only psychological.
- Removing sugar means adding other things — things that are good for me. This means drinking a lot more water, eating a lot more real, plant-based foods, cooking dinner every night instead of taking some sad Trader Joe’s chana masala out of a box and popping it into the microwave. Cutting sugar didn’t mean that I had to leave some vast inimitable void — I can fill up that void with things that are good for me, things I can feel good about.
- This positive change has lead to other positive changes — notably, I have cut out processed foods entirely. The reading that I started when I first made this decision has lead to more reading, more documentary-watching, more talking with friends and with people on the internet. In the past couple of months and from a variety of platforms, I’ve learned so much about the food I was eating and the products I was putting in and on my body — not only about their potentially hazardous effect on my health, wellness, and happiness, but also their political implications and environmental impacts. I have the choice to “opt out” and to make better-informed decisions, and I am making that choice and those decisions. In short, the learning that I’ve done is the kind of learning that has forced me to either defend the way I was living or change it. I’ve chosen the latter. And I hope I can stick with it.
And it’s as simple as that.