You may think you’ve had a love affair with sugar, but you haven’t. I have. And it was intense.
At 4 p.m. sharp every workday, I would open my desk drawer for “cocktail hour,” aka the time when I indulged in as many cookies, candies and s’mores Goldfish as acceptable in a professional environment. At 7 p.m., it was time for a margarita with dinner. At midnight, it was fresh-baked cookies in bed. Seven in the morning meant a vanilla latte. (Hold the latte, extra vanilla.)
In short, I was in love with sugar. So last spring, I made a resolution to eat better, like so many people do at the start of a new year. Specifically, I decided to “give up sugar” for Lent, the 46-day period leading up to Easter. The plan was simple: Stop eating refined sugar, and feel like a healthy, bionic champion.
Forty-six days later, I was NOT a bionic champion. But I did learn a lot about sugar, and what “giving up sugar” should actually look and feel like.
Firstly, I should note that I was “giving up sugar” all wrong.
I told myself I would stop eating refined sugar, which I loosely defined as corn syrup and the grainy, white stuff we add to cookies and cakes. I decided that any food or drink which listed “corn syrup” or “sugar” as an ingredient was off-limits. More “natural” sweeteners, however, like honey and maple syrup, were still allowed. I knew most ketchup contained a crazy amount of corn syrup, but I decided I could eat as much as I wanted. Just for fun.
My plan was seriously flawed.
Clearly my plan was problematic for a number of reasons, but its main flaw was that it allowed me to eat as much honey and maple syrup as I wanted, because I thought they were “freebies” in the nutrition world. Turns out they’re not. There are two general categories of sugar:
1) Natural sugars. These occur naturally in food and drink. Lactose is a sugar naturally found in milk, and apples naturally contain fructose, glucose and sucrose. They aren’t considered “bad” for you in that U.S. dietary guidelines don’t limit how much of them you should consume.
2) Added sugars. As you can guess, this is any sugar we add to food that wasn’t there in the first place. This includes table sugar and corn syrup. But it also includes honey, maple syrup and sweeteners like agave nectar and brown rice syrup, which contain sugar but don’t naturally occur in, say, the oats or bread we slather them upon.
There are strict guidelines for how much of this added sugar you should consume. The U.S. Food And Drug Administration recommends no more than 50 grams of added sugar per day. The type doesn’t matter: It can come from adding honey to your oatmeal or dumping corn syrup into your muffin mix. Because as it turns out,
All sugar affects your body pretty much the same.
You may think the more “natural” added sugar in honey is healthier than the more “processed” added sugar in corn syrup. This isn’t true. A recent study confirmed that honey has the same effect on the body as corn syrup. In excess, both kinds of sugar damage your weight, heart health and brain function equally.
Of course, a little syrup on your pancakes every now and then won’t hurt. But most of us don’t realize that food companies sneak sugar into everything they can, from salad dressing to pasta sauce. Even a healthy-sounding Clif Bar has 22 grams of sugar, much of it in the form of healthy-sounding “organic brown rice syrup.”
So, what should I have done to “give up sugar?”
It isn’t necessary to limit natural sugars like the ones in milk and fruit, Dr. William Dietz, an obesity prevention expert at George Washington University, told HuffPost. But he said that in order to truly “give up” the sugar that is harmful to my body, I should have stopped eating all added sugars, including the ones I thought were “healthy” like honey and maple syrup. Of course, ketchup definitely shouldn’t have been allowed.
So I “gave up sugar” all wrong. But even with my small sugar restriction, I did notice some changes in how I felt and acted. Namely,
While I was “giving up sugar,” I couldn’t stop thinking about cookies.
The first few days “without sugar” felt great, like I was going through a detox my body desperately needed. Then, the cravings reared their sugary heads. I was at a friend’s birthday party, talking to my roommate, when suddenly all I could think about, see or smell were the cookies on the table behind her. It was like I had a laser focus on that sugar source, and I couldn’t think of anything else. Was this evidence of the “sugar addiction” I had read so much about?
Probably not, says Dr. Dietz.
In order to even have a chance of experiencing sugar withdrawals, he says, I would’ve had to do something like a ketogenic diet, which cuts out the natural sugar from fruit along with refined sugars and refined carbohydrates (which the body eventually reduces into sugar). Since I was eating fruit, carbs and all sorts of sneaky added sugars, it’s unlikely my crazy cookie craving was a result of withdrawal.
I also craved fatty, fried foods more.
Since I couldn’t look forward to my dessert kick at the end of the day, I began looking forward to and eating fried chicken and French fries more. Much more. Again, Dr. Dietz said there’s no physiological basis for this. But still, my desire for fried goodies took months to subside, even after I started eating more sugar again.
If I had actually given up sugar the serious way, Dr. Dietz says, there may have been two to three days where I felt like I had a light flu, complete with headaches, fatigue and nausea. That’s because your body needs to adjust to running on substances called ketones instead of its usual sugar.
But overall, I felt more like a strong, powerful human.
Before I “gave up sugar,” it felt like I simply had to try every cookie, candy and crazy dessert that crossed my desk. (And at this job, that happens a lot.) I’d feel a tinge of guilt every time I popped another Oreo in my mouth, knowing it wasn’t the healthiest choice. But the novelty of a new flavor made me eat it anyway.
But after I “gave up sugar,” I had an excuse to say no to that temptation, and it felt great. I got a morale boost from realizing I could successfully “give up sugar” if I set my mind to it. Research shows that “small wins,” like saying no to a cookie or making your bed in the morning, can give you the motivation to make even bigger life changes.
And THAT is what new years resolutions are all about.