What I Learned About Going Sugar-Free and Low Carb for One Week and Nearly so for Five More
Why Did I Decide to Give Up Sugar and Cut Back on Carbohydrates
I am allergic to dairy so there are not a lot of breads and sweets I can consume, but that does not stop me from eating too much of the ones that don't have dairy and while I try to eat healthy most of the time, I like sweets and bristled every time someone said, "Sweets are Poison!!!" or "Sweets cause inflammation!" and the all time favorite, "Sugar Causes Cancer and Heart Disease". If sugar caused cancer and heart disease then my 101 year old grandmother would have bit the dust long before that. Still, I had to admit that I consumed too many sweets and too much bread and it probably wasn't good for me.
The kicker came when three agitated health-nut friends kept telling me that sugar was as addictive as cocaine and alcohol. I knew this to not be true, so set out to prove them wrong. Leading up to this experiment, I was eating about 100 grams of sugar a day or about a half cup. That may sound like a lot, but if doesn't take long to consume that much, especially if you are eating baked goods, sauces and salad dressings.
Most of that sugar was added sugar, though some came naturally in whole foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. I didn't drink sodas and rarely drank juice, though did on occasion drink a small amount of watered down sweet tea or a few sips of a sports beverage to "wake me up".
My main source of sugar came from vegan dark chocolate bars. Even though I was never a big fan of chocolate by itself, I loved the creamy feeling of the chocolate melting on my tongue, but vegan chocolate is expensive and I kept thinking, I am eating almost a bar of this every day and I really need to stop.
My solution was to go to the Dollar Store and buy some one dollar boxes of vegan cookies, but they had so much sugar and no nutrient value and once I started eating one, it was really hard not to keep eating more.
While I had not gained weight, I was bloated all the time, my teeth felt overly sensitive and I wanted something sweet after EVERY meal including breakfast and would binge on sweets when I got home from work as a means of blocking out feelings I did not want to feel. It wasn't a good thing and I knew I needed to stop, but it took me buying eight boxes of Pop Tarts on sale and consuming two boxes in one week to realize it had gone on long enough.
I had given up sugar before for Lent and had to revise it to no cookies, cakes, candy, etc. but allowed myself a granola bar (12 grams of sugar) here and there and of course fruit, but this time I wanted to see how long I could go without having any sugar from any source, including fruit, salad dressings, processed peanut butter and more. To that end I gave up bread and cereal as most of it contains sugar as well.
Is Sugar as Addictive as Cocaine?
If you like sweets like me and get irritated with all the people going "Paleo" and calling sugar a poison and as addictive as opioids, then you will understand why I decided to give it up entirely for three days, and then eat only naturally occurring sugars in fruits and veggies for another week and almost a half.
I confess that after about seven days of no added sugar, my mouth and my body felt bland. I missed that touch of sweet and I hate artificial sweeteners and Stevia, even the fresh leaf version, but it took me a while to give up sugar and I knew full well I would eat it again one day, which actually kind of helped with giving it up for this research.
First of all let me say I did not go into withdrawals, have cramps or headaches or sleep issues or anything similar. On day three of no sugar I went to the gym and rode really hard on the Expresso bike. After about forty minutes, I was sweating really hard and licked my lips and noticed a real bitter, chemical taste. I thought maybe I had placed my sweat towel in some cleaning fluid or something and smelled it and even touched my tongue to it, but it smelled fine, so I wiped all the sweat off my face and kept pedaling and noticed a really foul, slightly metallic and very bitter taste on the back of my tongue. Later a friend told me I had probably gone into ketosis and was burning fats instead of sugar for fuel. My body didn't feel any differently, but the taste would not go away even when I chewed some mint flavored sugar-free gum, so I ate a bit of apple when I got home and by the next day, the nasty taste was gone. I was a little tired and very constipated, but otherwise no negative symptoms.
Things I Noticed When I Gave Up Sugar
Mind you, if we were not designed to eat sugar, we would not have sweet receptors on our tongues! If you do not have any metabolic disorders,sugar will not harm you in small doses and when combined naturally with fiber filled fruits, it can actually be helpful, but let's face it, most of us eat too much of it and the more we eat, the more we seem to crave, so that is the first thing I noticed is that I stopped craving it as much or as often.
The hardest time to give up sugar for me, was late at night after I finished my dinner. I always used to treat myself to something sweet as a reward for making it through the day! Sometimes those little snacks turned into almost a meal by themselves and it was not uncommon, when I wanted a really decadent, high calorie sweet treat, that I would cut back about 300 or more calories on my nutritive food to make room for the non-nutritive sweets. I knew it was not healthy, but apples and carrot sticks just did not have the same soothing effect as a sweet roll or brownie.
The first day I cut out sugar, I actually fasted. It was a Friday night and I was going running in the morning with friends so figured I would eat a little something in the morning that was not sweet so I would have energy for the run, but when I woke up, I realized the only thing I really had that I could consume was almonds and I didn't want something that heavy so ran with no food at all and actually was not hungry and had plenty of energy. That surprised me.
When I got home I was really hungry and ate free range eggs and some vegan sausage made from soy, plus a slice of non-dairy cheese. It filled me up, but again, my mouth felt bland like I needed to brush my teeth, so I did and the shock of the sweetness from the toothpaste caught me off guard as I actually savored the sweetness before washing it out my mouth!
To be brief, I did not notice any real cravings for sugar, I was a bit tired and I did not want to drink as much water as normal and did not want to take in large amounts of calories. It was not until day three without sugar that I really started to miss it and contemplate ending the experiment.
The only snacks I ate in those three days and two weeks following were some tortilla chips that had no added sugar. What surprised me most was how much my bowel movements changed. When eating lots of bread and sugar I would go two to three times a day and never had issues going, but now I was straining to go and felt backed-up. Instead of going in the morning with no issues, I was struggling to go in the evenings and this caused some pain and discomfort throughout the day as well.
I had been consuming a lot of vegetables; mainly broccoli and spinach and beans and later carrots and tomatoes, so thought I was getting plenty of fiber, but around day four I started eating unsweetened oatmeal and flax and adding a touch of vegan butter to make it easier to consume. This did not help the bowels functioning at all. It was not until several weeks later that I read an article stating that sugar acted as a diuretic and made you urinate more. It also, like salt, made you drink more water to flush the sweet taste out your mouth, so am assuming this was part of the issue.
I never got cranky or irritated or shaky or anything those who claim people who are addicted to sugar go through when they give up sugar so my conclusion is as it always has been, you cannot be addicted to sugar, you can only desire it as a means to control your emotions and feelings and substitute feelings of dependency upon it, but not actually go into detox mode and shiver and shake and feel ill when you get off of it.
The big negative I noticed was that I had bathroom issues. The big positive issue was that I did not have to urinate as frequently. Normally I would poop in the morning and sometimes afternoon or evening as well; up to three times a day and urinate up to 20 times a day. With no sugar I was doing good to get one poop out in the early evening and would urinate maybe twice or more at work and three to four times at home. It saved a lot on toilet paper.
Also, my teeth were less on edge. When I eat a lot of sugar it makes my teeth more sensitive, but when I finally started adding in some sweets in the form of an orange the acid or the sugar or both brought tooth sensitivity back quickly.
But, did you feel better or lose weight?
To be honest, I did not feel any differently after one week of being off sugar. I did lose about two pounds though. The biggest change I noticed was that my mouth felt bland or sour as I think I was still sort of wavering into and out of a state of ketosis, though it was never as severe as it felt the first time. By day five I had to have a little sweet at work so ate a peppermint jelly belly and a cherry one and had to spit that one out after the shell wore off. That was just enough to 'wake up my mouth'.
After about two weeks I tried to keep my sugar grams from all sources below 12 grams a day. That's about three teaspoons full and about half the allotted sugar grams recommend for women per day. I was still having issues with not being able to poop normally and noticed that when I ate any amount of sugar, I had to pee like crazy less than a half hour after I consumed it.
Because of the no to hard to poop issue, I started eating oatmeal cooked in olive oil with some nutritional yeast flakes to eliminate as much sugar as possible, but I still had issues with bowel movements even adding whole grains, so suspect it has something to do with water retention in the bowels with sugar intake? This is something I will have to research for a later article.
I am now into week four of hardly any bread and sugar. I can say that I feel a bit more stabilized on energy levels, but I still get tired if I push myself too far or too fast. Oh! One thing I remember was that I let myself eat just a little sugar and I got really angry at the computer when it froze up on me. I mean, I had a little cursing fit and I don't usually curse, so I wondered if that rush of sugar affected my temperament negatively or if I was just having an off day.
Just this week I started consuming granola bars before runs again and so far have not had any negative results from it except for more normalized bowel movements. I had been told to expect less inflammation in my joints, but haven't noticed any changes there either.
After two weeks I stopped losing weight as well and it seemed like my body had adapted to the lower sugar calories and would not let me lose any more weight unless I drastically reduced calories. Even doing that, I barely lost a half pound in two days and would put it right back on if I ate a normal portion size.
I will say that allowing myself a little sugary treat here and there has increased my desire for more sugar and like an alcoholic, I had a massive urge to eat an entire bag of sweets after having just a little taste, but my stomach size appears to have shrunk, so if I eat something healthy, it helps curb my desire to binge on something unhealthy, so at least I am getting more nutrients into my system and less empty calories that lead to weight gain and not much more.
While I am Still on a Reduced Sugar, Fairly Low Carb Diet, I Still Want to Go Back to My Old Habbits
Like others, I think I enjoy indulging in good tasting foods and use food as a reward as well as a punishment. I also do preemptive eating where you have to go some place where you know you will not be able to eat so eat when you are not hungry to prevent feeling weak and hungry later. On that latter note, I will rush through a meal if I am running late or have to meet someone at a certain time and I use food to control my mood and energy levels even when other techniques that do not involve food, like relaxation and breath control might work better.
This morning I woke up and wanted pancakes, last night it was warm gooey cinnamon rolls with toasted pecans. If you are drooling a bit upon reading this, then you know how tough it is to tell yourself that you can never eat these kind of foods again and how it makes you feel like you are being punished by not being able to eat "normal foods like everyone else".
Here are a few tips I already employ to help me feel full and satisfied yet consume less non-nutritive food.
- Buy a low sugar, non oily salad dressing with as few ingredients as possible. My favorite is Asian Sesame which only has about 6 grams of sugar in a tablespoon. I will put a half tablespoon drizzled over vegetables and it gives them just a touch of added sweetener and makes even bland veggies taste better.
- Fresh or frozen fruit added to oatmeal or fresh ground nuts (you can do this in the blender or at any fresh, whole food market). Buy the non-sugar added oatmeal and add your own healthy ingredients like fruit and nuts.
- Drop a tea bag in your water bottle and it will flavor your water enough to make it taste like a treat. A lot of city water sources have a nasty chemical taste so no wonder people don't like to drink it. Get a water filter or find someone on well water to fill up a few gallon jugs for you and the water will taste good and you will want to drink it.
- If you crave soda, try club soda not diet. They make cola and ginger ale flavors as well as tangerine, lemon lime, mango and blackberry and have 0 calories and 0 artificial flavors, just check the sodium content if you have blood pressure issues.
- If you have to have sweets, choose high nutrient ones with natural sugars. Dates taste a lot like caramel, so blend up a few minus the seeds and slap them on some apple slices and you will think you are eating a caramel apple, but be getting a lot more nutrients, just remember it is not free license to binge and it could set you up to crave more sweets that are less healthy.
- Become a label reader. Try to aim for under 12, preferable 9 or less grams of sugar in added sauces or make your own. Straight tomato paste from a can is very sweet and can be used as a base for spaghetti sauce with way less sugar and hardly any preservatives.
- Vegetables like tomatoes (okay, a fruit) and red and yellow bell peppers or sweet onions, all add sweetness to a meal without adding that much sugar or calories.
- If you eat sandwiches go for whole grain breads, but beware that many whole wheat breads have more sugar than white bread. Still, if you love sandwiches, try added fresh fruit to peanut butter rather than jam and use things like humus as a condiment. Mustard has hardly any calories and again, many salad dressings are tasty but have less sugar than ketchup or mayonnaise.
Bottom line: read your labels and try something new that can give you that mouth zing you need to make a meal taste good and leave you satisfied. While it is always better to eat fresh and local, there are some pretty decent packaged foods that will help you not miss the bad stuff so much.
Into week six now I am already starting to eat more sugar than I need, but have still kept it to a minimum. my next big venture is to try to make burritos out of lettuce leaves. I am not really looking forward to that, but you never know, it may not be as bad as it sounds!
The hardest thing about cutting out/down on sugar and bread is inconvenience as it takes a bit more planning for meals, especially lunches. You will also have a tendency to lie to yourself and say, that box of cranberries and the two handfuls of nuts I just ate are healthy and have less sugar than a cookie, when in reality, the dried fruit has lots of sugar in it and the fat in the nuts and the berries combined provides twice the calories of the cookies, but probably ten times the amount of nutrients, so you will still find yourself battling over what is good for you and what isn't!
The Final Analysis of a Low to No Sugar Diet
If you want to lose weight, then cutting out sugar will help, but unless you choose to go into ketosis, you will probably not lose as much as you would think. After six weeks of cutting out most added sugar and bread I have only lost about seven pounds.
A part of me feels healthier with a clearer mind, but then I always fluctuated on feeling good and not feeling so good, so would have to go another six weeks to see if there was any long-lasting change.
Physically, I don't feel that much different. I still have aches and pains. I feel like I have more energy, but I have also increased my walking and running to take my mind off food so that may play into the equation as well.
Do I miss sugar in my diet? YES!!!! I still want to eat sweets. I crave them most in the evenings and around mid morning between breakfast and lunch. Sucking on a mint or chewing mint gum is often all it takes to curb the cravings, but I still remember how each treat tastes and how it makes me feel and the social comradery associated with eating decadent foods and if I allow myself, I still feel like I am punishing myself by not allowing myself to eat these things anymore. I also fear that once I do allow myself to eat them, I will got back to daily sweet binges and not be able to control them, though I have proven that I can. It is still a mental battle that will take more work to find a permanent solution.
Please feel free to share your battles with food, how you overcame or gave in to desire and tips on how to mimic foods you love that are healthier for you and remember that you are not alone in "food addictions". Even though being physically addicted to sweets is not the same as addiction to drugs, the thoughts and feelings associated with food can form powerful bonds that bring up powerful emotions with it, but ultimately it is you who controls what foods you eat, not some mystic power that enslaves you to food beyond your ability to control it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.