I’ve always had an insatiable sweet tooth.
I grew up craving chocolate on a daily basis and always skipped the savory part of the brunch menu in favor of the sweets section.
I’m pretty sure my sweet tooth is genetic. My mom studied culinary arts, and every time I make it home for a visit, I’m greeted with a spread of gooey chocolate chip cookies, sugar-crystal-coated petits fours and ramekins of silky creme brulee.
As a 27-year-old who’s nowhere close to overweight, I never thought twice about my sugar-eating habits. Since I don’t eat meat, I have a vegetable-rich diet. And I always convinced myself that, while I ate sugar, I did it in moderation.
It wasn’t until I had a talk with my doctor that I realized my idea of moderation was completely skewed. Diagnosis: I was eating way, way too much of the sweet stuff.
I decided to do what any normal, rational, chocolate-obsessed person would do: quit cold turkey.
A quick search of Google revealed accounts of others who’d completely given up added sugar. In theory, cravings and headaches would give way to weight loss, better sleep, better skin, a higher level of focus and more sensitive taste buds.
Could giving up sugar really lead to this miraculous new life? I decided to find out.
I called up Kirsten Straughan, director of the nutrition science program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to talk about the concept of an entirely sugar-free diet.
Straughan, a registered dietitian, said added sugar should account for no more than 10 percent of calories consumed each day. The calories in added sugar contain no nutritional benefit, she explained, so when people give up that part of their diet, they either eat fewer calories (leading to weight loss) or replace the sugar calories with more nutrient-friendly ones (leading to those “better skin, better sleep, better attention span” claims).
And speaking long term, Straughan said, excessive calorie consumption can lead to obesity, which increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
So I had nothing to lose by cutting down or giving up on sugar.
It took two days of trying and failing before I actually had my first refined-sugar-free day. Turns out added sugar was hiding in my almond milk, my wheat crackers, my yogurt — even the tomato paste I use as a chili base. To ditch the sweet stuff completely, I had to make two grocery store runs at a cost of $120 to pick up an almost entirely new food supply.
For the first several days, I ate almost the exact same thing: a fruit smoothie for breakfast; nut butter and whole-wheat products for lunch; tofu, brown rice and steamed vegetables for dinner. Every. Day. The sugar cravings started at the end of day one, and the headache started on day four, though I wasn’t sure if that was due to ditching sugar or the stress of working during inauguration week.
It took me until week two to get the hang of it. I was eating more vegetables. I also snacked on a lot of almonds, rice cakes, mozzarella cheese sticks, popcorn and hard-boiled eggs. I started noticing a trend: Almost nothing that went into my mouth was packaged or processed.
On more than one occasion, I picked up a seemingly innocuous food — packaged salmon, organic granola, pretzel rods — and had it halfway to my face before I spotted the sugar on the nutrition label.
I only slipped once, when the blueberry jam on my cheese board made it onto a slice of baguette and into my mouth before I realized what I was doing. Aside from that, I made it two weeks without added sugar. Considering how many Girl Scout cookie order forms I had to turn away, I consider that quite an accomplishment.
At the end of the two weeks, I felt great. I didn’t lose any weight, but I felt more focused, and my sugar cravings had almost completely subsided.
Bottom line: Going two weeks without added sugar was really hard. It was incredibly difficult to eat at restaurants. If I wasn’t asking my server a million questions about every menu item, I was carefully picking apart the ingredient labels at the Whole Foods hot bar, which isn’t as refined-sugar-free as one might think.
While I wish I could say I’m now living this miraculous sugar-free life, all-or-nothing was way too time-consuming and expensive. But my experiment gave me a much better understanding of the word “moderation” as it relates to added sugar, and I don’t feel too bad about nabbing a Girl Scout cookie or two when a co-worker brings them in.
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