I Quit Sugar and You Can Too

This does nothing for me now.

Last year, I had a recurring pain and skin problems, and a doctor suggested I try a no-sugar diet for 4-6 weeks as a diagnostic test. At first I thought it sounded crazy--sugar is in everything and it's an important ingredient of some of my favorite foods, like cake! I've always had a "sweet tooth" and enjoyed candy, especially chocolate, and cookies and things. What sounded crazier, though, was ignoring my doctor's orders because I was actually unable to shake my need for sugar.

The sugar thing turned out not to be my problem, but I'm still glad I took on the challenge of quitting. It reset my taste buds, so I no longer crave sweet stuff as much as I used to. I no longer think it sounds crazy to go for a week or month without sugar. Sugar-free meals and snacks are normal for me, I like savory things more, and it's easier to eat healthy generally.

While I no longer eat a strictly sugar-free diet, I eat far less than I used to without trying. I've formed some new habits and snack routines that I find much more satisfying. Sugary snacks were always a band-aid for hunger: they made me feel better right away, but there was a crash soon thereafter.

How is quitting sugar frugal? Well, sugar itself isn't expensive, so a sugar-free or low-sugar diet isn't necessarily a cheaper one. Many sugary junk foods are cheap; buying better, fresher, more nutritious food can actually make your grocery bill rise. But eating well is better for your long-term health and can make you more energetic, which can help you get more done, and have more patience for other life optimizations! Most importantly to me, psychologically, sugar is addictive, and shaking an addiction will always give you more options. Personally, I like the feeling that I'm fully in control of how much sugar I eat (or don't)--I'm no longer at the whim of cravings.

Here are my tips for living sugar-free.
  • Decide on your rules, and stick to them. A sugar-free diet involves judgment calls. Natural sugars are found in fruit, vegetables, and dairy (lactose is sugar, did you know that? anything that ends in -ose is). And your body breaks down simple carbs, like bread and crackers, into sugar almost instantly. You can avoid foods with added sugar fairly easily, but some form of sugar is in basically all food. You can't avoid food, so how do you cut out sugar?

    What worked best was to ignore the lists of yay and nay foods on other people's blog posts or books, and make what I felt were common-sense judgment calls. I knew I would only adhere to rules that I believed in. First, I decided that any diet that disallowed fruits and veggies was ridiculous, so I could eat as much of that as I wanted. (Fruits started to taste REALLY sweet to me!) I also permitted dairy. I was not interested in going carb-free, but as a compromise, I decided to stick to whole-wheat versions of all my carbs: brown bread, brown rice, whole-wheat or veggie pasta.

    Finally, and crucially, all sweeteners were forbidden: aspartame, stevia, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, anything that was used primarily as a sweetener. I wasn't just interested in removing sugar itself, but the dependence on overly sweet foods. I couldn't do that if I simply replaced sugar with something else that was just as sweet.

    Once I'd decided on my rules, I had to stick to them. No "cheat days." The whole idea was to get my taste buds used to a diet with little or no sugar. And that completely happened. Foods began to taste, not only sweeter, but generally more complex and flavorful than they used to. And foods with a lot of added sweeteners started to taste bad--they almost burned my tongue. That was helpful because it actually made "cheating" unpleasant. I didn't just eat more broccoli and less cake, I wanted to. To get there, I had to be consistent.

  • Find new ways to reward yourself. When you've cut a major treat out of your life, the thing that used to bring you a feeling or comfort and reward and simple pleasure, you need a new treat. You can't just use your willpower and knuckle through treat-free. I'm a firm believer that when you are doing something really, really hard, you have to be gentle with yourself in other areas of your life, and find ways to show yourself some TLC. Whenever I diet in any way, I try to find some non-food treats, like buying myself a new book or allowing myself time to marathon a TV show. I also like to indulge in "allowed" food treats. To that end...

  • Replace sugar with fat. "Fat doesn't make you fat, sugar makes you fat" is the kind of weird cliche I started spouting when I became an anti-sugarite. But, honestly, after growing up in the 90s, when every food had a low-fat version and you were made to feel like a pig for eating full-fat cheese, it was a revelation. I've begun to hate low-fat versions of things. For one thing, they're loaded with sugar (or artificial sweeteners). Like all overly sweetened foods, they began to taste unpleasant and chemical-y to me. And they don't satisfy.

    The thing about sugary foods is that you can eat and eat and eat them and never feel full. You just keep wanting more. Fatty foods, at least, can make you full. They can satisfy you. Even if you assume fat is just as harmful and fattening as sugar, at least you don't eat as much.

    Anyway, fat is delicious.

    As part of my campaign to treat myself (sugar-free), I decided to allow myself as much fat as I wanted in my diet, and not restrict it at all. I didn't count calories when I was sugar-free (although as soon as I did, the following month, I found that I was eating less calories without trying--the fatty foods I ate, and the amounts in which I ate them, were simply less than the sugary ones they were replacing!)

    Here were some of my favorite fatty treats: Whole-wheat toast loaded with butter. Coffee with cream. Eggs and vegetarian bacon for breakfast (you could use real bacon if you are not veggie). Full-fat Greek yogurt with fresh berries. Mixed nuts. Potato chips. French fries. Cheese. Mmm, I'm getting hungry.

  • Find each of your "sugar triggers" and replace them one to one. You will find yourself craving sugar at specific times and in specific situations when you used to "reward" yourself with sugar in the past (reinforcing the habit). It is important to identify these triggers and decide what you will do instead in those moments.

    For me, dessert was a big issue--I always crave something sweet after dinner. I actually fell into the habit of having toast after dinner for "dessert." Weird, but it worked. Fruit or nuts, or both, also worked well. After I'd been "cold turkey" off sugar for a month, I eased back into chocolate, allowing myself a square of extra-dark chocolate for dessert. That's proved to be fairly sustainable and I don't require a big, sweet dessert after every meal anymore. A little chocolate is nice--not required, but nice.

    Drinks were also a problem. Almost every drink except water is sweetened. Juices have added sugar, and, of course, you can forget about soda. After I was drinking a little sugar, soda water and juice became my soda substitute of choice (much lower in sugar). While I was cold-turkey, though, I really got big into water. Water turns out to be pretty great. When I needed a change, I'd get unsweetened iced coffee or tea. (NB: It's risky to order iced tea in a restaurant, as most are sweetened. You must specify. Or make it yourself at home.)

    Another issue? It was summer, and my friends often gathered at the ice cream shop for a social treat. Avoiding ice cream was tough, and it was one of the first things I picked up again after I got back to sugar (favoring the full fat version, of course!) I solved the issue during the month by ordering a coffee when I was there. Most ice cream shops offer coffee, and it's also a nice treat that you can nurse and be social with.

  • Get support. It is crucial to have people in your life who are supporting you, or at least not actively trying to undermine you. A buddy who quits with you is the best. If you can't find that, at least get support online or in books. I liked the book "I Quit Sugar" by Sarah Wilson, although there were some things in that book (and in all sugar-quitting books and websites) that I found problematically extreme or unscientific. Pick which parts help you, and focus on those.
I hope this helps! If nothing else, this should:

Cold Brew Coffee Recipe

To make the concentrate, mix 1 part coarsely-ground coffee beans with 4 parts room-temperature water in a jar (or French press if you have one).

Close the jar and let it sit 6-12 hours. You don't need to refrigerate, just out is fine.

If you didn't use a French press, strain (pour through a cloth or a fine mesh strainer).

To serve, the concentrate should be combined with an equal amount of water and poured over ice.

There you go! Easy, addictive, and sugar-free!


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