February is a month of sweet treats and love letters. Maybe that’s why I love it so much! I am no stranger to desserts (I love a good French pastry). But February comes after January, a month committed to new starts. And after this January, I know I will be looking at sugar (and my personal consumption of it) differently.
This year, with the prompting of a friend, I decided to abstain from sugar during the month of January. And it has changed everything.
The Problem with Sugar
What exactly is my issue with sugar? It all started in the time sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As with most holidays, I was feeling the stress and getting little sleep. After a particularly trying few days, I binged an entire box of German Christmas cookies. Later that week, I got sick. It settled deep, and I was miserable. Near the same time, I came across some information on the effects sugar can have on the immune system. I knew that my illness had many contributing factors, but I swore off sugar right then and there.
And then Christmas happened with all its goodies and treats.
But my determination was strengthened when my friend reached out with similar excess sugar health issues.
Some of our qualms included inflammation, weight gain, brain fog, and cravings! (The afternoon hits, and I can’t get through the day without a sweet fix.)
But sugar plays such a big role in our society. How were we going to avoid it? The first thing I needed to do was educated myself.
When you read the word sugar, you probably think of the sparkly white stuff that dons your favorite cupcake. Did you know there are many different types of “sugar?” In a most simplistic explanation, sugar is the energy humans/animals/plants need to live. There is sugar found naturally in our foods and those added to foods (table sugar).
Eating too much of any sugar can cause chaos in the body. If you look at many popular diets, they either cut out or limit grains, dairy, and fruit (all which have natural sugars), along with avoiding processed, added sugar, because when we consume too much of these energies without using them up, it causes weight gain.
Because of the fiber, micronutrients, etc. found in the foods containing maltose, lactose, and fructose (all natural sugars), my friend and I wouldn’t be avoiding or limiting those sugars. We would, however, be avoiding any added sugar (like table sugar), especially sweet treats. So for January, at least, please don’t pass the sugar!
Week One: But it tastes SO good!
Our Physical Challenges
Is sugar controlling me or can I control it? That was the question we asked as we embarked on our 31-day challenge. On December 31, I ate all the leftover Christmas fudge in preparation. (Probably not my finest moment).
Day one, with the sugar fast in place, sugar was all I could think of. I snacked a lot more than usual, and I craved comfort food: give me all the grains and cheese! What my friend and I both found was that if we added more protein and healthy fats, the days went by easier. We also upped our beverage intake. We opted for teas, hot water with lemon, and my favorite: cacao mixed with milk, hot water, and a splash of coffee (san the sugar). Although the physical cravings seemed intense at times, it wasn’t long before my afternoon sugar twitch was gone. We had passed the first test.
Weeks Two, Three, & Four: But I NEED it!
Our Psychological Challenges
One article I came across while looking at all things sugar highlighted a study by Bart Hoebel, Ph.D, that suggested that abstaining from sugar can actually create more of a dependency because of the “heightened dopamine and opioid responses” in the brain. Ut-oh! When this was all over, were we actually creating more of a dependency by keeping it out of our diet? Time would soon tell. But for the moment, the psychological challenges were real.
For my friend, a weeklong visit with family proved tempting as the rest of the family indulged. One particularly challenging day she messaged me with a picture of a shop display full of sweets. “This is what I had to look at all through my meal today!” she wrote, yet she proudly told me she hadn’t caved. No sugar for her.
It was food advertisements that were the biggest challenge for me. Even while I was reading, I couldn’t escape from mouth-salivating images. I became so engrossed in Michael Moss’s book Salt Sugar Fat. Even though his book is centered around exposing the food industry’s tactics and strategies for selling unhealthy food, I couldn’t stop thinking about eating the sugary cereal and pop tarts he was describing. And then there were the food commercials. I don’t watch much T.V., but while watching my weekly program, I couldn’t believe how many food commercials there were! The following day, I was driving home from the chiropractor when the Dunkin’ Donut sign started calling my name. It evoked such a strong image of sugary happiness. I almost turned into the driveway, but I stayed strong, messaging my friend, “I’m not even a fan of Dunkin’ Donuts. Why am I craving it?”
Finding the Balance
Our 31-days ended, and we met up to discuss our month experiment. We both agreed that after fasting from sugar, natural food flavors were tastier. My friend said she had noticed how she felt fuller at meals because she wasn’t anticipating a sugary dessert. And both of us had opted for more fruit and nuts as an after-dinner treat.
My friend enjoyed the sugar fast so much she wanted to try to make it a lifestyle, but I knew that was not a sustainable option for me. The struggle, then, was to find a balance with sugar and to prove the study wrong. I could abstain and not go back to an uncontrollable urge to consume all.the.SUGAR.
But with that in mind, I knew I couldn’t stop my sugar cravings unchecked. I thought about what I learned during my sugar fast and how I could transform that knowledge into my own lifestyle of less sugar.
- Eat more whole foods with naturally occurring sugars that don’t come in a bottle or a box.
- Avoid highly processed and concentrated ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and opt for less, more natural ingredients like honey or maple syrup. By becoming a food detective, I can decipher sugar ingredients hidden in foods.
- Be aware of my sugar intake throughout the day.
- Make sugary treats truly treats, by not keeping them in bulk.
This last tip is probably the best thing I learned from my fast. When sugar is around, I grab for it. It’s easy to binge on something readily available, whether it is because I’m bored, stressed, or hungry. However, if I have to drive to a restaurant or actually bake, then I’m less likely to overindulge. It becomes a true treat, something out of the ordinary.
All of this is good and nice. Yay! I didn’t eat sugar for a month. What’s the big deal? Lots of people diet and limit their food intake for one reason or another. But, really, why should this matter? It matters to me because I am raising my children in a culture full of sugar. I want my children to have health, but I also want them to enjoy the celebratory birthday cupcake (Although, really, must everyone try to give my kids sugar?) The best way I can teach my children a balance when it comes to sweets is by being a model myself and enabling them to make those decisions for themselves. I do that by being educated and able to manage my sugar intake, instead of hiding in the pantry so they don’t see me.
Before I close out this post, a special thanks to my friend for being a sounding board, encourager, and fellow sugar-feign set-free. I am not a dieter. I could not have done 31 days of no sugar without my friend! Both of us agreed that there was not a day that went by in our careers as moms that we didn’t crave and consume sugary foods. Blame it on that post-baby happy fatigue, but sugar brought us a long way on this journey of motherhood. We both are excited to see how less sugar will carry us on.