My Year Without Sugar
I made a Facebook post a couple days ago. It said this:
As of today, it’s been one full year since I ate anything with added sugar.
The response was immediate. In addition to the comments on the post (worth reading), I got a half-dozen private messages on Facebook, a few text messages, and multiple people stopped me over the next few days both at church and the gym to ask me questions about it.
Apparently the idea of removing sugar from their diet completely was incomprehensible to people. Sugar is so bad for our bodies so I knew I needed to make a quick change. I’ve had to have so many fillings from dentists such as Dentist Fort Wayne to fix my teeth from the damage sugar did to them!
In an attempt to mass-answer as many questions as possible, I decided to write everything down. If you asked me questions I didn’t get to, I hope I answer them somewhere below.
(I’ll warn you in advance that this article starts out very matter-of-fact but gets more touchy-feely and pseudo-psychological as it goes on. Feel free to bail out at any point. The nuts-and-bolts information is at the top.)
Yes, I stopped eating added sugar a year ago – October 18, 2013, to be exact.
How am I defining “added sugar”? Basically any sugar that God Himself didn’t put in the food. Yes, yes, I know there are naturally occurring sugars in all sorts of foods – fruit, dairy, etc. These are fine. What I’m avoiding are the sugars dumped into food during manufacturing specifically to make the food sweeter.
How strict have I been? Very. So much so that I can still remember most of the accidents. For example:
- I was eating some trail mix in an airport in Boise, Idaho when I realized there were yogurt chips in it. I spit it out.
- I got halfway through a steak salad that tasted suspiciously sweet. The server swore the dressing was vinaigrette… “Oh, wait, it’s maple vinaigrette…” (Maple vinaigrette? Seriously, who does that?)
- I accidentally had some cranberries on a salad a few weeks ago. (Watch out for cranberries, as they’re essentially inedible unless soaked in sugar. If something has cranberries, I guarantee it has added sugar.)
There were a few more accidents (and I’m sure even more that I probably didn’t catch), but you get the idea of how far I took this. When you’re leaning over an airport garbage can spitting yogurt chips out in full view of everyone walking by, you’ve clearly become somewhat obsessive.
No, I do not feel deprived. Not at all.
I’m eating more food than at any other time in my life. I’m enjoying food more than at any other time in my life. I have a healthier relationship with food than at any other time in my life (much more on this below).
What do I eat? Damn-near everything. Contrary to what everyone thinks, it’s quite possible to avoid added sugar completely. Yet, the most common question I got was, “If you don’t eat sugar, what can you possibly eat!?” People apparently think I’m starving.
You’d be amazed how much stuff you can eat, but the current American diet can’t see past manufactured, processed foods, so people tend to overlook all the other stuff. Factory food is the default, and real food has almost become a fringe diet. I should package this and market it as “The Retro Diet ™” because I’m essentially eating what your grandparents ate in the 1950s.
Basically, I eat lots of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and dairy.
I’m thinking back over today, and it was a pretty average day food-wise, so here’s the play-by-play:
- For breakfast I had the same thing I always have: a big cup of frozen strawberries (defrosted in the microwave) and two cups of bulletproof coffee. (The BP coffee is something I’ve been having in the last few months. Prior to that it was four eggs fried in butter and smothered with goat cheese.)
- I had a couple handfuls of almonds about halfway through the morning. I wasn’t really hungry, but smoked almonds are awesome.
- Lunch was at a Rotary meeting, so it was a buffet. I had a salad, some cold cuts, some cheese, cooked beef of some kind (I think it was brisket), a few potatoes, and milk (I’ve started to love whole milk again).
- I was a bit hungry later in the afternoon, so I had some grapes and some cheese slices from a big hunk of “Seriously Sharp Cheddar” that I keep in the fridge.
- For dinner, Annie made flank steak with sweet potatoes and green beans. (My wife is an awesome cook, and she’s been really supportive of my diet for this last year. Bless her.)
Yes, that’s a lot of food. My diet beats up rice cakes for fun and takes their lunch money. Clearly, I’m neither deprived nor hungry. In fact, I’m writing this at 9:33 p.m. and I’m still stuffed.
And I’m writing this from memory only because it’s fresh. I do not track my food. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, and I don’t care. If I’m hungry, I eat until I’m not. I don’t plan anything in advance, and I don’t write anything down afterwards.
There are some generalities you can draw out of yesterday’s food –
It’s almost Paleo, with the exception of the dairy. In particular, note the lack of grains . I went through a Paleo challenge at CrossFit Sioux Falls in January and loved it. I’ve been avoiding grains for almost as long as sugar. I usually find myself in a social/group situation a couple of times a month where I don’t have much choice but to eat grains (bread, essentially), but I never eat it otherwise. I did finally bring back dairy (I even have a blog devoted to cheese plates), so I’m “Paleo + Dairy,” if that’s even a thing.
There’s a lot of fat in my diet. I’ve come to understand that dietary fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and carbs do. After much experimentation, I can say that my weight is unaffected by how much fat I consume. I’m eating more fat in my diet now than at any other time in my life, yet I’ve never been leaner and my weight has never been more stable (I’m invariably within 2-3 pounds of 210, to the point where I’ve stopped bothering to weigh myself).
In addition to weight stability, I’ve never been in better physical condition or had more energy than I do today – both background energy throughout the day, and acute cardio endurance for CrossFit WODs. Even at 43-years-old and two solid years of CrossFit, I still set a couple of PRs a month. If I don’t have my BP coffee in the morning I can feel it. Fat is my biggest energy source.
(If you want much more on the effect of fat in your diet, I highly recommend The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong In a Healthy Diet. This is a meticulously-researched book on the effect of dietary fat on the body, and how we’ve been led down the wrong path for decades. It was recommended to me by a cardiologist.)
Note too that everything I eat is awfully close to its natural state. Very little in my diet is manufactured or processed. I didn’t do this on purpose, but if you eliminate sugar and refined carbs you end up removing most processed foods as an accidental byproduct, which tells you a lot about how food is produced in this country.
I try to get my diet as “irreducible” as possible – which is to say, I try to eat food that cannot be reduced any further.
Consider a piece of cake – there are probably 30 ingredients in it, all mixed together. You could never separate all these ingredients back out. On the other side of the coin, consider a simple tomato. There’s one ingredient – the tomato itself. You can’t “reduce” it any further than that. Even if you have a salad, this is still reducible. If I wanted, I could pick it apart and separate all the different stuff in the salad onto little piles on my plate. This is a good thing because I know what’s in it.
If I can’t visually separate (reduce) food to its base components, I get nervous and generally avoid it. You just don’t know what’s in it, and if it’s not irreducible, there’s a good chance sugar crept in somewhere along the way. The best food hasn’t been changed much from how it was pulled out of the ground.
Finally, if the food can’t rot, it’s probably not good. If you can leave something sitting in the open for months without worrying about it going bad, then for God’s sake don’t put it in your body. Real food rots.
(Yes, there are exceptions to everything I wrote above. Relax – they’re just guidelines.)
There’s clearly a lot of food you can’t eat. Check the ingredients because sugar has become something of a default ingredient. We can trace this back to the low-fat diet craze of the 1980s. The government told us that dietary fat was bad (based on poor evidence), so food manufacturers pulled the fat out of everything and just replaced it with sugar. The “cure” was worse than the “disease” (in quotes, because it was a cure that didn’t work for a disease that didn’t exist).
(A sad byproduct of this was that obesity rates almost immediately began to climb and never stopped. Read this article for some handy visual evidence.)
Sadly, there’s lots of sugar in “healthy” food too (looking right at you, granola bars), so you have to be diligent about ingredients. A pet peeve of mine is that “Applesauce” has sugar. If you want it without sugar, you have to buy “Unsweetened Applesauce,” which just contributes to the expectation that sugar is normal and deserves to be in everything. Someone needs to be slapped for this.
A good rule of thumb is that if you have to individually unwrap something, it’s probably not good . Sugar and carbs get injected into food in factories. If it’s wrapped individually, then it was manufactured, and it’s likely loaded with things you don’t want.
I’ll stop here before I go all tin foil hat on you, but you get the idea. You have to know what you eat. Read labels religiously, and try to keep food as natural as is practical.
So, why did I swear off sugar completely? Well, there’s a lot of background behind this, and this is where we get touchy-feely and personal. You might read this and think, “well, that has nothing to do with me.” Everyone has their own story and if you’ve never related to food the way I did, then good for you.
But even if none of my story applies to you, I’ll talk a bit about the lessons I learned from it, which I think are fairly universal to the human condition.
Here we go –
Last October, I was returning from a four-day trip to Boston and New York where I spoke at back-to-back conferences. It was stressful – lots of travel, lots of people, two full speaking gigs for two different talks, which means double the work. I ate my way through it all. I was delayed in the Minneapolis airport, and was on the tail end of a three-day sugar binge.
You have to understand that when I binged on sugar, I binged hard. I would stop at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in whatever airport I happened to be passing through, and that would kick off days of eating anything sweet I could get my hands on. I’d eat so much that I’d essentially get hungover – I’d wake up in the morning feeling like crap, and the only way to feel better was to eat more sugar.
It had been like this all of my life. I had always had a sweet tooth. Even in the four years since I started my fitness journey, and the two years since I started CrossFit, I still measured my diet in “days since the last binge.” When I would start eating sugar, I couldn’t stop. I’d start to slip, and then I’d consume 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day for several days before I could get a handle on it. (It wouldn’t stop at sugar, but more on this below.)
I was (and am) obsessed with CrossFit, but it was barely stemming the tide. It was the only thing keeping my weight in check. What I would do is absolutely kill it in the gym for a week, then trade all the progress I made for some (read: lots of) Haagen Dazs.
This made me feel like crap, both physically and emotionally. It was the latter one that really took a toll – physically it was bad enough, but the feeling of being out of control was tough to take. Food would just kind of roll over me and there was little it seemed I could do about it.
And once you blow it, you figure, “What the hell? I already blew today, so I may as well go for broke.” So, it started with a little treat here and there, and ended up with me eating anything and everything.
It was at this low point sitting in Minneapolis that I pulled out my trusty Kindle and searched for “food addiction.” At the time, I wasn’t sure this was appropriate, but it certainly seemed reasonable at the time and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. The top result was this book: Food Addiction: The Body Knows
I read the book in one sitting (I read fast). The first half forced me to confront the truth – I couldn’t control what I was eating. When it came to sugar, I was an addict. (For the record, the book is uneven. The first half is great; the second half, less so.)
I decided to detox myself. I decided not to eat sugar for a week, which I did and felt great. Then I went another week. Then another. Then another. As of a few days ago, it was 52 weeks.
I wish it was more complicated than that, because everyone keeps asking me how I did it. There was no trick to it. I just did it.
It was not planned. There was no way I could have looked out at a year stretching in front of me and decide not to eat sugar. I started with one week. But what I found is that it made my life better in so many ways, many of which were not physical. It quickly became something of a self-sustaining thing. The more I did it, the better I felt, so the more I wanted to do it.
I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last year, and I’ve come to two realizations –
First, I’ve realized that some humans (read: me) are not good at moderation. We can be “on” or we can be “off,” but we find it tough to exist somewhere in the middle. And the complicated thing about food is that we have to eat to live. You can’t quit all food cold turkey. I find it virtually impossible to moderate addictive food, but simply quitting that type of food altogether wasn’t that difficult.
(Consider this: what if we had to have just a little heroin each day to live? How many heroin addicts would we have? For many people, sugar is just as addictive as heroin. This has been proven.)
Second, while sugar is bad for you in an immediate sense, the really destructive part of it is the secondary effect it has on your appetite. It’s not just the sugar you’re eating right now that’s the problem – a more destructive effect is what that sugar is going to encourage you to eat later.
I have a pet theory I call “The Lonely Carbohydrate.” Carbs are inherently lonely, and when they get inside your body, they try to invite company over. They’re like the loser that comes to your house party and then invites all his friends.
Sugar begets sugar. If it gets inside you, it will try to prolong the spike in blood sugar by getting you to eat more sugar. This is true of all refined carbs. Carbs are lonely. Invite them to your party, and they’ll text all their stupid friends, and the next thing you know your house is over-run by douchebags who crash on your couch and won’t leave.
These two lessons combined to make it weirdly easy to quit sugar. Where I thought I would feel deprivation, I felt…peace. Moderation is stressful. Constantly keeping track of how much sugar I’ve eaten, whether or not this “treat” is deserved, and whether or not I’d be able to stop after one cookie – it extracts a mental toll. When I completely removed that, it eliminated an enormous and constant source of stress. I could finally just stop thinking about it all.
Yes, it would be wonderful if I could moderate my sugar intake. If I could just eat a reasonable amount of sugar, then I’d still be fine. I’m sure some people can do this. I am not one of them.
And somewhere in there, I discovered a very hard truth: there was no way to win my battle with sugar.
If I ate one Mint Brownie, I would want to eat 10 and would just end up pissed off that I wouldn’t let myself eat 10. But if I ate 10 (oh, I’ve done it), then I’d end up pissed off that I ate 10.
Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t. Moderation would still piss me off, just from a different direction. I lost either way.
I found some comfort in a saying that’s been floating around addiction recovery circles for years.
One is too many. A thousand is never enough.
And therein lies the absolute truth: an addict can never get enough, and they’ll destroy themselves trying to fill a hole that can never be filled.
To quote the computer from Wargames:
The only way to win is not to play.
So, will I never eat sugar again? I don’t know. Maybe not.
The cravings pass after a while. Avoiding sugar starts out as a novelty, and you wonder when you’re going to quit this latest fad. But at some point – and I imagine it’s different for everyone – it ceases to be a novelty and just becomes the new normal. There is now a huge category of food that just doesn’t even register as an option for me. If I’m in a situation where there’s nothing I can eat, I just don’t eat, and this feels entirely normal.
I’ve learned to love food again and I’m not giving that up. Few things make me happier than my strawberries and coffee in the morning. There’s rare joy in demolishing a 20oz ribeye and not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it. Give me a bag of trail mix and I’ll be the happiest guy on Earth for five minutes.
I love real food again. I can’t get enough of it, and when you eat the right things, you almost literally can’t eat too much. I defy you to blow your your diet on almonds. Or chicken. Or green beans. You’ll run out of hunger long before you’ll do any damage to yourself.
I can say this: I have no current desire to eat sugar ever again (or grains, for that matter). To say that I’ll never eat it again seems a little drastic, but I doubt I’ll have a craving for it tomorrow either.
If you string enough tomorrows together, then I guess you have…well, forever.
I suppose we’ll see. Talk to me in 20 years.