What Happens When I Cut Out Sugar?
I Gave Up Sugar For 6 Weeks and It Was the F*cking Worst
Everyone told me cutting out sugar would be absolutely life-changing. That, essentially, I would have the energy of a 6-year-old with the mental clarity of a Tibetan monk. I would gain 25 IQ points, drop 10 pounds, grow a cup size, achieve enlightenment, see the face of God, and cure depression and anxiety. Kidding (on some parts) but also totally serious. Quitting sugar is the new detox tea. Or South Beach Diet. You know what I'm saying.
I'm not addicted to sugar; I don't even eat a ton of it. But I love my sweet foods: baked goods, special beverages, and all of the chocolates in all of the forms. And it just so happened that I was toying with this idea of cutting out sugar just as Lent was rolling around; after excavating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's Half Baked on Fat Tuesday searching for cookie dough like an ice-cream archaeologist (I was infuriated that I had only found two pieces of cookie dough and was on the precipice of going on an angry Twitter tirade), I decided the time was nigh to give it a shot and go cold turkey.
I decided to cut ALL added sugar, including honey, maple, agave, coconut sugar, and rice syrup. This included savory foods, snacks, sauces, and all products that enhance their food's flavor with some form of sugar. I still planned to eat fruit, because I'm not a sadist, and I don't hate myself. Like, come on, we have to draw the line somewhere. A pineapple isn't going to kill me. Anyway.
With every day that passed and every cookie I willed myself to overlook despite its intoxicating and seductive fragrance, I became more and more frustrated. And hangry. I wanted chocolate, and I felt absolutely no difference in my brain or in my body; not in my skin, not in my weight, not in my energy . . . or so I thought.
Here's what transpired in the past 45-ish days; what helped me, what I felt, and how I'm going forward now that I'm done with my little detox.
I had a great Lent
To me, Lent has always been about the mental, emotional, and spiritual challenge. When you face that challenge daily (as I did with sugar), it serves as a reminder to look inward, pray, grow, and become a better person. It's not a diet, unless you're thinking of it as a spiritual diet, I suppose. The idea that I could potentially gain health benefits was an added bonus of this challenge.
In terms of this year's sacrifice, sugar was the ideal thing to give up. It had me constantly thinking about what I was doing and why I was doing it; I also had constant reminders to pray. This was my most challenging year and, therefore, my most rewarding.
The moment Lent was over, I voraciously sank my teeth into a cream-filled chocolate Cadbury egg, and I savored every last melty drop of the artificial chemical sugar goodness. I regret absolutely nothing. It was glorious.
I cheated once (sorry)
I can't NOT be honest with you, so here's the disclosure: I had one very strategically preplanned "cheat day" on a Sunday, roughly 25 days into the Lent season. My dad was coming to visit me for the very first time since I moved to San Francisco, and he had high hopes of going to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse; I couldn't sit there with him and NOT eat a cruffin.
After that day, I went back to cold-turkeying it and was absolutely fine. I was proud of myself for sticking to this challenge and using it as a daily reminder of some kind of "sacrifice."
I didn't let cravings rule me (but I still had them)
Speaking of that cruffin, I never once gave in to random temptation, cravings, or peer pressure. The only break from my fast was a deliberate and short-lived one, and I went cold turkey again immediately after.
Quitting sugar was not the magic pill for all my health woes.
Did I have cravings? Absolutely. All the time. I work in an office in which the sugared carbs flow freely and constantly like the salmon of Capistrano, and the wafting fragrance of delicious treats distracts you at any given moment. I can't sit next to a plate of fresh-baked treats and not feel things; I'm a HUMAN BEING! But I held strong, and my emotional cravings didn't dictate my decisions.
I was a little surprised that I continued to have cravings despite not having sugar for such a long period of time. One week in, friends said, "you definitely need at least two weeks." When two weeks had passed and I still had cravings, people told me, "give it three weeks." Those 21 days passed by, and I still wanted sweets. I made it almost an entire month before my "break" and never once lost my cravings.
I had bizarre sugar dreams
Perhaps it's my ridiculous imagination, but I found myself having crazy dreams in the first couple weeks of my detox period. I dreamt of crumbling Oreos into my coffee and slathering tater tots in butter and cinnamon sugar (literally not a thing, but sounds pretty good, TBH).
I was hangry
I also got to realize how much I don't actually need sugar, but I know that I still really enjoy it. Even in small amounts.
My most common feeling throughout these six weeks was frustration. I wanted chocolate. I wanted banana cake with cream cheese frosting. I wanted to be able to order a coffee or smoothie without being concerned about the ingredients. I wanted to participate in social events that involved these treats but felt like the Debbie downer every time I had to casually remind people that I was off sugar (including at a recent bridal shower in which the dessert course was a big deal and everyone was like, "ohh, the fitness editor isn't eating dessert — big surprise").
Do other people have it way worse? Totally — I know this is how people with Celiac, Crohn's, SIBO, diabetes, and food allergies must live every day, constantly working harder just to eat. So was I being a baby? Yeah, probably. But I'm just here to tell you that if you're like me and you have no real dietary restrictions, cutting out sugar cold turkey will probably leave you in a hangry, cranky mood.
Cinnamon saved me
I've said it before, but I wouldn't have made it out alive without cinnamon — it saved me. If you don't already know, cinnamon is a wonder spice that is anti-inflammatory and steadies blood sugar levels. It also kind of, sort of makes you feel like everything is OK when all you want is Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a vanilla latte.
Do you know how many foods have sugar in them? THE BEST KINDS.
I put cinnamon in my coffee, smoothies, Greek yogurt, and pretty much anything that made sense, and even some things that didn't make sense. Bless you Costco Kirkland Signature for making a giant 10.7-ounce tub of cinnamon.
I noticed no difference in my body
I did not lose weight. Not a single pound (not that I was trying to lose weight, but honestly, it was odd).
I did not feel a sudden surge of energy. I did not feel reborn. My skin didn't get better (in fact, my usually clear skin suffered a handful of surprising breakouts). My mood was OK, but I didn't feel a drastic change in my disposition.
All of this was actually quite frustrating. After hearing about the life-changing effects, I figured that not only would I be practicing my annual Lenten fast, but that I'd reap some serious health benefits, too. I did not feel like that happened for me. Quitting sugar was not the magic pill for all my health woes.
I became more conscious
I became acutely more aware of how pervasive and abundant sugar is. It's in all of our food, even the unexpected foods. Do you know how many foods have sugar in them? THE BEST KINDS. I was forced to make more conscious eating choices, to examine ingredients, and to avoid foods I loved if I couldn't see an ingredient list. Since Lent has been over, I've been extra aware of the amounts I've added back in (aside from what went down on Easter, which you'll see).
My body is not super stoked on sugar anymore
Remember how I noticed no big differences in my body during Lent itself? Well, some things came to light when I added some sugar back into my diet. There's a big difference between what your body tastes and what your body feels. For a long time, I thought that things that tasted good made me feel good. Maybe emotionally, sure, but not necessarily physically.
Though that cream egg was delicious and I have zero shred of regret in my entire being, my gut was less pleased with my decision to go from zero added sugar to a concentrated gut bomb of corn syrup. Although I experienced no pain, I immediately bloated.
After a day of indulgence on Easter (read: Tahitian vanilla waffles with caramelized bananas, rum maple, and burnt orange butter . . . and a coconut mint coffee . . . and pineapple glazed bacon . . . and a lovely banana cake that I baked later in the day), my body was definitely feeling the "drastic effects" I had been hoping to experience but in the opposite sense — it was a discomfort (almost pain) that I hadn't felt in six weeks.
I even felt the effects the next morning — I was a little sluggish, and my stomach was still somewhat painful during and after my SoulCycle class. What I learned? Maybe don't go balls to the wall and slowly ease yourself back into sugar after cutting it out for an extended period. I mean, I didn't even touch honey for six weeks, but I essentially drowned myself in a vat of corn syrup once I gave myself permission.
Pro: I'm aware that sugar doesn't make me feel awesome in large quantities. Con: I'm aware that sugar doesn't make me feel awesome in large quantities. The real positive from all that is that I finally got my A/B testing and that my experiment was somewhat effective. I know now to be much more choosy with my sweets — and I know that every bite will be worth it.