9 months and 8 days ago, my fiancé and I were slumped on the couch, flipping endlessly through Netflix trying to decide on a movie to watch. When he doesn’t want to watch chick flicks and I don’t want to watch action films, our middle ground is usually a documentary. So we mindlessly clicked on “Fed Up” without realizing it would change our health forever.
By the end of the film, which focuses on sugar as the leading cause of childhood obesity, we were both painfully aware of the extra pounds that had snuck on over the course of the worst winter in the history of Boston. Our steady 7-Eleven diet of donuts and soda had left us feeling pretty terrible, and Easter candy had only added insult to injury. I was close to my heaviest weight of all time: 168 lbs. I had also been sick frequently throughout the year for no apparent reason.
I knew something had to change, but I also knew how much I loved sugar. (Hint: it was A LOT!)
My love affair with sweets and treats dated back to childhood, when I used to sneak entire boxes of Little Debbies cakes at a time. It was woven into my happiest memories (birthday cake, baking brownies with mom, Capri Suns by the pool) and was also a great source of comfort during hard times. I just didn’t think I could give it up, even though I knew it was ruining my health.
When we reached the end of “Fed Up,” the documentary presented a challenge: Try going just 10 days without sugar. Emmanuel looked over at me and dared me to try it with him. I laughed at him, but a little voice in the back of my head wondered, “What if?” So I agreed to play along, but only for three days instead of 10.
THE 10-DAY CHALLENGE
Those first three days were incredibly eye-opening. We went to the grocery store to pick up some sugar-free foods, reading the nutrition labels as the movie suggested.
We were shocked to find that everything we loved contained sugar. Favorite snacks like Chobani yogurt and granola bars contained about 15 grams of sugar, which is Fed Up’s recommended DAILY intake. Say whaaa?! Even ketchup, a staple condiment, was nixed from our grocery list.
The hardest part of grocery shopping was finding approved breakfast food. We both loved cereal and milk, but even the “healthy” cereals contained sugar. We finally settled on oatmeal (not the kind that’s packaged in envelopes, but the kind of oats that come in a canister). This was the happiest surprise of our shopping trip — we could buy enough oats to last us a week for $2/person. Since we weren’t eating fruit, at least for the first ten days, we mixed the oatmeal with pecans instead.
I’m not going to lie…the first three days were painful for me. Emmanuel practically had to restrain me from my late-night sugary snacks. I was incredibly grumpy and had zero energy. But at the end of the three days, I hopped on the scale and was shocked to find that I had already lost five pounds. I’m sure most of that was water weight, but it was enough to inspire me to try to join E for the rest of the 10-day challenge.
It took me about five days to kick the physical symptoms of sugar addiction. Because I didn’t want to go through that withdrawal cycle again (it sucked!), I kept my diet very strict. I didn’t eat bread or drink any alcohol, and I even avoided natural sugar. That helped me get through the initial phase as quickly as possible.
THE FIRST TWO MONTHS
After getting to 10 days, I had dropped another 5 pounds and couldn’t believe it.
I was eating the same amount of calories as I had been eating during the winter, but the difference was that I was now eating REAL FOOD. I started looking forward to hearty salads. I actually didn’t feel hungry all the time, like I had when I was living on sugar. By the end of the 10 days, I was down to 158 lbs and felt WAY better. I imagined what could happen if I just kept going. So I resolved to make it to a year.
Over the course of the next two months, I dropped another 25 pounds for a grand total of 35 pounds. That’s where my body decided to stay — right around 133 pounds. I weighed more than that in high school. Crazy! I thought I might put some of that weight back on since I had dropped so quickly, but it never came back. Nine months later, I’m still happily sitting at that weight. I’m three sizes down and have never felt better. Besides catching the flu once, I haven’t been sick since May 2015.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SUGAR AND ACID REFLUX
About a month after quitting sugar, I started to feel super nauseous in the evening. The nausea got to the point where I would have to stop what I was doing and sit down for the rest of the night. It was even preventing me from sleeping well. After mentioning it to my brother, who had been treated for acid reflux, I figured out that my symptoms were very similar to his.
After doing some Googling, I learned that a diet high in sugar forces your body to increase acid production to keep up with digestion. My best guess is that my body had been used to producing a high amount of acid to cope with my high-sugar diet. However, when the sugar suddenly disappeared, my body was now producing excess acid. This resulted in a miserable couple of weeks! Finally, I gave in and decided to temporarily cut out coffee, which seemed to really aggravate my symptoms.
Coffee had been a huge crutch for me during sugar withdrawal. Instead of having dessert, I had several cups of coffee throughout the day. But the only thing worse than a life without coffee is a life with debilitating nausea. So I quit coffee for two months straight.
I still needed a treat to look forward to every day, so I started drinking Starbucks Passion Tea without sugar. I also discovered Dandy Blend, a yummy instant coffee substitute made from dandelion & chicory root.
The acid reflux worked itself out over the next several months, and I was able to gradually re-introduce coffee. I still can’t have more than two cups a day, but I sure am happy that it’s back in my life!!
After making it through three months without sugar, I knew I wanted to keep going, but I needed a game plan to make this a permanent lifestyle change. SO, I created two rules for myself:
- Once a month, I would treat myself to an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. (Phish Food hands down!)
- For two weeks in December, all bets were off. For me, it would be pretty impossible to separate sugar from the holidays. In the name of tradition and my personal sanity, I decided to eat sugar (in moderation) at holiday parties and family gatherings.
The monthly ice cream is probably the main thing that has kept me going. Although I no longer physically crave sugar, I really miss using it as a crutch when I’m stressed out. I miss the memory of sugar more than the sugar itself, so it really helps me to have one cheat day a month to look forward to.
Interestingly, although I still love the taste of ice cream, my cheat day has made me increasingly sick each of the six months I’ve been eating it. The first month, I definitely didn’t feel great, but it didn’t affect me too much. By the sixth-month cheat day, eating a pint made me physically ill, including scary heart palpitations (which it turns out aren’t dangerous in the short-term, but sure aren’t fun!). I pretty much have to go straight to bed after eating it, and I feel horribly sluggish for the next couple of days afterward. I might need to think about scaling back my cheat day from now on. It seems that my body is no longer used to processing such a huge amount of sugar at the same time.
SO…WHAT CAN I EAT?
This is the question I hear most: If I can’t eat sugar, then what can I eat?? Here’s what I settled on:
I eat oatmeal every day. It only takes me three minutes to prepare, two of which I’m running around getting ready for my day while it’s in the microwave.
- 1 cup (dry) of Quaker Oats (the old fashioned kind, NOT the quick kind)
- Add water and sprinkle frozen blueberries on top
- Microwave for 2 minutes
Boom! Delicious and never gets old. If I want to mix things up, I include pecans instead of blueberries. Emmanuel likes to mix peanut butter in with his…what a weirdo 😉
I’m super lucky to have a SweetGreen right around the corner from my office, and I go there a lot for lunch! If you’ve never tried their salads, you’ve gotta pay them a visit! They use locally-sourced ingredients and unique combinations, resulting in the most DELICIOUS combinations. Seriously, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of eating there.
I first quit sugar in the middle of busy season for photographers, so I really didn’t have time to cook. I needed a way to eat healthy food without breaking my bank account, and I found it in the form of The Foodery. They deliver meals made from scratch every week, and they really saved my butt in September and October when I was too tired to move at the end of the day!
If I need a quick dinner and can’t make it home, I grab a salad bowl from Chipotle or Boloco (local to Boston).
I also started batch-cooking and freezing meals whenever I could find a couple of hours. I discovered the magic of the slow cooker and never looked back. Here’s the one I bought after reading tons of reviews.
My favorite slow cooker recipe so far is this Lentil Sweet Potato Chili. Sooo good!
…TO BE CONTINUED
This year has really opened my eyes to the value of putting good food into my body. I’m proud that I had the willpower to make such a huge lifestyle change, and you can do it too! I’m happy to answer any questions and help you figure out how to make a sugar-free lifestyle work for you! You can reach me at kate@kateLphotography.com.
EDITED TO ADD:
I’m blown away by the feedback I’m receiving tonight — wow! I thought I would publicly answer a few questions from my inbox:
1) What about fruit?
I quit fruit completely for the first 10 days and didn’t eat much at all for the first few months, just because it reminded me of missing sugar. But now I can eat it just fine. I learned that the main difference between sugar found in fruit and refined sugar is that the fiber in fruit causes your body to process the sugar more slowly instead of turning it straight into stored fat. This article does a great job of explaining that.
2) Do you eat bread?
I didn’t eat any for the first three months. Although it’s not completely off-limits now, I just don’t crave it like I used to. Another benefit of quitting sugar!
3) Do you still drink alcohol?
Before, the main reason I looked forward to alcohol was because sugary cocktails tasted delicious!! So now that sugar is out, I don’t really crave alcohol either. I drink maybe once every other week, and when I do it’s usually a glass of red wine. It’s so much less expensive to go out now, too!
E & me, taken in November 2015 by Justin & Mary Marantz! Could not have gotten through this sugar-free journey without him!