I’ve had a sweet tooth for as long as I can remember. Giving up sugar felt a lot like giving up oxygen some days, but I came away with a completely new understanding of cravings and bad habits.
Birthdays aren’t celebrated around broccoli casserole. Christmas carrots are for the reindeer. The main event at a wedding isn’t cutting the roast beef.
Some of the happiest and grandest events in our lives are celebrated with sugar—the tongue-tingling ingredient that’s also in everything from bread and yogurt to ketchup and cereal.
Sugar, in short, is everywhere. Indeed, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, say manufacturers add sugar to 74 percent of the processed foods they make. And, as I discovered, they add it to foods you’d never consider “sweet” by any stretch of the sugary imagination.
Sugar isn’t just a threat to dental health, though dentists everywhere would remind you it’s a leading culprit in cavities. Eating too much sugar also contributes to heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, all conditions that can lead to chronic health problems and even premature death.
Learning to live without sugar—or at least learning to live with less of it—is an admirable goal for anyone, regardless of your health history. If you are considering a no-sugar period or want to just cut back dramatically on how much of the sweet stuff you’re eating—natural or artificial—I offer some guidance for getting through the rough days and learning to love living without so much sugar.
Why I Did a No-Sugar Challenge
As a person with a world-renowned sweet tooth (if “the world” is just my family, that is), the idea of giving up sugar seemed like the craziest dietary decision I had made in quite some time. (Trying the keto diet ranks high in my harebrained diet ideas too.) However, as I reviewed my debit card purchases and realized I had found “good reasons” to stop by the local cookie shop four times in two weeks, I knew I needed a sugar break.
The rules for this challenge were simple: absolutely no added sugars. Natural sugars, like those found in dairy and fruit, were OK. Artificial sweeteners were also off limits.
Sugar is not a necessary nutrient, and we’re all eating entirely too much of it. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends men eat no more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day of added sugar; women should eat less—no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories per day. However, most Americans eat two to three times that amount—19.5 teaspoons or 312 calories per day.
If nothing else, a 30-day sugar-free challenge is a wonderful opportunity to realize just how much sugar you’re eating, even if you’re not really one to, say, down a handful of Reese’s pieces after lunch because you “need a little something sweet.” (Guilty.)
Going into this challenge, my goal was to reset my sugar sensitivity and better understand how much I was consuming. However, as a person with more than a decade of health and nutrition writing under my belt, I wasn’t expecting to be as challenged by the food aspect of this quest as I was. As you’ll find out, sugar is in everything, absolutely everything, which makes giving it up incredibly hard.
The Biggest Successes
Let me start off with the biggest question you likely have: did I lose weight? No, but that was not my intention. I likely did not eat fewer carbs, despite cutting sugar, because I loaded up on bananas and pineapple for snacks. (Remember, natural sugar was OK; artificial sugar was out.)
However, I didn’t gain weight either, and that was a goal. I knew that the excess calories I was taking in from sugar were adding up a bit on the scale. Not gaining weight was a victory.
Once I was through the initial adjustment phase, I found that I did not experience the typical blood sugar ebbs and flows. More specifically, I didn’t find myself needing the midafternoon pick-me-up. Perhaps that’s because I couldn’t have what I wanted—the soda—or maybe it was the result of forcing my body to learn to cope without the quick sugary hits that previously provided so much energy.
Better relationship with sugar consumption
When I couldn’t have the spoonful of ice cream after dinner or the cookie “because it’s Tuesday,” I quickly realized that I was haphazardly consuming sugar. I could manage to make these splurges fit within my calorie goal, but that meant I was giving up better sources of calories, like calcium-rich dairy or fiber-rich whole grains.
I also wasn’t recognizing the hidden sources of sugar that were sneaking into my diet and adding unnecessary calories either. A lot of soups, salad dressings and prepared meals list sugar, in some form or another, on the ingredient list.
I realized early on you could easily say, “But I don’t eat a lot of sugar” and be entirely oblivious to how much you eat every day.
A glass of red wine on Day 25 tasted closer to cotton candy than pinot noir. My first real sweet after the challenge ended, a chocolate chip cookie, was cloying. I split it in half and shared with a friend. I couldn’t finish my half.
It’s surprising how quickly your palate adjusts to eating less sugar—and then how quickly it adjusts again to eating sugar. The reset is short-lived, but it really opened my eyes to how numb I had become to sugar’s effects on my tongue.
The Biggest Challenges
Breaking the sugar cycle
My challenge started on a Friday. By Wednesday, I was hitting proverbial brick walls left and right, with so little energy and no resources to give myself a quick “jolt” to get through the afternoon. (My caffeine source of choice is diet soda, but artificial sweeteners were out.) I was also irritable, which made work difficult and daunting. Naps were my friend in this period. They provided energy, and they let me escape a bit of the sugar-free meltdown.
That period lasted about 24 hours—I liken it to the keto flu during the first few days of the keto diet—and then it was over. After that, it was smooth sailing, as long as I avoided the sugar pitfalls of office birthday parties and free cookies at the farmers’ market.
But that’s just the challenge—sugar is everywhere. (Have I said that yet?) Avoiding it is a bit like avoiding sunlight. No matter what you do, it will get in, so you have to be smarter than the sugar.
Super-long ingredient lists
You’re going to spend a lot of time with ingredient lists if you’re looking to eliminate sugar. Sugar often hides way down the list, and under unassuming names like brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice. Marinara sauce, bread, canned soups and condiments are some of the sneakiest offenders.
Before you begin, commit to heart the list of other names for sugar so you can more quickly spot the sugar on the lists.
Caution when dining out
Restaurant menus don’t come with ingredient lists, so you have to be discerning and ask lots of questions. Salads are your best bet because you can very easily control the ingredients and ask for an oil-and-vinegar dressing. Sandwiches are likely out because bread almost always has sugar.
Depending on how much effort you want to give it, you can work with your server to find something that’s entirely sugar-free as-is on the menu, or you can customize a dish with only the ingredients you know you’re cleared to have.
Social situations with sugar
I found the best method to manage this was the truth: tell your friends you’re doing a no-sugar challenge. That way, you don’t hurt feelings at birthday parties when you have to refuse the cakes, and they don’t ask questions when you’re drinking wine instead of your regular vodka-cranberry.
Lifelong Takeaways from My 30 Days Without Sugar
Complete sugar abstinence won’t be my goal in the future, but I am quite certain I’ll incorporate elements of a no-sugar lifestyle moving forward. For example, I have tried, since the challenge ended, to eat mostly no-sugar by sticking with more natural sources and balancing my added sugar intake more evenly. I don’t believe in “cheat days” per se, but I have established a bit of a sugar-free zone during the week so that my sugar splurges are limited to just one or two days on the weekend.
I firmly believe everyone could benefit from a hard break from sugar, as long as their health allows it. It’s an eye-opening way to grasp how much sugar you actually eat in a day and recognize the habits you’ve formed around sugar, from popping a mint after your cup of coffee to grabbing a handful of chocolate-covered pretzels when you swing by the office snacks. If you’re feeling up for the challenge, 30 days without added sugar can help you reset your sugar cravings. Good luck going for a month that’s a little less sweet.