Two days after my birthday last year, I did something interesting: I gave up sugar for 365 days. (I also gave up alcohol but we’ll deconstruct that on a different day.) As I write this, I’m on Day 86.
Last year, during Lent, I gave up sugar and alcohol too. I like to always give up something physical and psychological or spiritual during Lent. The former is a good exercise because as a priest put it once, “If you can control the food that goes in your mouth, you can control a lot of things in your life.” There’s a morality to eating we oftentimes don’t consider, from how food is grown, to the choices we make available to society, to our everyday individual choices of how and what to eat.
Anyway, during Lent last year, my body was a temple of whole foods, lots of water, and tea, and that’s about it. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically, there was a difference; I felt it and for the record, I looked it too. In the world of health, fitness, and wellness, I qualify for the most part, as a “healthy person.” I eat well 80 percent of the time, I drink water, I have caffeine sensitivity so I don’t consume much of it, my sleep has greatly improved since the end of grad school, and I workout quite a bit.
But I did (do?) have vices: I like my wine and I like cookies, and many sweet things in general. I’m also an all or nothing kind of girl. What does that mean? That means that I generally avoided having boxes or containers of cookies in my home because if they are available, I have to eat them, and not just a few, but a lot of them.
Some people are better at moderation and some people are better at abstinence – I am of the latter bunch. Eat one cookie and drink one glass of wine per week for a few weeks? Not going to happen. Give up sugar and alcohol entirely for 40 days? No problem. I felt great.
I decided some time in September that I wanted to do it again – give up my vices – but this time for much longer. I settled on one year, and I would start after my birthday, at the end of October.
The first couple of days you give up sugar are a nightmare. Consider that science says Oreos are more addictive than cocaine. Now I’m not an Oreo girl in particular (ha, there’s a racial joke here) but because I like sweets, and sugar is in a lot of processed things that we consume, giving it up will cause your body to go through withdrawal.
When I had started earlier in the year, I was mostly fine going into it because I had been eating the normal way I do – relatively healthy. October however, apart from being filled with unexpected stressors, I had it in my mind that I was giving up my vices for a year, and had several, “last supper” days. Moreover, I started two days after my birthday, which included amongst other things I can no longer consume – German chocolate cake and champagne – my food and drink lovers.
So on October 29th, my year without vices commenced. I got headaches. I was shivering, and not just because of the Chicago fall I was in at the time. I felt simultaneously like vomiting, and eating everything that was in sight. It lasted about nine or ten days, and then I got out of it. If you ever decide to do this, if you’re eating relatively well beforehand, the headaches and nausea might last two or three days. But if you’re coming off a sugar high like I was, expect it to take a few days longer.
Giving up refined sugar is not just a matter of avoiding the obvious things like cakes and cookies. When you are on a mission to cut out non-natural sugars, be prepared for a mental shift entirely – shopping, cooking, and eating become even more of a chore. With 57 names for refined sugars, and probably more, you have to check the ingredients of every item you buy if you’re being strict. I have reduced my sugar intake to where possible, only having honey and stevia, and avoiding most of everything else that is not “naturally” in a foodstuff.
Here are some things I basically avoid all the time: Non-grain bread, red sauce (Goodbye to most pizza and pasta recipes. Also, thank goodness for white sauce and olive oil.), most granola-type things, bottled teas, and a whole lot of other things that make me sad. But my goal has been to go through the process without being entirely insufferable to everyone and everything around me so I try to keep that in my mind.
But if you think it’s tricky when you’re preparing food for yourself, eating out becomes a nightmare. A nightmare that makes you seem like one of those awful, nitpicky people that every waiter hates with the fire of a thousand suns. So you avoid eating out, which is generally a good thing. But where you can’t, you try to be as polite as possible. Which also teaches you that you should probably ask more questions about the process and places that you eat out of, when you do go out.
From a physical perspective, you will likely lose a little or a lot of weight, if that matters to you. You will also lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and sleep better. Mentally, you brain is sharper, and emotionally, you will feel less stress. I’m not making this up – science says so too. Your attitude towards food will change because you’ll begin to see how much crap you put in your body without thinking. You’ll also be tempted to seek other ways to satisfy your food desires, by, for example, leaning towards salty. Or you’ll be tempted to overeat. Indeed, just because you’re avoiding sugar, it won’t automatically mean you’re eating well. But you will probably eat better than you did before, and if you don’t succumb to just substituting one food vice for another, you’ll become a more contentious eater.
I’m still not entirely sure why I took this journey. I know I wanted to do something to shake up my routine. (Couldn’t I have just gone to Bali like everyone else?!) I know how I felt when I did a mini-version of these things and I wanted to see if after a year, I would lose my taste for these things. I also know that I wanted to make societal observations on what happens if I take out these two big things that play a huge role in our eating habits and societal interactions. How would I specifically react, and how would other react to me?
It’s not always easy and despite this journey, I still have good food days and bad ones. But I know that I’ve noticed how much emotion and societal pressure is attached to food. Notwithstanding other stressors I’ve had to deal with in the last month, I’ve felt more in control of the choices I make for my body and for my mind.
It’s funny how when you lose something like refined sugar, which can be so secretly present in your life, you not so secretly gain a lot of things. Like self-awareness, and even on the difficult days, the knowledge that you’re experiencing a certain kind of freedom from the things that you didn’t even know controlled you.