Taking the full measure of life

Six Days Without Sugar

February 14th, 2010 · 25 Comments

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We–my husband and I–are at the end of Day Six of a 60-day trial of being sugar-free.  For the past six days, we haven’t had any cane sugar (table or unprocessed), honey, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, or artificial sweeteners.  When we set up the rules, we allowed ourselves one agave-sweetened treat per week, and I decided I could use blackstrap molasses in small doses in items that need a touch of sweetening. (You really can’t overdo blackstrap molasses without ruining your dish. It has quite a strong flavor. So far, I haven’t used it in anything.) Our sweet flavors are coming from fruits and vegetables—and the subtle sweet taste of whole grains, as well.

Have you noticed sugar is like crack? I mean, really.  Crackity-crack-crack.  Last February we did a trial month without cane sugar–still allowing ourselves to use honey, agave, and maple syrup during that month.  We realized we felt better emotionally and physically that month.  When the month ended, what did I do? I made a dessert that used sugar.  And we were back on the crack wagon.  Ever since then, we’ve been saying, “You know, we really felt better when we didn’t eat sugar. We should do that again.” For a YEAR we have been saying that.  Then we bake cookies or make waffles and push our resolve away.

When I posted about this on Facebook, several people asked me why we were giving up sugar.  I am not usually someone who is drawn to extremes.  Actually, that’s crap.  Naturally, I’m very drawn to extremes, but when I’m trying to live a life of balance, I always try to keep in mind that the healthy spot is usually somewhere closer to the middle.  I realized several years ago, the year I started this blog, that my extreme attempts at dieting (no carbs or no fat or whatever) didn’t work.  So why give up tasty, crunchy, baked-goods-enhancing sugar entirely?

Here’s the thing: unlike nearly every other food, sugar has virtually no nutritive value.  You can argue that honey, molasses, less processed cane sugar (such as demerara), and maybe agave have some trace vitamins and minerals in them. And it’s true—they may.  But they don’t have them in any large quantity to make sugar a worthwhile source of them compared to all the other options.

Meanwhile, sugar contributes to the body being unhealthfully acidic, it encourages illness and even cancer, it causes blood sugar instability, it creates inflammation, and in many people, it creates or worsens feelings of depression or moodiness.  And guess what? I’ve had cancer and it may come back. I’ve had two major upper respiratory infections in the last six weeks.  I can feel the instability of my blood sugar on some days. I’ve been diagnosed with at least five autoimmune disorders in the last ten years (which tend to be linked to inflammation).  And I have a tendency toward moodiness and depression.

It sounds like I shouldn’t be eating sugar, doesn’t it?

It’s sooooo tempting, though.  It’s so very, very tempting.  Baked goods are much easier to make with it. Flavors tend to sing when they are some combination of salty, sour, bitter, umami, and sweet.  I crave sweet things. Chocolate, one of my favorite flavors, really requires sugar to taste right. And really, what harm does a little sugar do?

I’m actually not sure a little does any harm.  I’m all about moderation, remember? The thing is, I find it very difficult to be moderate with sugar.  I was good at it for a while, when I was first losing weight.  But in the last year or two, sugar has crept in to make a daily appearance in my diet, and I wish I just meant as an ounce of chocolate a day, which would be fine.  Scones, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, salad dressing: and those are just some of them, and those are just the times I actually add sugar instead of when the package already includes it (chutney, chili sauce, ketchup, honey mustard, brown rice couscous, soup, and so on).  Sugar is everywhere, and I’ve been eating too much of it.

But really, it was two things that tipped me over: 1) I got my two respiratory infections here.  The first was over Christmas.  My killer strep throat took two rounds of antibiotics to go away.  Actually, I had had two upper respiratory infections in Atlanta in the three months prior, as well–the first of which may have been H1N1 and took six weeks to go away entirely.  After finally getting over the strep, when I got a bad cold three weeks ago (that took 17 days to go away), I wanted to scream. 2)  I started back with acupuncture and talked in depth with my new TCM practitioner about what to do for healing—for general good health and to avoid another crazy infection.  Cutting back sugar was, of course, one of her first recommendations.  Well, shit. I knew I needed to do it.

So I tried to simply will myself to cut back, and quite frankly, it didn’t work.  Sugar has a hold on me right now.  Like I said, it’s like crack.  Cold turkey became my option to try, and my husband—who saw how much better he felt without cane sugar last year, even though he’s generally obscenely healthy—was willing to get on board with me.

The first few days, I thought about sugar a lot.  I had this empty place inside me that perhaps was an illusion, but it was similar to how I felt when I gave up gluten.  At least I knew, This too shall pass. When I saw chocolate bars in our pantry or sweets at the store, I reminded myself I have that one-treat-per-week out. (That’s really how sugar should be, I think—a special treat that gets you way excited.) I have to admit, even being a careful label reader to avoid allergens and intolerances, I was shocked to find out how much of what I usually buy has evaporated cane juice as an ingredient.

Friday arrived–the first eligible day for my week’s one treat. I had planned to hold off till Sunday and make an agave-sweetened cake for Valentine’s, but instead I was jonesing hard by Friday night.  My husband and I rushed to BabyCakes NYC’s LA bakery, where I got a cupcake . . . and another cupcake top, to be honest . . . and he got two cookies with icing stuffed between them.  We ate them on the way home.  The first bite, I thought, “There’s nothing wrong with this cupcake, but it doesn’t fix everything that’s wrong in my life, either.” Of course, I already knew that technically, but it’s funny how obsessing over a food can make you feel like your life would be just right if you could have it.  As I made my way through my cupcake, I took bites more and more slowly.  The truth is, I didn’t really want to finish the cupcake, but I made the mistake of convincing myself to finish it (after my husband didn’t want the rest of it) by telling myself I had another week till I could have such a treat.  By the time we got home, I felt mildly headachey and a little light-headed.  Just not right. Ten minutes after we got inside, we looked at each other and both said, “My stomach doesn’t feel so good.” Neither of us felt food-poisoned or anything so severe; we just didn’t feel well.  The sugar? The immense fat in those desserts? Something else? I threw away the remaining cupcake top without eating it.

Whatever caused the ill feelings, that experience has been good for me.  I’m still craving sweet things—would love to make some chocolate biscotti right now.  But I am reminding myself of that basic feeling when I took the first bite of the BabyCakes cupcake: sugar doesn’t fix anything.  And then I’m reminding myself of how I felt after I ate it.  I believe wholeheartedly in good self-care.  Maybe this experiment is just about convincing myself this is actually a self-care issue.

(As a side note, if you want to follow along, I’ll be doing a daily update on the sugar-free trial on Twitter. My username is sallyjpa.)

Tags: dessert · non-scale victories · weight loss

25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Shannon // Feb 15, 2010 at 6:06 am

    Yes, sugar is like crack. I can not touch the stuff – in any form. I am currently cleansing candida and notice that as soon as I get off of all sweets (including fruit & grains) that my symptoms disappear and after just a couple of days I don’t crave it anymore.

    I also find that if I am eating plenty of fat (coconut oil, butter (ghee), olive oil, and other pastured animal fats) that my cravings pretty much disappear. I do use stevia to sweeten teas and coffee with raw cream – if I am craving sweets decaf organic + raw cream + stevia does the trick every time.

  • 2 Deb Schiff // Feb 15, 2010 at 6:29 am

    Good luck on your journey, Sally. I’m sorry to hear of all your health challenges in the past and hope your changes help you in the future.

    About 5 years ago, I switched to agave nectar to replace all sweeteners and have learned the true value of “less is more.” Another trick is when I make baked goods, I give the batch away except for one or two items that I keep to photograph and try for my blog. Because I belong to a health food co-op, there are always takers for healthy baked goods (especially vegan treats).

    Good luck!

  • 3 quinn // Feb 15, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Interesting timing! I really believe I poisoned myself with sugar after a too-indulgent visit to a wonderful bakery on 1 Feb. And as sick as I felt, what did I want all that day and the next? MORE. More cookies. More pastries. MORE.

    I pulled the reins in and since 2 Feb, I have written down everything I’ve eaten and haven’t bought or made or eaten any “sweets.” I’ve avoided processed foods or prepared foods with more than a very small amount of sugar in the ingredient list – as you point out, it is difficult to do avoid sugar completely in storebought foods.

    I have used maple syrup twice, because I have the idea that it, like fruit, is a “better” sweet…but maybe even fruit and maple syrup will cause the negative results of other sugars? Sigh. I live in maple syrup country, and buy it once yearly from a friend…makes me happy to use a natural, local, “friendly” product, at least now and then.

    Sorry for rambling comment – just love it that your post came along when it did.

  • 4 Rachel // Feb 15, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I’m on about the fourth day without adding sugar to my diet, because I eliminated chocolate and tea. I was noticing early this morning just how good I felt, really alert and in a nice mood. I haven’t cut out honey or agave, or foods like salad dressing because my diet is restricted enough as it is. But I’m really considering making this a long-term change. I don’t know if it’s the extra water I’m drinking too, because I’m not drinking tea, but I think it’s both.

  • 5 egk // Feb 15, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    one interesting side effect of giving up sugar is that you are also giving up, for the most part, flours which are pretty highly processed foods and a possible source of very low level cc:

    The glutenzap website has a fair amount of discussion about this. And the PaNu website is planning a post soon about dietary recommendations for cancer.

    Good luck with diet changes!

  • 6 Katie // Feb 15, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Congrats on making it this far, and the hardest part is definitely over! I made the decision to give up sugar for a week about 4 years ago, but then the cravings went away, and I haven’t had sugar since (other than the occasional bite of something or a tiny amount of honey/agave). The stomachache/headache is what has kept me from going back to sugar, and hopefully I can keep this going for a lot longer. The hardest part is explaining my decision to my friends and family. They don’t understand that I have no desire to eat it (just like they don’t understand why I don’t want to “cheat” and eat small amounts of gluten). Hopefully it will continue to get easier for you, as it did for me, and good luck with the next 54 days!!

  • 7 Terri // Feb 15, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Go Sally and Dan!

    It is definitely hard to stay away from sugar. I’ve been a lot better about it during the pregnancy and I hope not to make so many excuses after. It is always amazing how much of an effect sugar has on me…I had 2 bites of a sugary dessert yesterday and that was enough to give me a slight headache. Crazy crazy.

  • 8 WRG // Feb 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    I tried giving up sugar for several months and gained weight out of pure frustration. It was one of the silliest experiments of my life. Same goes for wheat and dairy.

    I find it relatively easy to consume sugar and other supposedly “bad” foods in moderation and that is the way I will stay.

  • 9 Kristen // Feb 16, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Good luck! I try to keep things as low sugar as I can, but I know it creeps up on us.

  • 10 smilinggreenmom // Feb 16, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Oh wow! In all of the ways that our family tries to eat healthy whole foods and be healthy….I actually had not even considered totally getting rid of sugar or sweetness anything. We avoid it and eat in moderation and we hardly ever eat processed foods – but it does make me wonder how we would feel to eliminate it in such a dramatic way.

    Our son had severe Eczema and food allergies/sensitivities and the only thing that ever helped him (dramatically I might add) was his Belly Boost probiotics! It was amazing and it gave our family such inspiration to what we were putting in our bodies. No longer did foods affect him so badly and it just really goes to show that so often our bodies can not handle all of the “junk” in our foods.

  • 11 Laura // Feb 18, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I’m so glad that you’re writing about this. Sugar really is crack. It’s the hardest thing to give up. When I stopped eating cane sugar, I binged on honey and agave for a while and gave myself a cavity. Nowadays, I can tell something is shifting in my body, because when I do eat something sweet, I immediately crave greens afterwards.

    It is very hard to give up the nurturing fantasies around sugar, though. I still hold out sweets as something that will make me feel better even though they’re not even what I really want anymore. I would much rather have a gordita or a good bowl of pasta or brown rice or soup…. yum… soup.

    Something that seemed to really helped diminish my addiction to sugar was drinking two cups of sweet vegetable tea (basically veggie broth made from carrot, onion, winter squash, and cabbage) everyday for a month and then after that. The macro consultant recommend it, and I think that’s what really started the shift.

    But, oh man, it’s really hard…… the allure of gluten-free baking is really insidious…..

  • 12 Cheryl // Feb 18, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I’ve been without sugar for about 2 years (with the exception of uncrystallized ginger b/c I can’t find it such free). I eat sugar once a year and realize how monumentally crappy I feel…and I rarely miss it anymore.

  • 13 Lynn Barry // Feb 24, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I can relate…I can’t have a piece of candy, or a cookie, or one small bite of something with sugar without wanting all of it in the house until I feel sick and I am not even enjoying it but I have to eat it all up…it makes me sick physically and emotionally to be this way but I am…so good for you! BRAVO! HUGS

  • 14 Dehlia // Feb 25, 2010 at 6:28 am

    I’ve always wanted to completely cut out sugar, because I know how addicting it really is, but they hide that sucker in just about everything. 🙁 It is definitely worth the try, 6 days without it is a mighty accomplishment!

  • 15 Kathryn // Feb 26, 2010 at 6:15 am


    Congratulations on finding what works for you. I would say that, while honey has very little nutritional value, it has many interesting properties, including anti-viral, etc. This is a link to some interesting facts about honey (and cinnamon): http://1stholistic.com/Reading/health/health-honey-and-cinnamon.htm. It is interesting reading.

  • 16 A Half-Assed Challenge for March | The KitschenBitsch // Feb 27, 2010 at 9:37 am

    […] been inspired by the bloggers doing challenges right now, be they financial, nutritional, or otherwise. I was also inspired when I estimated my taxes and almost threw up. Self employment + […]

  • 17 carrie // Mar 3, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    This is a great challenge Sally. It’s funny what you say about blackstrap molasses vs. sugar. I’ve been reading the Little House books again (I read them at least once a year and I’m always convinced I didn’t belong in that century once I’m finished! haha! I heart bathrooms! lol) but they saved “white” sugar only for when guests were there. It was so expensive then it was a very, very special treat! But they did have molasses with biscuits and things that needed a tad of sweetness. They ate seasonally, very little sugar, and meat in the winter when vegetables were scarce… it’s made me contemplate our own diets a lot. At any rate, I’m proud of you for doing this and I’ll be joining you. I need to cut back on my sugar, because I know I eat too much of it when I crave it every day. I eat way less than I used too… but I know it’s still too much. Looking forward to your tweets and facebook notes on your journey!

  • 18 Frances // Mar 5, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Wow! I really needed to hear this. I am a sugar addict. I’ve tried on several occasions to cut back but it didn’t last. It just feels like I can’t be a sweet person without it! Right now I am having trouble getting over a strep infection. I also crop up with a new allergy every month. Sounds like I could really use a change. I’ll have to think about it though…

  • 19 Barb // Mar 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Please read Dr. James Sorrells Book S.O.S. Stop Only Sugar. You cab search for it and buy it on line. He is a local internal med doc and the book is short and ‘sweet’. He gives you the scoop on why sugar,in all forms, is bad for our bodies including white breads, pasta,rice,and potatoes. Read his book. It has helped so many. I have been sugar free…really sugar free…for two months. I have lost a few pounds and feel great!

  • 20 Carma // Mar 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I am very impressed. I probably should be looking into this, but I have had such a hard time getting DH on the Corn Syrup Bandwagon. Well, okay, trying to elimentate corn syrup. I am doing much better getting HFCS out.
    Who knows though – after I gave up soda about 2 years ago, he finally is thinking that that may be a really good idea. (I do have an occasional Vernor’s Ginger Ale but only because they are usually hard to find and it is a treat for me.)
    All sugar and other sweets would be tough. Though I am considering trying agave.

  • 21 Denise // Mar 24, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I have been off sugar for three years. I only use honey, and I can tell you–I rarely miss sugar.

    I am on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet to control my Crohn’s Disease. This diet doesn’t allow sugar, wheat, gluten, and starches. It sounds tough, but I’ve never felt better!

  • 22 Eco-Vegan Gal // May 17, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Thanks for writing this post. I’ve avoiding most refined/processed sugars as much as possible, but it’s a challenge (especially since I do food reviews). However, I had cane juice for the first time in a baked good today and I immediately felt sick (kinda nauseous). It was a great reminder to continue on my sugar-free path. One question though: why did you stop eating brown rice syrup and maple syrup? I know they are forms of sugar, but I thought they were easier on the body…

  • 23 Sarah Schatz - menu plans for limited diets // Jul 7, 2010 at 8:50 am

    though I am still eating honey and fruit, I feel way better staying away sugar. I am following GAPS and the only allowed sugar is honey and fruit because all of the other sweeteners are not as easy to digest. I don’t remember the technicalities of it, but I definately feel better! I hope your body gets stronger by staying away from it! It is very tempting but the longer you stay away from it, the easier it is. Now I don’t even crave the honey and fruit like I used to.

  • 24 Large quantity // Mar 3, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Wow this is a brave challenge. I can’t imagine going even a few days with zero sugar. But good luck and once you overcome craving it i hope you share with us how to do it =)

  • 25 Cherie Merritt // Jan 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    I was told 3 1/2 yrs ago I couldn’t have any dairy ( I have a slight tolerance to raw goat cheese but should avoid also), any cane sugar. I found out quickly how difficult it is to find anything premade without sugar, it’s even in salt! And yes, it is addictive…my body lost the craving in 5 days, my mind stills misses the remembered flavor of certain goodies but I know now I wouldn’t even like the taste, I am used to alternatives that are healthy.

    Thank for this site…it’s great!

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