I Tried A No-Added-Sugar Challenge for a Month—Here's What Happened
From men's health
I've always laughed at people who seriously suggest that fruit should be considered a dessert. A piece of chocolate cake is dessert. Talenti banana chocolate strudel ice cream is dessert. But apples and peanut butter? Or frozen grapes? Insert eye roll here.
Yet I found that several times in the past month I had made a bowl of blueberries with unsweetened Greek yogurt and cinnamon as a nightcap to avoid adding extra sweeteners (including artificial ones - more on that later) for 31 days.
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Let me step back a little. Late last year I craved halo top or ice cream most nights after dinner ... and gave in to those cravings more times than I'd like to admit.
So I decided to take control of the situation by making the Sugar Holic equivalent of dry January: a January with no added sugar.
The "added" part is key - fruits and other foods with naturally occurring sugars were fine. The USDA recommends getting no more than 10% of your calories from added sugars - which is a maximum of 40 grams if you're eating around 1,600 calories a day. (The average American exceeds this daily limit by about 30%, according to the latest statistics.)
While the sugar in a banana contains nutrients like potassium and fiber, the high fructose corn syrup in something like soda contains only empty calories. "You don't give anything of value to your body," says Angela Lemond, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And, crap, they put you at higher risk for frightening conditions like diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Artificial sweeteners (like aspartame or stevia) and alcohol sugars (like erythitol) aren't necessarily better. While everything the FDA approved is actually safe, Lemond says these sugar substitutes can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. She adds that some research suggests that artificial sweeteners can increase cravings for sweet foods. (Hmmm, maybe my recent diet soda habit had something to do with my adult tooth?)
My goal in this challenge was to reset my taste buds so I wouldn't feel like a slave to my cravings - and Lemond says I'm up to something: "We crave what we eat, so when we slowly start to eat it to change." Types of foods we eat you will find that your taste buds will change. "
I figured if I saw other positive effects in the process, hey, so much the better.
So I had one last cookie on New Years Eve and got ready. So went my month with no added sugar.
I've spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with ingredient lists
As someone who's been into health and nutrition for years, I knew I needed to avoid more than just candy and cookies as many foods that don't taste sweet secretly pack sugar. Even so, I had to brush up on all of the different names for added sugar (there are more than 50!) - and spend a lot of time Googling ingredients I didn't recognize.
In restaurants, I was the annoying person who asked if there was a menu that listed all the ingredients in each dish. But these steps were so necessary.
MORE: 7 Foods Added Sugar Labels will completely ruin them for you
Name one food item, and you can likely find a packaged or restaurant version that has extra sugar in it - including soups, sauces, salad dressings, sandwich breads, and even toasted vegetables in health food stores (remember: honey is a form of added sugar, too - and so do it doesn't have as much nutritional value as we've been led to believe, says Lemond). In fact, at times it was almost impossible to find ready-made meals that didn't contain "evaporated cane juice" or "maltose" (I'm looking at you, turkey bacon and sandwich bread).
I wish I could say there were some foods. I was surprised that I could eat, but ... there just wasn't any. I found a few packaged foods that were ok (see my favorites below). But I literally had to make my own bread every week to be able to eat the goodness that carbohydrates are. Which brings me to my next point ...
I became a master of food preparation
I like to cook, but I've always been good at making excuses for ordering delivery. (I have to go to my dog. Or exercise. Or maybe I was just too tired from work.)
But knowing that most restaurants use extra sugar, I knew all along that I had to give up my takeaway habit. For the first time in my life I started preparing meals.
I'll say it right now, if you hate cooking, the no-sugar challenge is probably not for you. But I was really looking forward to Sundays with my Instant Pot and blender. (Yes, I know how lame that phrase sounds to anyone who considers cooking a chore.)
It was great to come home to enjoy really tasty meals like beef and barley soup, coconut curry chicken, or kale sauce noodles. Suddenly I didn't have to waste mental energy during the week trying to figure out what I was going to eat because I had already made up my mind on Sunday. Very quickly I realized how many recipes I had to prepare in advance to feed my husband and me on weekdays (two so I had a bit of variety but I could actually eat whatever I had made), as well as all other logistical Details in the meal planning.
MORE: 6 Meal Preparation Mistakes That Made You Gain Weight
Since we couldn't eat out on the weekend - something we usually like to do - I made a special dinner, like homemade pizza. And sometimes I would invite friends for the occasion (admittedly, our social life has had a small success this month).
I will definitely keep making the meals, but now I can add some low-sugar recipes to the mix as well.
This is your body on sugar:
A stash of snacks on the whitelist saved my life
Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But I got off to a rocky start, grossly underestimating the amount of sugar-free food I was supposed to bring to work, and an intense hanger followed.
I started ordering my favorites in bulk and keeping them in my office so I had them to hand at all times. Some of my favorites:
Larabar Gluten Free Bar, Apple Pie, $ 16 for 16 bars, amazon.com
Classic peanut butter squeeze packs from Justin's, $ 6 for 10 packs, amazon.com
Wonderful Pistachio Fried and Salted Pistachios, $ 26 for 24 packs, amazon.com
Finding a few restaurants that were transparent about the ingredients used was also important as it helped me pinpoint a couple of meals for those days when I couldn't bring my lunch (if you like Sweetgreen or Mulberry & Vine in your have range, 10/10 would recommend).
MORE: '5 Things That Happened On A Low-Carb, Low-Sugar Diet With My Boyfriend'
And when all else failed, I knew I could get a banana and plain Greek yogurt from the local supermarket.
I didn't notice a big change in my energy level
People often asked me if I felt "better" during my month with no added sugar. And the truth is, I had a cold for a couple of weeks during the experiment, so ... no, not really. I also didn't notice any positive changes in my skin (and I was so hoping this experiment would improve my complexion).
Even so, my homemade dinners with no added sugar made me feel happier than the takeaway food I'd eaten before - so I wasn't so tempted to go through the pantry or freezer looking for something sweet to end the night with.
MORE: 5 Foods That Will Give You Tons of Energy
And when I started eating sugar again, I found that days after I really pampered myself, I only felt more gross. Almost like a low-level hangover.
While I didn't, Lemond says others may notice more stable energy and blood sugar levels, among other things. It just depends on the person and what their diet was like before.
However, I lost 7 pounds
To be clear, I didn't want to lose weight. Every time I was hungry, I ate something. I made this pizza that I mentioned three times (once with a filled crust!). I had a small piece of homemade bread with almost every lunch and dinner (I was giving up sugar, so I definitely couldn't eat carbs - I'm not a robot). And I still had "dessert" when I craved something sweet (hence the bowls of blueberries and yogurt mentioned above).
By the time I weighed myself for two weeks, I had lost six pounds. And in the past two weeks I've lost another pound. A yoga teacher even told me that I looked slimmer towards the end of the experiment. Lemond says that weight loss often occurs when people cut out added sugar, but that isn't a guarantee (again, it depends on how much extra sugar you've consumed before - and apparently the answer was a lot for me!). She adds that if you are losing weight, it's probably about your midsection.
But what about my sugar cravings?
Towards the end of the month, things like coconut larabars tasted super sweet to me, a lot more than before. Even Justin's peanut butter felt like a treat.
I'm happy to report that after the experiment, I still don't have the burning cravings for candy every night that I did before. When it strikes, I often reach for fruit and feel satisfied afterwards (who am I ?!). And when I eat something hearty - like bread or soup - I can immediately tell if it has added sugar because I like it.
MORE: This type of diet could make your acne worse
Of course, I was curious to see if ice cream would appear unbearably sweet as I had been without ice cream for so long. But when I finally got myself a scoop of chocolate cookie dough, it tasted ... really good. What can I say? You can take the ice cream away from the girl, but ...
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