“I want to get a vending machine, with fun sized candy bars, and the glass in front is a magnifying glass. You’ll be mad, but it will be too late.” – Mitch Hedberg, American Stand-up Comedian, 1968-2005
Towards the end of Naval boot camp, the families of the enlistees would come to watch us in a parade of sorts in the Ceremonial Hall. Their sons and daughters, unseen for months, fit and trim and marching in unison, was probably quite the site to see. For the enlisted, we had been devoid of outside human contact for those months and only knew bland food and the smell of sweat and boot polish. As I marched with my division into the large hall, I’ll never forget the overwhelming smell: Perfume, deodorant, hair products…it was like a wall of toxic fumes. “Is this what we smell like?” I thought. Being deprived of the once familiar odors allowed my olfactory senses to settle back into a normal state and it was only then that I was able to truly appreciate the insane degree to which we bathe ourselves in artificial scents.
Once you quit sugar for a while, you will have the same experience towards sweets. The Starbucks sugar-laden lattes will taste like syrup…because they are. Trying to down a soda will be like drinking sugar water…because it is. Frosting? Forget it. This is the goal of quitting sugar – weight loss and health are simply a natural benefit. Less becomes more. Not only do you want sugar less, but you need less of it to appreciate it.
Which Sugars are Bad Sugars?
Depending on where you are regarding your sugar cravings and\or addiction, you may want to be more or less strict when determining what products (notice I didn’t say food) to eliminate from your diet. Here’s my take.
No Added Sugar
In most instances when the case is being made against sugar the reference is to sugar added to products, not naturally occurring sugar in fruits or vegetables. Without going into all of the science, your body is able to tell the difference. Sugar which occurs in fruit is bound with fiber and other nutrients which slows down the uptake into the bloodstream. That being said, juice, even 100% natural juice, is something to stay away from. While there may be vitamins, the sugar content is really high and lacking in fiber. It’s better to eat two oranges than to down a glass of OJ.
Condiments, like ketchup, have added sugar as well. Depending on how much you typically consume, you may want to cut it back or eliminate it all together. I have found that when I am eating a healthy diet I don’t use many condiments so it has been a non-issue for me.
I love syrups. I recently discovered the incredible flavor of sorghum syrup. It tastes like caramel and molasses; just wonderful. I prefer to use syrups in most baking recipes because there is more variety. As far as the glycemic index goes (the rate at which food is converted to sugar\energy) syrups, even honey, are all pretty close to sugar. It’s best to stay away from them whenever possible until you have sugar under control.
What About Carbs?
Carbohydrates have always been under scrutiny by the trendy dieting crowd and is still a source of debate with the muscle-building crowd. I don’t believe in eliminating carbs but in most cases the quality needs to be increased and the amount reduced. In other words, just like everything else in your diet, carbs should come from quality foods. Keep it simple: Brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, etc., just not all at once!
Before diving into The Guide, let’s take a look at a few rules for kicking sugar.
Rule #1: No Last Hurrah
This one is pretty important. I know when I am about to clamp down on my eating I want to have one last big meal (which often turns into a day of pigging out). While it may not set us back physically all that much, the effects on our psyche are not to be overlooked.
Think about it for a moment. Why would you want one last dance with cheesecake or a bowl of ice cream? It’s not going anywhere. There is no sugar shortage in the world. Isn’t it funny how we treat food? As if we are sending off a dear friend to a far off land. I have actually looked forward to diets solely for the farewell tour! Sugar, it comes from a plant. It doesn’t deserve this kind of loyalty. It isn’t something to be heralded in one final fanfare of feasting.
Rule #2: No Cheat Days
“Whoa, whoa, hold the horses kemosabe! All of the best diets have a cheat day!” This rule ties into #1. What are we cheating on? Health? We have already decided that sugar is not evil; it comes from a plant. Cheat days imply that sugar (or pizza or carbs) is bad for you. Yet, they also place these taboo delectables on a pedestal, to be enjoyed on the day of cheating. Some people call them reward days, but the concept is the same.
Now, I’m not against a day of relaxed eating standards, quite the contrary, but when we are trying to beat an addiction we need to put our mind into what we are doing. Eventually, you won’t want a donut the same way you do now. Eventually, your cheat\binge day, will look pretty reasonable, yet you will be just as satisfied, if not more so.
Rule #3: No Substitute Sweeteners
What is one of the first things people do when trying to get off sugar? Find the miracle sweetener that helps them quit without feeling like they are giving up anything. Huh? I’m pretty sure that’s called trading, not quitting. Even if you can find a natural sweetener that satisfies your sugar cravings (Stevia is supposedly good but I don’t care for it), there are two reasons this is not a good idea.
Resetting Your Taste Buds
Alternative sweeteners may retrain your taste buds, but only deprivation can reset them. If the goal was simply to reduce calories, then perhaps an alternative sweetener would do the trick, but that isn’t the only goal. Wouldn’t it be cool if a carrot tasted sweet? Or if you could enjoy a baked sweet potato without a dollop of butter and brown sugar? There are a number of vegetables that we eat that have a tinge of sweetness that we just can’t taste when we are consuming sugar.
Resetting Sweets in the Hierarchy of Good
For many, sweets are the icing on the cake of life (pun intended). Watching a movie? Something sweet. Fun with friends? Something sweet. Out to dinner? Something sweet. Quick snack? Something sweet. You get the idea. By looking for a substitute we are affirming a false notion to ourselves; that we need something that can deliver a certain sensation in order to feel good. This manner of thinking is part of addiction and something we are trying to overcome.
Rule #4: No “Diet” Anything
This is similar to #3. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because something says “diet” or “low-calorie” or “sugar-free” that it equates healthy. Do you want a simple recipe for a diet cupcake? Make a cupcake with sugar and eat it on a rare occasion! Zinga!
As far as diet sodas go, just look at the label. You don’t need a scientist to tell you whether it is something you should drink. Also, you can do a quick search and see the myriad of issues that come from diet drinks. If you’re hooked on them now, you might not even consider them part of your sugar addiction. Think again. The sooner you give them up, the better off you’ll be.
Most nutritional information states that the maximum added sugar a person should eat a day is around 37 grams for men (25 for women). This adds up to about 150 calories (100 for women). Some people hear this and think, “Oh good, I can eat 150 calories of sugar a day.” No, this is the maximum a person can have, not a recommended amount. Also, if you are overweight or trying to lose weight, you should not eat any products containing added sugar. For the purposes of this guide, the number should be as close to zero as realistically possible.
The good news is that there is no special pill to take or limited-time only offers in this guide. It’s just simple eating with a serious resolution to continue doing so until you have control over your sugar cravings. In order to do this it helps to understand how our willpower works.
Understanding Your Willpower
“Will is character in action” – William McDougall, Psychologist, 1871-1938
This is worthy of an article all its own but here is a quick overview. You can read more here if you really want to get deep into the specifics. Our willpower works much like a muscle. Just as we can get brain fatigue from a day of learning or performing complex tasks, we can get willpower fatigue when our brain or body is overly taxed. The act of exercising your will is draining both emotionally and mentally. This is why our willpower generally breaks down under stressful times or at the end of the day.
However, just as working a muscle (including your brain) strengthens it, exercising our willpower increases our endurance and overall resolve. I think this is important because it can shift how we think about ourselves. If you hit the weights pretty hard at the gym and found yourself tired and sore at night, you would wear your exhaustion with pride! But when our willpower fails we don’t consider it a workout, just a failure. In reality, that isn’t the case. Though the gains may be small and hard to see, we are building up our resolve whenever we seriously exercise our will.
How to Avoid Label Gazing
I was going to call this section, Foods that Hide Sugar, but really the list is just too long. I then thought about recommending you check food labels, which is not a bad idea when you are first getting started (you’ll see how much garbage is in your food). But that soon gets into healthy eating rather than just avoiding sugar which is too broad. The best way to avoid all of this is to eat foods that don’t have labels, or where a label is really not needed. Chicken? No sugar. Frozen veggies? No sugar. Pie? Crap, that has a lot of sugar. You get the idea. If you are choosing real food over packaged products and snack bars you aren’t going to have a problem.
As I said in the first part of this series, I had a food addiction, not just a sugar addiction. Checking labels is a good idea if you want to get serious about your health, but there is a lot to learn and it can be an even longer road to refining your diet. Sugar is a good first step.
Eliminate Sugar From Your Home
This is where things get serious! Go through the pantry and fridge and toss out all of the snacks and treats and goodies, even the ones you keep around “for guests.” If you’re married it is important to have a heart to heart and get on the same page about this. It is also going to be important to stick to the new rules and hold each other accountable. However, spouses are not an excuse for what we decide to put in our mouth. If you have to go this alone, set the example and do your best!
Use Peer Pressure
Tell your buddies. Ask them to hold you accountable. Give them permission to say, “Hey fatty, you wanna put down that slice of cake?” or “Big Britches, how’s about handing over those cookies?” Seriously, peer pressure works. However you get others to hold you accountable, even if it’s just for a week, it will make a huge difference.
Plan Your Meals
Free your willpower up to fight the big battles by planning your meals for the day or week. I generally cook up a few chicken breast or salmon and a good deal of rice on Sunday to take for lunches. Add in some veggies and you are all set. It sounds pretty monotonous but by adding in left-overs you can get a good deal of variety. Plus, it frees up my time for writing during lunch, which is much more important to me.
Water. Lots of Water.
If you are going to have a substitute for sweets this should be it. Cravings will pass with time but water will help immensely. Also, since a lot of the sugar we take in comes in the form of heavily processed foods, there is a good chance you have a backlog of bad things stored in your fat that you need to flush out.
Almonds. Eat Them.
I should say, eat them sparingly. I am surprised how little we sometimes need to get us over a craving. 6-10 almonds and a glass of water makes the world of difference.
You may have noticed that I did not include a length of time to stay on this regimen. Most of the rules and guidelines are permanent changes to your lifestyle but that doesn’t mean you’ll never eat cheesecakes again. Once you’ve been away from sugar for a while, say, several weeks to a month, go ahead and try something sweet but also healthy. Don’t reach for the Little Debbie’s, instead shoot for some real fruit gelato or something like this.
The point of quitting sugar isn’t to never eat it again, but to put it back where it belongs in the hierarchy of health.
You might have to do some soul-searching to really get to the bottom of where your sugar addiction is rooted. If you keep trying but failing to give up sugar, I would recommend doing a total food fast for a day or two. It’s amazing what is revealed to ourselves when we are hungry!