I’m quitting sugar.
Yep, I know everybody has this phase at some point but I’m extremely serious about cutting sweets out of my life. I’m not quitting sugar in entirety (that’s really tough), but I am quitting all sweets. No candy, no ice cream, no desserts, no protein bars, no sodas (not even diet), nothing that can satiate my monster sugar cravings.
Why I’m Quitting Sugar
To be honest, my sugar addiction has recently gotten completely out of control. I’ve always had a sweet tooth – I remember raiding the candy cupboard at my house before my parents got home and consistently eating so much that I felt sick to my stomach. But, every day I would get that sugar craving and would have no control as I climbed up onto the counter and scanned our candy selection day after day.
This exact powerless feeling is what I’ve been feeling recently. I feel like that impulsive 11 year old with either no memory or no regard for the consequences of eating enormous amounts of sugar. Once I eat one sweet, even something as small as a couple bites of chocolate, that all-consuming need for more sugar is turned on. I will consume every sweet I can find. I will steal from my roommate’s stash, I will go to the corner store and get as much sugary nonsense as I can carry, I will eat extravagant amounts of mildly sugar things (granola, cereal, etc) just to get as much sugar as I can.
Is my addiction always this bad? No. It comes and goes. But for whatever reason it has gotten almost completely out of control lately. In a typical day, my baseline is 4 protein bars (the candy bar kind with over 20g of sugar), half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and 4-5 cookies. Then on top of that, if any sugar is presented to me, if my roommate is making brownies sundaes or there is cake at a meeting, I will partake without a second thought. That’s A LOT of sugar. I’m sick of it.
The worst part of sugar addiction? How short the pleasure is compared to the pain. You eat a candy bar and you’ll feel good all the way until…the last bite. That’s like, 2 minutes tops. Then it hits your stomach and you are already feeling that sugar overload, the bloating, and the woozy feeling that can come up. So little pleasure for so much pain!
Maybe you can relate, maybe you also feel powerless over sugar. Or maybe you just want to cut out sugar for your overall health. Regardless, I’m hoping this post can educate and motivate you to that end. I’m going to start by diving into the scientific reasons for quitting sugar and then I’m going to journal as I work toward 30 days without sweets. Enjoy!
Why You Might Want to Quit Sugar
There are two areas that are important to look at when thinking about quitting sugar: mental and physical. If you feel like you have some level of addiction to sugar, you’re going to definitely want to read both parts (especially the mental part). If you are not really addicted but still worried about the negative effects of sugar on the body, than you’ll want to check out the physical part.
The Mental Aspect of Sugar Addiction
There is no doubt that a small dessert after a big meal is basically a little slice of heaven. After all, sugar is pleasurable. And shouldn’t we be allowed to have some pleasure in this life? Well, the fact that sugar is so pleasurable is actually why addiction to it is so prevalent in our world. Pleasure indicates that there is dopamine (basically a feel good neurochemical) flowing through our reward system.
Our reward system is activated when we do things like: eat, exercise, have sex, socialize, or basically do anything that is crucial to our survival and well-being. But it’s also activated when we drink, gamble, smoke weed (or meth), or when we eat sugar. Are these things necessary to our survival? Hell no, they are detrimental to it! I like to look at these things as cheap pleasure. If you eat a good meal, get in a great workout, have sex with a loving partner, or go an adventure with friends, you have put in work for your pleasure. You’ve cooked the meal, you’ve put in the work at the gym, you’ve nurtured relationships. But if you drink or do drugs or eat sugar, you haven’t actually done anything to earn that pleasure. It’s nothing but a cheap, dirty high. In my opinion, you can really feel the difference between earned pleasure and cheap pleasure (I made these terms up by the way). Earned pleasure is less of a rush but it feels nice and lasts longer. Cheap pleasure comes with a quick hit of feeling good followed very quickly by feeling down and wanting more. Cheap pleasure comes with a whole host of negative effects while earned pleasure comes with generally positive effects (unless you overdo them).
Anyway, the problem with these sorts of pleasure responses in our brains is that when we get that dopamine rush and we notice the pleasant sensation, we want to do more. It’s just how our brain is wired. It feels good? Do more. It’s supposed to look something like: “Oh, you hunted and killed some meat and then ate it? That feels good, keep doing it.” And so you do and you survive because of it. But in our modern world where survival is less in question, we have false rewards in the shape of these cheap pleasures. The fact that they are easy to obtain just compounds the problem. Our brain is hardwired to tell us to keep doing them AND they’re easy to do. That’s a dangerous situation.
So, for me, that’s sort of what happens with sugar. I’ll wake up in the morning and have some resolve to not eat as much sugar. But soon enough my brain starts reminding me of the nice feeling I get when I’m in the middle of eating something sweet. Then I eat some and my brain REALLY remembers how nice that dopamine release feels and so it increases the strength and frequency of those reminders. These are cravings. They are incredibly powerful and hard to ignore, especially if there are sweets readily accessible.
The solution to this malady? Quit sugar entirely. Cold turkey is truly the only way. If we simply stop eating sweets, the brain’s reward system will slowly be reprogrammed. It will definitely be hard at first. The cravings will increase because our brain has gotten used to a regular stream of sugar-based activity in the reward system. Take it away and we crave it more. But slowly your brain will forget that sugar used to bring pleasure, especially combined with all the positive effects you’ll be feeling from not eating any, and slowly the cravings will die down until not eating sugar becomes the norm.
The Physical Aspect of Sugar Addiction
The dangers of sugar are well-documented so I’m going to pull from this article by Atkins (yes, they are an interest group but this article is actually really well-done).
These are some of the biggest health dangers that come from eating sugar (ordered by what I consider most important):
- Sugar has been proven over and over again to cause diabetes, obesity and heart disease. These three conditions are ALL on my list of “Top 5 Health Conditions I Don’t Want to Have”. Enough said.
- Blood glucose levels are constantly in flux. This leads to “mood swings, fatigue, headaches, and more cravings for sugar.”
- Tooth decay and gum disease. I’ve already had 2 root canals and over 15 cavities. There may have been other factors besides sugar, but dental issues in general just suck.
- Sugar accelerates skin aging through a process called “glycation”. The more sugar is in your blood, the more glycation occurs.
- Sugar increases stress. Our body considers a sugar crash to be a serious stressor, so once we crash it sends out stress hormones which lead us to feel “anxious, irritable, and shaky”.
So to sum up: sugar is a massive detriment to our overall health and should be avoided as much as possible. You probably already knew this but hopefully this really hammers it home (I know it did for me).
With each 30 day challenge, I’m going to keep a running journal of “Benefits and Tips” where I will document all of the benefits that I’ve noticed and tips that have helped me. Once the 30 day challenge is over, I will do a summary post to document everything.
Running List of Benefits from Quitting Sugar
This is everyone’s, including my own, favorite part of implementing any new habit or breaking any new addiction. What are the benefits to me right now? Forget the fact that your chance of getting diabetes or heart disease will lower if you cut out sugar long term, just tell me what benefits I’m going to see in my immediate future. I’ve got you.
For the past few months, I have had some mild to moderate acne going on. Not sure if it’s related to sugar or to generally unhealthy eating and not always showering after a workout. Regardless, my skin has cleared up! I only have one or two pimples at one time, so that’s awesome.
But better than the acne is just the overall complexion of my skin! 9 days ago, my complexion was pretty blotchy and my skin was fairly puffy a lot of the time. But since putting down sweets, I’ve definitely noticed the blotchiness and puffiness are both significantly reduced. It’s awesome.
I’m Less Hungry
Now that I’m not eating sweets, I’ve just noticed that I’m less hungry in general. I believe the constant blood sugar spikes and crashes were wreaking havoc on my appetite. I was always grazing and just feeling like I constantly needed more food. I track my diet in MyFitnessPal and I’ve actually noticed that I consistently satisfied at around 2100 calories per day whereas before I was eating 2500-2700 and still sometimes feeling hungry throughout the day.
Food Tastes Better
Now that my body isn’t accustomed to the intense taste of sugary sweets, I feel as though my appreciation for normal food has increased. I often eat a rice, chicken and broccoli bowl for dinner and I was getting so sick of it because I knew I had these powerful, delicious, sugary protein bars to eat afterward. The taste of this healthy dish just didn’t compare to my other options and so I would always end up eating junk food and more sweets instead. But now? Now this dish is just great. I honestly enjoy it. And even things like yogurt and blueberries, tuna salad sandwiches, and salmon are at least 3x more enjoyable.
More Energy (I Think)
I don’t know if I can attribute this simply to quitting sugar, but I have noticed that I have had significantly more energy in the last week or so than I have had in some time. I’m working on this blog, getting deep into interview processes for a potential new job, doing a lot of volunteer work, and waking up at a more consistent time. There are some other factors that could be affecting my energy levels, such as getting close to getting a job after a long hiatus, exercising more consistently, improved mindfulness, and a host of others things. But I can’t discount the fact that my energy has been consistently higher ever since I quit sugar.
I’m More Comfortable
I don’t know if everyone can relate to this, but whenever I was around a large supply of candy or cookies or some other sweets, I would just eat to the point of discomfort. Especially when I was at an event or party or something, it was an easy stimulus to latch onto and get some easy dopamine release in my brain. But inevitably I would end up bloated, crashing from the sugar, and just feeling a little guilty. I really noticed this increased comfort when I was sitting all day at a table at a conference. There were sweets all up and down our table and everybody was just indulging to their heart’s desire (good for them!) and I just know that if I hadn’t been doing this challenge that I would have gorged until I didn’t feel good. I don’t have to do that now, and that’s amazing. I’ve tried to eat sweets in moderation but more times than not I end up eating until I can’t anymore.
Running List of Tips and Tricks for the Quit
Quitting sugar is not easy. We are conditioned as a society to indulge in it heavily and to view it as a normal, fairly innocuous vice. It’s not. Our brains are hard-wired to crave it and when we take it away, those cravings only intensify. But all hope is not lost. So long as you make a commitment to quit and to the process, it is eminently possible. I’m hoping that some tips I’ve learned along the way will help make it a little easier for you.
This is absolutely crucial. Not only should you stay hydrated throughout the day (if you don’t have a water bottle, you need to get one ASAP) but you should also be using water as a tool when cravings hit. On a number of occasions, I’ve found that chugging some water was an easy way to curb a craving. The first time I thought to myself as I raised my water bottle to my lips, “I don’t think this is going to work, I guess I’m just going to have to battle through this craving.” As soon as I took a big gulp though, my craving was diminished almost entirely. Water is the elixir of life and it can be your elixir to quash sugar addiction forever.
Don’t Quit Multiple Things at Once
If you’re quitting sugar, I recommend that you focus solely on that for at least 30 days. I only mention this because I’ve fallen victim to trying to quit everything at once. I’ve tried to quit sugar and nicotine at the same time (this is a terrible idea). I’ve tried to quit sugar and carbs at the same time (also a terrible idea). The result? Failing at every change I tried to make.
Quitting sugar and nicotine at the same time results in extremely low blood sugar levels from both the reduced sugar and the nicotine withdrawals. Insanely tough to handle. I’d quit them at different times.
Quitting sugar and carbs at the same time? Same thing. Carbs essentially break down into glucose, so blood sugar levels will again be really low and make it tough to handle. Having some bread has been a godsend so far, helping to curb my munchies without eating sugar.
In general, trying to quit multiple addictions at once is extremely difficult. You have no relief from the withdrawal, no relief from the discomfort. I recommend just doing one at a time. Perhaps quit sugar for 30 days then quit nicotine for 30 days. Quit sugar for 30 days then eliminate carbs from your diet from that point on.
Adjust Your Environment
In Benjamin Hardy’s book, Willpower Doesn’t Work, he promotes the idea that changing our environment is the most effective way to achieve radical change. It’s not about willpower or who you are as a person, it’s about the environment you’re in. And environments are changeable, we can adjust them to better suit our goals. So when it comes to sugar, this means eliminating sweets from your home and avoiding places where you typically indulge.
It should go without saying but do not buy anything sweet during your 30 days of quitting sugar. There should be nothing sweet accessible to you in the place that you live. But you will likely need to make more adjustments than that. For example, if you often find yourself going out to ice cream with friends on Tuesdays for instance, you need to either not hang out with those friends or inform them about your quit and offer an alternative place to go. Take a good, hard look at where you often find yourself shoving sweets into your mouth. Is it in the break room at work? Take a break in a different spot. Is it at a certain friend’s house for a social event? Avoid that house until you are more solid in your quit. It’s a small sacrifice to make to finally be free of that evil sugar monkey on your back.
Adjusting your environment will not only help you be successful in quitting sugar (or anything), but it also makes it significantly easier and less stressful.
Learn to Say No
I would say one of the biggest challenges I faced while quitting sugar was learning to say no when people offered me things. I posted this article on my Facebook and so a lot of people knew I was quitting, but if someone didn’t know and the timing was right, I told them. Otherwise, I just politely said “Oh, no thanks” when somebody offered me something. Sometimes people would get a little curious or even pushy and I would just end up telling them I was doing this challenge.