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Sugar. It’s in everything. From obvious things like baked goods and ice cream to bread, cured meats and even gum and tea. It’s safe to say that Americans are addicted to sugar.
Like abusive drugs, sugar causes a release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain which can lead to a full-blown addiction. Sugar can be linked to a slew of health problems including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain and stress.
In January I decided to challenge myself and remove added sugar from my diet including natural sweeteners like stevia and honey. And because I am a glutton for punishment I also removed dairy, grains, caffeine and alcohol.
Full disclosure: prior to this challenge I was not watching my sugar intake at all. It didn't take long to discover that pretty much everything I liked to eat or drink had some sort of sugar in it.
My month consisted of buying food, preparing food, eating food, cleaning up the mess I made while preparing and eating the food, googling alternative sugar free versions of food I wanted to eat, and repeating the above steps.
I basically had to relearn how to feed myself. I had to cook and prepare every single meal. It felt like I had reverted back to the pioneer days. If I wanted something, it usually meant I had to make it myself, as the grocery store versions usually were loaded with things I couldn’t eat.
So, I made my own mayo (the raw egg freaked me out a little), ranch dressing (again, that raw egg) and even almond milk (surprisingly simple, also somewhat awkward to ask for a 'nut bag' at the grocery store). But learning how to make these common food items really made me think about the ingredients in pre-packaged versions.
My mayo would last in the fridge for 3-4 days (because of the raw egg), but the stuff on the shelf lasts for years. YEARS. What in the hell is in that stuff?
When I started the challenge, I was in the honeymoon phase. I wasn’t really prepared or educated and had convinced myself it couldn’t be that hard to remove these items from my diet. By day two I thought I was going to starve to death. The reality of the situation set in quickly of how basically everything I was used to eating was now no longer allowed.
Add that along with major caffeine withdrawal headaches and I was a real gem to be around. But, by day 15 I was hitting my stride and feeling fantastic! Cooking every meal was normal and I was sleeping and feeling the best I ever have. So don’t let the short term discomfort make you lose sight of the long term gains. And to help you on this journey, I have a few tips to cut the sugar addiction for 30 days:
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. To remove added sugar from your diet for 30 days you need to have a plan. The days of being able to grab something to eat quickly while you’re running out the door are gone.
Educate yourself on what things have added sugar, learn to read food labels, especially the ingredients, and most importantly learn to cook. I stayed away from eating out as the one time I did it, I felt so embarrassed asking the waiter a million questions about how they cooked the food, that I decided I didn’t want to be ‘that guy.’
But I know plenty of people that are ok with asking for modifications on how their food is cooked at restaurants. Think through social outings and what options you might have to make sure you aren’t left with just drinking lemon water all night long.
If you have never meal prepped before this challenge, you will be forced into the habit. Meal prepping can be an enjoyable experience but it does take time. The quicker you come to terms with the fact that you’ll be spending 3 hours every Sunday cooking, the happier you’ll be.
In my city we have a grocery store that does online ordering and delivery. Game-changer. Grocery stores can be very overwhelming especially on such a restrictive diet. I was able to hop online, order all the food I needed for the week and have it delivered to me the next day.
Saves you the embarrassment of sobbing while you push your cart by the candy aisle, bread aisle, and well, basically every aisle.
Your spice cabinet is about to get an upgrade. When you’re cooking and eating a lot of meat you quickly realize how important spices can be. For example, most breakfast sausage is off limits because it’s cured with sugar, but don’t worry, a quick google search will give you plenty of spice combinations to make your own.
During the 30 days instead of putting the spices back in my cupboard I left them all out on the counter as that is how much you’ll be using them.
You must have support structures in place to accomplish something you’ve never done before. Find a buddy or two or three that is willing to jump on the sugar free bus with you. The ability to chat with people going through the same thing as you is very therapeutic and from my experience a big motivator.
We had a group text going the entire 30 days that we used for questions, alerts on sales of food and just general bitching about how bad we wanted ice cream. Knowing that my team was still going strong motivated me to stick with it and not cheat.
Paleo websites and Pinterest will become your best friend. You still have to be careful with paleo recipes though as they use a lot of honey and natural sweeteners. But, for the most part, you can modify most of the paleo recipes to make it sugar free. If there is a sugar free recipe out there it’s probably on Pinterest.
Take-aways from living without sugar for 30 days
Overall, it was a great experience. I learned a lot about food. What I was eating, how to cook with weird vegetables like butternut squash, how coconut oil can be used in all of your meals and then put on your hair for good measure.
I realized how terrible I had been feeling because of the foods I was eating. After the first couple of weeks I started to feel amazing. There were no peaks and valleys in my day from sugar spikes and caffeine and my focus was laser-like.
I work from home, so it's easy to get distracted, but not during this 30 days. I could literally sit still for a solid 8 hours and barely move (which might not be a healthy option either, but that’s a whole different article).
I highly recommend doing something like this if you need a reboot in your life - whether emotional or physical. I read a quote the other day that really resonated with me. "Freedom comes from structure."
We all want freedom. In our jobs, relationships and life. But it's only when you put structure in place that you can actually feel free. Knowing what you're going to eat tomorrow or more importantly not eat, what time you are going to workout and when your scheduled free time is going to be puts your mind at ease and removes the decision fatigue.
And while you ponder that, I'm going to eat ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream.
Tigh was born and raised in Nebraska and is proud to still call it home. He travels regularly as an events and marketing consultant. In addition, he is a fitness professional who founded PowerCycle, Nebraska’s only boutique fitness studio dedicated to indoor cycling. His newest venture is PowerUp, a marketing agency dedicated to helping boutique fitness studios make an impact in their community through social media strategy and online marketing. You can follow all of Tigh’s fitness travels on instagram, @tighrant.