The Rookie Diaries: What I Learned from My Week Without Added Sugar

This past week, I challenged myself to a diet of no added sugar. My goal wasn’t to deny myself the pleasure of a sweet fix—after all, we’re programmed to crave sweet foods; babies are born with a predilection for sweets so they’ll want to nurse mom’s breast milk, which isn’t sugar-sweet, but sweet in the scheme of natural foods. Rather, I was curious to see how many of my go-to foods were harboring sugar, foods that I didn’t necessarily reach for when I wanted to sate my sweet tooth but which were delivering sugar calories all the same. I also wanted to determine if I felt more energetic, less prone to bingeing and, frankly, could survive without my chocolate.

I couldn’t rely on the nutrition panel on products to suss out added sugars. Food makers are not required to differentiate between the sugar grams that are naturally occurring in a food (such as the milk sugar, lactose, in yogurt) and sugar grams that are added. Instead, I scoured ingredients lists: If a product’s ingredients list contained “sugar” or any of its aliases—sucrose, maltose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, honey—it was forbidden; naturally occurring sugars are not listed in the ingredients list. (A less extreme version of a no-added-sugar diet would be to choose foods that only listed sugar as one of the last couple ingredients—ingredients are listed by weight, so products with sugar in the first five ingredients are the big no-no’s.)

Note: Bob Greene recommends limiting your intake of artificial sweeteners for many reasons—they’re even sweeter than sugar, so they make naturally sweet food seem less sweet, and they can actually trigger sweet cravings. He’s also concerned with the lack of data on safety for many artificial sweeteners. But I had to allow myself some sweetness to ward off a binge—Bob does say that it’s OK to use them to wean yourself off the real stuff—and I stuck with Splenda, which has received the best marks for safety thus far. I’m hoping my reduction in real sugar will help me lower my Splenda use as well.

Here are 10 things I learned that can help you reduce your intake, too.

10. Inhaling three chocolate chip cookies the night before starting a no-added-sugar diet as a last hurrah does nothing but deliver 21 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of sugar into your body before it has to go cold turkey…making it even harder to go cold turkey. For a person on an 1,800-calorie diet, like myself, that’s half my day’s allotment of 45 grams (11 teaspoons) of added sugar!

9. Cereal may likely be one of your biggest sources of added sugar, even if it’s a “healthy” whole-grain version. For example, my whole grain cinnamon O’s oat cereal lists cane sugar as the second ingredient and delivered 10 grams (2½ teaspoons) of sugar in just ½ cup. Plain O’s are, well, plain tasting, but when eaten with berries, are palatable and more filling.

8. Doing an inventory of your kitchen contents for traces of added sugar can resemble the moment in a horror film when the heroine discovers her boyfriend is the murderer. “Nooooo! Not my favorite pizza, my beloved vanilla yogurt, noooooo!” If you discover that just one of your go-to frozen dinners (burritos, in my case) gets the green-light, consider yourself lucky. And yes, sugar will appear in some unexpected places—like pizza and burritos! In some cases, food makers add it to their products to mask the taste of other ingredients (like cheap, bitter tomatoes in pizza). In other cases, it’s added simply to make the food more appealing; it’s a known fact that people like the taste of sweet food.

7. If it’s a snack item—and it’s not tortilla chips or plain air-popped popcorn—it probably has added sugar. Sadly, salsa is also a heavily sweetened snack, so eat those chips solo or make your own salsa.

6. Your craving for fruit will increase dramatically—have lots of it available to get you through the times when you would normally be sitting in front of the tube snacking on cookies or chocolate (while watching “the most dramatic rose ceremony ever,” for example).

5. Sugarless gum will become your new BFF during intense cravings.

4. You will become a more frequent and accomplished cook…and likely save money at the same time! Discovering, for example, that all of the eight brands of frozen pizza at your supermarket contain added sugar, you will head to the bookstore for an easy recipe to prepare on your own. (Side note: Some recipes do require a bit of sugar to help activate the yeast for the dough, which, if the rest of your diet is sugar-free, is more than OK.)

3. You’ll start to imagine some extreme and distasteful things you’d do for a single bite of chocolate: Watch a whole hour of The Jersey Shore; collect trash on the highway in an orange jumpsuit; submit to rabies injections; jog down the street in nothing but a thong. Instead, you snack on air-popped plain popcorn and vacuum.

2. The two packets of Splenda you normally put in your morning coffee are starting to taste too sweet. You ratchet down your packs to one per cup and find it does the trick.

1. You will break down at some point. You will end up eating way too many olives, almonds and bowls of popcorn in an effort to quell your craving for starchy, sugary snacks, like Goldfish or crackers or chocolate. When you realize that savory substitutes are not working, you will pull your chocolate chip cookies from the back of the fridge (where you stashed them in the hopes you wouldn’t remember they were there), hold one of the cookies in your hand, call a close girlfriend to tell her what you’re about to do, respond “OK, I won’t eat it” when she tells you to stay strong, then eat it when you hang up. It tastes…amazing. So amazing, in fact, that you feel truly sated after just one cookie and are able to put the rest back in the fridge without wanting more. Maybe this no-sugar thing is working after all.

At the end of the week—today!—I feel like my relationship to sweets has changed somewhat. They don’t seem to hold as much power over me (I know I can get through a week without caving more than once) and I’m not craving them as much. Could it be psychosomatic? Possibly. But there is a strong body of research showing that carb cravings do exist and they can feed a vicious circle: Sugar begets sugar cravings and can put you on an energy roller coaster of climbs and crashes. I don’t feel a change in my energy level, but I am more apt to, say, go take a walk than grab a bar of chocolate when I feel tired. I also am committed to keeping sweets confined to a small, once-a-day splurge. The night I cheated and savored that cookie is burned into my brain…not as a mistake or moment of weakness, but as an experience where I truly tasted and reveled in each morsel. I savored it, ate it mindfully, and was satisfied with the experience when it ended. What a sweet discovery.

Let me know if you have any painless tips on lowering sugar content in your diet, or if you’ve experienced any health or mood boosts from doing so.

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