As a dietitian, I’ve heard of every crazy diet. No dairy, no carbs, no sugar, no tomatoes, no gluten, no fat—you name it, I’ve heard of it (and have probably rolled my eyes at it). The problem with these restrictive diets is they aren’t sustainable and often cause you to crave whatever you gave up. But no matter how many times I tell my clients this, I'm met with resistance. So I decided to try it for myself, and I stopped (correction: I tried to stop) eating all added sugar for 30 days. Spoiler alert—it sucked! Here’s how the 30 days played out.
I’ve always enjoyed salty foods more than sweets, so I honestly thought omitting added sugar for 30 days wouldn’t be all that difficult. First, added sugar refers to sugar that is added to a food, not sugar naturally found in fruits, vegetables, grains, or dairy. Cutting out all those food groups would just be cray cray. Regardless of my lack of desire for sugar, I still add a bit of brown sugar to my oatmeal, enjoy a pre-workout granola bar, and top my spoonful of peanut butter with mini chocolate chips. But that’s the extent of my sugar habit, so I figured I would be fine. Reality hurts.
While eating whole-wheat crackers with my super-healthy salad (feeling great about my food choices), I check out the crackers' ingredients label. WTF? Cane sugar! Day 1=fail.
My oatmeal definitely tastes a little bland without a scoop of brown sugar, so I head to the store and pick up some naturally sweet foods, such as dates, bananas, red grapes, and papaya. Problem solved.
Or so I thought… until lunchtime, when I add Sriracha to my rainbow grain bowl. Surprise—Sriracha has sugar. I guess I need to read EVERY single food label.
I’m getting the hang of this no-sugar thing, but I have a dilemma. Today I’m running the Brooklyn Half. Since this is my 10th half-marathon, I have a pretty standard fueling routine that consists of water for the first six to seven miles, followed by a sports drink for the second half of the race and a CLIF Shot Blok around mile eight or nine. In other words, my usual fueling plan is loaded with sugar because sugar (a.k.a. glucose) powers muscles during endurance activity. [Sugar and exercise: its importance in athletes]. Peinado AB, Rojo-Tirado MA, Benito PJ. Nutricion hospitalaria, 2014, Sep.;28 Suppl 4():1699-5198. Luckily, another dietitian (and marathoner) told me to try dates, stuffed with peanut butter and sprinkled with sea salt, for the right mix of sugar and sodium. Although I don’t like to try anything new on race day, I make an exception and opt for the dates instead of the Shot Bloks. They worked pretty well. The only problem was I got an annoying cramp around mile seven that wouldn’t go away, so I gave in and reached for a sports drink.
All in all, I feel like the first week was much harder than I anticipated. #fail. Between the added sugar in my crackers and Sriracha and my sports drink during the half-marathon, I’m beginning to understand how incredibly difficult it is to omit an entire ingredient from your diet.
I started this journey midweek, so day 12 is the beginning of my second weekend. Since I cook most of my meals during the week, I’m able to control what goes into my food. But on the weekends I enjoy an occasional brunch or dinner out.
Do you know how annoying it is to ask a waiter if there is any sugar in the food? They look at you like you are the worst person ever. Needless to say, I’m not able to tell if there is added sugar in some of the foods I don’t prepare myself, but I do try to stick to the foods I expect have less.
Halfway there, and it’s finally starting to feel easier. I’ve become accustomed to sweetening my morning oatmeal with bananas and eating pre-workout snacks with natural sugar (dates and peanut butter, anyone?). I can definitely do this for two more weeks.
Googles, “Does wine have added sugar in it?”
Can’t find a definitive answer.
Pours glass of wine.
Status quo. Omitting added sugar from my diet has made my already healthy diet even healthier. I have no choice but to eat plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains. But tomorrow I’m traveling to California for vacation. My boyfriend looks at me and says, “You aren’t going to do this on our trip, are you?” I think he doesn’t want to listen to me complain.
All self-control goes out the window when I’m tired. We arrived in California last night, and I’m super jet-lagged. I need an afternoon cookie to make me feel better. And let me tell you… it worked.
I’ve done this long enough, and I give up! Being on vacation and trying to "diet” isn’t fun. It’s actually really terrible. So I cut this little experiment short and ordered an espresso shot in a chocolate-rimmed ice cream cone. And I’m not sad about it.
The Big Takeaways
- This confirmed my right to roll my eyes at diets that eliminate entire food groups, because it’s nearly impossible to sustain that change for the long term. I’m a dietitian, and I wasn’t able to do it for longer than a week without a slipup. And the problem with slipups is they breed feelings of discouragement and kill your motivation to continue.
- To completely understand what you are eating, you must really dig into food labels. Sugar has many aliases, and it hides in foods you wouldn’t normally consider, such as tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, pickled veggies, and multigrain crackers. Look for ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, dextrose, glucose, malt syrup, corn syrup, or caramel on the label, and run from them if you’re avoiding added sugar.
- It’s nearly impossible to know what’s in food you don’t cook, so be aware when you're going out to eat. And good luck asking your waiter if they use sugar in their marinara sauce.
- Cutting out one food group made me crave it more. By the end of the 30 (or, well, 26) days, I was dying to eat a piece of chocolate (or a cone filled with coffee).
- Rather than making incredibly difficult changes to your diet, it’s much easier to make small changes, like adding more fruits and veggies to what you already eat. A bunch of small changes add up to one big change over time.