Quitting Refined Sugars for a Year
In 2019, I gave up refined sugars for a whole year. Sure, there is natural sugar in almost all foods, but that is not the type of sugar this challenge was about. I mean refined sugars, also known as sucrose. The type of sugar you find added to mass-produced food, pastries, snacks, and sweets.
This challenge was not set because of health reasons, I’m fully satisfied with my weight and overall health. I also don’t believe there are any major drawbacks to treating yourself in moderation. Why do it then, you might ask? I’m looking at it as more of a mental challenge. I know I have a hard time saying “no” when sweets are offered. So I went into this challenge with the hope that it would be the ultimate test of delayed gratification for me. Sort of like the Stanford marshmallow experiment, but without an actual reward.
Before this challenge, I have tried water-only fasting in 2018. The first time I did 3 days without any food and only water. The second time I endured 5 days, and the third time 7 days. I was surprised to learn that 7 days of water-only fasting was not much more difficult than 3. Then I learned about Ghrelin and Leptin, hormones that regulate the feelings of hunger.
Ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”, syncs with your daily eating habits. If you normally eat lunch at 12, the hormone will increase slowly and peak just before 12. When you stop eating for a couple of days, these hormone bursts will flatten out, and the feelings of hunger decline and can even disappear. It’s obviously way more complicated than that, and I’m no doctor, but that’s the gist of it.
When doing a water-only fast, the first 2-3 days are usually the worst. Then until starvation, it’s usually smooth sailing, because the body adapts quickly. It is therefore not much of a mental challenge, to only have 1-2 days of hunger, and potentially 1-2 sleepless nights.
Staying away from sugar seems like more of a challenge to me. It’s not only a battle between you and your cravings, but also around social pressure, and avoiding all the temptation traps set by modern society.
Keep in mind that this is an experiment with a sample size of one. Go read the science and talk with your doctor if you’re serious about trying something similar.
In my experience, staying away from sugar was in many ways similar to water-only fasting. The first 2 to 3 weeks were horrible, and my temptations almost got the best of me. But as time went by, most of my cravings disappeared.
“Studies have shown that [when someone stops eating sugar] there are similar effects as when people get off drugs. You may experience exhaustion, headaches, brain fog, and irritability. Some people even have gastrointestinal distress.”
Sugar releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It’s your body’s reward system. It’s there to make you feel good and promote a particular behavior, i.e. food is good. Made total sense when food was scarce. Not so much in modern society.
Sugar cravings came and went with stress and lack of sleep. Instead of caving in, I used these signals to promote change. I went to sleep earlier and relaxed by going for a run, spending some time in the sauna, or taking a cold bath.
After the initial detox period, I felt untouchable. Something within me had changed. I was now a sugar-free man.
In Sweden, it’s common with short breaks at work to small talk with colleagues while having a coffee and something sweet to chew on. It’s so common, in fact, that we have a word for it: “Fika”. It’s mostly a social thing, so I was present as usual but sat stupidly just sipping from a bottle of water.
I’m pretty used to being uncomfortable in social situations. While I did my best to avoid talking about this challenge, other people often brought it up. I can see why, because normally I wouldn’t turn down that amazing piece of chocolate cake. People in my surroundings were most often positive and cheered me on. But there were also a few skeptics, most commonly pointing out the obvious: “there are sugars in everything we eat, even in trees”. They clearly didn’t understand my motivations, so I didn’t bother trying to explain.
Even with all these daily temptations, I can honestly say that it wasn’t very challenging to say no to sugary sweets. There were days when I was tired and felt an energy boost would do me good. But I know all too well that sugar energy boosts are only very temporary until you crash even harder.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that I felt considerably better from not eating sugars. Obvious benefits included steadier blood sugar levels, i.e. no volatile feelings of hunger or cravings, and an overall calmer stomach. My sleep also improved by a considerable amount.
It feels like my taste buds have improved. It is most noticeable when I eat fruit. My palette has broadened and I feel tones I have never noticed before. It’s subtle and impossible for me to verify, but I’m pretty sure there’s a difference. Regular food tastes better.
Sugar causes inflammation in the skin. Hence reducing sugar intake could improve your complexion by strengthening elastin and collagen. I can’t say I’ve seen a noticeable difference, but my skin since quitting sugars is as good as its’ ever been.
What surprised me the most was my improved ability to focus for longer periods. Just to be clear, I have never had an issue with that before, but I found it easier to get into a productive state of mind and stay in it for longer.
I saved some money by not buying snacks, pastries, or candy. Hilariously — or rather sadly — because I’m a maximizer, I also saved a lot of time by not having to decide what to buy.
Avoiding sugar has made me read the nutrition facts panel before buying food. I’ve been surprised to find sugar hidden in places where it shouldn’t be necessary. It has been a good exercise for identifying high-quality foods.
Quitting refined sugars wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I recommend everyone to give it a go for at least one month, to get over the initial hurdles and notice the improvements.
I have now broken my sugar fast. This experience has helped me see the many damages that sugar can cause. It’s a silent killer in disguise, and it’s present everywhere in modern food. My sugar intake will remain limited, but I want to be able to enjoy everything that life has to offer.
As always, having a goal and working towards it, no matter how big or small feel great. That way you can easier learn from failures, and you get to celebrate successes. I haven’t decided on my next challenge yet, but I’m thinking about doing something with running.
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