Feeling inspired by a colleague’s recent self-imposed challenge, I decided to cut out all added sugar from my diet during the month of June. I loved hearing her talk about how her taste buds recalibrated to notice the natural sweetness in whole foods like fruit, and how she would likely continue this healthier eating pattern most days of the week following her structured “challenge.” I could only dream of what it would be like to notice that kind of change in myself.
Most people close to me know that I don’t have the healthiest relationship with sugar. It’s my vice I turn to when I’m stressed out or feeling overwhelmed, typically gorging on it in chocolate or ice cream form to soothe a deeper struggle. While I usually eat healthily the rest of the time, my relationship with sugar has always been a source of weakness, imbalance, and honestly, embarrassment. And I’ve always desperately wanted it to change.
My month of avoiding added sugar was a surprisingly eye-opening experience. I thought I knew a lot about nutrition and sneaky sources of sugar in one’s diet, but I didn’t realize how either table sugar or a sugar substitute (which I also made off limits) is in pretty much every processed food. Sugar, stevia, cane sugar, cane juice, honey, agave, maple syrup, you name it. I couldn’t eat chocolate at all because I couldn’t find a bar that didn’t list any kind or amount of sugar as an ingredient. I had to search for a bread that didn’t need activated yeast to rise because that would also require sugar. And I didn’t even bother trying with most condiments (even mustard). It was definitely a pain in the ass sometimes, but I genuinely appreciated the process and knowing 100 percent what was in my food.
I also felt incredible. Minus the occasional sugar cravings, which I absolved with fruits and cheeses, my energy levels were super consistent, I felt strong and focused during my workouts, and I was even more productive at the office (at least I think I was). I also drank more water (to make sure I knew I wasn’t confusing a sugar craving with dehydration), so that was an added bonus.
Avoiding sugar was also surprisingly easy to navigate around socially. Most of my friends are used to me testing out different “health” changes for my job (and general curiosity), so no one gave me a weird look or hard time when I said I could only have California red wines and whiskeys if I was going to drink with them. Skipping dessert wasn’t even awkward or overly tempting.
When the no-sugar-added month was over, I celebrated by digging into a cup of edible cookie dough I hid at the back of my freezer three weeks prior. I ate the whole damn thing in one sitting. And I felt terrible. The following day, I bought a pint of Ben ‘n’ Jerry’s ice cream at the supermarket. Again, I ate the whole damn thing in one sitting. And again, I felt terrible.
But I didn’t just feel ill from downing copious amounts of refined sugar after going a full 30 days without it. I hated how much I still lacked the willpower to stop eating it once I started. I felt angry at myself and my all-or-nothing behavior with this stupid substance. I didn’t have a problem with turning sugar down when it was first offered to me — I had a problem stepping away once I tasted even the tiniest bit.
It took this personal distinction to help me realize what “addiction” really means even though I’ve watched plenty of other people behave this exact same way with substances like drugs and alcohol. Sugar is my drug, and I have two modes, two extremes. It’s either on or off, and nothing in between. That’s how I’ve been with sugar ever since I was a child, and it’s likely how I will always be.
So now, I have to work with this limitation rather than try to force myself to just “have some self-control, goddamnit.” I have to keep it out of the house, and when I’m ready to indulge consciously, I have to buy it one portion at a time, knowing very well that nothing will remain when I’m done. And I think I can accept this now that I understand.