It’s the beginning of a new year and, as usual, I’m caught up in the year-end decision to go nuts making a million resolutions. This seems to happen to me every year. Sometime in December, I finally decide that I should look back in my goals from the previous year; it inevitably turns out that I’ve forgotten about them during the intervening year and I haven’t made as progress as I’d have liked (because I completely forgot about them!). So what do I do? I recreate adopt them as resolutions for the next year. Really—it’s pretty much the same thing over and over again.
As I’m going through this process, one thing that keeps bubbling up is that I (like everyone, I suppose) want to eat better. And for me, eating better is probably 50% about avoiding sugar. (The other 50% is an even split among: eating more vegetables, avoiding processed foods, and learning to actually chew my food so that I don’t eat such an insane amount of it.) I get a little better every year at reducing my sugar intake, but I’m never satisfied with my progress and my lack of perfection. I still have a pretty wicked sweet tooth, and it seems like kicking my sugar habit would make a lot of things better.
So I’m going to go (mostly) sugar-free in 2019. The idea here is to avoid sugar almost entirely so that I can get retrain myself to not seek it out like a cocaine-addled lab rat.
This means to eating foods with sugar, especially processed foods, baked goods, candy, and chocolate (horror!). As I’ll describe below, this is meant to be a livable experience, and so I have given myself what seem to be some reasonable exceptions.
The rule: No processed/added/non-food sugar in 2019.
Sugar is not healthy, and I’d be healthier if I had less of it.
The reasons I want to do this are that I want to reduce my sugar intake. I’ve given up sugar before for shorter periods (like a 30- or 40-day challenge) and have always felt good when I do it. However, I haven’t been able to find a way to moderate my sugar consumption on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t been able to find the balance between avoiding sugar most of the time and then having a sensible treat from time to time. My hope is that if I avoid sugar for a year, I’ll retrain my taste buds, brain, and habits to a lower-sugar lifestyle.
Gretchen Rubin says that people tend to fall into one of two camps: moderators or abstainers. Although I don’t feel like I’m an abstainer, I can tell you that I am absolutely not a moderator when it comes to sugar—I truly feel like I am addicted and have no control. I have been able to give up sweets a few times, but I quickly revert to my old ways of snitching chocolates and craving cookies as soon as the no-sugar time is up. So perhaps I am an abstainer…
The Fine Print
This is more like a 99% removal of sugar, with a few key exceptions. Sure, there are people who have given up sugar entirely for a year or more, but I’m less concerned with strict rules and more interested in finding a sane way to live my life—forever.
This plan is intended to be a sensible way to abstain from sugar—targeting the refined sugar that is so readily available in processed foods and eliminating 90-99% of it from my diet. There are a few exceptions that are intended to make it so that I can actually do this, and could potentially follow this plan forever. It’s specific to me, although perhaps it’s helpful to others as well.
I’m also interested in no-sugar as a keystone habit. There are habits that can foster other good habits, creating a virtuous cycle. This sounds like it has the potential to be a keystone habit because if I’m avoiding sugar or less-processed food, I’ll be more discriminating with my food choices. I won’t binge on a bunch of sugar and feel crummy the next day and avoid my workout. Instead, I’ll feel better and that will foster a lot of other good practices and behaviors.
What are the exceptions?
Let’s see the fine print! All sugar is out except:
- Sugar naturally occurring in fruit and other foods is a-okay.
- Sweetening whole foods: It’s okay to use a small amount of natural sweetener (maple syrup or honey) on real food items like oatmeal or plain yogurt, up to 1 tablespoon per day total. I don’t eat these foods often, so a bit of maple syrup in my oatmeal after a bike commute is fine.
- Cooking with natural sweetener (maple syrup or honey) when preparing homemade foods like stir fry sauce or salad dressing. The important part here is that the sweetener is just a minor ingredient. No barbecue sauce, honey mustard, or anything where sugar makes up more than one-third of the volume.
- Enjoying fine chocolates and extremely fancy desserts during my upcoming trip to Europe. What’s available in Europe stays in Europe—but no bringing treats home!
- Making a dessert from scratch for a special occasion. I want this whole thing to be something I can stick with, and it’s not reasonable to swear completely off birthday and special occasion treats for a whole year. Treats have to (1) be homemade from scratch, (2) use only honey or maple syrup as the sweetener, (3) use really high-quality ingredients, (4) be decadent, (5) be enjoyed with others, and (6) be extremely rare. No treats are allowed in January and February so that I can “detox”. After that, treats are allowed up to once a month. Examples would be things like chocolate ganache and whipped cream over fresh fruit or homemade maple ice cream.
- Being reasonable about eating out. I’m just not going to get dogmatic about the rules, especially when I’m at a restaurant or a potluck. Foods that are obviously made with sugar (e.g., bakery, barbecue sauce, or honey-doused anything) are off-limits, but I’m not going to worry about every possible ingredient that could be lurking in salad dressing or bread. In these cases, I’ll focus on selecting the best foods overall so that any possible sugar is inconsequential.
Frequently Asked Questions
What counts as sugar?
Anything known to be a sugar. Sugar (aka, glucose), high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, etc.
The exceptions allow for small amounts of maple syrup and honey for cooking at home. These are natural sugar sources that can be locally produced, and have been produced by various cultures for centuries. We make our own maple syrup, and most of the honey that we get is produced by an uncle.
What about fruit?
Fruit is fine.
Dried fruit is fine as long as it doesn’t have added sugar. If I find that I’m snacking on yummy things like dried dates, cherries, or mangos to circumvent the no-sugar rule, I’ll add a limit or a ban. But since these foods aren’t typically a problem for me, I’m not worried about it. (Note: I was eating a lot of dried cherries in the fall, but stopped that my moving them from a clear plastic bag to a metal vacuum canister. I pretty much forgot that we have them.)
What about alcohol?
I’m not actively avoiding alcohol (which I drink in moderation and abstain from periodically during the year through dry months and periodic challenges). The no-sugar rule applies to the ingredients in mixed drinks, so cocktails involving juice, soda, simple syrup, tonic water, and other sugary liquids or garnishes are out. Cocktails made with club soda and pure fruit juice (such as lemon or lime juice) are okay, as as are beer, wine, and straight alcohol. Yes, these would be forbidden if I was being super strict on eliminating everything, but I’m not.
What about added sugars?
Added sugars will likely be the most challenging because they are so insidious. Sugars are included in products in so many different names: sucrose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, and on and on. Foods with added sugars are not allowed when I know that they have these added sugars in them. At the same time, I know that I won’t be able to avoid all these entirely, and this will be an area to pay attention and read ingredient labels to learn what’s in foods over time.
What about flour?
Flour is fine. Well—no, it’s not fine in that it’s another highly processed food that often has no nutritional value—but I’m not ruling it out at this time. I generally avoid pasta, crackers, and bread already. Because anything will need to be sugar-free, options in this category will be pretty limited (and tasteless) and not too much to worry about. Basically, this option allows for the occasional boring cracker, toast (but no jam!), and tortillas (because I can probably give up sugar, but I’m not sure I could live without tacos!).
That’s the plan for 2019.
What do you think? I’d love to hear if you’ve ever wanted or tried to give up sugar.
Also, if you’re intrigued with this idea, this website is hosting a sugar awareness challenge for January 14-18, 2019.