Going off sugar

“Go off sugar for a week.” I don’t know when the idea entered my head, but it’s on my list of things to do this year, so I’ve been researching in preparation. I decided early on that by “going off sugar” I meant that I would be “going off all foods that contain added sugar.” Naturally occurring sugar is fair game, and I’m not going to deprive myself of good nutrients. So, yes, fresh fruit is allowed. I already don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so this is a way to consume more of them.

Another decision I made from the beginning was to go cold turkey, especially since I’m only committed to a week. No “tapering” for me — though it helped that I only drink soda once or twice a month these days (after a four-hour exercise block, nothing tastes better to me than a cold diet, caffeine-free Coke). If you drink soda regularly, go off that first, because I have friends who’ve cut it out and that’s a tough detox all on its own.

Before I go further, why did I want to go off sugar? After all, I’m not the type to think “X food is BAD!” I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not opposed to preservative-filled pepperoni on pizza, and I buy whichever produce is cheaper and looks good. I buy groceries at Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Target, Safeway and Whole Foods. (Yes, Walmart and Whole Foods were just included in the same sentence.) I wanted to go off sugar because I think I’m somewhat addicted to it, and I hate being addicted to or depending on things. I find myself with cookies and holiday candy and ice cream in my shopping basket. When I get home, they don’t last long because I don’t eat one or two cookies; I eat half the container in one sitting. I can’t help myself, and that is a problem I really don’t like. Additionally, I restrain myself when other people are around, which means that I know the difference between moderation and excess, but I ignore it when alone. I also want to lose weight, and we all know that sugar consumption doesn’t help.

In preparation, I started looking at labels. I usually glance at them anyway, but this time I started looking for sugar. Do you know how many foods contain added sugar?! Mayonnaise does — every single kind in Safeway contains sugar (and there is a large mayo section at that store). Pasta sauce does. Even many taco seasonings do! Most bread does, but wonder of all wonders, delicious sourdough did not. There was hope!

I thought through meals, beginning with breakfast. Coffee and tea are fine, since I am just fine with milk or nothing in my coffee and I never add anything to tea. Bagels from my favorite shop, however, are iffy because a lot of bread contains sugar. I tolerate plain oatmeal if it has a giant tablespoon of peanut butter mixed in (I’m perfectly happy with peanut butter that is merely ground-up peanuts, so that’s good because all of the Skippy/Jiffy/store brands have sugar added). And there is the delicious idea of half an avocado mashed on sourdough toast with a little salt sprinkled on top.

Lunch varies for me. I occasionally make things like lasagna or enchiladas en masse, then freeze them into meal-sized portions that I can take to work. The sauces seem to all contain sugar, though, so those won’t work. I sometimes walk down the street to Costco for a slice of pizza or a chicken salad; the pizza was out (sauce and bread dough), but if I didn’t use the dressing (Caesar dressing) or croutons, the salad was fine since the chicken isn’t marinated or breaded. Subway is a mile away but that was out — I can taste the sweetness of their bread. However, we have a blender at work, so plain Greek yogurt with fruit will work for part of lunch.

My snacks, or partial meals if I didn’t eat enough breakfast or lunch, are usually a Luna bar, an apple, a piece of cheese — or more often just too many crackers, chips, trail mix, dried fruit… In other words, not ideal. If I’m at home, popcorn is fine because I bought an air popper about a year ago and now I don’t even like the taste of microwaved popcorn (look at the ingredients on that stuff sometime). Fruit in moderation is good; dried fruit is out because most of it contains preservatives/sugar. Veggies and hard-boiled eggs would be better substitutes.

I asked the google machine about alcohol, and it said what I suspected: except for dessert/sweet wines, alcohol itself does not contain added sugar. (Mixers used with hard liquor, including “healthy” juice, are loaded with sugar.) In fact, there’s an eight-week sugar detox program that allows one glass of wine with dinner up to five nights a week. That certainly seemed doable for me. I like alcohol, but unlike sweets, it can sit in my house untouched for months. I’m perfectly fine not having alcohol, so an occasional drink could serve as a “treat” instead of sugar. However, a week without alcohol won’t kill me, so I should probably just abstain to avoid using it as a substitute for my sugar fix.

Funny enough, two days after I started drafting this post (while at Panera eating a bagel with “low fat New York cheesecake cream cheese” that I guarantee contains sugar), I learned that I was in great company: pro runner Kara Goucher blogged that she had gone off sugar for 67 days.

And that leads me to a final note before I click “publish” on this post. I am only going completely off sugar for one week; I hope it kick-starts something more permanent, but I’m not committed beyond the week. Why only one week? Because I’m training for endurance events and need the sports drink and gels that contain sugar. I really can’t eat much solid food while riding my bike for hours, because I get woozy and light-headed, so I need to get calories through fluid and gel. My conclusion (based on personal experience and talking to cyclists), is that it’s due to my slow circulation: If blood is busy digesting food in my stomach, there isn’t enough time for it to also keep flowing to my head. While it’s a bummer because I have the world’s most solid stomach that can eat anything, it’s also nice to have finally figured out why some runs, rides and athletic endeavors go sideways on me.

Bottom line: I’m going off sugar as a personal experiment, not as an indictment against sugar itself. Like with most things in life, I do not think sugar itself is bad; it just should not be used in excess.

I’ll report back once my week is done. Maybe I’ll magically drop 15 pounds while I’m at at it?! Oh wait, this is real life, as opposed to my dreams…