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6 Lessons I Learned When I Gave Up Sugar for 30 Long, Difficult Days


I should start off by admitting that this should really be called "I Tried Giving Up Sugar for a Month and Failed."

Here's how it all went down: Like most people, I'm addicted to sugar. (And I really am like most people, or Americans at least. According to the American Heart Association, we consume an average of 20 teaspoons a day compared to the recommended 6 to 9 teaspoons.) And I'm not talking about natural sugars from fruits and veggies like pineapple, strawberries, carrots, and beets. No, I'm talking about the bad but oh-so-delicious refined stuff. The kind that's in candy, ice cream, cookies, cake, ice cream cake, cookie cake, cupcakes (any cake form, really), bread pudding, chocolate, crème brûlée, doughnuts, panna cotta, pie—the list is never ending. Did I say cake?

Before I embark on this maiden sugar-free voyage, I thought I'd share what's currently stocked in my kitchen. In the freezer there are about eight pints of Wink vegan ice cream (a healthy, pea-protein alternative to ice cream), two bags of green tea and raspberry Kit Kats that I ordered from Amazon, corn cookies from Milk Bar in New York (yes, I get cookies overnighted), and four boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints. Moving over to my pantry I've got a 26.5-oz jar of Nutella, some Nocilla (Spain's version of Nutella), two Lindt white chocolate bars and one coconut white chocolate bar, hazelnut chocolate from Ikea, and six bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola (made with real cane sugar rather than fructose corn syrup to feel slightly better about myself).

To say I have a sweet tooth is putting it lightly—a sweet mouth is more like it. Yes, I know sugar is terrible for me; that it plays a greater role in heart disease than saturated fat; that it's the number-one cause of obesity and related diseases; that it promotes and puts you at risk for pre-diabetes and diabetes; that it makes you age faster. Which is why for years I've been saying I'm going to put my love affair with sugar to an end. Yet somehow I find myself cuddling up with a pint of Talenti butter pecan ice cream within hours of saying "this time I'm really done."

I should also mention that I'm a food writer, so I have a restaurant opening or tasting virtually every night. This acts as the perfect excuse as to why "I'll never be able to give up sugar," because well, "it's my job to have multiple desserts in one evening." But it's also precisely why I had to commit to this experiment of self-control and to see if all the benefits everyone touts—glowing skin, better sleep, higher energy, and breaking the sugar habit to the point where sugar tastes "too sweet"—were actually real and not just modern folk tales.

So I did the unthinkable. I broke up with sugar (kind of). Here's what I learned:

Breaking up with sugar is like (if not worse than) ending a relationship.

Day one is easy peasy. You're ready for a change. You don't miss it because, well, it's been only a day and your brain hasn't really had a chance to register the effects. But then you go through phases of withdrawal, driven by hormones and neurotransmitters that are used to a rush of serotonin and beta-endorphins from sugar, which once made you happy. This is when you catch yourself wanting to call or text your ex, er, I mean, grab a cookie from the jar. You start to crave a spoonful of ice cream and reminisce about good old times (e.g., those elephant ears that reminded you of your childhood). It's important to know that this will pass and that it's entirely emotional, says Torrie Yellen, R.D., of Deliver Lean. "So much of our relationship with sugar is triggered by emotional receptors that we're completely unaware of," says Yellen. The trick here is not only to cut all remaining ties (wipe out all traces of sugar at home—out of sight, out of mind) but to continually ask why? By addressing the root cause of something, you'll uncover the underlying emotional reasons of what's really driving your actions. Just as you didn't really miss your boyfriend, but rather the security and comfort of having someone who was always there, it's not really the elephant ears but the feeling of nostalgia and ability to naively eat sugar without feeling guilty or aware of its consequences. Which brings me to this heartbreaking discovery...

Sugar is in everything.

When I say everything, I mean virtually everything. Unless you live under a rock, you will inadvertently consume sugar daily. Examples of foods you'd never think had sugar and were considered healthy: spinach wraps, almond butter, protein powder, seaweed snacks, and lots more.

A week into this experiment I watched the eye-opening documentary Fed Up, which exposed me to a whole new world of hidden sugars I'd always overlooked. Why? I was blinded by sweet deceit. (Did you know there are 56 kinds of added sweeteners ranging from brown sugar to dextrose?) Watching it not only made me aware of the powers of marketing and the many monikers food manufacturers use to disguise sugar of any kind, but also of all the other ways I was eating sugar without ever noticing—I'm looking at you, bagels.

Sure, there's a difference between fake refined sugars and unrefined sugars that come from natural sources such as fruits and complex carbohydrates, but it's still important to not overdo it. For example, coconut water, which I've always considered to be a healthy, post-workout drink, has a whopping 19g of sugar. So, even though I thought I had "given up" sugar, I'd really only given up dessert. Next, a trip came around to screw everything up...

Travel makes living sugar-free downright impossible.

On day 11 I got on a plane to California for an annual Sonoma trip with a group of oenophiles (code for "lots of wine drinking was on the agenda"). I knew that I'd be drinking vino all weekend, but after I consulted with Yellen, I felt a little better knowing the sugar in wine comes from natural grape sources with nothing added. The bigger problem? Finding healthy snacks on the road and in the airport. At this point, I told myself I'd start over after the trip.

It gets easier with time.

A fellow sugar addict (and wife of a food critic) warned me about going cold turkey. She essentially told me that if you want to get off sugar, it's OK to give yourself the first two to three weeks to ease into it knowing you'll have some slip-ups. After about three weeks it becomes more of an everyday habit, or non-habit. I knew it could work because this former addict successfully gave up sugar for a year using this same three-week wean period. Clearly she knew what she was talking about, because when I came back and began round two of this sugar-free life, it was certainly easier. I didn't really think about sugar all the time anymore, and even when faced with cupcakes, I was able to put my goal in perspective and step away. Sugar became more of a choice than a need. The difference was I was now conscious of sugar's presence everywhere. I turned into that girl reading every label at the grocery store, Googling ingredients I didn't immediately know, and asking a million questions at restaurants and bars. As a result I now drink my alcohol straight up (and subsequently get drunk faster) whenever possible. I fell in love with nuts. I even cut back on my usual banana in my morning smoothie to half and found the taste to be no different. Here's where the magic started happening and...

I started seeing a real change.

Not just in my taste buds (things really did start tasting sweeter) but in the quality of my skin and sleep, my energy level, and even the way my shorts fit. Raw almond butter, which at first was harsh and pasty, was now the indulgent snack I looked forward to. During this second attempt, my skin got worse, then cleared up, this apparently was my skin's way of purging itself of sugar, says aesthetician and former model Terrie Mosley. "Sugar and dairy are the skin's worst enemies," she says. My shorts fit looser around my thighs and waist, and my legs looked slimmer in just 10 days. My sleep felt deeper and more sound, and I woke up with more energy than usual."Saying no to sugars and carbs before bed keeps your blood sugar levels from spiking, which typically keeps you up," says Yellen. Overall, I found myself engaging in better habits without feeling that I was missing out on something. That is until I got a taste of what I was missing...

Once you have sugar again, you become ravenous.

In a study with 43 cocaine-addicted lab rats, the rodents were given the choice between cocaine or sugar water during a 15-day period. Ninety-three percent (that's 40 out of the 43 rats) opted for sipping sugar water. WTF?! That's kind of what happened to me. Once I got a taste, I wanted more. Granted, my introduction back was a decadent triple-layer chocolate cake crowned with Butterfingers and other delicious processed stuff, but it was my best friend's birthday and his mom made said cake, which she has only done once a year since we were kids, so there goes that whole emotional nostalgic part, OK?! Sure enough, for the next three days all I wanted was sugar water. I did find, however, that foods that I used to be able to devour in one sitting were now too sweet to finish. All in all, I didn't totally fail. I came out knowing more about sugar and my body, and now I find myself saying no to sugar more than I've done in the last 28 years. That's a win to me. Besides, life is supposed to be a little sweet.