It started innocently enough. As a new mom of two, I’d packed on some extra pounds. Suddenly, I started feeling sluggish. My memory was off. My emotions? All over the place. I chalked it up to late nights with a baby and powered through as best I could.
Then one morning, I noticed that the back of my neck looked dirty. Worse, the “dirt” wouldn’t rub off. I got worried and called my doctor. She ran some tests which showed I was on the cusp of prediabetes. My blood sugar levels were spiking, and that could harm my long-term health.
I’ve been technically obese for years, but my “health numbers” had always been great — until now. It seemed those last few pounds may have been the tipping point.
I was determined to take back control of my health numbers.
The doughnut question
Soon after, a colleague brought doughnuts into a meeting — and they looked delicious.
But I’d also been reading about sugar’s effects on health. Today, scientists and pundits assert many points of view, from “Sugar is poison” to “It’s fine in moderation.” The wide range of arguments reminded me of the early debates around tobacco use.
Taking a doughnut from the box, I joked to my co-workers, “Is sugar the new smoking? Will we one day look back and think, how could they bring all of those sweets to the office?”
That’s when I decided to try an experiment:
What would my health – and life – be like without added sugar?
As an ex-smoker, I knew I couldn’t just quit sugar cold turkey. I’d need some substitutes. So I laid out the ground rules and stocked my cabinets.
- First: I wasn’t going to reduce calories and quit sugar simultaneously. For me, that would’ve meant instant failure. So I gave myself permission to eat as much as my body told me it needed during this time.
- I also decided that I could eat as much natural sugar as I wanted, but it had to be from whole foods. Fruit? Unlimited. Fruit juice? Not so much. That’s because research shows the fiber in an orange produces a lower insulin spike than when you throw back a glass of OJ.
- I also gave myself an occasional out: I could have one serving of an added-sugar food like birthday cake on set special occasions.
The first few weeks
It felt like there weren’t enough carbohydrates on earth to satisfy my needs. I was surprised at how much my body craved pasta, potatoes and other foods that mimic refined sugar — and increase insulin production during digestion. I wasn’t giving up carbs, though, so I let myself have them. It was delicious and a little odd. My husband questioned why I suddenly wanted spaghetti for breakfast.
Eventually, the carbohydrate cravings leveled off. And, after that, it was surprisingly easy to leave the sugar alone.
A few months in
About three months into this experience, I realized that my pants weren’t fitting, but in the best of ways. Without changing anything else about my diet, I lost 10 pounds. This told me that I had no idea how much refined sugar I’d been eating.
I also entered into “candy season” — September through January — when many of my family’s birthdays occur, plus all the feasting holidays. After a summer being relatively sugar-free, this part of the experiment was both super-difficult and eye-opening.
As I enjoyed my “allowed” slice of birthday cake, suddenly, sugar tasted different to me. Too much started to taste bad.
My first real slip-up involved a deliberate donut shop run. I ordered a latte and some tasty treats. My first sip tasted terrible. It was just a wall of syrupy sweetness. Of course, I took another sip, just to be sure. The same result.
I ended up throwing the whole “naughty treat” away. Cheating wasn’t fun because my tastes had changed.
What I learned
Ultimately, I phased out my sugar experiment. Why? Because I found out what I needed to know. For me, added sugar really does make an impact on health. I was eating way too much of it, and I could enjoy a lot less of it — if I choose my treats more carefully.
Today, I’m watching calories, carbohydrates, refined sugar and portion sizes through a popular app. I’m also attending free weight-management seminars at work, as part of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employee wellness program.
So far, I’ve lost about 35 pounds. My blood sugar has returned to normal levels, and my doctor and I are high-fiving about my health turnaround.
Most importantly, my energy levels, memory and emotions are back to normal. And, I value my health a lot differently now, too. Being healthy is the most important way I can ensure I’ll enjoy my family, friends and career for years to come.
3 sweet steps to consider if you want to reduce added sugar
1. Find motivation
Fitting into new clothes may be fun, but you may be more successful by aiming for a deeper motivation that speaks to better health or connecting with others.
2. Make a realistic plan
Big changes can be made with small steps. Set yourself up for success by making one adjustment at a time.
3. Look for lessons
You may be surprised by what you learn; consider writing your thoughts down so you’ll remember your results.