If nothing else, a day sugar-free challenge is a wonderful opportunity to realize just how much sugar you're eating, even if you're not really one to, say, down a handful of Reese's pieces after lunch because you "need a little something sweet. Going into this challenge, my goal was to reset my sugar sensitivity and better understand how much I was consuming.
However, as a person with more than a decade of health and nutrition writing under my belt, I wasn't expecting to be as challenged by the food aspect of this quest as I was.
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As you'll find out, sugar is in everything, absolutely everything, which makes giving it up incredibly hard. Featured Recipe: Peach Caprese Skewers. Let me start off with the biggest question you likely have: did I lose weight? No, but that was not my intention. I likely did not eat fewer carbs, despite cutting sugar, because I loaded up on bananas and pineapple for snacks. Remember, natural sugar was OK; artificial sugar was out.
However, I didn't gain weight either, and that was a goal. I knew that the excess calories I was taking in from sugar were adding up a bit on the scale. Not gaining weight was a victory. Once I was through the initial adjustment phase, I found that I did not experience the typical blood sugar ebbs and flows.
More specifically, I didn't find myself needing the midafternoon pick-me-up.
Why cut out sugar?
Perhaps that's because I couldn't have what I wanted—the soda—or maybe it was the result of forcing my body to learn to cope without the quick sugary hits that previously provided so much energy. When I couldn't have the spoonful of ice cream after dinner or the cookie "because it's Tuesday," I quickly realized that I was haphazardly consuming sugar. I could manage to make these splurges fit within my calorie goal, but that meant I was giving up better sources of calories, like calcium-rich dairy or fiber-rich whole grains.
I also wasn't recognizing the hidden sources of sugar that were sneaking into my diet and adding unnecessary calories either. A lot of soups, salad dressings and prepared meals list sugar, in some form or another, on the ingredient list. I realized early on you could easily say, "But I don't eat a lot of sugar" and be entirely oblivious to how much you eat every day. A glass of red wine on Day 25 tasted closer to cotton candy than pinot noir. My first real sweet after the challenge ended, a chocolate chip cookie, was cloying.
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I split it in half and shared with a friend. I couldn't finish my half. It's surprising how quickly your palate adjusts to eating less sugar—and then how quickly it adjusts again to eating sugar. The reset is short-lived, but it really opened my eyes to how numb I had become to sugar's effects on my tongue.
My challenge started on a Friday. By Wednesday, I was hitting proverbial brick walls left and right, with so little energy and no resources to give myself a quick "jolt" to get through the afternoon. My caffeine source of choice is diet soda, but artificial sweeteners were out.
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I was also irritable, which made work difficult and daunting. Naps were my friend in this period. They provided energy, and they let me escape a bit of the sugar-free meltdown. That period lasted about 24 hours—I liken it to the keto flu during the first few days of the keto diet—and then it was over.
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After that, it was smooth sailing, as long as I avoided the sugar pitfalls of office birthday parties and free cookies at the farmers' market. But that's just the challenge—sugar is everywhere.
Have I said that yet? Avoiding it is a bit like avoiding sunlight. No matter what you do, it will get in, so you have to be smarter than the sugar. You're going to spend a lot of time with ingredient lists if you're looking to eliminate sugar. Sugar often hides way down the list, and under unassuming names like brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice.
Marinara sauce, bread, canned soups and condiments are some of the sneakiest offenders. But again, you need to check the food label to see how many grams of carbohydrate are in each serving, because "sugar-free" does not mean "carbohydrate-free. Others, like an aspartame-sweetened yogurt, still contain carbohydrate from the fruit or milk products in the yogurt which must be calculated in your meal plan.
These foods contain caloric sweeteners in combination with non-caloric sweeteners. Work with your dietitian and healthcare team to learn how much of different types of foods you can eat at each meal and snack.
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Very likely your healthcare team will offer you the opportunity to use carbohydrate counting as a way to use meal planning to manage your blood glucose. In carbohydrate counting, you learn how many grams of carbohydrate you should aim for at each meal and snack. Then you read food labels and use carbohydrate gram counting food lists to figure out how you can "spend" the grams of carbohydrate allocated for a particular meal. You devise your meals based on how many grams of carbohydrate you can eat and how many grams of carbohydrate are in the various foods that comprise a given meal.
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