Sugar is the latest evil in the nutrition world.
I say “latest” because I do believe, like all nutrition facts, that the sugar-free craze will eventually blow over. I do not doubt that sugar wreaks havoc on our systems when consumed in excess- though the point of “excess” is totally different for each person. It’s amazing that some people stop eating sugar and feel physically much better than before. There is no problem with that. However, there’s always something out there that’s gonna kill us, right? Less than a decade ago, that thing was fat. ALL fat was toxic and causing cancer, high blood pressure, and cardiac disease….but now the science has started to point elsewhere. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with most of the nutrition information out there-- it’s just that, at some point, we’ll redirect our attention to something ‘worse’. If you want to understand nutrition better, read my latest post here.
A couple years ago, I hopped on the sugar-free bandwagon and gave it a shot. Truth be told, it was a suggestion by my acupuncturist at the time. She thought that some of my symptoms could be alleviated if I cut sugar out of my diet - including all fruit.
I was thrilled.
FINALLY….an excuse to completely stop eating all this sugary crap without anyone questioning my motives. My body will be burning fat like a pro in no time. Besides...I’m doing it all in the name of health, right? Sugar is so addictive, I mean it’s worse than cocaine. It’s so good that I’m cutting it out.
I immediately told my family and friends about my new diet undertaking, being sure to add that “my acupuncturist wants me to do it” so that I didn’t sound as crazy around food as I felt. Let me say here that at this point in my life, I wasn’t eating that much sugar to begin with. I had fruit here and there, and maybe once every 2 days I would eat something that had refined sugar in it (with a huge wave of guilt served on the side, by the way). But for me, anything outside of the “perfect” diet was not good enough, so I was pumped to eliminate this entire food group for good.
Here’s what my first few days of my sugar-free life looked like:
Day 1-3: Sugar cravings. INTENSE sugar cravings. I binged nightly on chips, crackers, pretzels...anything that I otherwise wouldn’t allow myself to eat, but this time I told myself it was okay because ‘I’d burn it off way better now that I don’t eat sugar’. I paid no attention to my hunger cues because I just wanted to stuff myself to the brim instead of dealing with the uncomfortable feelings I was experiencing in my quest to become thin.
I know that lots of people who decide to go sugar-free do experience sugar cravings at first, and that this is a genuine biological reaction. However, binge eating to the point of discomfort was my way of saying “Screw it, soon I’ll be skinny so it’s okay for me to binge now. Later on I won’t have any sugar cravings and I’ll stop the binge eating too”.
How wrong I was. Binge eating is not only a biological reaction of the body saying “please feed me more” but also an emotional one. You don’t just stop binge eating one day because you decide to. You have to actually deal with the repressed and often very difficult emotions that are leading you to emptying your refrigerator in the first place. But I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just thought that I was ‘addicted to sugar’ and just had to ‘get it out of my system’ and then FINALLY I’d stop binge eating and I’d be skinny (read: happy).
Days 4-5: I wasn’t binge eating as much as the first few days. At this point, my faith in the sugar-free way really started to kick in. I thought, “Finally. It’s working. I can’t believe I didn’t try this sooner! Soon enough I’ll be eating clean everyday and I won’t even need to use my willpower to avoid sugar because I won’t be craving it. This really is the healthiest thing I’ve ever done.”
Weeks later: I kept this up for about 4 weeks, and then I started to crave sugar again- even if it was just a strawberry. The idea of eating sugar was verrryyy appealing and I was thinking of ‘giving in’.
Here, I also realized that the symptoms I had been trying to eliminate with a sugar-free diet in the first place were still bothering me. I had just convinced myself all this time that being sugarless was the healthiest thing for me because I thought it would make me thinner.
I hadn’t yet learned not to confuse thinness with health.
Truthfully, my body really wasn’t changing much at all. Maybe because I was still bingeing, but most likely because our weight typically doesn’t move too far beyond its set point. But I kept it up for a couple more weeks anyway, hoping that any day now I’d wake up with the perfect body, free from all sugar cravings and desires to binge, wanting to eat only greens and tofu.
This story ends the way you might expect it to: in an all-out sugar binge.
I had totally adopted the mindset of, “Well...this isn’t working. I’m not getting thinner, I’m still dealing with my original bad symptoms, so I might as well eat ALL the sugary things.” It was painful. I felt miserable, emotionally and physically. I cursed my lack of willpower, my soft curves, and my neverending desire to eat chocolate cake.
What’s the moral of the story here?
The point isn’t that all sugar-free diets are bad. As I said before, plenty of people don’t eat sugar and feel amazing in every way, because they’re genuinely eating to feel good. But any way of eating that makes you feel fearful of certain foods isn't healthy. I was terrified of eating fruit .. FRUIT! Some of the most nutrient dense, life-giving foods on the planet are fruits! How crazy. Needless to say, I typically advise against cutting out an entire food group unless you actually need to, but if someone believes that sugar is truly the thing that’s causing health problems-- then it won’t feel like a struggle. Eating without sugar will feel good, not torturous, not a drain of willpower. For binge eaters, cutting out a whole food group will almost never end well.
Where am I at these days with sugar? Now that I’m eating intuitively, I understand my body’s reactions to sugar. If I eat a lot of it, many days in a row, I don’t feel good. I get light headed, my tummy hurts, my energy is funky, and my skin breaks out. However, this doesn’t meant that I don’t eat it; in fact, I eat refined sugar probably almost every day, because I love cookies and I embrace it. But now this is a choice, not me telling myself that I’m doomed to be addicted to sugar forever.
Here’s the deal: we can choose what to eat based on more than just health or just taste. Sometimes you’ll eat ice cream because it looks yummy, even though you know it might not make you feel 100% amazing - that’s okay. Other times you’ll eat foods that make you feel grounded. Maybe you’ll opt to skip dinner because you really don’t feel well, even though some spaghetti sounds delicious, because you know that you are allowed to eat spaghetti at any time- and it’s gonna taste better when you’re hungry anyway.
When we keep all foods neutral, we’re more able to make grounded choices about what we truly want to eat at any given moment.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you ever tried going sugar-free or cutting out any other food group? How did it make you feel?