Up until about two years ago, I thought the secret to eating healthy was the direct result of self-control. I’d go to work everyday thinking it would be THE day that I didn’t give into my sugar cravings. Every day, I was wrong. As soon as candy or junk food was in my sight, I would instantly feel the urge to eat it.
For example, if someone brought donuts to a meeting, I would usually politely decline, and then continue to think about the donuts for the remainder of the meeting. If the meeting went long enough, I would almost always give in. One donut usually led to two and I was left feeling defeated and sad that I didn’t have the willpower to say no. I went through this cycle for years until I was able to give up sugar long enough to realize self-control was not my issue. I was addicted to sugar and had an unhealthy relationship with food.
So why does this happen and why is it so hard to quit? It’s hard to quit for the same reason why a smoker has a hard time quitting smoking or why an alcoholic has a hard time giving up alcohol; your brain is addicted. When you eat sugar, your brain sends reward signals and releases hormones, like dopamine. When the reward system releases too much feel good hormones (i.e. you consume too much sugar), you start craving more, you indulge because you feel like you don’t have control over your cravings and the cycle continues. You’re left feeling tired from the sugar crash and upset because you gave into the cravings once again. The only way to break this cycle is to detox from sugar.
Let’s talk Fruit…
Yes, there is sugar in fruit (fructose), but there is also vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. The naturally occurring sugar in fruit digests slower due to the fiber so you don’t get the same spike as you would if you drank something like a coke with the same amount of sugar content.
Also, some fruits are healthier than others, but don’t fixate on that, you’re not going to get it all perfect right away.
Things like RX bars will have sugar in their nutrition facts, but it won’t show in the ingredient list. This is because the sugar comes from the fruit and doesn’t have added sugar. Sugar from fruit is ok, within reason (and if you don’t have insulin problems). Make sure you’re reading both the nutrition facts AND the ingredients.
What worked for me….
For me, I started my journey with a Whole30. I complained every single day of it, said it was too hard, and even started over on day 5 because…french-fries. I finished, but soon after I fell off the wagon because all I could think about was eating junk food at the end. I couldn’t wait to have that first bite of ice cream once I was finally done. I had my ice cream, cookies, and cake once I was finished… ending up exactly where I was before I started.
About a year later, I did my second round of Whole30 where I tried to focus on how food affected my health and how it made me feel vs. avoiding junk food. I kept my diet clean after Whole30 and would indulge every now and then, but quickly realized that the way cookies, bread, cake, etc. made me feel was not worth it. It still tasted good to me, but I couldn’t justify how crappy I felt after eating it.
I decided to give up gluten for a couple months and see how my body felt. That was 7 months ago and I’ve never felt better. My anxiety is better, I don’t have a hard time staying awake during the day and I never crave sugar. It’s the most freeing thing I have ever experienced. I do indulge in a gluten-free treats if I feel like having something sweet, but I can now have something like a gluten-free cupcake in my fridge without obsessing over it. If I want it, I eat it. If not, I don’t feel like I have to eat it. None of it relies on self-control or will power. This is my food freedom.
Do I recommend that everyone should go gluten free? Nope. That’s what worked for me, not necessarily what will work for you.
What may work for you…
So where should YOU start? I would start by tracking how much added sugar you eat in a single day. Added sugar is anything that doesn’t occur naturally, like the naturally occurring sugar in fruit. It’s suggested that on average, an American should not consume more than 26g of added sugar in a day. That equals out to about 2 chocolate chip cookies a day if the rest of your meals did not contain any added sugar.
After that, I would highly suggest going 10-30 days without eating sugar. Give your body a break and see how you feel. The first 3-5 days are terrible. You will want to punch everyone and everything, but it’s totally worth it. These days do require willpower and self-control because you’re brain is still addicted, but I promise, IT GETS EASIER.
What should you eat? Exactly what I talked about in my first blog, you will just have to be more disciplined with it. Protein at every meal, veggies, healthy fats, fruit, nuts and seeds, legumes and grains are ok, but no gluten, dairy or alcohol. Eat single ingredient foods, and if you eat something that’s not a single ingredient food, CHECK YOUR LABELS.
If you want something that will kick your sugar cravings + help you find out your food sensitivities, I would suggest doing a Whole30. I wouldn’t recommend doing it without reading It Starts With Food because you miss a lot of the benefits if you don’t understand why you’re doing it.
Whatever you choose to do, find a friend, do it together and hold each other accountable. You can do it. I promise.
This is the question I get most often. If I give up sugar for X amount of days, can I eventually eat cookies and cake again without feeling that intense craving? Science says yes, because as long as you aren’t putting those hormones in over-drive by consuming sugar in excess, you should be able to enjoy a cookie or piece of cake every so often without losing control, as long as you’re pairing it with a low sugar, balanced diet. However, like I said in my first blog post, everyone is different so there is not a once size fits all answer for any of this. You have to find out what works for you after the initial break from sugar. Add what you can’t live without back in gradually and if you feel out of control cut back again until you feel in control. Over time you will learn what and how much you can eat while still feeling in control of your diet! It’ll take some time, but I promise you’ll be happy you did it.