Why 2019 is My Year of No Sugar (Plus, How I'm Doing It)
Here’s a tip: If you want to ruin a conversation, accidentally make someone feel judged, or announce yourself as a party pooper, just tell someone that you are trying to cut out sugar. Sugar’s deep emotional connection runs like a main artery to the heart of nostalgia, tradition, and celebrations—all hallmarks of community and connection. Since sharing with people in my life that I’m attempting a year without sugar, I’ve learned that saying there will be no cake lands with the effect of announcing there will be no fun at all. But why?
First, I want to establish a couple things, including what I mean when I use the word sugar, and how I got to this point of cutting out sugar at all. And, I should say that I’m writing this after a very gradual lifestyle change from obsessively baking chocolate chip cookies to planning this year with no dessert, so I wouldn’t recommend jumping in cold turkey. Even doing one week without sugar is worth trying, to reset your palate and take an honest look at the roles dessert and “treats” play in your life.
Here’s what I mean when I use the word “Sugar”: I am talking about any refined substance that’s used to sweeten food. That means cane sugar, sugar that’s produced from beets, maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, evaporated cane syrup, agave nectar, and more. The writer Eve O. Schaub, who wrote about her own year of no sugar, has a helpful sugar alphabet that you can use as a resource. Fruit does have sugar, but the experts who I trust, like Dr. Robynne Chutkan, does not advocate cutting out fruit, since there are fiber and nutrients to balance out the sugar content. Simply put, if a food is refined to where it can be scooped into a cup or poured into a batter and turned into a treat, then I consider it sugar. (I do not consider dried dates sugar, as they contain fiber and minerals when eaten in their whole form. However, I do consider date sugar and date syrup to both be “sugar”.)
I started questioning sugar’s role in my life when my health hit rock bottom two years ago. I was dealing with a growing grab-bag of modern chronic illnesses like hypothyroidism and PCOS, plus symptoms that couldn’t be tied to just one diagnosis like incessant itching, significant weight gain, depression, and near-constant thirst. I’d already severely limited gluten and dairy, but I was sick and getting sicker. When my symptoms of pre-diabetes continued to get worse, I decided to cut out sugar—holistic nutrition and functional medicine talks about sugar’s negative effects on health, but my more mainstream doctors didn’t once talk about how harmful sugar is to health, or even advocate a diet change at all. The answer was always pills. (I should mention that while my health had taken an extreme turn for the worse, exacerbated by my high-stress lifestyle, unchecked anxiety, and use of modern medications like Advil and proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec, it doesn’t take a handful of diagnoses to show that sugar has negative effects on any person’s health, whether you perceive yourself to be healthy or not.)
The pills, the constant doctors visits, and the terrible way I felt were all adding up to a depressing lifestyle. Cutting out sugar was my final step (and one I did not want to take), but it was without question the decision that set me on the path to health. But first, I had to face the fact that my emotions were the biggest roadblock to sticking to my plan.
I’m not alone in the attachment to sugar as a mythical cure-all. Sugar has a reputation as a panacea for all types of woes, both physical and emotional, or both—whether it be a bottle of coke to calm soothe a queasy stomach, or the idea that a box of chocolates can cure heartbreak. (Remember that scene of Elle Woods eating chocolate truffles in Legally Blonde?)
The reach for sugar to distract from emotional pain is pervasive in the day-to-day management of loneliness, too. I’m certainly not the only person who’s made an ice cream sundae to cope with lonely nights. The thing is, I’m not really even a sweets person (I’ll take cheese over a cookie any day), but this feeling that a dessert could help what ailed me is so baked into our culture, I rarely stopped to question why I was scooping ice cream out of the carton. The key to actually stopping was addressing the reasons why I reached for something sweet at all.
The idea that sugar has healing effects has been promoted by the sugar industry, or Big Sugar, for hundreds of years, and for a fascinating, terrifying, in-depth read, I recommend Gary Taubes’ The Case Against Sugar. But, you don’t need to read his (frankly dense) treatise against sugar to know that it has deleterious effects on health. Sugar is the cause of many chronic illnesses like Type-2 Diabetes, hormone-imbalances, and metabolic issues. Alzheimer’s is even being called Type-3 diabetes. Not to mention, sugar wreaks havoc on the gut. It can cause bad bacteria to outnumber good bacteria (known as dysbiosis) and sugar-loving yeast can not only set up camp in your digestive tract, they send signals to your brain to feed them—aka eat more sugar!
At the risk of overwhelming any intrepid readers who are considering their own sugar-free quest, I’ll stop here. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue writing about sugar, the role it plays in our lives, and how it affects the body throughout the year. Most importantly, I’ll be offering practical strategies for dealing with inevitable sugar cravings, recipes for treats that won’t spike your blood sugar, and answers to any questions you have. I’ll leave you today with my rules for my year of no sugar.
The Rules for My Year of No Sugar
No added sweeteners (whether they are “natural” or not, this includes no maple syrup and no honey)
Small amounts of dates are allowed, as long as they are paired with nutrient-rich foods like sweet potato, nut butter, and seeds
I can taste small bites for work—while I am doing a year without sugar, I am not eschewing treats for my entire life. I am including some desserts in my upcoming gut health cookbook that offer a happy medium between sweet and good-for-you, and I will need to ensure they are delicious!
In-season fruit is allowed, ideally organic and locally-grown
10 free days—I’m not going to miss trying my sister’s wedding cake! Sarah Fain, of my favorite podcast Happier in Hollywood, used this approach, and I’m adopting it to make the plan doable. (Yes, this technically makes my year 355/365 days sugar-free, but if I can do that, then I will consider it a success!)