Added sugar is everywhere: mostly in drinks and snacks, but also in desserts, pastries, cookies… Now, I’m not too big on drinks and snacks, but my weak point is definitely desserts and cookies. There’s also added sugar in some of the fruit juice I drink at home. I had read about the benefits of quitting all these, and I was intrigued. So I decided to try myself.
Part 1 of this article is about how I came to my decision of trying this challenge, and how I learned to spot sugar in food. If you want to skip straight to the benefits I experienced, you can scroll to Part 2 right away.
Part 1: Quitting
Let’s start with a quick definition of added sugar. Added sugar is sugar that is not naturally present in the food you eat. If you bake cookies and you put sugar in there, that’s added sugar. If you buy fruit juice at the supermarket, chances are it contains added sugar. But if you buy or make your own 100% freshly pressed fruit juice, then it will only contain the sugar naturally present in the fruits.
Sugar is a highly addictive substance, and that’s why brands add so much of it in their products. Most of us don’t realise this, because we eat so much of it that it feels natural. But once you start trying to quit, you realise how bad your body wants it. The human body definitely doesn’t need the daily intake of sugar most of us eat.
What does science recommend?
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day for women, and 36 grams for men. One can of coke contains 35 grams of added sugar. Most of the snack and cookies we eat throughout the day also have a very high percentage of sugar in them.
Science does not recommend artificial sweeteners to replace the sugar craving. They come with almost the same health risks as normal sugar does.
The best decision I’ve taken in years
Saying quitting added sugar was the best decision I’ve taken in years implies that I took another good one years ago. More than 10 years ago I decided to never drink alcohol ever again in my life, after a disgusting sip of beer as a teenager. I know there’s a ton of ways to drink that are ok, but I just decided to not go down this way. It is one of the best decisions I took because I believe it creates a sense of self discipline and commitment that can be used in a lot of other parts of life.
My sugar addiction
One thing I didn’t decide to never do again was sugar. I’ve never eaten extremely unhealthy, but I surely ate too much sugar. Again, added sugar is everywhere, so you don’t think about it. It becomes a part of you, and then you can’t go without it, like an addiction. There’s a reason we coined the term “sugar craving”. When you crave for a fresh coke, a piece of cake, or one more cookie, it’s your body asking for sugar, because it is addicted.
Full disclosure: on 2 occasions during my 1-month challenge, I did exceptionally eat added sugar. On 1 of these occasions I was starving at work having had breakfast too early, so I ate what was available, which was chocolate biscuits. On another occasion I put a tiny bit of sugar in my coffee, on a relaxing weekend.
Learn to read food labels
I believe this is actually something that should be taught in school, because the ingredient list usually requires a PhD to understand it. I don’t have a PhD, so this is how I do it.
First, I look at what I’m considering buying and I put it in one of 2 categories:
1. 99% sure this contains added sugar
That’s the stuff I don’t even need to read the label for. You’ll learn to identify it as you practice more and more. Forget biscuits, snacks, pops… If it looks too good to be true, it is in 99% of cases.
2. I’m not sure and this needs more investigation
I try to buy organic as much as possible. But don’t assume that because you buy healthy organic food, it doesn’t contain added sugar. It can very well contain added organic sugar, and it’s only a little less unhealthy than normal sugar. Not good.
Then, I look at the nutrition facts.
The only line I’m interested in when looking for added sugar is the one that says carbohydrates. I then look at the sub-section under carbs, which shows how much sugar the food contains.
If the sugar-to-carbs ratio is huge, it’s likely to be added. Some food does contain a ton of sugar naturally (mostly fruits). But if you’re going for your normal everyday groceries, it shouldn’t be too high. Depending on the legislation of your country, brands will be required to be more or less specific. Notice how in the example above, Oreo Cookies does not even mention the percentage of the daily recommended intake for sugars. 13g is nearly 50% of the daily recommended intake. You get that with 2 cookies.
Then, I look at the ingredients list, to be sure. If it says sugar anywhere, it’s a no go, and I put it back. If sugar is part of the ingredients, it wasn’t there in the first place.
I also keep a list of fancy words brands use to replace the word “sugar”. Here is a non exhaustive list of those words. If any of these is on the ingredients list, the food contains added sugar.
There are so many of these words. Here is an exhaustive list.
Part 2: The amazing benefits
The main reason I decided to stop added sugar was because I somehow started to hear more and more about it. We all know healthy eating has become more popular in general. I had heard of the amazing effects, but I had never tried. And boy was I surprised.
No more grogginess in the morning
This is undeniably the number one benefit I got from this experiment. I had read about it, but experiencing it for yourself is amazing.
I’ve woken up around 6am for years, but it hasn’t always been easy. I go to bed between 10 and 11. Anything after 10 is already pushing it, but if it’s after 10:30pm, I know I’ll feel tired in the morning, sometimes really tired and/or groggy.
A week after I quit added sugar, I noticed less grogginess at 6am. I used to wake up, do my morning routine, and start writing. But on those groggy mornings, it was hard to fire up the brain to write something consistent. I don’t have that issue anymore. I’m also a lot less irritable. I’m awake and ready to tackle the day much faster than before, and it is amazing.
I still have an office job. Switching from working on my blog in the morning to working in the office from 9 to 5 has been painful in the past. It would take a while for me to get into the flow once at the office.
That transition is now a lot easier. I can show up at the office at 9 and get to work right away, getting a few hours in flow until lunch time. My productivity has always started to tank after 2pm, and avoiding added sugar hasn’t changed much of that. But that’s ok, because now I can get so much more done before my productivity tanks.
Love of cooking
I love cooking but I never do it enough. When you’re on a no added sugar challenge and you want to have a piece of cake, or a muffin, you can’t go buy it at the supermarket. You need to make it yourself, with no added sugar.
I always meal prep my lunches during the week, but I wouldn’t call that cooking. It’s more about mixing leftovers together, and putting them in a lunch box. With this challenge, I re-discovered cooking desserts, which has always been my favourite part of cooking.
Here are some recipes, with links to recipes:
None of these with added sugar.
A lot of the no added sugar recipes also happen to be vegan (meaning they don’t contain animal products) and/or gluten free. This wasn’t a problem for me, I love learning about new stuff. For instance, did you know that you can mix chia seeds with water to replace an egg white as a binder?
Removing added sugar gives you a huge edge over your peers. It’s like one of those habits that ripples in positive vibes through your whole life (like journaling or exercising). You have more self discipline, you’re more alert, more aware. Now you understand what it was to be addicted to sugar, and that’s a game changer.
It’s so much easier to not go for the desert, the coke, or the cookie, when you know that all it takes is a simple “no” to get a huge leeway over everyone else. It’s about momentum and motivation, and about your health. When you feel good physically, you perform better. When you consciously decide to not go for dessert, when the next guy will dive right in without even thinking about it, you are aware of your own self discipline, you know it’s working. So you keep going, and you might give a shot at discipline in other areas of your life too.
Part 3: Conclusion
There you have it. My personal experience with quitting added sugar has been amazing. I will definitely keep at it. As I said, for me the number one benefit has been much easier mornings, and I’m not looking back. I still need sugar to exercise, so I will not quit it altogether. But I will always make sure I only consume a healthy amount of the thing.
I highly recommend trying out this challenge for a month. Even if you end up not sticking with it in the end, it will improve your self-discipline and your motivation. It will create positive ripples in your life, which might lead you to implementing other healthy habits you feel are more relevant for you.