When I was growing up, my family acted as if we were spokespeople for the sugar industry. My parents always kept a large bowl of fun-size candies on the kitchen counter, like it was Halloween every day, and the cupboards were packed with sugary cereals, sweetened breads, a variety of sodas and cookies galore. We were the people who put extra sugar on a bowl of Lucky Charms.
This launching pad into adulthood set me up for decades of the same behavior, and it wasn’t until I started trying to incorporate real food into my diet that I started to take a closer look at my sugar consumption. From morning bagels to evening cocktails — with plenty of “I deserve this” treats in between — I was an all-day, all-night sugar monster.
Curious about whether I could break a lifelong habit, and what effect that might have, I did a “sugar cleanse” for 90 days, limiting my daily consumption to 25 grams max. Using the MyFitnessPal app, I tracked everything, even lowering how much fruit and grains I ate.
Psychologically and socially, this was a tough project. Sugar is everywhere. It’s at the checkout at the hardware store, it’s advertised constantly online and on TV, it’s packed into products you wouldn’t expect — like condiments and deli meat — and I was grateful to have my eyes opened to its pervasiveness. But there were many times that I was also frustrated and nearly scuttled my project in favor of a tub of ice cream.
What helped most through the cravings was noticing the changes happening to my body after the first 30 days or so, particularly three major effects: My concentration improved, my everyday bloating decreased significantly and my energy stayed at a lovely constant all day instead of spiking and crashing.
These changes were likely caused, in part, by replacing refined sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, etc.) with really good stuff like tons of vegetables and healthy fats. But ditching sugar was truly key — and experts note that these effects aren’t uncommon.
Although I didn’t expect a mental benefit from a sugar fast, I got one anyway. I seemed able to focus just a bit more and stress a little less. Things felt more even in terms of my highs and lows.
That’s a common result, says Dr. Elson Haas, MD, author of “Staying Healthy With Nutrition.” He notes that refined sugar has been shown to deplete important nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B, zinc, chromium and manganese.
“All of these are necessary for mental and emotional functioning,” says Haas. “Deficiencies are associated with depression and fatigue. So having them restored in your system can help your mood and your mental state overall.”
After a few weeks without sugar, I experienced what I call “the new belly day.” I noticed that the not-so-little roll I usually carry was greatly diminished. What the what? I thought I’d have that forever, since lower-belly bloat is a very dominant feature among the women in my family. Seeing that stubborn fat so diminished made me more inspired to keep up my no-sugar project.
When you eat a steady diet of refined sugar, it raises your insulin levels and that prompts your body to store more calories, especially in your midsection, according to Dr. David Ludwig, MD, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Keeping your insulin stable with a diet that relies on healthy fats and slow-digesting carbs instead of sugary foods results in fewer calories stored as fat, says Ludwig.
Like many people, I used sugar as a pick-me-up, combating afternoon fatigue with chocolate or a super-sweetened granola bar. I suspected that having sugar after lunch probably caused the crash to get worse, but I didn’t expect that lowering my sugar consumption would also even out the frantic energy I had at other times of the day. Rather than the extreme highs and lows, I had more of a steady, sustained energy flow — and that was glorious.
When you take refined sugar into your body, it’s absorbed rapidly into the blood, raising your glucose levels, says Haas. An influx of sugar goes into the cells and provides a rush of energy. But the rebound effect not only makes that blood sugar level drop, but also causes a temporary hormonal imbalance, Haas notes.
“Basically, you’re suffering from a mini-withdrawal, where your body and cells are struggling to rebalance,” he says. “This is when you get that tired feeling, slow brain and even shakes, sweats and nervousness.”
GOING FORWARD: MODERATION
To be honest, as much as I loved the effects of a no-refined-sugar life, I don’t think it’s a sustainable lifestyle for me in the long term. I’m still going to eat a cupcake sometimes.
But the difference is that this little experiment has led me to become more aware of sugar’s effects on my body and my mind, and that makes it easier to impose some moderation. Finally, a “treat” is just that — a very occasional pleasure that I can now truly enjoy, instead of mindlessly scarfing it down before looking for my next sugar hit.