The World Health Organization recommends that we consume less than 25 grams of added sugar per day, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just updated their dietary guidelines to recommend people consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars. Do you know how much added sugar the average American—myself included—actually consumes daily? Eighty-three grams, more than triple what our most esteemed health orgs suggest. Yikes.
As if weight gain and cavities weren't enough, high sugar intake has also been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer—it's enough to scare anyone into taking a closer look at their diet. I consider myself a healthy eater. I know to add protein or fiber to every meal, avoid processed foods, and eat my fruits and veggies. I don't have a candy or two-a-day soda addiction to kick to the curb, but a big part of my diet is flavored yogurts, pre-made sauces and dressings, and grains. Spoiler alert: Those all contain sugar. So after reading about the USDA's new rules, I decided to challenge myself to go 10 days without sugar—including limiting my intake of honey, pure maple syrup, and other natural sweeteners. (Check out these 8 Healthy Foods with Crazy-High Sugar Counts.)
But before I gave up the sweet stuff, I questioned what it would do to my body—would I crave it more than usual? Is there such a thing as a sugar detox? "There are many theories on sugar and addiction, but I don't think there's any concrete evidence proving that a person can be addicted to sugar," says Marie Spano, R.D. and sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks. She thinks the habitual intake and oh-so-good taste are actually what make it difficult to kick a sugar habit (see: The Science Behind Your Sweet Tooth). No one said this was going to be easy!
Lesson #1: Breakfast Without Sugar Is the Most Challenging Meal
My first attempt to eliminate sugar, breakfast, proved to be harder than I anticipated. My go-tos: yogurt with granola, avocado toast, or cereal all contained sugar. Luckily, I drink my coffee black, so I didn't have to alter my morning infusion of caffeine too—that would have been unbearable. I knew bagel day at the weekly office meeting—which fell on day eight— would be a big test. Bagels have both sugar and gluten, and in my mind, there is no acceptable substitute. Resisting this temptation was the toughest ordeal of the two weeks, but I held strong.
Sugar-free breakfast was an eye-opening experience. Before I even left my apartment, I was consuming more sugar than I even realized. (Do you know how much sugar you're consuming? These healthy bloggers thought they did.) Gluten-free oatmeal made with unsweetened almond milk, cinnamon, and apple slices became my challenge breakfast of choice—by the end, I didn't even miss adding brown sugar! The challenge forced me to pre-plan to avoid a breakfast of convenience, but I ended up finding one that tastes good and is good for me. Another bonus: It kept me full until lunch, yet I didn't feel bloated like, ahem, a bagel tends to do.
Lesson #2: Meal Planning Is the Key to Any Successful Diet
Almost every Sunday, I meal plan and grocery shop for the week. The importance of this routine was never more apparent than during this challenge. Even when I was tired, lazy, running late, I was able to stick with the challenge because of my prep work. (We've got 10 No-Sweat Meal Prep Tricks from Pros.) I also ended up eating a ton more vegetable servings. Rather than starting with a grain, I planned meals around vegetables, then added in protein and healthy fats. My spiralizer got a lot of use!
But not eating many carbs throughout the challenge made me very tired every afternoon. I'm a solid five-days-a-week exerciser—usually a mix of running and bodyweight exercises. I'm not a morning person, so I typically work out when I get home from work. During these 10 days, though, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to make dinner and shower. My reps took more effort and my runs felt harder than usual. The dietary changes I made for the challenge may have cut my carbohydrate or caloric intake too low, explained Spano. To prevent this, "replace sugar-containing foods with naturally sweet foods and increase total carbohydrates from starches and grains," she suggests.
Lesson #3: Moderation Is Better Than Elimination
All wine has sugar. This fact was researched in-depth on day seven, when I was having a rough day and desperately wanted to go home to a glass of red. I did learn that while hard alcohols—gin, vodka, whiskey, and rum—don't have added sugar, mixers are loaded with the sweet stuff. I always thought gin and tonics were a healthy option, but it turns out, 12 ounces of tonic water could have 32 grams of sugar—more than the daily recommended amount for adults. I did drink during the challenge, but opted for liquor on the rocks or mixed with club soda (which is sugar-free). I'll admit, gin and club soda isn't as good as a gin and tonic, so I'm making the switch back. The occasional glass of wine, cupcake, or piece of chocolate is worth the added sugar to me. However, I will keep my consumption to a minimum—I'll just savor it that much more now. (Can You Drink Alcohol and Still Lose Weight?)
Lesson #4: Sugar Is Added to Everything
Over the 10 days, I became very comfortable with a nutrition label and the numerous different terms for hidden sugar. Every single meal, snack, and drink had to be carefully vetted to ensure it met the requirements. The amount of sugar in sauces and dressings surprised me. I bring salads to work almost every day for lunch, and two tablespoons of dressing alone could have 15 grams of sugar. Makes you think twice about adding a little extra! (Should Added Sugar Appear On Food Labels?) But I was pleasantly surprised to learn prepared hummus doesn't contain added sugar, and when mixed with plain Greek yogurt, it's a great substitute for dressing.
I did avoid takeout and restaurants for the 10 days, because it's nearly impossible to know if sugar is added to dishes. This time period included Winter Storm Jonas, so if that doesn't show dedication, nothing will. But I'll fully admit this isn't a sustainable goal—10 days was definitely my max. I missed Indian takeout! To avoid added sugar when eating out, "be very careful about sauces and dressings, including anything ketchup or BBQ based," advises Spano. She suggests asking for sauces and dressing to be served on the side so you control the amount. And choose oil and vinegar for salads instead of heavy sauces to avoid even more sugar.
Lesson #5: Eliminating Sugar is Not a Weight Loss Miracle
While the number on the scale didn't change after 10 days, the decrease in carbs did make my stomach appear flatter and more toned. My roommates even commented that I looked like I lost weight. This phenomenon had more to do with fewer carbs and calories (see Lesson #2) than my lack of sugar.
"Many foods that contain sugar can cause bloating, including carbonated beverages, chewing gum, and candy—they all increase the amount of air we consume," explains Spano. My toned stomach was probably a circumstance of the challenge, but not a direct result of less sugar. Either way, I'll celebrate small victories.
Cutting out sugar completely isn't a realistic permanent lifestyle change, but this challenge did reaffirm my goal to eat clean, nutrient-dense foods all year long—with the occasional splurge. Spano suggests cutting down on your sugar intake on a permanent basis by "consuming fewer sauces with added sugar, looking for cereals that are low in sugar and high in fiber, and cutting down your consumption of candy, cookies, and other sweets." Easy enough! Now if you'll excuse me, a glass of wine is calling my name.