“Hello, my name is Eric, and I’m a sugarholic.”
Or am I?
For years I have wondered whether or not this was true, as sweets have been one of my go-to ways of rewarding myself, or soothing any number of unwanted feelings (boredom, melancholy, frustration, etc.). I am not unconditional in my love of sweets – but those I am partial to have sometimes felt like a genuine vice. I’m not even going to mention here what these are specifically, should I inadvertently invite cartons of them to suddenly appear at my doorstep. 🙂
It was in the spirit of curiosity that I decided to go the entire month of January without sweets.
Specifically, here are the main things I wanted to gauge:
1. How difficult would it be? (Would I have cravings? Would they be strong? Would I go through “withdrawal”?).
2. Would I lose any weight?
3. Would I feel any different (i.e., more energized)?
4. Would doing this lower my triglyceride count? (While otherwise in great health, I have had notoriously high triglycerides all of my adult life, if not longer – this appears to be a genetic predisposition, as it runs in my family).
Here were the ground rules, or what I meant by “no sweets”: no overtly sugary foods, such as cakes, pies, ice cream, cookies, candy, or sugary toppings (like syrup, for instance). I was not going to be fanatical about having no sugar whatsoever. But I would be super-conscious of the sugar content of everything I ate. Cereal was okay, as long as it did not have much sugar. Fruit was okay. Pasta and rice were okay (carb-heavy foods that essentially turn into sugars), though I did reduce my quantities of these to some extent (in fact, I was much more conscious of portions in general, and did not “snack” nearly as much when the impulse to do so was simply for pleasure rather than out of hunger). I didn’t have to worry about soda, or even juice, as my beverage of choice is water 99.9% of the time.
Here are some of the things I did allow myself: occasional Balance Bars or Clif Bars (these are arguably glorified candy bars, but I allowed them – hey, it’s my experiment, and my rules!), Gatorade (for some electrolyte replacement when working out, but I usually diluted this with at least equal parts water and Gatorade), and perhaps the food with the highest sugar content I had the whole month was chocolate almond milk (which I used in occasional – as in, two or three – smoothies I made, and which was the only chocolate I had at all during the course of the month, come to think of it). I did not count calories, keep a food log, or formally measure portions of anything I ate (all good things to do for those who are dieting or wanting to become more conscious of their food intake, but not necessary, I decided, for my purposes here). I definitely had a heightened awareness of what I was eating, though, and used a certain amount of willpower to keep myself in check.
So, while this experiment was not of the highest scientific standards, it was nonetheless the first time in my life I had ever tried anything like it. I have been blessed pretty much all my life with a high metabolism rate, and have grown accustomed to being able to eat whatever I want, and in whatever quantities I want. Until recently, I never worried about gaining weight and, in my teens and twenties especially, it seemed as if I couldn’t no matter what I ate (I know, I know, I have no idea how lucky I’ve been!). At the same time, I’ve always been pretty active physically, so this perhaps mitigated my high consumption of food to some extent. However, I’ve noticed that I am not able to get away with eating the same way I once did (turning forty, perhaps, had something to do with it?).
January has now come and gone and, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what the results were (especially if you, too, have a penchant for sugary delights), so I’ll cut right to the chase:
1. To my surprise, this experiment was a lot easier to carry out than I expected! (I think the whole reason I never tried it sooner was the fear of how difficult it might prove to be). I never had any deeply compelling cravings. Perhaps I am actually not “addicted” to sugar after all. I had occasional thoughts about having dessert or some kind of “treat” after a meal (more a function of habit than anything), but I pretty easily shrugged them off. One thing I found, similar to my experience in marathon training, was that the deeper into the experiment I was, the easier it seemed to be to stay on track since I was that much more invested in it (although, unlike marathon training, it really wasn’t ever what I would consider difficult).
A few other observations:
- Making up one’s mind about something ahead of time makes it easier to both anticipate and resist temptations. For instance, I easily turned down desserts at a dinner party (I had only fruit) because I was prepared for this in advance.
- I am pleased to report that I wasn’t much tempted by the sweets we already had in our home. I didn’t feel the need to remove them from the premises (perhaps further evidence that I’m not truly addicted?). It was definitely a smart move, however, not to bring any additional sweets into the apartment, especially my “usual suspects”. It’s much easier to resist something, especially in more vulnerable moments, when it isn’t “in your face”.
- I had a stressful time at work over the last month, resulting in my actually quitting my job of nearly three and a half years. Yet, for whatever reason, this did not affect my resolve in staying off the sweets, which again may point towards it not being the addiction I suspected it might be.
2. I did, indeed, lose weight. In fact, I dropped right around 10 pounds! This was very much wanted, as I had put on some poundage last year (my first year of marriage, this apparently is a very common phenomenon) and was weighing in at 169 by year’s end, a high for me. I am noticeably trimmer now (no before and after pictures to share, but my wife can certainly attest to this), and am happier for it. I should mention that in addition to “no sweets” and more controlled portions/conscious eating, I did also resume running this month (after a hiatus of several months, more or less) in preparation for this race, but my overall exercise rate and frequency wasn’t all that much greater than usual.
3. During (and after) a full month without sweets, I honestly cannot say that I felt (or feel) any different, in terms of mood or energy level. I do not feel any more energized, but neither do I feel any less energized.
4. When I last had blood work done (in August 2013), my triglyceride count was 531 (and yes, I fasted beforehand). This wasn’t unusual: my numbers have consistently been in the 400s or 500s for a number of years (a good deal higher than that, even, the time I did not fast beforehand!). WebMD has this to say about triglyceride levels:
The National Cholesterol Education Program sets guidelines for triglyceride levels:
Normal triglycerides means there are less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Borderline high triglycerides = 150 to 199 mg/dL.
High triglycerides = 200 to 499 mg/dL.
Very high triglycerides = 500 mg/dL or higher.
I had my annual physical one week ago, on January 29th, and today received the results of my blood work. Alas, the triglyceride count just reported to me was (drumroll, please…): 168. Still in the “borderline high” range above, but significantly lower than usual and, I’m pretty sure, the lowest count I’ve ever had on any such test. For those interested in a more complete cholesterol picture, my HDL (“good cholesterol”) count was 36 (a bit lower than the ideal [less than 40 is considered low], but the highest I’ve had reported – my count always seems to be low despite a good amount of exercise, never smoking, and essentially never being overweight [until perhaps last year, and then only slightly]), and my LDL (“bad cholesterol”) count was 95 (less than 100 is considered optimal). Best overall cholesterol report of my life!
Obviously, we all have different genetic makeups and physiologies, etc., not to mention ideas about what constitutes a good quality of life, so take my results for whatever they are worth to you. But I have to say that I am truly surprised – kind of amazed, really – at the difference cutting out sweets for a month has made. Since I have been so pleased with the results, and since it hasn’t been all that difficult for me to avoid sugary temptations (a revelation I would not have had, mind you, had I not done an experiment like this in the first place), I plan on continuing with this diet. I’m not saying I will abstain from sweets completely and forever, but I am now armed with some pretty compelling (and quantified) evidence of the benefits – for me, at least – of consuming a lot less sugar. And this will no doubt inform my eating choices and habits from here on in.
Just some food for thought…