Giving Up Sugar – My Experience
As I sit here typing this, my stomach is digesting refined sugar for the first time in a month.
Let me explain…
I sent out an email to my subscribers (if you’re not one, why not? My emails are fucking dynamite) at the start of the year stating that this year, my theme was self-mastery. I always theme my years, it’s part of my self-development approach.
So what does mastery mean?
Mastery is about self control and discipline. Making myself train even if I can’t be arsed. It’s about not being a slave to food cravings. It’s about control. Control over my decisions, my actions, my thinking.
My first experiment in self mastery was giving up sugar for a month. I chose February. There are a couple of reasons for this…
- After Christmas we still had a LOT of chocolate in the house. I was going to eat my way through that in January.
- February is a short month. #tactics.
And that was it. On Wednesday 31st January I gave up sugar for 28 days. The longest sugar-free period in my life since I was a baby.
Why Did I Give Up Sugar?
It certainly wasn’t to lose weight. I can lose weight without giving up sugar. It wasn’t because I was worried I was ‘addicted’ (the definition of addiction is suitably vague anyway, so can be interpreted in a number of different ways). It wasn’t to save money. It wasn’t for any reason in particular.
I suppose the best reason I can give you is this – mastery.
Yup, that’ll do. It was an experiment in self-mastery. The first of a handful I’ll do this year (and possibly beyond).
The thing is, I like sugar. I like a slice of cake. I like a chocolate bar. I train an average of 5 times per week, so a little reward is nice. It’s also a bit of a habit, having something sweet after a meal or as a little short term energy boost when I’m tired.
Using my enjoyment of sugar as a measure means it would take a level of discipline and mastery (that word again) if I was going to be successful.
So what were the rules of the giving up sugar game?
It certainly wasn’t a complete ban on anything sweet. I was relaxed around fruit etc. Essentially I was giving up refined sugar. If nature supplied it (honey, fruit, starchy vegetables), it was OK to eat.
The banned list…
- Refined sugars – cake, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream etc.
- Sugars added to drinks.
- Sweet fizzy drinks (I didn’t drink these anyway).
- Added sugar fruit juices.
- Any sugary sauces.
What was allowed…
- ‘Dry’ alcohol.
- Half a teaspoon of honey in coffee.
- Fruit and starchy vegetables.
How Did I Cope, Giving Up Sugar?
At first, it was pretty easy. I’m relatively self-aware of my body, my cravings, my triggers etc, so I already knew what triggers a particularly strong craving for something sweet in me. Lack of sleep.
When I’m tired I crave sugar like a junkie craves a fix.
Making sleep a priority really helped in this case. Thankfully, both of my kids sleep well at night, so that was helpful. I made a point of going to bed slightly earlier (honestly, an extra 30 minutes of sleep can really help).
It also helped that I re-framed ‘hard’.
Interestingly, a lot of people who knew I was doing this no sugar experiment told me how ‘hard’ it would be and how ‘hard’ they would find it. I’ll admit, I approached the challenge with some concern I’d fail it too. Even my girlfriend, Rachel, expected me to fail it.
I found that re-framing hard helped.
In this context, re-framing hard went like this…
There are people alive today who lived through the second world war. Imagine being one of them – after a Nazi bombing raid, their house may have been hit by a huge bomb. In a single instance, they are homeless. They’ve lost everything they own. Their life is turned upside down and the place they called home is now burning rubble.
Imagine coping with that. Imagine living with that. That’s hard.
Now, imagine complaining about not eating sugar in that context.
That’s how I re-framed what I was doing. I just put it into perspective and I found it really helpful. It’s difficult to complain about not eating sugar when you see real tragedy and hardship on the TV every day.
“Giving up sugar for a month? Self-inflicted. First world problem. Some people would give a kidney just to be in the position to need to give up sugar. Get over it, wuss.”
I then realised that actually, you’re only faced with the reality that you’re giving up sugar a handful of times per day.
So, if like me you eat (including snacks) around 6 times per day, you’re only faced with a no-sugar reality on 6 separate occasions each day.
On those occasions you’ve got only two choices and outcomes…
- You eat sugar, which sees you fail the challenge.
- You don’t eat sugar, which continues the challenge.
Each time you choose to not eat sugar, you’ve overcome one of the 6 choice obstacles of the day.
Do that 6 times, you’ve gone another day without eating sugar.
Do that 28 days in a row, you’ve completed the challenge.
Of course it’s easy to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘it’s easy to give up sugar, just make the right choice 168 times in a row’, but when you’re in the thick of the challenge it won’t always feel so simple. There are times when it’s not so easy.
Were There Any Difficulties Giving Up Sugar?
In reality, it wasn’t that difficult. I can’t really identify exactly when it changed, but not eating sugar sort of becomes part of your identity. You get used to the different choices you need to make at meal times, at snack times or when you’d normally add sugar to drinks.
Throughout the 28 day giving up sugar experiment, there were only two occasions where I was tested (and that’s all it was – I certainly wasn’t going to fail) that spring to mind.
One of those was Valentines day. It was nothing to do with romance or feeling all mushy, it was because my youngest son had tonsillitis and kept waking up in pain, so we’d had a bad nights’ sleep the night before. I filled my car with fuel, went into the shop to pay and was surrounded by chocolate – that was tempting!
I questioned whether or not it was worth it, but by that point I’d gone 13 days without eating sugar so I was pretty heavily invested. The temptation only lasted whilst I was in the shop then went away as soon as I left (there’s a lesson in that which I’ll come to later).
The second time it was tough was on the final weekend of the challenge. We went to stay at my Mum’s house and the customary cakes and biscuits were put out and everyone (apart from me) helped themselves to chocolate, cake, biscuits and ice cream.
Despite the temptation, I resisted.
Any Realisations About Sugar? What happened?
One of the interesting times was after a gym session. I’d been to the weight lifting club session and had worked hard – normally afterwards I’d feel guilt-free about a treat. On the way home I stopped at the supermarket to pick up some things.
I spent around 30 minutes in the shop, picked up everything I needed and went home. It was when I was in the car on the way back that I realised that not only did I resist any sugar, I’d also not even given it a thought – I hadn’t even gone down an aisle with sugar products in it.
That’s when I realised that so much of our eating is habitual and not even craving-based. Going to see what cakes, desserts etc were on sale was a habit. Once I’d taken myself out of those behaviours, they didn’t even cross my mind.
A lot of changing your eating patterns and your diet is just changing your habits. It’s honestly that simple.
Did I Lose Weight?
Yes. I lost 9¼ lbs.
During the experiment I went from 94kg to 89.8kg, a drop of 4.2kg (9¼ lbs). I didn’t do the giving up sugar experiment for weight loss, it was just a nice by-product.
In the picture below you’ll see my weight loss, but that isn’t a wholly accurate graph – I only started weighing myself and recording on the app a week in. I actually started the experiment at 94kg.
Interestingly, I lost this weight despite not exercising in the final week of the challenge because I’d injured my hand. I bet if I was able to train as normal I’d have lost even more weight.
A lot of this weight will be water weight (sugar in the body does retain water), but even so I have lost weight without even trying to, just by giving up sugar. Something to consider if you’re looking at easy ways to drop weight.
Am I Giving Up Sugar For Good?
In a word, no.
Life can’t be devoid of pleasure and for me, food is a pleasure. It’s not comfort – it’s never been comfort. It’s fuel and sustenance primarily, pleasure secondary and a relief from boredom tertiary.
What I am going to do is to reduce my sugar consumption dramatically. It’s actually really quite simple once you’ve made the conscious choice, so I see little point in continuing to eat sugar every day, just because I can.
I’ll probably limit sugar to 1-2 days per week. I haven’t really decided yet, but I certainly won’t be eating a great deal of sugar in future. If giving it up completely for a month is doable, giving it up for a few days at a time will be a doddle.
Tips For Giving Up Sugar
Don’t make giving up sugar a big deal...
Making it a huge thing will pile on the pressure. I told a handful of people I was doing it – not because I wanted to keep it hidden as such, I just didn’t think people would be that interested.
Learn about yourself…
Giving up sugar will force you to ignore and override your cravings. This is beneficial (and quite challenging), but use it as a learning opportunity. Think about when your cravings come. Is it when you are tired? When you are bored? After a particular meal?
Learn your triggers, then avoid them…
I know my cravings for sugar come when I’m tired, so making sure I had a good night sleep had a huge effect on sugar cravings.
I also know I habitually eat sugar when I’m bored, so I kept myself busy. A secondary benefit of that is that I managed to get a lot of work done, so double bonus!
I mentioned earlier there’s a lesson from when I was tempted to buy chocolate in the shop. The lesson is this – temptation is fleeting and removing yourself from the temptation firing line removes the craving quickly.
In the early days, being surrounded by temptation makes life difficult (in my case we had 10 chocolate bars for the kids staring at me every time I opened the fridge!). In time you are less tempted by them, but in the early days really try to avoid temptation.
Find a decent replacement…
It’s less of an issue if you can find a replacement for the sugar in your life. I really love tinned peaches in juice (not syrup), so I had those as a dessert a couple of times.
OK, it’s not exactly chocolate, but that’s the point.
Did My Taste Change After Giving Up Sugar?
In all honesty, I didn’t expect this to happen, but something has.
The first bit of chocolate I had was a small Wispa bar. A while after that I had a chocolate orange bar and I felt quite sick afterwards. That has NEVER happened to me before, so something has certainly changed!
It’s put me off eating my way through a boat load of sugar now, that’s for sure. Not that I would have anyway, but even if I wanted to before I certainly wouldn’t now!
I hope it’s indicative of a wider taste change.
That being said, I’ve got a big slice of cake waiting for me tonight after football, then it’s back to low sugar as of tomorrow.
Behavioural psychology dictates that when you’ve started to make a lifestyle change, it’s easier to make others. Habits typically build on one another.
My next challenge is also a nutritional one – I think I’ll probably start it on Monday. It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot recently and I’ve run the idea past a nutritionist to make sure it’s not a stupid idea.
He thinks not, so watch this space…
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