One year ago, in April 2011, I read an article by Gary Taubes in the New York Times Magazine that scared me straight off sugar. And I gave up sugar, cold turkey.
Until then, I’d never dieted in my life. In fact, I loved every dessert known to humankind. With impunity, I’d scarf the richest crème brulees, dulce de leche cakes, and fruit pies slathered in whipped cream. It was unthinkable to knock back my ritual cups of coffee every morning without brown sugar, or a pile of sourdough toast without a thick layer of preserves. I loved finishing French meals with the plateaux des deserts or, better yet, le chariot des deserts that came wheeling up after an already rich meal. I remember all these desserts fondly, but I haven’t had any for a full year.
When I gave up sugar, I wasn’t thinking about my weight, blood pressure, or any of the many unanticipated things that have happened to my body in the past year. I stopped eating sugar only because the possible long term metabolic effects of the stuff — as discussed in Taubes’ article — were scary enough that I thought I’d run an experiment on myself by giving sugar abstinence a shot.
It’s been a year of complete surprises, all of which are reported below. But there are a few things I should disclose up front. First, this is a personal account. I’m not a doctor, and I can’t suggest that what has happened to me will happen to everyone. Second, I have no threatening health conditions — like diabetes — which dictated this choice. Third, I am an almost non-consumer of alcohol, which is directly related to sugar consumption for many people, so I haven’t had to change a drinking pattern. And, last, I’m not a purist. I know there’s sugar in ketchup, for instance, but I still use it occasionally. And, even though I read package labels carefully and avoid sugary items in restaurants, I know it’s used as a flavor-enhancer in all kinds of hidden ways. I continue to eat out a lot and do the best I can.
Also, to be completely candid, I broke the diet twice — once to sample a dessert in Korea that I’d never seen before, and another time when I had dinner at my partner’s family reunion and didn’t want to make a fuss by turning down cousin Theresa’s amazing four-hour meringue. (My painful and instantaneous physical reaction to that tower of meringue was shocking. More later.)
It’s been a year since I gave up sugar. Here’s what happened:
The blood tests and hard data: I hadn’t given much thought to my middle-aged paunch, but 25 pounds quickly melted away. I rarely weigh myself, so it wasn’t the bathroom scale that tipped me off. It was that suddenly my clothes ballooned around me. My pants were sagging and my shirts were drooping. Now, I’m down from an XL shirt size to an L, and my waist is down three or four inches. The weight loss happened in the first five sugar-free months and I’ve stabilized since then. I’m enjoying tucking in my shirts.
The blood work, which I had done seven months into the diet, was also interesting because I could compare “hard” results from tests done two years earlier. My triglyceride count lowered from 141, a “high normal,” to 117. Glucose levels descended from an above normal 109 to an entirely normal 78. And my blood pressure has gone way down — from hovering in the almost hypertensive range of 137/88 to 105/72.
Sleep: To my amazement, on night number two off sugar I slept through the entire night. I hadn’t had eight hours of continuous sleep since I was a young teenager, and couldn’t believe that this had anything to do with my new routine. But the pattern has maintained. This year has been my most restful in the past 50 years. The main change is that I can fall back asleep when I wake up at 3:00 a.m. This thrills me.
Energy level: I frequently do day-long presentations to groups. The uncomfortable and precipitous mid-afternoon energy drop-off has disappeared. In fact, my energy level stays constant throughout the day and into the evening. I’ve always had high energy, but these days, I surprise myself.
Focus: I’m aware of being far more able to focus on a task and get it done. My tendency toward distraction has reduced dramatically. What I would now describe as jittery, nervous energy after big doses of sugar through the day, has been replaced by a sense of focused calm.
Cramps: A few months into my sugar-free life I realized that I hadn’t had any leg or foot cramps since the diet began. Serious cramping had been a constant problem for years, mostly happening suddenly — and painfully — at night. I had no idea how sugar and leg cramps were related, so I began to talk about it to the doctors with whom I work. About half of them said my cramp-less nights were unrelated to sugar intake. The other half believe that it is directly related, having to do with well regulated glucose levels in the cells of my leg muscles.
A month after realizing the cramps had disappeared, I was confronted by a dessert I couldn’t easily refuse. Not wanting to seem picky or demanding in front of Greg’s relatives, whom he hadn’t seen in 40 years, I knocked back cousin Theresa’s mound of whipped cream and berry-filled meringue. Frankly, it was delicious and I was enjoying myself thoroughly — until an epic and extremely painful charley horse in my thigh levitated me off my chair. It took 25 minutes of limping around in front of the house to ease the cramp. It was the last time I knowingly ate sugar. If I had previously doubted the impact of sugar, all doubts now disappeared. The sweetness was simply not worth the pain.
There have been a couple of other surprises: First, it’s been easy to stay off sugar. After a day or two, the urge to add sugar disappeared. Unsweetened coffee was the biggest challenge, but I can now taste the sweetness of milk, and the coffee is just fine. Also, my urge to eat other carbohydrates has been significantly reduced. I used to be able to throw down a couple of bowls of pasta at one sitting, but now I have trouble finishing one. Bread is tasty, but I’m eating it in smaller quantities.
My sugar-free future looks bright, and, in fact, not a lot has changed. I’ve always eaten a lot of fruit. I love fresh food — and have always stayed away from prepared stuff and fast food. It has become a lot easier to say “no” to sugar. A lot of people are doing it.
And the world of desserts is bright too. I’ve converted what was once a caloric eating experience — and one that I enjoyed a lot — into an aesthetic experience. Early on in this year of sugar abstinence, I realized that I had eaten almost every dessert in the world. With great detail and delight, I can tell you exactly what they taste like. Did I really need to consume another chocolate éclair or slice of tres leches cake or coconut cupcake? Really, not! So now, as I sit in restaurants and watch my friends eat those beautiful confections. I focus on what they look like on the plate — their rich color, beautiful design, and complex fragrance. I enjoy the smiles and sighs of appreciation from my dinner companions. And I notice how well I feel, and have no intention of ever going back.
Originally posted on Huffington Post.
Rick Foster and his partner, Greg Hicks, have dedicated themselves to studying people and communities that thrive. Their research has taken them to all seven continents and generated a roadmap to happiness, physical wellbeing, and, ultimately, success.
Rick is a frequent keynote speaker and trainer, and works in the U.S. and worldwide with such clients as G.E., AXA Financial, The Mayo Clinic, New York University Medical Center, and The Zenith. He is also a featured blogger for The Huffington Post. Rick and Greg have co-authored three books: Happiness & Health: 9 Choices That Unlock the Powerful Connection Between the TwoThings We Want Most, How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People–Their Secrets, Their Stories, and the children’s book, The Martha is Mine, An Almost True Story. They run an online course, The Sustainable Happiness Course.