For ages I’ve thought that sugar was the cause of all my ills. I eat far too much of it, without question. But I’ve always had a sweet tooth and I simply couldn’t imagine life without sugar. Sugar is both my poison and my cure, a treat food I eat everyday. Sure, I deserve a treat every day (several times a day), don’t I?!
A typical day starts with brown sugar on my Weetbix, honey on my toast. It continues with muesli bars and biscuits sprinkled throughout. Dinner is usually pepped up with a savoury but sugar-heavy sauce. After the kids are in bed, we can enjoy a sugary supper without being interrupted by, hiding from, or sharing with the toddler.
I’ve long wondered whether it was physically possible for me to live without sugar. I knew that cold turkey would be the only way for me to get off sugar, moderation quickly devolves into immoderation when it comes to me and sweets. I’ll just have one.. ok, maybe one more… hang on, I’ve eaten how many????
I was afraid that I’d experience withdrawal symptoms too uncomfortable to manage. But I’d reached a point where I was desperate to feel better and desperate enough to see if removing sugar from my diet might put some pep back in my step. I resolved to start on Monday, May the First (the double fresh-start date seemed like a good omen!) and attempt to go without sugar for the month of May.
Days 1 to 7 actually passed pretty uneventfully, with nary a headache. I wondered whether I’d sacrificed so much for no change at all. I’m half-joking of course, I’d sacrificed absolutely nothing by turning down cheap and ruinous junk for seven days. But it had felt like a small leap of faith to tuck away my grown-up security blanket.
At the end of seven days I was undecided about whether to continue. If removing sugar wasn’t my magic bullet solution to peak health, I might as well take the mental wins I’d gotten (realising I could actually survive without sugar) and carry on enjoying my favourite foods with a new mindset. But I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t greedy-Robyn or lazy-Robyn or weak-willed Robyn who was ready to call it quits on my experiment which, by my own admission, was not even any real hardship.
So, I carried on and week two brought some new lessons about sugar and me.
McDonald’s chips – do they or don’t they?
I take my toddler to McDonald’s during the week. I have mixed feelings towards McDonald’s BUT the place has an enclosed, toddler friendly playground. That means I can go there with a baby and toddler and not have to be too hands-on with them both at the same time. Basically, the toddler runs (safely) wild while I stand by with the baby in a front pack trying not to jostle her too much.
Obviously I’m going to be obliged to buy a food item in order to use the playground. I know my toddler is going to eat sweet f.a of whatever I buy and I’m leaning towards chips as possibly the only menu item which won’t contain sugar. That way I can eat the abandoned 97% and avoid food-waste-guilt on top of McDonald’s-guilt.
I read on the McDonald’s UK website that at certain times of the year, when the potatoes are low in natural sugars, they may be sprayed with dextrose. But the overall sugar content will remain less than 1% year round. What a quandary I’m in now! How will I know whether the chips have added sugar, and would it even matter that much given that the sugar content of the added-sugar chips is comparable to the ‘natural’ chips???
I err on the side of caution and throw out 97% of the chips. I cringe to throw the fries in the bin, but I don’t want to open the gate for any “well I’ve (maybe) blown it now‘ reasoning.
It does make me see the folly of demonising ‘sugar’. Later in the week I watch In Defense of Food, in which Michael Pollan talks about Nutritionism, or our current obsession with vilifying or elevating particular nutrients. I think about how relevant that is to the chip situation.
Dealing with a toddler when you have no sense of humour
Anyone who lives or has ever lived with a toddler knows you need to maintain a sense of humour if you don’t want the whole thing to turn into a shit show. Otherwise you both become temper-tantruming, power-playing toddlers.
This week I have no sense of humour and it is indeed not pretty.
I’m feeling irritable because my energy level is somewhere around floor-height, and on top of that I can’t quell said irritation with a face full of chocolate – my usual remedy. Irritation, on top of irritation, on top of toddler madness is all a bit much. Thank goodness for the weekend, for Mark being home and for Mother’s Day (the ideal opportunity to shirk most of my responsibilities for a day).
The body is a complicated machine
I’m as spotty as an unfortunate teenager, as moody as my beloved toddler, as forgetful as a dotty old lady, and as tired as a mother with two wakeful children.
My doctor calls during the week to say a recent blood test shows I need to increase my dosage of Synthroid, which could explain a lot.
This week, looking for physical symptoms of feeling better or worse as a result of removing sugar from my diet has just confirmed what I suspected last week – that cutting sugar from my diet is no silver bullet cure-all.
Convenience above all else
I realise that what I most miss about having sugar in my diet is the convenience with which calories present themselves in those adored sweets. When there’s a packet of chocolate biscuits in the cupboard, I can take on a small meal’s worth of calories in about 5 minutes flat and with barely a chew.
Even a piece of toast is a multi-stage affair: bread from bag into toaster, wait a few minutes (what? A few minutes…?!), locate a clean plate and knife, faff around with too-hard butter, finally – caloric relief.
Chips and nuts are sugar free calorie bombs, but require a good deal more munching than melt-in-your-mouth chocolate. I know it seems like a small distinction, but when time is of the essence the thought of gulping down a half-chewed chip (ouch!) can be enough to keep my hand out of the bag. Particularly when hunger is not my driving force.
I know, I sound like a total animal.
The point is, I find it easy to overeat on sweets, without even really being aware that I’m eating at all. Other foods, not so much.
When did I come to the conclusion that it’s too much trouble to prepare a balanced plateful of something and eat it while seated? What if I made an effort to make healthy foods convenient. Or even better, what if I stopped seeking convenience at all costs and focused on nourishment instead?
Getting tripped up
Despite thinking I’m the bees knees at reading labels and avoiding all fruits, added sugars and artificial sweeteners I do find myself tripped up by balsamic vinegar this week. In hindsight, of course it contains grape products, but it doesn’t occur to me to read the label before I douse my tuna pasta in it. You live and learn.
I also buy a punnet of cherry tomatoes this week because they’re on special, kind of forgetting for a moment that they’re really a fruit. Therefore forbidden – oooh! Well, no-one else in my family is going to eat them so I’ll be taking one for the team. Throwing away mass produced french fries with zero nutritional value is one thing, but throwing out locally grown, vitamin packed cherry tomatoes is beyond the pale. Anyway, I doubt they’re a gateway food for family-sized chocolate blocks.
Surprisingly I’m not missing the really decadent stuff the most. I’m actually craving a bit of juicy fruit and can’t help but think my meals would benefit from a nice salsa with a magic balance of sweet piquancy. Perhaps my little missteps above were not so much completely accidental as subconscious trickery.
I’m not intending to cut out fruit for the long term. I decided to include fruit on my no-go list because I knew (from experience) that it would become a substitute for my favourite sweets. I would end up eating way too much of it.
If (probably ‘when’) I reintroduce added sugars I won’t be too concerned about the sugars found in quality condiments. In the first place, although some sauces have a high proportion of sugars, I’m not likely to eat them in outrageous quantities. Secondly, if a little bit of salsa helps me to enjoy a whole load of vegetables, I think that’s a good thing on balance.
I was going to say “looking forward to week three”, but that would not be quite true. Instead I’ll say onwards with week three and whatever challenges or lessons it has for me on my sugar free mission.