In May, I embarked on a 30-day sugar detox challenge.
This is why I need to stop reading things on the internet in the middle of the night. I make life decisions I immediately regret in the light of day.
There are exactly a bajillion blogs out there that have documented their sugar detoxes. They are everywhere. Sort of like sugar is. I apologize in advance for contributing to the overabundance.
As a general rule, I have managed to sidestep most vices. I have never smoked cigarettes. Beer leaves me feeling bloated before buzzed and wine reminds me of going to church, which really kills the vibe. I no longer splurge on shoes. Scratch-off lottery tickets make me anxious.
But one vice has me in its sweet little vice grips. I am a self-diagnosed sugar addict.
I know, I know. Having a sweet tooth isn't the same as being hooked on meth. And yet I ask you: would a healthy, rational person feel compelled to drive to the corner store to buy soda right after a four-mile run because water -- and I quote my internal monologue -- "just wasn't cutting it?" Because that's where I found myself last week: standing at the counter, shooting angry looks at the register's chip reader that was taking way too long to process, cradling my two-liter like a precious newborn.
That can't be good, right?
I needed to do something. I wanted to feel more in control. So I did what every person does when they face a huge personal challenge and uncertainty on how to address it.
Listen. Their graphics are pleasing and their quizzes, while ridiculous, are also intriguing in an absurdist way.
The article's author shared a love of sweet treats that mirrored my own. Most importantly, it had a recipe and meal plan guide that seemed reasonable. So, the night before the start of May, I sat down and scratched out my own plan.
Here’s What I Did
In the spirit of full disclosure, my approach to a sugar detox … wasn’t a 100% complete absolutely not-a-whiff-of-sugar detox. My approach was to avoid any added or refined sugar in my food whenever I could. Here were my personal “rules” for this month:
- First off, no soda. No diet soda. No reduced-to-ten-calories soda. Nada. I knew this will be my biggest hurdle. Some days, the refreshing sip of a lemon-lime fizzy pop is the only thing that gets me through a long work day.
- Second, no packaged or processed food that contained sugar or any of its vast pseudonyms.
- Third, try to avoid carbs like pastas, rices, and breads. (This is a rule that didn’t occur to me at the start but I realized a few days in. If I had known I was cutting out those from the beginning, I might have not had the motivation to try it. But they turned out to be easier to avoid than I anticipated… or feared.)
- Fourth, foods that have natural sugars in them were allowed, but they had to be foods that had strong health benefits. For example, grapes were fine given their nutrients and fiber. Grape juice was a no-no, since most of those benefits were taken away, leaving just the sweet, sweet nectar of sweet tooth addiction.
That’s right. I gave fruit a pass. I get it. To many of you, I’m a monster. To me, this strategy was justified. My goal with this month-long challenge was to change my habits. I was going for more of a psychological reset than an entirely physical one. In the end, I wanted to make healthier choices with what I eat. Certainly fruit has more health benefits than soda, right? That’s a win in my book.
Here’s What I Ate
That’s pretty much it.
Okay, not really. But I did eat a ton of eggs. Scrambled, poached, hardboiled for on the go. In addition, each week I prepped a big breakfast casserole in my old lasagna pan -- oh, lasagna … sweet, sweet lasagna … how I miss your ruffled noodles and creamy layers. The egg casserole got me through each breakfast and more than a few dinners. There are tons of recipes online but they all break down to the same concept. If you’d like to try a totally non-professional version of a recipe:
Suano's Sugar Detox Breakfast Casserole
- Ingredients: eggs, veggies, milk, cheese, salt, pepper, olive oil, other things that sound delicious to you with eggs.
- Pick some veggies that go together, slice them up and saute for a bit in olive oil. One time I did red peppers, onions, carrots, spinach, and wound up throwing in some black beans.
- Spray your baking dish with some non-stick spray and spread your veggies out.
- Scramble a bunch of eggs, add a splash of milk and salt and pepper. How many eggs, you ask? Enough to fill up the dish you are using and give you the ratio of eggs to veggies that you want. Don’t worry, if you get the ratio wrong, you are still eating good food. Just make a mental note and adjust for your next batch. Pour the egg mixture into the pan over your veggies. Don’t have enough egg mixture? Scramble up some more and throw them in. Too much egg mixture? Ladle some out and scramble them up for breakfast.
- If you want, you can add some more savory goodness with sausage or another breakfast meat. I wound up going with Morning Star hot and spicy sausage patties, mostly because that’s what I found in my freezer. Yes, not technically meat, but they give it some savoriness. Crumbled the patties up and sprinkled them throughout the egg mixture. Why not just put them in the dish with the veggies before pouring in the egg mixture, you ask? I have no idea. It just feels right. You do you.
- Sprinkle some cheese you like on top. This was another discovery: did you know that there is sugar added to shredded cheese, but not listed on blocks of cheese? STRANGE. Must have something to do with preserving the integrity of the shredded pieces. Anyway, grab yourself a block and a box shredder and save yourself some sugar! I added pepper jack to my casserole because a) I was already going for a southwest, spicy sort of theme and b) pepper jack is objectively the best block cheese in the universe.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees because you probably forgot to do that because I forgot to list it as the first step because I’m not a professional recipe writer/editor. Go fold some laundry while you wait.
- Once the oven is preheated, bake the egg casserole until the jiggle factor is gone. This will depend on the dish you chose. If you’re like me and whipped out that family-style lasagna pan, it’s going to take awhile I think I was around 50 minutes, but just check after 30 and see how you’re doing.
I ate a ton of fruit. This probably means that my sweet tooth hasn’t gone away. Instead it has merely shrunken back into the shadows, waiting thirty days, only to return stronger and more vengeful and more determined to bring destruction to these shores. I did try to avoid bananas, because apparently those things are sugar detox Horcruxes, not to be touched if possible due to their higher carbohydrate levels than other fruits.
That being said, I did not buy anyone telling me that eating bananas was the same thing as eating cake. Yes, bananas are probably the “cake” of the fruit world. But... they’re still fruit. Nothing that comes plucked off a tree can be as bad for you as something that comes poured out of a Betty Crocker box, baked, layered, frosted, and served with candles and ice cream scoops.
I avoided adding any natural sweeteners when I could. No honey, no agave, no stevia. When I wanted something sweet, I stuck to fruit: grapes, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, clementines. Mangoes intimidated me but I bet they would have worked too. Sometimes fruit wouldn’t sound appetizing, even when I was hungry for something sweet. In those moments I focused on this perspective: if I’m not hungry enough to eat fruit, then I am probably not really hungry. I’m just craving something (so it isn’t real hunger). Or I’m bored (so go do something). Or I’m stressed out (so go for a run or talk a walk or stop avoiding that task that is stressing me out and just do it already).
Seriously. I ate so many grapes.
Chicken was a common occurrence, which is probably no surprise. My favorite cuisine is Tex Mex, but since I needed to sidestep tortillas I found comfort in taco salads. Chicken seasoned with flavorful spices like cumin, oregano, paprika, and cayenne? Grilled up and sliced over a fresh bed of greens? Drizzled with salsa and cheese? Dolloped with guac and Greek yogurt / cilantro / lime dressing? Perfection.
Okay, so: spaghetti squash. Here’s my opinion on this. Don’t let the name or your vegan friend Karen who grows an organic container garden on the fire escape of her loft apartment fool you: it is not the same as eating spaghetti. The texture of spaghetti squash is sort of crispy, not chewy. The strands are skinnier and pretty much unslurpable. It’s similar to how cauliflower rice doesn’t taste like rice. It tastes like tiny globules of cauliflower. But, if you can get yourself away from that expectation of a perfect substitute, spaghetti squash can play the role of “sauce and topping transporter” of typical pasta dishes pretty well. It’s like my eyes and make-up: it all comes down to how many dollops of mascara and splashes of eyeliner it takes to make them look good.
My go to with spaghetti squash was a hearty tomato sauce. A few months ago I fell in love with this sauce my boyfriend made for us that had italian sausage and ricotta and all sorts of deliciousness mixed into it. This time, I went for a detox-compatible version.
Suano's Cobbled-Together Spaghetti Squash Marinara Mess
Warm up some no-sugar-added tomato sauce as a base. Not as hard to find as I thought it would be! Instead of pre-made italian sausage links, I used Morning Star sausage links. You could make crumbled sausage too, but in addition to being addicted to sugar I am lazy. Chopped the links up and threw them in along with a little crushed garlic, a lot of oregano and basil, some parsley, and a bay leaf. Read a book while the sauce thickened, then removed the sauce from heat and mixed in some ricotta and parmesan. Threw that on top of a pile of spaghetti squash and viola! I had a meal that was delicious, healthy, and hearty enough to avoid any lingering squash taste. One time I even got fancy and melted some fresh mozzarella on top of the dish. (Well, I did it twice. The first time I walked away from the broiler and the cheese was burnt grossness in 10 seconds. Watch it carefully!)
My splurge item? My treat? Triscuits and cheese, you beautiful companions. I adore Wheat Thins, but those bad boys are brimming with sugar, so I used Triscuits when I felt nostalgic for my old Wheat Thin days. Pair that fibrous cracker with some delicious pepper jack cheese and a dollop of guacamole? Heaven. This was my splurge food when I needed to indulge.
So let’s talk about restaurants. Restaurants were tough. Even healthy dishes came drizzled with a honey-balsamic glaze and a side of mashed potatoes -- a starch I did try to avoid -- so I made it work as well as I could by looking for recipes filled with veggies and protein, sauces that could be on the side, and no pasta or bread bases. To be honest, the hardest part was not eating the complimentary bread restaurants often serve. Seriously, they plop that basket of baked dough down before you can even slide into the booth. If I was by myself I would have asked for them to literally take it away but one of my tenets of this experience was to not be a food party pooper (unfortunate choice of phrase) to anyone around me. No one likes that person. I’m not talking about people with legitimate dietary restrictions for health issues, obviously. I’m talking about those vocal few who, because they just discovered this new dietary approach, they now need YOU to conform to it, or at least listen to their sermon about why what you are eating is basically killing you. That person will find their dinner invitations suddenly become scarce and all coworkers dodge them as lunchtime approaches. I did not want to be that person, so the table bread stayed. I just pushed it out of reach … and then sat on my hands.
Here's what I learned.
I did not realize how much sugar I had been eating. Obviously, this is not earth shattering news. I was vaguely aware of the increase of sugar in processed foods, but it hadn’t occurred to me how pervasive it was. Sugar had crept into literally every bite of deliciousness I was stuffing in my face for years, even things that I didn’t think of as sweet. Trying to limit those options really forced me to rethink what I cook and buy and order and eat.
I have way more self control than I ever gave myself credit for. It was not an easy 30-day marathon but I found myself committed to it in a really surprising way. I think that came from the structure and preparation I did. Also, reminding myself that it had an end date certainly helped.
I felt much better in general. Many of the personal accounts of sugar detoxes I had read included horror stories of sugar withdrawal: headaches, dizziness, tiredness. I didn’t experience any of those side effects. My guess is that, since I was allowing myself to eat fruit and dairy products with lactose, my body was still getting regular doses of sugar. Maybe I would have experienced a more powerful transformation if I had cut out all versions of natural sugars, but chances are that I would have quit after three days. For me, keeping natural sugars was worth it as long as the benefits of the food item outweighed the downsides of the sugar. My energy levels grew more consistent. No more 3PM crash and heavy post-lunch eyelids at work. My tummy also felt better. I hadn’t realized how much discomfort I was experiencing in my digestive tract until it started going away. Maybe that was from the increase in fiber from my fruit splurges? Or a benefit of the decrease in gluten since I wound up avoiding most breads and pastas?
About halfway through the detox, I experienced hunger differently. I didn’t feel hungry very often and, when I did, it felt more like real hunger. It’s hard to describe. In the past, when I felt hungry, it was sharp and specific. I was hungry for cookies. Or for toast. Or for cheese. Other foods didn’t sound appetizing. It was also overpowering. I would feel compelled to satisfy that hunger.
During the detox, my hunger changed. It grew quieter and more generalized. Instead of banging on the door, it rang the doorbell. And patiently waited. Hey, it’s me, your hunger. Just wanted to let you know I’m here. Maybe consider eating something that you think is good. Also, here’s your newspaper, I picked it up from the end of your driveway. Make sure to recycle it. When I was hungry, I was more in control of what I should it. It was a practical, measured decision, not an emotional, rash one.
It takes time and planning and work to eat this way. I knew fighting off the cravings and being disciplined would take some effort, but I had not realized that a big reason I was eating the way I had been was because it’s simply more convenient. Processed food seems cheaper, easier to find, easier to store, easier to prepare, easier to transport. It’s just easier all around. Avoiding food I didn’t want wasn’t as difficult as seeking out the food that I actually did want.
Here’s what I recommend.
Thinking about trying your own 30-day challenge? Here is my advice: remember that you do not have to follow anyone’s advice. Even mine. Seriously, people are weird about food. I don’t know why so many people have such strong opinions about what other people shove into their food hole, but they do and they are adamant about sharing them. Maybe it’s because we are all in a desperate race to postpone death even though it is inevitable? Maybe they’re just trying to be helpful? Maybe they like to think they are 100% right and any differing opinion challenges their nutritional belief system? Who knows? Just keep in mind that if people find out that you are trying a new way of eating, many of them are going to give their two cents about it. Just smile, take the advice that makes sense to you, and silently discard the rest. Listen to yourself and pay attention to what resonates and what doesn’t. (You will know when you are avoiding advice because it’s good but hard and when you’re avoiding advice when it’s weird and impractical. Keep the former. Throw out the latter.)
If you're in the market for some more advice that you can totally not follow if you don't like it:
Take a few days to prep. Don’t start this thing at 2PM on a Tuesday. Look up recipes. Go through your fridge and pantry to stash or trash food items you shouldn’t eat. Go to the supermarket and read labels before buying. Even if you don’t like planning food, at least ruminate enough to figure out what you want to eat for the first week. Pick out two to three breakfast, lunch and dinner options and have them handy.
Figure out a goal that makes sense for you. What is a challenge that would be tough but doable? What is something you know you can’t maintain for a whole month? Don’t sell yourself short, but don’t build yourself a house of cards either. Keeping it simple makes it easier to keep going. My thing was soft drinks and sugary treats. I knew I could cut those out with some discipline. But natural sugar? I knew I was going to need those grapes. Cutting out fruit didn’t make sense to me, so I didn’t. Cutting out carbs? I hadn’t thought about it, but I gave it a try and made it work.
Seriously, give it a try! I couldn’t keep it up for my entire life, but I found that my month was done I didn’t entirely backslide. I kept some of the recipes. When I feel sick after eating I notice that it’s often because I’ve eaten too much sugar, so I’m reducing it more without stressing about it. Definitely worth the 30 days of self-control. Good luck!