What I Learned By Quitting Sugar
Making a seemingly impossible leap in my diet and reaping surprising realisations.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Last year, I made a thorough analysis of my lifestyle habits. Despite seeming like a healthy and functioning adult, it appeared that I was silently addicted to a lot of things I didn’t realise.
Reading more about how addiction generally worked by triggering dopamine, leaving one with a relinquished thirst for “more, more, MORE!”, I began to address each one of my possible addictions. Whether it was cigarettes, weed, pornography, or social media, I decided I want to abstain from everything to see if life really was better without these things.
It’s a difficult path to walk, not only because of the individualistic strength required to formulate new and healthy habits, but because nearly everyone has become accustomed in some way too bad habits, and trying to quit feels like you’re the only one jumping off a cliff into the unknown. The only encouragement is yourself.
But one by one, with enough perseverance, I became clean from cigarettes and alcohol for over a year, and have a healthier, moderate relationship with others like social media.
The final (and most low-key) addiction of them all, was my unaddressed addiction to sugar. It’s the very one that almost nobody wants to address. It’s virtually in every food product, and the prospect of not being able to treat oneself with an array of saccharine snacks and delightful drinks appears too heavy of a sacrifice to bear.
Unlike cigarettes or social media, it is inconceivable to imagine a time when I didn’t eat any chocolate or sugary snacks. Worse was reading ‘sugar’ in the ingredients of every other seemingly innocent food product in the supermarket — like tomato ketchup, bread, and ramen noodles.
“Is it even possible to quit?”, I thought to myself.
As difficult as quitting smoking was, one thing that kept me going was the ability to remember my childhood as a time where I didn’t smoke. It reminded me it was possible to live a smoke-free life, and I can revert to that mode of thinking where cigarettes were unusual and forbidden territory.
But sugar felt as if it were fundamentally ingrained into my being from birth.
It really did seem impossible to escape the temptation and completely put it down, especially when everyone around us “ought to know better” but continues to eat it. Our dentist hammers on about how bad it is for our teeth, but we collectively seem to ignore the advice like it were an old wive’s tale.
I was curious more than excessively health conscious to find out what would happen when quitting sugar. I was stunned at the lack of online resources available in case someone wanted to walk the narrow path, which only made me more determined to go cold turkey and see how long I would last.
Or rather, to see what I would learn.
The world entered a lockdown, my regular gym routine was torn to shreds, and so I thought there wasn’t a better time to put down the sugar in hope of losing a few pounds.
To say I’m going to ‘quit sugar’ is incredibly vague. Like starting a campaign in a video game, there are different difficulty modes:
Easy Mode: no added sugar, except if it’s under 5g and in a non-sugary snack. Natural sugars are fine.
Medium Mode: absolutely no added sugar. Natural sugars are fine.
Hard Mode: absolutely no sugar whatsoever. Not even fruit.
I decided to completely detox and go with the hard mode at first. If things were going well, to move down to medium and easy. This meant cutting absolutely anything that involved sugar in its ingredients, and if I was doing well, to slowly reintroduce fruit and bread.
I quit with my brother and sister, pulling them along with my little experiment, so I didn’t feel completely alone. It helped us get through the withdrawals together, and as we eventually discovered, feel empowered enough to say no to virtually everyone who offered us the smallest of candy.
Like quitting smoking (and all these addictions), I personally found it beneficial to begin my abstinence by creating a negative association with sugar.
I did this by fiendishly eating Kinder bars, Haribos, chocolate cake and Dr Pepper all night. Of course, the rush felt good at first, but I will never forget that feeling of nausea brewing behind my gut.
Nevertheless, the strategy seemed to have worked, and I was determined to continue my sugar-free life which complete confidence.
That was until I found myself experiencing possibly some of the worst withdrawals for about two weeks.
Headaches, low motivation, a horrible mood I couldn’t shake off. Short fused, ready to have a go at anyone who even slightly pissed me off.
It came in waves, similar to quitting smoking, but you wouldn’t believe me when I tell you that smoking was a walk in a park compared to this torrential storm.
I guess the lockdown also didn’t help, as I couldn’t really distract myself from my cravings.
Aside from the agony, I was mostly bewildered that something as innocent as sugary snacks could cause such a ruckus inside of me.
Because nearly everyone is addicted to sugar, everyone was somewhat discouraging about our journey to quit.
“It’s impossible”, “it’s not worth it” and “it’s in everything, so you might as well not try”.
Contributing further to the incessant peer pressure is advertising always tempting you to treat yourself with that salted caramel hot chocolate. Let’s just say it’s the last thing we wanted to hear in those painful two weeks.
We wandered through supermarkets, my sister almost in tears picking up the things she once loved and realising she can no longer have them. We tried to substitute these things with sugar-free alternatives, but as you can imagine, they’re far and few between.
Not only are they scarce, but they lead you down a slippery slope of artificial sweeteners. We obsessively drank sugar-free drinks in vain. But I can confidently tell you that they’re not much better. Whilst they aren’t anywhere near as addictive, many of them like Sorbitol and Maltitol cause laxative effects that aren’t pleasant.
No matter which way, it seemed like you had to pay a hefty price simply for tasting something sweet.
Once the withdrawals had cleared, like a grey storm moving away, there was finally light! I felt a sudden rise of energy in the morning, a general enthusiasm where there would have otherwise been irritability.
There was a spring in my step, my skin glowed, and I actually felt like I was sleeping good for a change.
No doubt it was because I quit sugar, but I think there’s a general euphoria when the self can conquer itself in any activity. I felt invincible because I was finally free from an addiction that I’ve had truthfully my whole life.
Taste returned with magnificence, and I was appreciating the lost subtleties of flavour in even the blandest of foods. It really isn’t that different, I thought to myself, compared to putting down cigarettes.
Though we adjusted fairly well to eating things without sugar, the social exclusion (alongside lockdown) often became tiresome. When people at work bring in their home-baked cakes, I realised there’s inevitably going to be a whole range of food I’ll never taste.
Despite being the only one insane enough to refuse the cake, many felt sick after eating it. So I immediately came to see the advantages of saying no. As Nietzsche said in The Genealogy of Morals:
“As if by magic, the No that he says to life brings to light an abundance of tender Yeses.”
But it had been a month, and I thought it was about time to reward myself in some way (so as not to be completely sadistic). I began eating fruit again and became reminded of how fantastic nature’s candy truly is.
There was a bit of a rush the first time I ate a banana, indicating how truly sensitive I became, but for the first time, I felt like I appreciated something I took for granted my whole life.
My sister was praised by her doctor and dentist for quitting sugar. I thought this was really funny, as I’ve never actually heard a dentist so delightfully surprised with a teenager for actually caring about their teeth!
Overall, I’m happy to say I didn’t really slip up as much as I thought. I didn’t eat chocolate or anything sugary for about seven months. Occasionally I’d eat at a restaurant, and didn’t realise the BBQ sauce was loaded with sugar and felt off throughout the entire day.
Eating the tiniest amount of sugar triggered migraines, cold sweats, and a shaky irritable mood difficult to shake off. It made me question my commitment to this sugar-free life; when I go travelling, will I truly never eat desserts where it might be my only chance to?
I suppose there were cherries on the tree that I would never be able to taste.
But stepping outside the sugar addiction helped me see it for what it is. It turned from a dietary experiment to more of an ethical position to quit, like a vegan choosing to abstain from eating meat and dairy.
There’s no question we seem to be living in the middle of a worldwide sugar epidemic, where sugar is one of the biggest reasons for record levels of obesity. It might sound like a tin-foil-hat conspiracy, but there are widely documented cases where the sugar industry has blamed fatty foods as the problem for obesity, despite full well knowing their involvement in it.
I keep referring to this analogy of cigarettes and sugar not just because it’s an addiction, or I’m exaggerating about the unpleasant withdrawal effects.
It’s because both the tobacco and sugar industry is involved in the same game of propaganda, misinforming the public, and pointing the finger elsewhere.
The difference is, tobacco marketing has been heavily regulated, and we’re all in consensus that seeing a six-year-old child smoke is out of order. Not much is said for sugar — which is the beginning of many young children’s addictions, corrosion of teeth, body-related insecurities, and stunted motivation levels.
Eventually, I came to see how evil it really was that chocolate bunnies and cute cartoon characters were entangled with what can no doubt be considered a drug that had awful withdrawal effects.
I’m still (mostly) sugar-free and it’s massively boosted my lifestyle in so many different areas. Being more conscious about my consumption, I finally became vegan and feel great every day that what I put into my body is in harmony with my ethical beliefs.
That alone makes a huge difference to my mental health.
But I also feel hugely confident about my body, as my abs are more visible, and I have a lot less swelling in my body. I once thought my problem was eating too many fatty foods, but I never realised that a flab around my waist could in fact be inflammation from eating sugar.
But since my diet could be considered extreme, I became weary of a growing Orthorexia: an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.
It’s all well and good being conscious of your intake, but we can take it to extremes such that we become malnourished, or plainly not enjoying food. Eating is a fundamentally social activity in all cultures, and I learned the more I subtract from my diet, (no matter what the reason) the less I can participate in communities and events.
At the end of the day, most food companies needlessly add sugar into their products, and rejecting ketchup on a vegan hot dog seems cruel rather than kind.
With that in mind, I’m currently riding the easy wave: no added sugar, except if it’s under 5g and in a non-sugary snack. Natural sugars are fine.
I have recently become accustomed to having a singular biscuit with my coffee, or a single spoon of a cheesecake, and calling it a day. Really, that’s all I need. It’s enough for me to appreciate the taste, and there’s no nutrition gained from obsessively eating a whole pack of Oreos.
All in all, it’s a difficult path to quit sugar, but it’s completely possible. If you’ve been concerned with your sugar consumption, I would at least give it a try. Don’t say “I will never eat sugar again”, because that never is enough to scare anyone.
Or if that sounds too hard, just being aware of how much you’re really consuming is a good enough start.