Did you know that some say that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine? In a now famous study by University of Bordeaux scientist, Dr. Serge Ahmed, researchers took rats and created a dependency on cocaine (AKA they gave them cocaine and got them to the point that they wanted more).
Then, they offered the same rats cocaine water or sugar water. You’ve probably guessed it. The rats preferred the sugar water. In fact, 94% of them preferred sugar to cocaine.
Whoa! That’s incredible. But what does it mean?
Well, researchers are still studying like mad what happens to the brain when it processes refined sugar, but they have seen that the receptors that trigger “reward” in the brain go nuts when we eat refined sugar.
If there is such a thing as a sugar addiction, I’m fairly certain I have it. (I don’t mean to belittle drug and alcohol addictions in any way.)
The problem is that I love to bake. Love it. I love measuring and mixing and pouring and kneading. I love watching things rise in the oven. And I love slightly burning my mouth because I can’t wait for my goods to cool down before digging in.
But part of my work is in primary schools and we teach children about nutrition. As I researched more about sugar and what it can do to the body, I realized that I needed to do something about my sugar habit.
So, I decided to go cold turkey for a month. I decided I could eat fruits and vegetables that contain natural sugars, but no refined sugar or sugar substitutes. That meant no honey, syrup, agave, stevia or other sweeteners. I needed to know what it would feel like to not have sugar running through me 24 hours a day.
And boy did I learn some things. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my month without refined sugar:
Lesson #1 – Eliminating sugar is HARD!
The first day, I was ready. I planned my meals (essential!) and had my water bottle with me at all times. I was happy to be doing something for my health and the day went by quickly.
Then, around 8 PM I got a wicked headache. Like the kind where you just have to get into bed and sleep it off. I had no idea that it was related to cutting out the sugar.
For three days, I had cravings for sweet things and headaches at different points during the day. My husband and coworkers would probably also add that I was a bit grouchy during those three days. When my sweet cravings hit, I tried to moderate my intake of sweet fruits (bananas and mangos were my jam).
Not only was eliminating the sugar hard physically, it was practically hard to do as well. Sugar is in EVERYTHING these days. Any kind of sauce that I wanted to use for dinner was out unless I made it myself. Even saltine crackers have sugar in them!
Lesson #2 – Sugar makes you hungrier
I thought that I would be eating more to make up for not having refined sugar in my diet. I couldn’t be more wrong. After just a few days, I found that I was satisfied between meals and not snacking nearly as much.
I would have a 300-400 calorie breakfast and that would take me to lunch without ever needing a pick-me-up. When I was eating sugar, that NEVER would have happened. I’d eat larger meals and still need a mid-morning snack.
I found it easier to listen to my body and have it tell me when I was hungry and not just grab sugary drinks and snacks out of boredom, stress, or contrived hunger.
Lesson #3 – Sugar changes the way food tastes
I was shocked that after two weeks, my food tastes had changed so much.
I am an Irish girl. I love potatoes. I mean LOVE potatoes. We usually buy five pounds a week and run out before the week is over.
But, after two weeks, I was craving more vegetables and fewer starchy foods. It was amazing. Instead of two big scoops of mashed potatoes, I would eat more green beans, sweet potatoes, zucchini, and broccoli.
And I wasn’t just eating them because I knew I should. They were delicious. And they were sweet! I know this sounds crazy, but after so much refined sugar, I had no idea that many vegetables are actually sweet.
Lesson #4 – Sugar makes you tired and foggy
I think my coworkers got sick of hearing how much energy I had a few weeks into my no sugar added month. But it was true.
I had no idea how much sugar was affecting my body. I would get home from work exhausted and have almost no energy to make dinner, play with my kids, or talk with my husband.
But once I changed my diet, I was ready to make healthy foods, read books, and bore my husband with stories upon endless stories.
I also felt sharper at work. I felt like a cloud had lifted and I could focus better.
Lesson #5 – Sugar temptations are everywhere
After my month of no sugar, I loosened up my sugar restrictions. I stayed pretty good about it for another month, but the baking temptations got me again.
So now what I do is analyze how I’m feeling. If I am really stressed, tired, and feeling “off,” I go back to my no sugar ways for a few weeks and try to get back on track.
I also try to get a workout in which helps a lot.
Overall, my month without sugar was such an eye-opening experience and has helped me to make better eating decisions…most of the time!
If you try the sugar free month, let me know how it goes in the comments!