For the past six years or so, I’ve been a pretty healthy eater—except for my sugar consumption. I knew I should probably cut back, but how could I, when chocolate—in all of its glorious forms—exists? But, what happens when you quit sugar?
Besides, sugar can’t be that bad for you, can it? The short answer is: Yes, it can. A recent article in The New York Times cited an April 2019 study published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association. It looked at the causes of death among 37,716 men and 80,647 women initially free of heart disease who were followed for 28 and 34 years, respectively. Cardiovascular mortality was 31 percent higher, and the total death rate 28 percent higher, among those who consumed two or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day when compared with people who rarely (if ever) drank them. Now, I’ve never been a soda drinker, but this is just to prove how toxic sugar can be.
So there I was, well aware of sugar’s downsides but unwilling to make any major changes to my diet. Then, I got a double ear infection. That’s not unusual for me, so I didn’t think twice when my doctor prescribed an antibiotic that I’ve taken before. I had never had any trouble with this particular medicine, so I was totally caught off guard when it seemed to wreak havoc on my gut microbiome, a collection of bacteria—good and bad—that are important to your overall health. (More on that here.)
I’m not a doctor (surprise), but I figured out that the antibiotics killed some of the healthy bacteria in my gut, which led to things like stomach cramps and bloating—every time I ate.
I immediately started taking a probiotic, and determined that I had to pare my diet down to the healthiest, so-called "cleanest" foods (translation: nothing processed). That meant slashing my sugar intake and sticking to whole foods like vegetables and fish.
That was about six months ago, and my relationship with sugar has never been better. It took a lot of getting used to (more on the withdrawal symptoms below), but once my body adjusted to a diet that was much lower in sugar, the benefits were numerous. Here’s how I did it and what I’ve learned along the way.
How I Did It
I had been toying with the idea of cutting back on sugar consumption for a while. Everything I read about decreasing sugar intake advised against giving up the sweet stuff cold turkey. That, apparently, was the easiest way not to stick with it. Unfortunately, since I wanted to remedy my newfound stomach issues, stopping all sugar in one fell swoop was the only option I saw feasible. So I did. For the first month, I gave up all chocolate and baked goods and bread and crackers (sugar, I learned, is in everything). I also limited my fruit intake and refrained from eating honey, maple syrup, agave or any other natural sweeteners. After about a month, I slowly added small quantities of fruit and honey back into my diet, but very sparingly. I’m not a huge fruit lover to begin with (veggies for life, am I right?), so I’d estimate I currently eat three to four servings of fruit a week.
What I Learned
1. It Was *Really* Hard at the Beginning
Like, really really really hard. There’s nothing that’ll remind you how addicted you are to sugar quite like two weeks of almost daily headaches and general sluggishness. Sugar, it turns out, is actually addictive. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, it can be addictive in a similar way to drugs and alcohol—inducing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop eating it. A 2008 study at Princeton University found that when a test group of rats' sugar supply was taken away, "the rats’ brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal. The rats’ teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore." Major yikes. I will say, though, that feeling so crappy was a wake-up call that reinforced how badly I needed to reset my relationship with sugar. And don’t worry, the apparent withdrawal symptoms subsided in a couple weeks. The cravings, though, lingered for about a month and a half. They were tough to ignore, but in my case, my digestive issues were improving, so I felt better about turning down the occasional brownie or Sour Patch Kid.
2. I Feel Better When I Wake Up
“Sushi face” is a well-documented phenomenon. You know, when you wake up the morning after a few too many dragon rolls and your face is puffy and kind of gross-looking? I didn’t realize that was happening to me with sugar until I stopped eating it. Now when I wake up, I feel lighter than ever—not because of the number on the scale, I just feel less bloated and swollen.
3. My Skin Has Never Been Clearer
Speaking of my face, I’ve always been pretty lucky, skin-wise. I had never had a pimple until my sophomore year of college, when, thinking I bypassed the whole acne thing, I freaked out and immediately began using Proactiv. Years later, I was getting the occasional blemish, but I was pretty happy with the tone and texture of my skin. Since cutting back on sugar, my skin has never looked—or felt—better. I can count on one hand the number of pimples I’ve had in the last six months, a change I largely attribute to kicking sugar to the curb (my skin-care routine is otherwise the same).
4. I Taste Sweetness Differently
In the midst of my sugar addiction, something I never understood was when a friend and I would taste the same piece of cake, let’s say, and she would complain that it was way too sweet (when I thought it was just right). After I started slowly reintroducing sugars into my diet, I finally got it: Since I wasn’t overloading my taste buds with sugar—artificial and otherwise—my palate was way more sensitive to sweetness. Raw fruit even tasted sweeter than ever, and—much to my surprise—I have complained about desserts being too sweet. I know.
5. I Lost a Few Pounds
Weight loss wasn’t my goal, especially because I started the no-sugar thing to get my gut microbiome back in check, but it has been a happy side effect. We’re not talking dramatic weight-loss, but I have shaved a few pounds off of my frame (for reference, I’m six feet tall, so “a few pounds” on my body might be different than “a few pounds” on a shorter person).
6. I’m Really Proud of Myself
It sounds cheesy (and also like I should aim higher, goal-wise), but I consider sticking with my low-sugar lifestyle a pretty big accomplishment. If I’m at a birthday party, I’ll have a small piece of cake, and if I really want a cookie someone’s brought into the office, I’ll eat it, but for the most part, I eat artificial sugars very infrequently. Am I glad I got a super-painful ear infection? No, but I’m thrilled it was the kick in the pants I needed to get my relationship with sugar under control.