I've had a lot of vices in my life — booze, emotionally withholding men, buying Alf memorabilia on eBay— but there's only one thing that's ever made me feel like I would die if I couldn't have it: processed, refined sugar. For decades, I thought about sugar all day long — where I'd get it, how much would be too much, what I'd do when I invariably ate too much. I hid stashes of candy around my house — a Cadbury egg in my underwear drawer, a Reese's cup in a winter boot — any place where I thought I could grab it and eat it quickly, far from any prying eyes. I'd offer to run out and buy my boyfriend and I donuts for breakfast on a Saturday morning so that I could secretly buy an additional donut, eat it on the way home, and then calmly eat my second donut in front of him as if it were my first.
I liked pretending to be that kind of human being, to turn down the occasional slice of cake at an office birthday party. But inside, I knew that there were not enough donuts in the world to make me feel sated. I could eat them all, I thought, til my spit turned to glaze and my blood to Bavarian creme and I just died, and it would be a tragic, sure, but at least I would have gone out doing what I loved. I'd pass the cake slice back, knowing I would grab a bag of M & Ms on my walk home instead.
My Sugar History
I came by my addiction honestly. As a child whose home life stability generally ran the gamut from "turbulent" to "Sharknado," I was often in charge of picking out my own food, and the food I picked out for myself was sugar. Cake donuts for breakfast, Cokes with lunch, little gummy candies shaped like fruit in the middle of the night. The tingle sugar gave me was the only consistent thing in my life, the only thing I could trust — the only thing in my tiny world that worked exactly the same way every single time.
Both my paternal grandparents had developed Type 2 diabetes late in life due to their cookie-huffing ways, but no one ever tried to curb my sugar obsession when I was a kid, and by the time I was a teenager, it had become my identity. As the girls I knew became obsessed with diets and calorie-counting, I decided that sugar was defiant. I wasn't going to give up the only reliable pleasure in my life in hopes that some lacrosse player might unreliably pleasure me in the back of his dad's Ford Taurus. I wasn't going to to try to shrink my body down to get what the world thought I should want. I already knew what I wanted. I wanted to buy the world a Coke, and if the world didn't like it, the world could go to hell.
You might think that I would have grown up a little in the intervening decades. But you'd be wrong. If anything, I had doubled-down on unhealthy eating as an identity in my 20s, partaking of the kind of dietary choices you might expect to be made by a nine-year-old who is for some reason being raised by a fraternity. I drank beers, ate cookies, candy bars, meals that came in a plastic package that you had to cut open, pretzels that were mysteriously filled with corn syrup, whenever I wanted. I am the woman you see on public transit in the morning, guzzling a pre-work Pepsi to the disgust of her fellow riders. I am the friend who tells you she wants to be buried with a Heath bar.
Every year after my annual physical, I wondered if this would finally be the day when I would get the seemingly-inevitable call that I was pre-diabetic. I braced myself for the call each year, with the same kind of anxiety that had gripped me around STD testing time back when I was sleeping around. But I was resigned to it. I couldn't imagine things playing out any other way.
My Oprah 'Aha' Moment
One morning this past December, I woke up before my boyfriend, and, not wanting to disturb him by cooking, decided to just eat a single gingersnap cookie, to placate my stomach until he woke up. In the hour that followed, I ate the entire package, which contained 30-some cookies. I didn't even do it consciously — I just kept dipping my hand in the box, until suddenly, all that was coming up was gingersnap dust. It was like a party that you don't realize is out of control until someone jumps out a window. And that was when I realized: I had to stop.
Quitting sugar is a perennial hot topic, but it has had extra media juice lately due to the very high profile Sarah Wilson's "I Quit Sugar" 8-week detox program, which has been variously praised and buried by all sorts of folks all over the internet. Wilson claims that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, and that even "healthy" sugars like honey lead to serious health problems. I did not do her detox program. I also did not make use of any of the many fine books or websites devoted to providing resources for people quitting sugar.
I knew that there was only one resource that would help me stop eating added sugar, the only resource that had ever helped me accomplish anything: spite. All of my friends knew my sugar-coated ways, and thus expected me to fail immediately. And so, since petty vengeance is the only language in which I am truly fluent, I became immediately, insanely committed to going added sugar-free. Insanely sugar-free. I wouldn't have any kind of sugar that didn't naturally occur in a fruit or vegetable. I had decided, right then, that I was playing to win.
I didn't want clearer skin, or a clearer mind, or any of the other goodies promised by the sugar-quitting devotees. I just wanted to Show Them All, which was the only feeling I had ever known to taste sweeter than a Mars bar. And so, on January 5th, I decided that no foods would added sugar would touch my lips for the week.
Of course, on my first day out, I screwed up immediately, because I didn't understand that my usual strawberry-flavored yogurt had added sugar in it. Really? Yogurt? But it's so wholesome! If a supposedly nutritious food like yogurt had secret added sugar, what else did? The answer: EVERYTHING. I've always been a lousy cook and pretty dependent on pre-packaged foods — all of which, a very depressing trip to the grocery store taught me, were full of added sugar. Despondent, I ate baby carrots and almonds until I felt full, and tried to figure out how I was going to make it through this week where even foods I didn't particularly like — like that damnable yogurt — were suddenly exotic, forbidden treats.
I had made dinner plans with some female friends for that first sugar-free night, which also caught me off guard. All-female non-sexual gatherings are, in my experience, generally supposed to feel like a safe space away from the world's demands to present yourself as effortlessly f*ckable, and often, that safety is sealed with sugar — a fruity drink, a slice of cake, a reassurance that tonight, none of us are judging ourselves.
While confusedly scanning the menu for something that I could be sure was free of added sugar, I felt like I was betraying that safe space. I was bringing into it reminders of the ways that we're all "supposed" to constantly police our bodies. After all, every time a woman is interested in health or nutrition, it's immediately read by those around her as a cover-up for a diet — just ask all the female vegans you know how often someone accuses them of having an eating disorder.
I mean, we exist in a society that thinks a woman's supreme purpose in life is being sexually appealing to all men, all the time; that her greatest duty is policing her body for fat, and devoting herself to that pastime is the only way she might be deemed worthy of having a voice. Eating whatever I wanted had always made me feel like I was rebelling against that. I believed that there was a certain morality to eating what I wanted all the time, even if it killed me, which it honestly seemed like it might.
Even if no one around me felt annoyed by my actions, I felt that I had betrayed them in some way. As I ate the only thing on the menu that I could be sure didn't have added sugar — a seared slab of tuna, no sides — and refused the communal plate of fries (which also often have added sugar), I felt like a traitor.
Later that night, I attended a concert where the tables were heaped in snack-sized candy. I took a single Hershey's mini-bar, and stuck it in my purse. This will be my test, I thought. I'll carry this with me, everywhere I go, to remind myself. And ... if things get too unbearable, I can always eat it. It was like my little fun-sized cyanide pill.
DAYS 2 & 3
For something that I had spent so much of my life assuming that I was helpless against, I initially found quitting sugar to be shockingly easy. I didn't lust for Heath bars or bagels like I thought I would, and certainly didn't feel teary and weak, as other sugar detoxers had reported. I had replaced my sugar high with the high of my own self-satisfaction. I ate completely plain greek yogurt with no added sugar in the morning, grazed on random fruits and vegetables during the day, had pastas without sugar at night. I felt my palate change slightly, too.
By day three, I was drinking Diet Coke — which I was allowing on the technicality that it wasn't made with actual sugar — by the bottle. I had previously thought that the stuff tasted like that water you see running out of the bottom of garbage cans to me, but suddenly, it tasted amazing. I was making myself aesthetically pleasing bowls of fresh fruit as if I were a lady in a picture on a Pinterest board.
As the week went on, I felt like less of a potential sell-out, and more of an accidental genius. Could this be my life now? Could I be the kind of person who reads food labels, and does more to keep themselves healthy than just try to not have a Pepsi and ice cream in the same meal? Might I not be as helpless as I thought?
By day four, I was pooping like a champion, having the healthiest, most regular bowel movements of my life. Every time I pooped, I felt a bolt of pride shoot through me. I imagined that this was how Alicia Silverstone felt every time she pooped. I started to understand how people got self-righteous about quinoa.
But it wasn't all awesome poops; by the end of the first week, I became convinced that sugar was making me stupider.
Plenty of sugar-quitters claimed that they reaped a clearer state of mind from quitting, but I by day four, I felt slower, flightier, more likely to break into some Stevie Nicks spin-dancing when I should have been sitting down to write, or do anything other than Stevie Nicks-style spin-dancing. I was stumbling into stuff. My thinking felt fuzzy. I turned on an iron, forgot about it, cooked an entire meal, then realized it was on, and touched it on the hot surface — not badly enough to burn myself, just badly enough to feel like a moron. I begged my editor, "Tell me if quitting sugar is making me dumb." She insisted it wasn't, but my writing felt stilted, harder to squeeze out. I spent five minutes trying to remember the word "excitable." It felt bleak.
I also didn't feel any of the reduced anxiety that some sugar quitters bragged about, and I didn't think my skin was any better than it had been the week before. By the end of my first week, I felt like a dumb version of myself with extremely regular bowel movements. A person who was motivated by health concerns, or was just curious about life without sugar, would have probably called it a day. But I was motivated by the most powerful fuel on this earth: the desire to prove my friends wrong. So, of course, I decided to extend the experiment for another week.
As the second week began, I started to feel the first sugar cravings of my experiment. All the previous week, I had been powering through just fine, in total food-as-fuel mode, but that eighth morning, I drank a deli coffee with just milk, no sugar, and something cracked open in me. I wanted sugar. I needed sugar. I was desperate to feel something good.
By the ninth day, I was downright irate. I had heard people talk about cravings at the beginning, but now, at the point where the cravings were supposed to be long gone, I would have ruined my entire life and the lives of everyone I loved for one piece of candy. A cone of ice cream. A cupcake. A GODDAMNED ROLD GOLD PRETZEL!
I screamed "I want an ice cream right now!" at my boyfriend. "Well, you can't have one," he said. "I know," I said. "I just wanted it on record somewhere."
But by the tenth day, I realized that all my fuzzy-headedness was about lack of protein, not lack sugar — in my sugar-obsessed daze, I had kind of, uh, forgotten about it. Properly proteined, sugar stopped being on my mind. I didn't care if people ate it around me, I didn't care when it was offered to me, I didn't care about looking like a goop when I turned something sugary down. Not because I was high on my own sense of self-satisfaction any more, but because I genuinely just didn't care.
When I Finally Cracked
My sugar fast ended at the place where all our versions of our better selves go to die: the train station. Wandering through one at 9 in the morning on the 12th day of my sugar fast, every food I saw for sale seemed spun from sugar and lard. Giving up, I decided to eat a KIND bar, because I had seen a photo of Jennifer Aniston eating one once, so I figured it couldn't be that bad. And with that unsatisfying treat, the sugar fast was over.
Over that weekend, I gave myself permission to go hog wild. But I found that I didn't really want to. I had a few pretzels, but that was it. I finally ate my tiny Hershey's bar, and it tasted like weird chemical mush in my mouth. I ate a few fistfuls of movie theater popcorn, and felt sick to my stomach. My body, which had once been a temple to added sugar, now seemed practically allergic to the stuff. Who was I even now?
And that's why, as I write this, I'm wrapping up yet another added sugar-free day. I've decided to keep avoiding added sugars whenever possible, while not beating myself up for the occasional slip-up. I'm riding this sugar-free train a little bit longer to see where it goes — not because I am losing weight or having better mental health or developing mind control powers, but because I want to see what happens. We don't get many chances as adults to reinvent ourselves, to completely change our own views of who we are and what we're capable of. But, as much as I sort of hate to say it, quitting sugar gave me that. It opened me up to think of myself differently.
I have no idea who the hell I am without my sugar crutch, and that's kind of thrilling. Maybe I'll turn out to be someone completely different. Maybe I'll be exactly the same person who just never develops diabetes. But as someone who has tried (and failed) every self-help program in the world, I can't believe that I was actually able to finally see myself differently, just by refusing a tiny Hershey's bar.
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