How quitting sugar changed everything: on nourishment, hunger, and stress

There is no one-size fits all eating program. The perfect diet doesn't exist because we are all just people with bodies and each of us is different. Take a moment to let that sink in. There are some broad guidelines and food habits that may benefit many-to-most people, however. Most important of these for me is being really conscious of sugar in all its myriad forms. With all of the press about the latest destructive diet crazes and the rising tide of a culture that is in some cases literally afraid of food (see: orthorexia media hubbub), I wanted to chime in about my experiences with shifting my diet away from sugar and what it's given me. 

I was totally terrified of doing my first sugar detox because I’d always had this really thinly veiled awareness that I had an unhealthy relationship with sugar. It was hard to admit! I am a well-trained nutritionist and herbalist and should have known better. Or I should have had more self-mastery. I should have had more willpower. Whatever it was: it was a problem I shouldn't have been facing and somehow the admission of it felt shameful.

To compound the angst of it all, sugar aside, there is deep stigma that comes with being a woman and eating food. The body that I live in (and love) looks different than the ideal we are fed by the media, and I have felt the harsh gaze of people critiquing my food choices. 

The shaming! The unsolicited advice from EVERYONE about how you should feed your body! The know-it-alls who want to offer up the most recent cure-all diet-fad! The powders and shakes and smoothies and ten.minute.washboard.abs workout plans!

Working to change the way we eat is hard, especially as women. Once you enter the realm of ‘dieting’ and ‘detoxing’ everything begins to feel like a slippery slope that leads right on down the self-sabotage-y rabbithole where happiness and satisfaction go to die.  That is, neurotic measuring of portions and weighing of dry chicken breast and counting calories (or carbs, or fat, or sugar) and the progression onto more and greater desperation.

All this because food is deep and personal. It is about nourishment, which is about love and safety and comfort. And for so many of us, food comes with both fear and reward. It’s a double-edged sword that we use to punish ourselves (starving ourselves into being thinner, better, more deserving…) and to reward ourselves (feeling bad or ashamed or sad about aforementioned extreme-diet failure, and eating to feel better, or so we don't have to feel).

And I think that for all of us there’s a real component of addiction, too. Food is a stand-in for acts of love that we are too self-punishing to take. When we feel beaten down or worn out or underappreciated, we turn to food for comfort. In a deep way, food IS comfort. It is nourishment and self-care and fellowship. For so many of us women, however, the difficulties of managing our relationship with food are bound up with the body-loathing inflicted by media and a real and primal hunger that should be celebrated instead of relegated to the front pages of women's fitness magazines (a weakness to be beaten into submission) and our desire to feel safe in the world. The whole ordeal becomes such a labyrinthine source of fear that we would frankly rather not.

So for all of these reasons, and more, I was scared of cutting out sugar. But the process showed me a whole lot about who I was underneath the sugar cravings and blood sugar 

Sugar bowl.jpg

I didn’t know what I was looking for—just to shift my relationship to sugar somehow. I was totally unprepared for what happened.

After the first few days of cravings wore off (yes, there were cravings), I started to feel more even-keeled. Mood swings that I’d never quite recognized as mood swings lessened dramatically, and I gradually began to realize how much more calm I felt.

Then my sleep got better. I tended to be a light-is sleeper and some mornings just woke up tired, even if I’d slept a full night. About half way through the detox, I felt energized instead of exhausted when I woke up in the morning.

Without the constant feeling of cravings and the sense that sugar was running my life, things began feel simply more manageable. The formerly harried and panicked stresscase gave way to someone more reasonable and resilient. Stress just didn’t seem to touch me in the same way.

It was like I’d been running my life on my animal brain—and after I quit sugar, my thinking brain came back online. And with my thinking brain functioning again I was able to respond to the daily stresses of a busy life from this really placid place.

Another huge piece was that I became more effective at my life. I was getting things done more quickly and efficiently because I could think better.

My relationships improved because I was able to be more present in my life—and I could listen and speak more from my heart. Things that might have triggered feelings of defensiveness or jumpiness or irritability in me before took on a new meaning. My ears felt less eager to hear criticism and my heart felt more willing to understand and communicate instead of jumping to conclusions.

And finally—maybe this is the same shift that changed everything else, too—I just felt more hopeful and positive. I began to see possibility and promise in the world in a way that I’d never quite had access to before.

In part two (upcoming!) I'll be talking about how it all works: why and how sugar affects stress levels, happiness, and how cutting it out may very well improve most-to-all of your personal relationships…