Any time I’ve considered the one item I’d bring with me to a deserted island, my first thought is brownies. Not precious family photo albums or even a first aid kit. Brownies. That’s what happens when you grow up in a household where chocolate is a vital food group.
In our house, dessert was a mandatory fourth meal, and holidays were merely a succession of coming in and out of cookie comas with eggnog IVs. I once even watched in sheer horror as my mom chugged a bag of M&Ms. So, when my coworkers at Thrive Market challenged me to deprive myself of sugar for two weeks, it was basically my mission impossible—but one that I willingly accepted.
While sugar has been a comfort station for my family, it’s also eaten away at them. My mom and her sister both have diabetes, my dad in on the cusp of a diagnosis, and the disease claimed the life of my grandfather years ago. Several family members, including myself, also have debilitating inflammatory diseases, no doubt assisted by years of eating processed junk. Yet, when you look at the alarming statistics, my family isn’t out of the ordinary.
There is now legitimacy behind sugar addiction, with researchers finding that sugar can create a chemical dependency in much the same way as drugs and alcohol. With some amount of sugar in nearly 80 percent of manufactured foods, we are in the middle of a national crisis. Most Americans consume roughly 66 pounds every single year, which adds up to exorbitantly more than the recommended daily amounts of 12 to 25 grams. Put simply, the more sugar that enters the body, the more it throws blood sugar levels out of whack and wreaks havoc on digestion and blood pressure, not to mention energy levels and weight. Even more scary, excess sugar intake has been linked to the growing rates of heart disease and obesity in this country. Even the FDA has stepped in, requiring all food manufacturers to list amounts of “added sugar” on product labels by 2018.
For myself, it was time to get off the sugar-coated hamster wheel and make some necessary dietary changes if I wanted to stave off the inevitable. The only problem: sugar is in EVERYTHING.
Over the course of two weeks, my goal was to not only nix refined sugar, but also any kind of alternative sweetener like honey and agave syrup. Also prohibited: The naturally-occurring sugars in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) as well as simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, potatoes, and bread, all of which have the same damaging effects on blood sugar. According to our in-house health expert, nutrition editor Michelle Pellizzon, “Natural sugars generate the same insulin response in your body as artificial sugars do.” So it was important to eliminate the entire spread in order to feel the full benefits of a true detox.
With Michelle’s help, I figure out what options were left: Tons of protein, veggies, healthy fats like nuts and avocados, complex carbs including sweet potatoes, quinoa, and brown rice, unsweetened nut milks, and lots and lots of water. While a savvy person might come up with meal plans, I decided to wing it—if I was going to try to implement some of these practices long-term, I knew it had to work within the confines of my hectic, on-the-go lifestyle.
I marked off the day on my calendar like a prisoner. Thirteen more to go.
Breakfast and lunch were relatively easy—Thrive Market has a fully-stocked kitchen with healthy essentials and also caters lunch each day. For breakfast, I switched between protein shakes (made with unsweetened coconut milk, plant-based protein powder and a dash of cinnamon), scrambled eggs, chia pudding with raw cacao nibs (aka “sugarless chocolate chips”), and brown rice cakes with almond butter. Coffee was still a must, though the only thing I could add to it was a bit of almond milk, and my usual Power-C Vitaminwater was ultimately replaced by regular water (or sparkling water if I wanted a treat).
Lunch in the office included a couple of salad bar days, which gave me tons of greens and veggies for fiber, avocado for healthy fat, and chicken for protein. Dressings can be sneaky sugar culprits so I made my own using apple cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. On sandwich days, I morphed the ingredients into salad form, skipping the baguettes and piling a bunch of greens and shredded meat into a bowl with the two-part dressing. On soup days, it was difficult to be sure of the sugar content, so I opted to eat out—a bento box with sashimi, miso soup, and greens was my go-to.
Dinners were much the same as lunches—lots of salad bar concoctions, grilled fish and chicken, and homemade sweet potato fries. For snacks, I’d fill up on almonds, walnuts, and bowls of sprouted organic popcorn, which I popped in large batches and saved in ziplock baggies. Though traditional dessert was out of the question, a friend turned me on to avocado and cacao pudding, and Michelle told me I could have a few berries in a pinch since they are the fruit with the lowest amount of sugar.
But I didn’t give in to the temptation for berries, or any sugar for that matter. In fact, after about four days, the cravings subsided altogether as I became more satiated and full from all the wholesome foods I was eating.
It’s now become instinctual to look at labels and look even closer at what my body is telling me.
The first three days though—let’s just say it’s a miracle the people around me survived. Day one started off okay, but by lunchtime the headaches rolled in like an omnipresent storm cloud and my persistent stomach grumbling could have been mistaken for the sounds of a dying cow. I got no sleep that night and instead was looking at Instagrams of cakes just to have get relief. I marked off the day on my calendar like a prisoner. Thirteen more to go.
On day two I was starving and crabby. I decided to have some extra protein throughout the day to change the tide, to no avail. The physical shakes also started to set in as did the breakout all over my face. I kept telling myself: this must be the detox working. Day three wasn’t any better. All the side effects from the first couple of days continued—and a wave of extreme exhaustion washed over me. It felt like I had the flu, and started to question if I’d made the right decision to try this experiment in the first place.
But, by day four, it was like that scene in the “Wizard of Oz” when everything goes technicolor. I felt refreshed, nourished, happy, and the persistent body aches and heart palpitations I had experienced prior to beginning this process vanished. Anything that could cause that much stress on my body was the enemy, I told myself, and continued on my journey with few hiccups. Even as, in the middle of the trial, I had to fly back home to ground zero. Although I averaged about five hours of sleep a night during my trip, the boundless energy I had from relying on natural food sources kept me alert and engaged every day. I felt I could run a marathon, or at the very least walk my dog a few miles, and didn’t have the normal mood swings that usually accompany a hometown visit.
When my mom suggested we go out for ice cream (old habits die hard), I suggested tea. “You look good,” she told me, wondering what I had done in the weeks since I had last seen her. More importantly I felt good.
While I can’t say that I’ll be able to continue at eliminating all sugar for the rest of my life—I love fruit too much—these two weeks have been eye-opening. Instead of viewing dessert as a regular meal, I’ll save it for special occasions. And when cravings set in for chocolate I know there are alternatives—the avocado-cacao pudding is actually quite good when you add just a smidge of maple syrup. It’s now become instinctual to look at labels and look even closer at what my body is telling me—and that newfound awareness may be the sweetest thing of all.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho