At home or on the go, I try to keep healthy snacks on hand. I’m far from perfect. There are days when I give in to mindless, unhealthy snacking. There’s always room for improvement. I periodically make a conscious decision to improve my habits. Over the past eight years, my lifestyle changes have included adding regular exercise and eliminating fast food, fried food and soft drinks from my diet, as well as reducing my sodium intake. This spring, I made a commitment to myself to stop eating foods containing added sugar. Given my sweet tooth, I knew this would be very difficult, which is why I set my goal as a one-month trial.
I chose sugar because: 1) I’m addicted to it. When I don’t have it, I feel irritable or tired. 2) I educated myself on the recent scientific associations between sugar and a host of chronic health issues. 3) I was inspired by Eat Clean author Tosca Reno whom I interviewed. Her one-month Strike Sugar Challenge doesn’t permit sugar, grains and most dairy and fruit. See my recent column, “There’s no sugar coating from Tosca Reno,” in the June 22 issue.
Some mid-20th century doctors recommended cigarettes, and sugar companies touted their products as healthy – low in calories, high in energy and helpful for curbing your appetite. These days, we know smoking is dangerous, but we’re not as informed about sugar. Sugar is no longer promoted in ads or on packaging, but it’s more prevalent than ever.
A number of people – those who also struggle with unhealthy habits, are diabetic or are just curious – have asked me for the parameters of my self-imposed sugar-free challenge. (See your doctor or dietician, if you have health issues). I decided not to eat any desserts or snacks containing sugar or other sweeteners such as honey or aspartame. Cake, cookies, candy, ice cream and my beloved chocolate were off limits. I also cut out most processed foods containing added sugar; for example, canned pasta sauce, ketchup, sweet pickles, crackers and breakfast cereals. I continued to eat whole grain bread even though it contains some sugar because I’ve been on a doctor-advised protein-restricted diet for many years. If you have no reason to limit your protein, eat lean protein as it’s a more nutritious and satiating choice, as are healthy fats. I’ve been asked if I cut out fruit because it contains a lot of natural sugar. I did not. Fruit is full of fibre and nutrients.
The first couple of days without my sweet treats were not easy. I felt a bit of psychological withdrawal. I also had to think more about what I was going to eat. Grabbing cookies from the cupboard was no longer an option, nor was my morning bowl of Cheerios. One of the secrets to success is to put some effort into planning. I made hard-boiled eggs and kept them in the fridge along with a fruit bowl and cut up veggies and hummus. If it’s easily accessible and visually appealing, you’re more likely to eat it. Don’t keep all fruits and vegetables in the crisper drawers; out of sight is out of mind.
After my initial shell shock I was, surprisingly, no longer craving sweets. I also wasn’t feeling tempted at restaurants when people ate dessert in front of me. I actually enjoyed watching them indulge and I was OK with it because I knew I was doing something healthy for myself. I do the grocery shopping, so I didn’t buy cookies or other sweets because I still wasn’t sure I’d have the willpower when I was home alone with my old nemeses.
What was the outcome of this experiment? I lost five pounds. Not a whole lot, but enough for my tummy to look flatter. You can lose weight with any type of caloric reduction. In my case, the key was replacing sugary snacks with lower-calorie, more nutritionally dense snacks, as well as cutting out desserts and miscellaneous items containing sugars. I estimate I reduced my daily sugar consumption by 90 per cent.
When the month was over, I was proud of myself. But short-lived change doesn’t have much impact. It has to be a lifestyle change. The potential long-term preventative health benefits of sugar reduction are real and significant. I decided to keep up this routine. It’s been three months so far with two “cheats.” I’m always honest with you. I was in New Orleans this summer and allowed myself to indulge in beignets. And, yes, they were delicious!