How to Kick the Sugar Habit

There’s been a good bit of health news floating lately around suggesting that sugar is worse for us than we thought, such as a study finding a relationship between sugar consumption on a population level and type II diabetes, independent of other factors like obesity. As a result, a lot of people I know have been experimenting with lower sugar or no-sugar diets. I think it’s a great thing, but it’s so hard to do. Obstacles range from the ubiquity of sugar in processed food to deep emotional attachments to certain foods. I thought I’d share some tips from my experience that have helped me get sugar (mostly) out of my diet. I’m not perfect. I have calculated indulgences, and also just plain fall off the wagon some times. But I do feel in control, and I have a new perspective that there’s a strange sense of obligation that goes with consuming sugary foods that I am now free of. So here are some things that have helped me, and some things I wish I’d known earlier in the process.

1. For the first month or two, it helps to go completely cold turkey and be a real nazi about it. No sugar at all, not even trace sugar. It helps reset your taste buds, and, more importantly, forces you to confront all of your problematic foods and triggers all at once when you are in a strong psychological position of being in a honeymoon phase with the whole thing. Read the label on everything. You’re going to be shocked and disappointed when some of your favorite foods turn out to contain sugar for no apparent reason. It’s fine to throw them out, or maybe donate them to a food bank, to get them out of your face. Once your palate has adjusted, these foods are going to taste weird to you, anyway.

2. Tell all of your friends and family that you’re not eating any sugar. People are pretty supportive about it. That will help immediately with what you imagine are awkward social situations where someone has made you a delicious turtle fudge brownie cheesecake and will be plunged into suicidal depression if you don’t eat it. (Wishful thinking, it turns out. No one gives a crap if you don’t eat the goodies. It’s just more for them.)

3. Don’t use artificial sweeteners. In my opinion, this does nothing to change your craving for sweets, and you’re becoming part of an uncontrolled long term experiment on the long term effect of chemical sweeteners on human health.

4. Find tasty alternatives for some of your favorite sweet treats or meals. For example, instead of brown sugar, I top my steel cut oats with mashed banana. And a really quality cheese with crackers is a pretty satisfying substitute for a number of otherwise sugary snacks. Cheese, whole grain crackers, and nuts by the handful have become daily snacks at my house. Unsweetened iced tea is my go-to drink at restaurants.

5. If you feel deprived or have major cravings at first, that is normal, and it will pass.

6. Resign yourself to give up on a short list of items that can’t be replicated without sugar of some sort. I’m talking about stuff like ketchup and barbecue sauce. I order my burgers with mayo and green olives.

7. Eat before problematic occasions, or bring your own sugar-free snack. For example, I spend one or two evenings a week writing in coffee shops, and at first felt rather deprived not to have a treat from the pastry case. So I started bringing a piece of fruit. After the first couple of times, I was no longer bothered by cravings. You sort of have to tackle these situations one-by-one until the trigger for eating sweets fades and there are many triggers.

8. Don’t force this on family or friends. Of course sugary sweets are bad for us, but people are complex and maybe your family member or friend needs their daily cupcake for now to get through something else. It’s also really hard to focus on more than one self-improvement project at once, so while they may agree and approve of what you’re doing, it could be a while before they find a place in their own lives for it.

9. Don’t enable your family and friends if it is going to be a problem for you. There’s a surprising amount of guilt that can happen if you don’t bake cookies for your family or offer a dessert with Sunday dinner. Get over it. Your family members, even the kids, can handle their own sugar supply. So don’t let their “needs” for sugary foods undermine what you need to do for your health. (If you are ok with making desserts without ever tasting them, that is great. You are a stronger person than I.) If you are accustomed to showing your love with food, try to stifle that impulse. Having had a couple of people in my life with that particular fetish, it’s actually really f—ing annoying. Cut it out!

10. Once you’ve gotten through your sugar nazi phase, decide what indulgences are “worth it” for you. I know someone who has no indulgences ever. She has type II diabetes, and can’t afford to have even an occasional sweet treat. For myself, I will have a dessert or treat if it is really “worth it.” It has to be more than a store-bought cake with crisco frosting or a jello salad at a pot luck. For example, if I’m at a restaurant that is reputed to have the world’s best tiramisu, yes, I am going to order the tiramisu and enjoy it. This happens maybe once a month.

11. If you are going to indulge, go big. There are two reasons. One is that it makes it special if you have a really spectacular treat and really fill up on it after long periods of virtuous abstinence. Another reason is that a large indulgence is unlikely to lead to a slippery slope where you are back to mainstream sugar consumption. If you treat yourself with a teaspoon of honey in your coffee, all that will happen is you’ll want it again tomorrow. If you treat yourself with a huge hot fudge sundae, it will be an awesome transcendent experience and you’re going to feel like crap the next day, too. It’s not likely you’re going to fall into a hot fudge sundae habit accidentally. In fact, you may never want one again!

12. Don’t worry too much if you fall off the wagon. This isn’t alcoholism. You don’t have to confess or start your sobriety clock over again. Nothing bad is going to immediately happen. You can start again the next day with no penalty.

13. Challenge yourself to get through the next holiday or big social occasion with no sugar. It’s hard the first time you do it, but once you get through it’s very freeing and empowering. After you’ve done this a couple of times, you’ll have a clearer head to decide whether a special occasion merits an indulgence, or if it’s just a same-crap-different-year situation. Easter is coming. Can you get through Easter without any sugar? You can do it!

Good luck!