Cutting out the sweet stuff is hard, but doable with the right approach.
I just finished a month-long added sugar cleanse and you know what? It wasn’t THAT terrible.
To be clear, I’m not saying that quitting my multiple-times-a-day dessert habit cold turkey—during the sugariest time of the year, no less—wasn’t hard. Of course it was hard, and it was marked by especially challenging moments, like drinking water while I watched my family eat cake, and going to bed hungry on vacation when there were literally no sugar-free snacks available at the hotel. Yet overall, it was also easier than expected, and on top of that, it yielded noticeable results. I lost 1 pound in the process, and my dad, who kindly supported me by doing the cleanse as well, lost 4 pounds. More importantly, we both reported a weakened desire for sugar and a confidence boost in our self-control abilities.
That said, before I jump into the details of my cleanse, which included no sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, honey, agave, or maple syrup, it’s important to note that this type of challenge isn’t a great idea for everyone.
“While it’s certainly true that Americans consume more added sugar than is recommended, this by no means indicates that Americans should be cutting sugar out of their diets completely,” says Catherine Brennan, registered dietitian, who does not recommend sugar cleanses as she believes this type of restriction is not realistic nor sustainable and can lead to disordered eating behaviors. Instead, “eating sugar can fit in as part of a healthy eating pattern,” she says. “By allowing yourself to have foods with added sugar from time to time, you are better able to eat those foods regularly and intuitively.”
With that in mind, here’s more on my own experience with the cleanse, including what was challenging, what was surprisingly easy, specific tactics that made it more enjoyable, and my top takeaways.
Added sugar lurks in SO many of our foods, and cutting these sneaky sources was perhaps the hardest part.
When I agreed to do this sugar challenge, I thought that the elimination of holiday treats—cookies, cakes, candy, pies, etc.—would be the most difficult part. And though I did pine for those items at various times throughout the month (like when I attended my family’s annual holiday cookie baking party and relegated myself to doing the dishes to avoid eating dough), the toughest part was simply avoiding everyday items that had small amounts of added sugar. These included the chickpea pasta I eat on the reg, pretzels, crackers, popcorn, bread, pasta sauce, salad dressings, soy creamer, and more.
I found myself militantly dissecting nutrition labels at the grocery store and tossing items at home that didn’t make the cut. In general, I found it difficult to find pantry staples—bread, tortillas, crackers, spreads, and sauces—without any added sugar and as a result, began eating pretty much the same thing every day for lunch (a green salad with roasted veggies) and dinner (breakfast tacos with avocado, tomatoes, onions, black beans, and sugar-free tortillas). Towards the end of the cleanse, I got pretty sick of these routine meals, but felt like I didn’t have many other options.
All that said, I’m certain that I consumed small amounts of added sugar throughout the cleanse when I was in situations where nutrition information wasn’t available, like when dining at someone’s house, or at a restaurant (I’d never order anything obviously sugar-y, but my hunch is that sugar is in a lot of prepared foods). I also had gum from time to time, which I realize is not cleanse-friendly, but I think allowing myself these super small indulgences ultimately helped me stay on track.
Certain fruits, cinnamon, and almond butter made great sweet treat alternatives. Also, wine helped.
One of the reasons I didn’t find the cleanse uber challenging is that I learned early on which cleanse-friendly foods were great at satisfying my sugar-y cravings. Things like Asian pears, chilled red grapes, a varietal of apple called SugarBee (which tastes as sweet as you would expect), pistachios, unsweetened almond butter, lemon-ginger tea, and overnight oats with cinnamon, blueberries and banana all worked relatively well whenever my sweet tooth struck. I also found myself drinking more red wine than usual (nothing extreme—just a glass or two several times a week), after reading on the internet that wine doesn’t include added sugar. This wasn’t the healthiest substitution, but it did make me feel like I was allowed to indulge, which helped in situations like holiday parties and family dinners when everyone else was enjoying the desserts du jour.
Being so militant about added sugar gave me mental stress.
When it comes to eating, I don’t believe in extreme restriction or deprivation. I’m proud of the healthy relationship I have with food that is centered on intuitive eating and allows for nearly every type of food in moderation. So the fact that I had to be very regimented with this challenge gave me mild stress, and this stress manifested itself in strange ways. About two weeks in, for example, I had a dream that I broke the cleanse by eating—of all things!—a bite-sized candy bar. I woke up slightly panicked and upset that I had broken the cleanse with such a measly treat before realizing it was just a bad dream. (If I was going to break the cleanse, I thought, it better be for something really good).
I legit felt sick when I broke the cleanse, and in the days since, I haven’t had a strong desire to eat sugar again.
Confession: I ended the cleanse about 5 hours early by eating a mini Polish pancake around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, rather than waiting until midnight per the official cleanse rules. That same evening, I then had a very thin slice of chocolate honey cake (like, a quarter of an inch thin), a thin slice of chocolate cheesecake and one bite of a chocolate-covered gingerbread pretzel. So yes, I technically ate four separate desserts, which I realize sounds very gluttonous, but the amount of each was so small that it probably added up to one regular-sized dessert. I enjoyed it all in the moment, but the next day—on Christmas—my stomach was NOT having it.
I woke up still feeling full and with a moderate stomach ache that lasted most of the day. I also felt just generally puffy and icky. Now I’m not certain this malaise was caused by the sugar alone (the perogies, cheese, bread, and two glasses of red wine I consumed could have played a role as well), but because sugar was the star of the evening, I blame that.
Because I felt notably sick after that first sugar experience, I’ve been wary of eating sweets in the time since then. I had two cookies on Christmas Day, plus a chocolate granola bar and a couple sips of sparkling grape juice yesterday, but nothing else overtly sugary. As mentioned, before the cleanse, I would eat dessert, on average, twice a day, so this new behavior is a pretty big shift for me.
The realization that I don’t need a sugary treat every day to feel satisfied was the greatest gain.
By far my favorite takeaway from this challenge is the knowledge that I can manage with less added sugar in my life and feel perfectly fine. Sure, I enjoy a cookie as much as anyone, but I don’t need that piece of candy at lunch, or that bowl of ice cream before bed, and that subtle mental shift is quite powerful in practice. Will this translate into longer-term behavioral changes? I’m hopeful it will, but only time will tell.