Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. -Mark Twain
Question #89496 posted on 04/26/2017 1:50 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I've been feeling like I really need to drop added sugar from my diet. Now, I know some of you would probably advise me not to, either because it seems like such a drastic, unsustainable step or because our bodies do pretty much the same thing with natural sugars as they do with added sugars, so cutting out just one of the two may not help much.

I also know the evidence for sugar addiction is scattered and inconclusive: this study found that rats can (under certain conditions) become sugar dependent but offers no evidence for human addiction, and this review of the literature concludes that there's little scientific support for the theory at all.

Nonetheless (and I realize how dangerous it is to sweep aside Science with a "nonetheless" and replace it with my personal experience), I really do think I may be addicted to sugar. Or to eating, maybe. I can't control myself around sweet things. Once I've thought about donuts, for example, I can't get them out of my head until I've eaten one. I feel agitated if I go too long without something sweet. I'm especially susceptible to baked goods, and if I find myself in the presence of twelve cookies, I will often binge on all twelve. I also think that the presence of sugar in food is a big reason that I tend to overeat.

Trouble is, I've tried to go off sugar before and have always cracked within about a month. So at long last, here is my question. Do you have any recommendations? For those of you who have successfully cut out sugar for a time, what can I do to keep it up? For those of you who think a long-term abstention from sugar will do more harm than good, what other ways of maintaining a healthy diet would you recommend for someone who's never been able to control herself around sugar?

-a reader who doesn't want to die of obesity-related diseases at age 55

A:

Dear reader,

I see no downsides to this plan, except inconvenience.* I see a lot of potential positives in cutting out artificially-added sugars. I say go for it. 

My typical diet advice is to make vegetables literally half of your diet. Not whole grains, not juice, not corn, not potatoes--the whole green stuff (or purple or orange or red or yellow or whatever). Ain't nobody telling you to eat fewer veggies. Roast 'em, braise 'em, eat 'em raw, or however you can stomach 'em.

It will be hard because vegetables are gross. Your body will quickly adapt. Your palate will eventually adapt. Younger-me would never believe older-me, but I actually enjoy Brussels sprouts and squash and all that gross stuff now, because I got used to them from dedicated practice. But it did take practice, and dating a health-nut for two years gave me practice. Force yourself to learn better cooking techniques and they will taste better (the veggies will taste better, not the health-nut-girlfriend). Don't be afraid of using olive oil. Everything tastes better with hummus. 

In the half-vegetable-diet plan, the other half of your diet would be split between protein sources and carbohydrate sources. Complex carbs are better than simple carbs (e.g. whole grain is better than flour). For your proteins, a general rule is that the fewer legs the animal has, the healthier it is (i.e. fish is better than poultry which is better than pork or beef or cheese). Veggie proteins like tofu are gross, but if that's your thing, go for it. Except nuts. Those things are delicious. Dessert is fruit. Not fruit juice. Fruit.

Don't worry too much about the amount of fat you eat. Protein is almost always accompanied by fat, so you'll get enough fat from your protein sources like meats and nuts. You'll also get fat calories from the olive oil you use to make your vegetables taste edible. And I doubt you can eat too much fat if your main food group is vegetables. 

No soda. No juice. No sports drinks. No vitamin drinks. No artificially-sweetened drinks. They taste like liquid candy and you're trying to get out of the habit of candy. 

Once you drop the habit of eating all that sugar, you will likely be able to eat a moderate amount of birthday cake or ice cream or candy on special occasions without spinning out into a sugar death spiral. Because you'll be out of the habit of eating all that sugar. And that's good to achieve moderation, because what is life without ice cream on your birthday?

Good luck!

--Pilgrim

*Certain medical conditions may lead you to have trouble with hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. It's probably wise to continue using small hard candies or juice in your diet if you have medical conditions that make you susceptible to hypoglycemia. Talk to your doctor before following the advice of online strangers. Etc. Etc. 

A:

Dear reader,

I feel you. Everything, from the mental preoccupation to the binging to the failed attempts at sustainable sugar abstinence. Never has a bag of Mint Milanos entered my house without me finishing them the same day. It's bad. 

I recently ran across a totally unscientific, self-help youtube guru named Lydia the Lifestyle Coach. In my desperation to stop this sugar nonsense, I watched a few videos. Her ideas aren't necessarily original, but she does have a good way of explaining them, with Sunday school-style object lessons. She does one about the "addictiveness" of sugar that I think can be helpful. Our own perceived helplessness in the face of the sucrose siren may be a cognitive distortion impeding our body's natural tendency toward moderation. She also discusses binging (and the antidote: not restricting) in an oversimplified but useful way. I found this illustration of body set point theory to be pretty approachable, too.

Like you, I have a real hard time with moderating sugar, but outright abstention doesn't seem to be the answer either. I suspect that, in a world in which sugar is a love language and a social staple, moderation may be the only sustainable way to reduce sugar intake. So it's hard, and it won't be a linear path toward progress, but you're not alone. 

Here are some things that have been working okay for me. But not perfect, and I have to be okay with not perfect:

  • The obvious one is keeping sugar out of the house. (Whenever my husband wants ice cream, I ask him to get the gross kinds that only he likes)
  • Ask others to stop offering you sugar. They often forget, but it does help a little.
  • Give yourself permission to be a social sugar-eater (like a social drinker, minus the inebriating effects). I accept sugar when it's given as a gift, at a party, or in another context where it might be rude for me to decline. Surprisingly, I've recently been able to politely say no to sugar at some parties, when within my rule system it would be totally okay for me to indulge. Saying no when it's optional is new for me.
  • Set up consequences for yourself. I've never been able to make outright abstention last, though I have had decent results with a self-imposed punishment system, e.g. every time I eat sugar nonsocially I have to donate $5 to the NRA, or I have to eat a banana. Both of which I really, really don't like. I suspect this is not sustainable, but may be effective for short-term intake reduction, which can help to get you out of the habit. 
  • Figure out which time of day you eat the most sugar and set yourself up for success during these times. For me, it's afternoons and after the kids go to bed, and I make use of replacement snacks. Right now, it's baby carrots and herbal tea. I eat so, so many baby carrots. I also will use sugar-free mints or tic tacs sometimes when the cravings for sugar are really bad, and that's been genuinely helpful.
  • Realize that stumbles will happen, and don't let one stumble bring the whole house down. I read some statistic in school about addicts relapsing an average of seven times before going sober. It's okay to fail and get back up again.

In sweet solidarity,

Waldorf (and Sauron)

A:

Dear reader,

Now, I'm one of those people that discourages people from swearing off added sugars completely (for the reasons you mentioned, but also because it's so delicious), but this time I'll content myself with explaining why I usually do so, and why it's still okay to try to reduce or remove added sugars from your diet.

The USDA advises Americans to reduce the amount of added sugars in their diet. Many people seem to think because of this that added sugars are inherently different from natural sugars, which is wrong. The reason that added sugars are so maligned is because it's really hard to get the right balance of calories and micronutrients if more than around 10% of your calories come from added sugars. So, as long as you're cutting out added sugar because you're trying to maintain a healthy caloric intake (and as long as you don't go around calling so-called refined sugar a poison, etc.), avoiding added sugar is a great idea. Go for it!

-The Entomophagist

A:

Dear reader,

Bless you. This can be so difficult. (And I'm very impressed that you've made it as long as a month before. That's hard work!)

I've been trying to cut down on sugar for about 2 1/2 years. In my case, it's because sugar is one of my migraine triggers and as my migraines have gotten worse over the last few years, I've had to get more serious about cutting sugar out of my diet. Other writers have given you some good info regarding nutrition, so I'm going to tackle this from the perspective of my own experiences with motivational mind games.

First, I would actually suggest not cutting sugar out of your diet entirely, just trying to focus on cutting back. The reason for this is that I've found that if I tell myself I can never have sugar again, I tend to think about it a lot and I have to use a lot of willpower to stick with it. But if I am merely cutting back on sugar, then it doesn't bother me as much and I don't think about it as much. From that perspective, you might try going 7 days without sugar, then going 8 days, then going 9 days, and seeing if you can add a day each time. (Or if you have trouble going a full 7 days, you could certainly start much lower. No shame!) And when it comes to rewarding yourself for making it a certain amount of time, I'd also suggest splurging for one very fancy treat (like a chocolate truffle) instead of something like Oreos, where you might end up eating the whole sleeve or box.

You might think that you should try to go as long as possible without eating sugar, but I'd actually recommend against that, because if (or when) you "cheat," you might feel like a failure and end up giving up or binging on a lot of sugar. If, on the other hand, you choose to eat a piece of pie because you have made it 11 days without eating any sugar, then you may feel more in control of the situation which will, in turn, motivate you to stop at just one piece and gear up for trying to make it 12 days without sugar. (Also, if you're on day 11 of a 12-day sugar fast, it will probably be easier to power through to the 12th day than it would be if you were on day 11 of an indefinite sugar fast.)

The other nice thing about spacing out the days is that a 12-day sugar fast isn't that different from an 11-day sugar fast, so you don't feel like you're suddenly radically changing your lifestyle, but over time you'll get used to eating less and less sugar, so that eventually you're eating sugar only once a month or so. And if you do end up cheating, just start over again and try to work your way back up without being critical of yourself.

Other tricks you might try if you feel like binging are to make yourself do something in between each cookie (or whatever), such as drinking a full glass of water or eating a serving of vegetables or chewing gum for an hour. Again, if you tell your body you can have sugar "later" instead of "never," you may have more success in cutting back or distracting yourself from wanting sugar.

Like I said, I've been working on this for about 2 1/2 years, with a recent decision to cut out sugar almost entirely. (I think I've had the equivalent of 1/2 a Twinkie in the last three months, for perspective.) At this point, it's actually not too hard for me to not buy desserts to eat myself, although it can still be challenging when friends or coworkers offer me treats. So, above all, be kind to yourself and recognize that your body was designed to crave sugar, so weaning yourself off of it can be a challenge and you're absolutely not a failure if it takes you a long time to shift your eating habits.

Good luck!

- Katya

posted on 04/26/2017 4:35 p.m.
As someone trying to live healthier lifestyle for a variety of reasons (and successfully enjoying the benefits because of it), I can't recommend the YouTube channel healthcare triage enough. It's a highly reputable source of good scientifically sound advice. Not just second hand advice that everyone has from who knows where. They have several videos that would be right up your alley.

-MC
posted on 04/27/2017 9:22 p.m.
I, too, struggle with a sugar "addiction" that is quite ridiculous. I've been doing a lot of research and experimentation to get this under control. Here are some lessons I've learned and things I've found to be helpful/successful:
- Check out the Whole30 program. The Whole30 is a 30-day nutrition reset program designed to "help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system." The program includes elimination of all added sugar in order to slay your "Sugar Dragon."
- Check out a book called Food Freedom Forever, written by the founder of the Whole30 program. It outlines a 3-part plan to help you learn to control the food you eat, rather than be controlled by it. It provides some really good strategies to learn to make a thoughtful choice about what you do or do not want to eat.
- Read labels and learn what is in your food. You may not fully understand what you aspire to when you say you want to eliminate all added sugar. EVERYTHING has added sugar in it. Pretty much any condiment, sauce, mixed seasoning, and dressing has added sugar. You would essentially have to make all of your own sauces, dressings, and condiments, or purchase very expensive, very hard-to-find products in order to truly eliminate all added sugar.
- Read lots of different sources about nutrition. Government is not always a good source of truth about nutrition. There are too many politics involved that introduce way too many special interests and biases.
- Read a book called Death by the Food Pyramid. This book gives you good foundation to understand the science behind food and make good food choices for yourself.
I hope this helps! The process to learn what eating well looks like and then making it happen is super hard!