The term “frenemy” probably conjures up images of Regina George from Mean Girls or the famous Sex and the City episode that introduced the concept of a friend on the surface who is really a backstabbing rival. I know my frenemy all too well – it is processed sugar. For much of my life, I turned to sugary treats for stress relief or celebration, basking in the burst of fake happiness from the initial rush that inevitably turned into an energy crash shortly thereafter.
I felt the siren call of processed sugar from a young age. (To be perfectly clear, I’m talking about the refined sugars and added sweeteners you see in beverages and processed snacks, not whole foods like fruits or vegetables that contain natural sugar content.) My first real word was cookie and breakfast wasn’t complete without a cereal that tasted like dessert. Chocolate was my response for any emotional eating situation and Oreo cookies had become a primary food group right after college. No wonder I had 50 extra pounds on my 5’4” frame by age 26. But even after losing that weight by eating healthier, drinking more water and exercising regularly, processed sugar never left my diet.
And boy, is that stuff bad for you. “Sugar can weaken our immune system, increase inflammation, contribute to weight gain, and cause moodiness and a rollercoaster of energy,” explains Certified Nutrition Coach Linda Citron of Citron Nutrition. “Of all these symptoms, inflammation may be the most serious. Inflammation is at the root of nearly every chronic disease, such as heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and more.”
Continuing to eat processed sugar caught up with me in my late forties. My metabolism began to slow down just around the time I started eating more sugary treats after returning to a demanding, albeit fulfilling, corporate work environment. Some of my long-lost pounds began making a comeback and I was often tired.
In February 2018, I decided to break up with processed sugar for good. Here’s how I did it:
· Long-term approach – After learning via this study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology that on average it takes 66 days to build a new habit, or change an existing one, I abandoned the need to quickly see progress and instead took a patient, long-term approach. This wasn’t about trying to change the number on a scale, but rather shift the root cause of a problem.
· Advance planning – Using a nutrition app, I would plan the next day’s food intake in advance and bring non-sugary snacks to work to combat hunger. For example, I travel often for work and started carrying natural nutrition bars recommended by a health coach to eat before heading off to elaborate dinner meetings.
· Acknowledged wins – I journal most mornings and started writing down daily victories like avoiding cake at a co-worker’s birthday celebration to reinforce motivation and a sense of accomplishment. I also celebrated milestones with non-food items like buying new yoga pants 21 days into the process and new jeans after 45 days of success.
Breaking up with processed sugar is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. The cravings and habits dissipated sometime around day 50. All of the clothes in my closet now fit. Plus, I have more energy, sleep better and less mood swings.
Want more tips for reducing sugar intake? David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote this exceptionally helpful, simple guide. As you’ll see, some of his well-researched tips include choosing breakfast items that have no or very low sugar content, avoiding added sweeteners and completely eliminating soda. I have made many of those changes myself over the years and seen a significant positive impact.
“Cutting back on sugar has an immediate, positive effect on our physical health, and on our mental and emotional well-being. Small steps can definitely lead to big changes!” continues Citron. “But because sugar is an addicting substance, it’s a good idea to consider exactly what your relationship to sweets is. Are you the type of person that can have some dessert or a bite of chocolate every now and then? Or are you the type of person for whom sweets become a daily habit (if you have one M&M it becomes the whole bag)? For some of us, it is easier to have none than to have one. For those who are especially susceptible to sugar, eating even a little means they have to continually negotiate a healthy relationship with sugar.”