“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked!” ~William Shakespeare (Henry IV, Part I, II, iv)
An entire month with NO sugar of any kind. Sound impossible? For one month out of every year, I do a complete and total sugar fast. I started this 30-day torture-fest the first April I lived in Austin (in 2010) out of some kind of weird Austin municipal peer pressure to be fit and healthy, and continued it again the following two years. However April 2013 fell at the most miserable point of my most miserable job of all time, and I remember feeling that denying myself certain sugary creature comforts really could have pushed me over the edge of an impending breaking point (so, no fast that year). And yes, the first year I did this sugar fast, it felt impossible.
But I gave it another go the next year, and the year after that, and have kept the tradition going strong since then. (Psst — it does get easier.) The rules of the sugar fast have changed somewhat throughout the years…the first year, it was simply to avoid any and all foods that had the actual word “sugar” in the ingredient list on the food label. I wasn’t very savvy then about other forms and wording of sugar that food manufacturers were using, and so I’m sure some evaporated cane crystals slipped through the fasting cracks. I also allowed myself artificial sweeteners that first year, as well as honey. The main focus was avoiding added, refined sugar.
The second and third years, I did my research and made a list of the several dozen names for sugars and sugar alcohols that can be found on nutrition labels, and avoided any foods with them as well. I also cut out artificial sweeteners but made a sole sweet allowance for honey, as it is a completely natural sweetener source. But now I’ve given honey up as well during my sugar fast because of its extreme acidity (I also follow a very low-acid diet, so the regime streams have been crossed). I do allow myself melons, pears, apples, dates, and plantains, which contain naturally-occurring fruit sugar (fructose) and are also low-acid fruits. Otherwise no added, refined, or artificial sugar of any kind at any time for 30 days.
I won’t sugar-coat it…it’s hard.
It’s really hard! Going on the pre-fast grocery shopping trip is always a little depressing. You have no idea how many everyday foods contain sugar in their ingredient list — until you start reading every single food label of everything you buy. Try finding bread without sugar — bread, which for no good reason should even contain sugar, but 99% of the options do. (The only bread I’ve found in my grocery store that doesn’t have sugar in any form is sourdough, or you can make your own sugarless variety.) Sugar-free breakfast cereals are also very tough to find (I actually really like plain Shredded Wheat.) Read the label of that milk or peanut butter or salad dressing or yogurt or spaghetti sauce you just bought; chances are they also contain some form of sugar. Even many kinds of pretzels and crackers have sugar in them, which is just ridiculous but not surprising; it’s a common belief of many that the packaged food industry has added that addiction factor to even the least-suspecting foods — to get us hooked and then keep us coming back for more.
It’s the first seven days or so of the fast that are really the toughest, waiting for the sugar cravings to subside.
And these cravings are very real…I either have to throw out anything with sugar or stuff it way back into the un-seeable part of the pantry, because if it’s just sitting around, then it’s too tempting. I really miss my morning tea with both milk and sugar. I buy and eat a lot of plain roasted nuts during the fast, since they are high-protein and very filling (I miss my vanilla-roasted almonds though, yes they have sugar in their coating). I eat way more vegetables and fruits during the fast than I normally do, and always hope the habit will last past the fast but for some reason it never quite does. I also tend to overcompensate with salty foods during the fast, so I’m working on balancing that out as well.
I suppose I do this sugar fast in hopes that it will somehow cleanse my system…a mini-detox and a healthy shock to the body. It’s not like I go overboard during the other eleven months, I’m not eating mountains of chocolate bars in search of the golden ticket; I actually am usually pretty controlled when it comes to avoiding downward sugar spirals. I seriously can’t remember the last time I had a donut or a milkshake or a soda (regular or diet); it’s not that I don’t like them, of course I do, I guess it’s just perhaps that pesky Bachelor of Science in Nutrition degree I worked hard for all those years ago (and the propensity for those calories to be instantly turned into jiggly pounds and artery-clogging solids) that keeps me away from them most of the time. I do allow myself indulgences when not on the sugar fast — I love red licorice vines; a fudgesicle on one of Austin’s scorching summer days hits the spot; and a perfect mug of rich hot chocolate on a cold night is one of the definitions of happiness, I’m pretty sure. But it’s those hidden and unsuspecting sources of sugar that we eat every day all the time even in “regular” foods that also cause some damage, and so cutting them out for a solid month has to be a good thing, right?
I also do the 30-day sugar fast just for the pure challenge of it. I dread it when it’s time to start, but I like the feeling that I’m still capable of doing something tough and out of my comfort zone. Change experts say it takes twenty-one days to either solidly form or break a habit, so I could cut the sugar fast off at three weeks and be done with it. But somehow those extra nine days of added deprivation really make a difference. After the fast is over I feel like I’ve really accomplished something and have proven something to myself. Just surviving those thirty seconds of an M&Ms commercial on TV (without then running full speed to the store to get one bag, or ten) is a victory in itself.
Shouldn’t we all do something from time to time to shake up our routines and remind us what we’re capable of so that we can then celebrate our determination and perseverance?
I know this is pretty much a first-world endeavor, going on a sugar fast. I lived in very desolate west Africa for two years — a place where people had very little to eat, surviving literally on only what they could grow or hunt or find or scavenge, and they would’ve been grateful for anything in the way of food whether it had sugar in it or not. We’re so spoiled for choice and easy access in America — and we’re sadly so used to accepting empty sugar-to-fat calories that food manufacturers put in virtually everything — that we’re slowly and literally eating and drinking ourselves to death as a nation. Something has to change!
It is definitely possible to re-train our palates to shun sugar and eat healthier, but it’s not easy. But why not give it a try? Start out with just one day. Then try for one week. Educate yourself along the way on all the foods that contain hidden sugar. Finally, go for the one-month challenge — you can do it!
Let me know in the comments if you tried your own sugar fast and how it went!
Originally published at operationununhappy.wordpress.com on April 6, 2015.
Kristi Stillwell is the owner of Volunteer Abroad Consulting, which provides virtual and in-person application coaching services to adventurers wanting to volunteer abroad. She is a former Peace Corps Recruiter and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer herself in west Africa.