I strive to eat as healthy as possible, but I too am victim to the clutches of sugar's addictive properties. Studies have shown that eating sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and it is found EVERYWHERE.
Eliminating sugar does not just mean laying off desserts for a week, though that is certainly one aspect of it. Sugar is in a lot of foods that I eat everyday, such as granola, some nut milks, dressings/condiments, and a lot of processed foods.
I decided to take a week off from eating added sugars in order to:
- Take better notice to the natural sweetness of foods.
- Recognize how many added sugars are hidden in foods (that means reading all nutrition labels).
- Realize how addicted I am to sugar, because let's face it, we all have sugar cravings.
- Stabilize my blood sugar.
A little bit of fun biology: How does our body regulate blood sugar?
Beta-cells in our pancreas release insulin in the bloodstream to keep blood sugar levels at bay. When you eat, insulin levels increase and can convert that food source into energy, or can store it away for energy at a later date. Our bodies do a pretty good job of regulating blood sugar levels, so we can thank them for that.
However, our bodies aren't perfect and when they are overwhelmed with sugar, it can wreck havoc on our bodies. For example, the evidence is clear that excessive calories, and in particular sugar, has had a direct impact on the Type II Diabetes (T2D) epidemic taking place around the world. In fact, "researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher T2D rates, independent of obesity rates". Chew on that for a second.
What I ate and did not eat.
I took a week off of eating added sugars, which included: cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave syrup, etc and aimed to replace real sugars with healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, coconut, olive oil, etc. My boyfriend, who is also doing the detox with me, nearly panicked at the grocery store because he exclaimed, "literally everything has sugar"! Yes, to some degree that is true. For this purpose, naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables did not count in my sugar exclusion, though I did not try to eat more than 2 servings of fruit a day, and instead bump up my vegetable intake.
When I did eat fruit I tried to eat the whole fruit (not fruit juices) so I could get the added benefit of the fiber. I shied away from fruits super high in natural sugars, such as bananas, pineapples, and mangos, and dates. Though dates have a higher glycemic index that sugar cane, meaning that the body takes longer to metabolize it and thus, cause relatively small increments in blood sugar, they are still a made up of ~64% natural sugars. In my everyday life I eat a lot of dates; because they are powerfully addicting in their own right, I have added that to my detox list.
Going sugar free also does not mean replacing cane sugar with sugar-free substitutes like stevia, monk sugar, etc. Typically those sugar free options are still found in foods high in calories. This is problematic, because excess calories - even if they come in the form of carbohydrates - are stored in the body as fat. It's a simple equation actually: if input (calories you consume) is greater than output (metabolism and how many calories you expend from physical activity) than the excess calories will be stored in the body. So even on a fat-free diet, you can gain weight.
One more thing.
I also took on another challenge, which was to eat something new every day. Clean eating does not equate to boring eating - quite the contrary in fact. I took this sugar-free challenge as an opportunity to go experiment in the kitchen, eat a ton of veggies, and pay close attention to ingredient labels, particularly for processed foods I purchased pre-detox.
I'm excited to share below with you my reflections on this process, some of foods I ate, and original recipes, as well as links to some of my favorite sugar-free recipes.
A Food chronology
Day 1: Monday
Late Breakfast: Carrot “cake” smoothie 🥕🍰
- One cup steamed carrots
- Few slices of steamed and then frozen zucchini
- 1/4 cup steamed and then frozen cauliflower
- 1 cup (homemade) hemp milk (or any other unsweetened nut milk)
- 1 T flax meal
- 2 T toasted walnuts
- 1T chia seeds
- 1 scoop unsweetened pea protein powder
- 1/2 tsp cardamom
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 3 ice cubes
Topped with almond butter (check to make sure no sugar or oil is added), blueberries, coconut flakes, and flowers from my garden.
Snack 1: Jilz Crackers with homemade vegan pesto dip
Jilz crackers are amazing. I had a single-serving pack of the original sea salt and cracked pepper crackers, which are sugar free, gluten-free, dairy free, soy free, vegan, non GMO and paleo. The ingredients are real simple: organic sesame seeds, organic tapioca flour, organic sunflower seed flour, organic chia seeds, organic flax seeds, and organic apple cider vinegar. Real ingredients. What I love the most about these crackers is the texture (they have a nice crisp to them), and the aroma. They don't taste bland, but instead like a very aromatic cracker.
I am also doing some freezer cleansing and found some homemade vegan pesto, made with really simple ingredients: kale, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and cashews. Full of healthy fats, this was a very filling snack.
Dinner: Gluten-free spaghetti with a tofu avocado cream sauce, adapted from Unsweetened Caroline.
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 cup medium firm tofu
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup fresh basil
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast
Dessert: Apple with almond butter and sliced almonds.
Day 1 Reflections: I notice that I am intensely craving something sweet at 2 points on the day. My first craving sets in in the morning. I really missed my granola for the sweet little pick me up to start the day. Secondly, I am in such a routine of having dessert after dinner, that I almost felt unsatisfied after dinner. Taking notice of how I felt and being mindful of my hunger levels, realizing that my desire for something else had nothing to do with my satiety levels, was a good challenge. I really had to resist the urge to grab some dates to snack on, which are crazy high in natural sugars, and instead reach for an apple with almond butter.
Overall, I felt great today though. My energy levels stayed consistent throughout the day and my body felt good. I'm excited to see how the rest of the one-week detox unfolds.
Day 2: Tuesday
Breakfast: Full transparency: I already reached one strike with my sugar detox. Hungry and perhaps overeager to eat my breakfast, I put some salsa onto my egg, which I fried in avocado oil and topped with microgreens. I put it all on a slice of Danish rye toast, which, ironically enough, I did check out the ingredients in the bread's packaging and confirmed that there was no added sugar. Finding an open jar of salsa in the fridge, I smothered my egg only to have a moment of panic as I took at bite - I forgot to check the ingredients in the salsa! Sure enough, brown sugar was one of the ingredients listed. Fail. While I didn't eat a large amount of this salsa, I did feel saddened that on Day 2 I already had a small amount of sugar, albeit accidentally. This is a lesson and reminder for the rest of my week to check all of the ingredients on processed foods. It's tedious, but that is really the only way to know where the hidden sugar lay.
Lunch: I had a fat and protein packed smoothie for lunch. The star ingredient in this smoothie was the added Lee From America Pumpkin Fat Ball. I make a dozen at a time and keep them in my freezer for snacking. I like her "original" fat balls more, but these pumpkin ones are great in winter smoothies.
- 1 pumpkin fat ball
- 1/4 cup steamed organic carrots
- 1 cup steamed and then frozen organic sweet potato
- 1/4 cup steamed and then frozen cauliflower
- 1 cup (homemade) hemp milk (or any other unsweetened nut milk)
- 1 scoop unsweetened pea protein powder
- 1/2 tsp cardamom
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 3 ice cubes
- 1/4 cup organic oats
Snack 1: Two dried figs (without added sugars!) I realized all of my granola's have sugar, and I really miss them not only for the taste, but for added texture. These seedy figs served as a nice textural contrast to eat at the end of my meal.
Snack 2: Whole cucumber, sliced and with homemade cashew pesto dip. The pesto is real simple.
Snack 3: Edamame pods, lightly salted
- 1 cup soaked cashews
- 6 T extra virgin olive oil
- 2 handfuls of basil (I picked mine from my garden)
- 4 cloves of fresh pressed garlic
- Juice of one lemon
- Pinch of salt
- Generous pinch of pepper
- 1/2 cup of nutritional yeast (for some vegan cheesey-ness)
Dinner: My friend's Matt and Tracy come over so I could prepare a meal to celebrate Matt's birthday. He also has a lot of the same dietary restrictions as I do, so he was all in favor of a sugar free, plant-based, dairy free meal.
For the salad:
- 1 whole cabbage - shredded in food processor
- 1 lb rainbow carrots -shredded in food processor
- 6 sticks of celery - chopped into bite sized pieces
- 1/4 spaghetti squash (the texture is very similar to the carrots and cabbage so it works!)
- 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (or roasted and salted seeds from the spaghetti squash)
- 1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
Day 2 Reflections: I woke up feeling great and also really excited for breakfast. I've realized that sugar detoxing requires a good deal of meal prep, since a lot of the foods that in my pantry does have some form of added sugar. Breaking rituals is not easy, and I notice it the most in the mornings. Breakfast is a huge part of my daily morning ritual - it's a meal I never skip. Sweetened granolas, or even "health food" bars, are a classic way I start the day because I am not much of a savory breakfast eater. Shying away from not only cane sugars, but also maple syrup, honey, vanilla syrup, and dates (which are loaded with natural sugars) has presented a new challenge during meal prep. Also, having all of the food that I can't eat in my pantry staring back at me is especially difficult. Noted: if you don't want to eat it, don't have it around.
Day 3: Wednesday
Breakfast: Kicking off the day with the most delicious breakfast: homemade rye bread topped with my cashew pesto spread (this stuff is amazing - recipe above), tomatoes, an egg fried in avocado oil, and microgreens. I probably stood for 10 minutes in the kitchen waffling over what to have for breakfast. Since food waste is one of my biggest pet peeves, I made use of the perishable foods in my refrigerator first.
Food waste is an issue I am really passionate about. In the US, approximately 50% of the produce grown is thrown out, yet 1/8 Americans (if not more) are food insecure. I always like to keep fresh foods in my fridge, but I also try to keep the fridge from getting too full to make sure I can see everything and eat it before it spoils.
Lunch: Leftover winter salad from dinner the night before.
Snack: Apple with 2 T of raw almond butter (no sugar or oils added) and topped with 1 T chia seeds and 1/4 cup dried oats. I drank a Pamplemousse La Croix as well because it's one of my favorite carbonated drinks without real or fake sugars and is only naturally sweetened.
Dinner: Spaghetti squash with cashew cheese pesto and garbanzo beans. I ate two huge bowls of this.
Dessert: 2 dried figs (without added sugar)
Day 3 Reflections: It's only day 3 and I'm already noticing how much I am craving sugar, particularly for breakfast. So much of my diet is about routine, which feeds into that craving. I love eating my homemade granola for breakfast, and while I use less sugar than most store-bought brands, I cannot lie that it is still sweet. Finding creative breakfast substitutes that are savory instead of sweet is a new challenge for me, but I am enjoying experimenting in the kitchen and really enjoy the post-meal feel, which actually leaves me fuller, more satisfied, and sneaks more veggies into my diet.
I know I'm not alone when I say that I crave sugar for breakfast. Just this morning, I found my boyfriend surreptitiously eating a slice of cheesecake for breakfast. It's hard to say no to homemade baked goods - it is perhaps my weakness as well.
Day 4: Thursday
Breakfast: Smoothies are my favorite way to make a simple meal that is loaded with fruits, vegetables, fat, and protein. It's really the best way to start the day, and in California it's warm enough where you can justify eating them year round.
This mornings smoothie:
- 1.5 frozen bananas
- 5 frozen strawberries
- 1/2 cup frozen spinach
- 2 T raw almond butter
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 1 cup homemade hemp milk
Lunch: This is the first meal I've eaten out since starting the sugar detox. I was really excited to step out of my own kitchen and check out a new restaurant in the adjacent neighborhood. The challenge with eating out is you never know exactly what is going into your food; sugar, salt, and fat are almost always snuck into every dish because that's what makes things tasty and therefore, sell.
I did a little menu research before heading to the restaurant so I would be better able to guess which brunch items may be sugar free. I realized quickly- eating out and going completely sugar free is REALLY hard. In some places, maybe even impossible.
I did find one item on the item that I was pretty sure didn't have added sugars, and the waitress also confirmed this. Of course, since I'm not looking at the packaging or preparing it myself, I really don't know for sure. I settled on a Diestel Farms organic turkey burger with sweet potato fries. I subbed the brioche bun for a lettuce wrap, since brioche has a little sugar in it, and also got a truffle mayo dip instead of ketchup, because (obviously) ketchup is loaded with sugar. Fun fact, did you know that under the Ronald Reagan administration, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regulations tried to make ketchup a vegetable so provide school lunch administrators flexibility in planning? Unbelievable. In 1 Tablespoon of ketchup there are 3.7 grams of sugar- that's almost a whole teaspoon! Condiments are usually high in sugar and fat, so in general it's best to steer away from them, and especially during a sugar detox.
Dinner: Lentil curry soup with avocado toast and cashew cheese. This was a quick and easy post-work out meal with protein and veggies. Simple. Good.
Day 4 Reflections: The food I miss the most is officially granola. I love the sweetness, crunch, and nuttiness to it. Once I am able to get over that morning craving, however, I find that I am not craving as many sweet things later in the day. Perhaps eating sweet goods entices one to eat even more sweet goods.
Day 5: Friday
Brunch: After physical therapy I had my eyes set on a big brunch. I also wanted to finally use up the sphaghetti squash I had in my fridge. Spaghetti squash is possibly the most cost-effective food ever: it costs about $2; last for ~4 meals; is low in calories; and high in folic acid, beta-carotene (from the yellow color), vitamin A, and potassium. It is a serious super food.
I busted out my favorite kitchen how-to book, "The Food Lab" and read the 4 pages on how to poach an egg. I don't know why I never had the courage to do this before! One thing I learned is that while vinegar can cause eggs to set faster, the effect is too slow to make a big difference- and then your eggs taste vinegary. So I skipped the vinegar and added salt to the water instead, because, on the contrary, salted eggs are delicious. I think the key to the perfect poached egg however, is using super fresh eggs, which mine was not. Not time I do that, I'll make that a priority.
For the final plate, I tossed the spaghetti squash with my cashew pesto (this stuff lasts forever) and topped it with microgreens and my poached egg.
Snack 1: Cara Cara orange. These have a pink flesh and are the perfect combination of tangy and sweet! They are at their best in peak winter season (i.e. now) so this citrus fruit was a nice treat
Snack 2: Rye toast with cashew pesto
Snack 3: Green olives
In the Jewish tradition, Shabbat is the day of rest, and it begins at sundown on Friday and goes until sundown on Saturday. I invited over my Jew crew to celebrate this day of rest, and presented the challenge of making something sugar free. Of course, however, the challah had sugar in it. Challah is probably my favorite food item on Shabbat (or any other Jewish holiday) so I was tempted and a little sad to miss out.
I made Deliciously Ella's Sweet Potato falafels which I paired with the golden tahini sauce. We had an assortment of salads, fruits, and even homemade bread! It was a real treat to the end of the week.
Day 5 Reflections: I've come to notice the importance of not skipping meals when eliminating added sugars. Since I had such a late breakfast today, I found myself constantly snacking in replacement. Finding sugar-free and healthy snacks is challenging, so it's good to stay prepared ahead of time by having healthy snacks around like vegetables and hummus.
Day 6: Saturday
Breakfast & Lunch: Still cleaning up the kitchen from the big dinner the night before, I had the straggling leftovers for breakfast and lunch: fresh baked bread with hummus, cucumbers, a few bites of kale and avocado salad, a little bit of roasted chicken, and my sweet potato and chickpea tahini mash. There was no real order to how I ate it- I was just trying to clean up the fridge.
Dinner: Pita sandwich with chicken, tomatoes, and my sweet potato and chickpea tahini mash.
Late Night Snack: Half of a veggie burrito with rice, pinto beans, avocado, and tomato. I rarely do the late night meal, but after a late night show at Cobb's Comedy Club in North Beach, I went out with my group of friends for a bite in the Mission. I did manage avoiding a slice of pizza, knowing that almost all pizza and tomato sauces have sugar in them. I'm hoping my burrito was sugar free, but again, not being able to read the ingredient list I am not completely sure.
Day 6 Reflections: I led my food tour in the Fillmore today, and while I don't eat on my tours, I typically do get an onigiri (Japanese rice ball) for myself at one of the stops. I managed to abstain from eating one because even though I wouldn't consider onigiri "unhealthy", sushi rice does have added sugar in it.
Day 7: Sunday
Snack: Still full from my 3am breakfast burrito, I opted for some apples with almond butter instead of a full meal
Lunch: I have no idea what happened to winter. So to celebrate the return of summer (it was 80 degrees in my backyard) I made a fig, kefir, and coconut thick shake. Recipe below:
- 5 frozen figs
- 1/2 cup steamed and frozen cauliflower
- 1 cup unsweetened plain lactase free kefir
- 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 T chia seeds
- 1 T tocos
- 2 T shredded coconut
- Topped with coconut flakes, chopped hazelnuts and raw almond butter
Snack 1: Chips and guacamole - because it was the Super Bowl. I avoided the chicken wings, beer, and any other carbonated drinks, which are typically for the most watched sporting event in America. What's more, I actually watched the game! This was indeed a very unique Super Bowl experience.
Snack 2: The snack that never happened: Being so hot in SF, I went to Hayes Valley to walk around and soak up some sun with my bae. It was all we could do to resist getting a baklava frozen yogurt from Souvla - one of our favorite treats. We may have even walked passed the store twice.
Dinner: The last bit of pita sandwich with chicken, tomatoes, and my sweet potato and chickpea tahini mash.
Snack: When we originally planned movie night, we had visions of making chocolate chip cookies. Now that my bf and I aren't eating added sugars, we opted for a healthier option. Another classic movie accompaniment is popcorn, so we made our own fresh popcorn using olive oil and truffle salt for seasoning. Just as satisfying, I think I'll have to make popcorn a more routine part of my snack list.
Last Day Reflections: Today was definitely the hardest day of the sugar detox. Not only was it Day 7, but Sunday's in the city are for going out. During my sugar detox, I can definitively say that the hardest time to avoid sugar is when eating out. Sugars are hidden in most foods found at restaurants. Trying to go out and be social, but saying no is tough, and definitely not as fun.
I don't see myself living "sugar free", it's just not realistic and eating out every once in a while brings me joy. However, this is a mindful exercise and I did appreciate seeing the benefits:
- My energy levels stayed more consistent throughout the day
- Less bloating
- Less binging on sweets
- Making more of my own meals
- Eating more vegetables
Even though I don't plan on being completely sugar free, I do hope that I can be more mindful when I'm eating and to lessen my overall sugar consumption. I also see myself doing sugar free weeks throughout the year.