For Better Health and More Happiness, Quit Sugar

For Better Health and More Happiness, Quit Sugar

This past week I decided to give up added sugar in my diet to see if it would make me feel happier and healthier. I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t your last blog post involve sparkly, delicious donuts? Yes, yes, it did. I actually made two desserts during my “no sugar” week because I am a masochist. So, if I love baking so much, why did I decide to give up sugar for this week? Well, for one, it’s been too damn hot to work on other healthy practices, such as my (flailing) fitness regime or my practice of kindness. When I am hot and sticky, my desire to do nice things for others, like give up my seat on the subway or buy a sandwich for a homeless guy, is minimal. In my defense, I never said I was a good person.

And, second, I have a real case of sugar addiction. This is my coming out moment, my equivalent of the Alcoholics Anonymous First Step, except that your addiction is not so anonymous when you share it on the interwebs. Luckily, I’m not alone in my sugar addiction. The average American consumes a quarter pound to a half pound of sugar each day. That’s a half cup to a whole cup of sugar every single day. Most of us aren’t even eating a whole cup of vegetables every day. FYI, I don’t have any data to back up that last statement; it just sounded like a good sound bite.

Sugar Addiction is Real

While I’m definitely a believer in personal responsibility (no one is forcing me to eat a bag of cookies, I just really like cookies), the food industry is not without blame. In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, New York Times Reporter Michael Moss exposes how food inventors and food industry CEOS manipulate what we eat, weaponizing salt, sugar, and fat in ways that not only make us like their products but also become addicted to their products.

For instance, food inventors have engineered what is called a “bliss point”--the perfect amount of sweetness such that it maximizes the pleasure centers in our brains. This “bliss point” can be found in traditionally sweet foods like cake and ice cream, but also in non-traditionally sweet foods like salad dressing, pasta sauce, bread, and yogurt. As a result, Americans have come to expect this “bliss point” in all or most of our foods, which is why so many find it hard to eat fresh vegetables, which luckily have not been engineered in this way (yet).

If you still don’t believe that Sugar is the New Tobacco, that it is a substance that can cause actual addiction in the same way that tobacco and drugs can, watch this animated video from TedEd about how sugar addiction works in your brain.

For example, you open a package of Oreos after returning from the grocery store. You pop one in your mouth, activating the sweet taste receptors on your taste buds, which then sends a signal to your cerebral cortex. This signal activates your brain’s reward system--which includes “dopamine hotspots”--and then your brain’s reward system subconsciously tells you that you should eat another Oreo to continue feeling those warm, happy vibes of ecstasy. Activating your reward system in and of itself is not bad. In fact, if your reward system was never activated, you’d be as angry as Rudy Giuliani at the Republican National Convention. The problem is over-activating the reward system and sending dopamine into over-drive, which unleashes uncontrollable cravings and an increased tolerance to sugar. And studies show that frequently consuming sugar can leave a permanent mark on certain brain circuits, which then makes it even more difficult to kick a sugar habit.

So, with all of this knowledge, I decided to cut out all added sugar from my diet for the week. I say added sugar because sugar naturally occurs in many foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and certain dairy products, and those aren’t the sugars that we should be worried about.  

I would guess that my personal experience with sugar is a bit different than most Americans. I try to cook most of my meals at home, except when I dine out for a few meals on the weekend. As such, I know exactly what goes into most of meals. I rarely cook with added sugar, except for the occasional pinch of maple syrup in a chia pudding or vinaigrette, or a spoon of sugar in a curry dish. I also don’t drink sugary beverages, except for alcoholic beverages, but I usually stick to wine or Bourbon on the rocks (because I’m a 60-year old man). So far, my diet sounds stellar, but we haven’t talked about dessert yet.

I wouldn’t say that I have “a sweet tooth” per se.  That’s because all of my teeth are sweet. I love pastries, donuts, brownies, cookies, pies, you name it. There are only a small handful of desserts I wouldn’t eat. Tiramisu, I’m looking at you. Oftentimes, I rationalize my over-consumption of dessert by pointing out that my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are generally pretty healthy (except when I’m eating pizza, New York City bagels, and burritos the size of my head).

Quit sugar for health and happiness

And in recent years--since I started working as a lawyer, a notoriously stressful career--I have fallen into the trap of eating sweets while stressed. It’s like the TedEd video explained: I get stressed out by my boorish, condescending opposing counsel, which makes me want to reach for something that will cheer me up. Based on past experiences, I know that chocolate will cheer me up. So I head to one of the countless bakeries located within 2 minutes of my office and order a giant chocolate chip cookie or a chocolate almond croissant from Maison Kayser, which is the best pastry in the city. The sweetness is pleasing and improves my mood, at least temporarily. So, the next time I feel stressed or overwhelmed at work, I’m likely to reach for a sweet treat because I remember that it made me feel better the last time.

My Week with No Sugar

The first day of my experiment was a Tuesday. Like most days, I start the day with a healthy breakfast and bring my healthy lunch from home. But then 3 p.m. rolls around, and my usual craving for dessert appears. Macadamia nut cookie or double chocolate brownie?, I think to myself. Or, better yet, chocolate croissant. I am literally out the door to pick up a treat when I remember that I’m doing a no-sugar week for my blog. Silly blog, I think. Reluctantly, I pick up a banana and some almonds for an afternoon snack instead. Unlike President Obama, I don’t stop at just seven almonds.

Day 2 is my friend Amy’s birthday. She invites a group of lovely ladies over to her apartment for dinner and wine. There are two divine desserts on display. One is the legendary Birthday Cake from the Momofuku Milk Bar, and the other is a homemade raw vegan berry cheesecake that our friend Kori made. My friends try to encourage me to at least have a bite of the raw cheesecake because, after all, it’s super healthy. Unlike at 3 p.m. in the office, my will is ironclad and I politely decline. It also helps that I have an entire bottle of red wine to keep me entertained and distracted. I go home thoroughly drunk but secretly proud of myself for not eating dessert.

Day 3 is mostly a breeze. I start the day off with a big smoothie full of seasonal fruits, which satisfies my sweet teeth. I get great news on two of my most difficult cases at work, which makes me happy, and so I have no desire to stress-eat a giant cookie. That evening, I have a drink with Max at our favorite cocktail bar. I want to order a fancy cocktail but they are all loaded with simple syrup, even the ones that don’t taste sweet. I have a glass of wine instead, which is basically a form of blasphemy because this bar’s cocktails are so good that they’ve won awards. #firstworldproblems

quit sugar for health and happiness

On Day 4, I find that I have boundless energy. I skip to work, I run up flights of stairs. Perhaps I am merely excited that it’s Friday, but I tell myself that the no-added-sugar diet is the reason for my energy. I take this line of thought further, and eventually, I convince myself that if I can maintain a no-added-sugar diet forever, I will have enough energy to take over the world. 

In the evening, I head to happy hour for my friend Sarah’s birthday, and while my coworkers are ordering sugary Hawaiian Tiki drinks, I ashamedly order a Vodka soda. I feel like a 19 year old at a Eurotrance club. I then head to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Tuome in the East Village with Max and my newlywed sister and brother-in-law. When it’s time for the check, my dining mates insist on ordering dessert. They encourage me to take a bite of the adorable dessert dumplings that are swimming in ice cream. Again, I politely decline, and nurse my glass of wine. If it wasn’t already clear, my saving grace throughout this week is alcohol. If anyone suggests that I try a no-sugar AND a no-alcohol week simultaneously, I will have their head. 

Day 5 is Saturday, and I spend some time baking sparkly strawberry and chocolate donuts. I recognize that it’s an odd and potentially disastrous time to start baking sweets, but I’ve had a donut pan for the last two months that is collecting dust, and I insist on using it today. The donuts turn out adorable. I have the willpower to not scarf them down, but I simply must try a bite of each. You know, for recipe integrity purposes. I would be a poor food blogger if I didn’t at least try my own recipes before publishing them. So, technically, I have cheated, but it is for a most honorable cause.

quit sugar for health and happiness

Day 6 starts with brunch at my favorite vegan spot in New York City, Sun in Bloom. Even Max, a self-professed meat-lover, enjoys the food. Max leaves for a business trip that afternoon, so I prepare dinner for one. After a delicious dinner of lasagna rolls, the remaining donuts stare at me. They plead with me. They are just asking to be eaten. I consider having just one bite, but eventually I push them aside. Instead, I have some dates with almond butter and cinnamon. For the record, dates are essentially pure sugar, but they are naturally occurring sugars, so I don’t blink an eye, even though I can feel my blood sugar spiking.

I am beginning to realize how essential sugar is in my life. It’s so customary that when I’m not eating it, I feel like a lost and confused puppy. Surely, this is not a healthy way to live, I say to myself. Luckily, I have a new bottle of red wine sitting on the counter, so I pour myself a glass and ponder these deep philosophical questions about sugar.

Day 7 is mostly unremarkable. It’s a Monday, so that blows, but my sugar cravings are mostly in check. I must be getting over my sugar addiction, I naively think.

My optimism is checked the next day when I head to my friend Kori’s house for a group dinner. We eat a very healthy vegan dinner on the rooftop overlooking the NYC skyline, followed by very healthy vegan dessert: raw cheesecake bars and raw blueberry crumb bars. Part of my brain says, You don’t need the sugar. Just think, you could take over the world if you quit sugar! Unfortunately, the other part of my brain is significantly louder and clamors, You deserve a treat, and it’s healthy! Plus, you don't even want to take over the world! Just eat the sugar, damnit!

So I eat the sugar, damnit. I eat it, and it’s delicious.

quitting sugar for health and happiness

Lessons Learned

But that doesn’t mean I learned nothing from my week of no-added sugar. For instance, I become more aware of when my cravings for dessert typically strike. First, they almost always strike in the afternoon at work. The cravings rarely develop due to actual hunger because they are typically most ravenous shortly after lunch. Usually, it’s because I want to distract myself from work and/or I am stressed about work. I know, the solution is to stop working and just be funemployed. I am working on that.

Second, my dessert cravings often occur in the evenings after dinner, but only if I’m at home alone. If I’m out with friends or at an event after work, or even if I’m just hanging out with Max in our garden or on the couch, my mind typically isn’t focused on dessert. Usually, the cravings develop out of boredom because I hate being at home, especially by myself. The solution? Party all night long with friends. Part of my funemployment plan.

I also learn that not being reliant on sugar allows me to explore other, healthier ways to deal with the varying ups and downs of life, from work-induced stress to weeknight boredom to celebrating happy times with friends. Wine is one of those ways.

In sum, this is one of those practices that I am going to try to continue indefinitely, in some fashion. Not cutting out sugar entirely (I love dessert, and I certainly don’t believe in deprivation) but being more conscious of it, recognizing cravings that are purely emotional, and trying to feel satisfied with a few bites instead of the whole donut. It’s going to be an uphill battle, so I welcome any tips that you may have!

Sweet dreams,