I have always laughed at people who suggest, in all seriousness, that fruit should be considered dessert. A slice of chocolate cake is dessert. Talenti banana chocolate swirl ice cream is dessert. But apples and peanut butter? Or frozen grapes? Insert eye roll here.
And yet, I found myself making a bowl of blueberries topped with unsweetened Greek yogurt and cinnamon as a nightcap multiple times over the past month, all in an effort to avoid added sweeteners (including artificial ones—more on that later) for 31 days.
Let me back up a bit. By the end of last year, I craved Halo Top or ice cream most nights after dinner…and gave into that craving more often than I’d like to admit.
So I decided to take control of the situation by doing the sugar-holic’s equivalent of dry January: a no-added-sugar January.
The “added” part is key—fruit and other foods with naturally occurring sugars were okay. The USDA recommends getting no more than 10% of your calories from added sugars—which comes out to a max of 40 grams if you’re eating about 1,600 calories a day. (The average American exceeds that daily limit by about 30%, according to the most recent stats.)
Whereas a banana’s sugar comes with nutrients like potassium and fiber, the high-fructose corn syrup in something like soda is just empty calories. “They don’t really give your body anything of value,” says Angela Lemond, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And, bummer alert, they can put you at a higher risk for scary conditions like diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Artificial sweeteners (like aspartame or stevia) and alcohol sugars (like erythitrol) aren’t necessarily better. While anything approved by the FDA is, in fact, safe, Lemond says these sugar substitutes can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. She adds that some research suggests artificial sweeteners may increase cravings for sweet foods. (Hmmm, so perhaps my semi-recent diet soda habit had something to do with my adult-onset sweet tooth?)
My goal with this challenge was to “reset” my taste buds so that I didn’t feel like such a slave to my cravings—and Lemond says I was onto something: “We crave what we eat, so if we start slowly changing the types of foods that we’re eating, you’re going to find that your taste buds will change.”
I figured that if I noticed any other positive effects in the process, hey, all the better.
So I had one last cookie on New Year’s Eve and braced myself. Here’s how my month of no-added-sugars went.
I spent a lot of time getting cozy with ingredient lists
As someone who’s covered health and nutrition for years, I knew that I was going to have to avoid more than just candy and cookies since many foods that don’t taste sweet secretly pack sugar. Still, I had to brush up on all of the different names for added sugar (there are more than 50!)—and spend a lot of time googling ingredients I didn’t recognize.
At restaurants, I was the annoying person who asked if there was a menu listing all of the ingredients in each dish. But these steps were so necessary.
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Name a food, and you can probably find a packaged or restaurant version that contains added sugar—including soups, sauces, salad dressings, sandwich bread, even roasted veggies at health-food restaurants (remember: honey is a form of added sugar, too—and it doesn’t have as much nutritional value as we’ve been led to believe, Lemond says). In fact, sometimes it was nearly impossible to find convenience foods that didn’t contain “evaporated cane juice” or “maltose” (I’m looking at you, turkey bacon and sandwich bread).
I wish I could say there were some foods I was surprised that I could eat, but…there just weren’t. I did find a few packaged foods that were okay (you can find my favorites below). But I literally had to make my own bread each week to be able to eat the goodness that is carbs. Which brings me to my next point…
I became a meal prep master
I like cooking, but I’ve always been good at coming up with excuses to order delivery. (I have to walk to my dog. Or work out. Or maybe I was just too exhausted from work.)
But given that I knew most restaurants use added sugar, oh, all the time, I knew I had to kick my takeout habit. So for the first time in my life, I started meal prepping.
I’ll just say this right now: If you hate cooking, the no-added-sugar challenge probably isn’t for you. But I found myself really looking forward to Sundays with my Instant Pot and my stand mixer. (Yes, I know how lame that sentence sounds to anyone who considers cooking a chore.)
It was awesome coming home to really delicious meals like beef-barley soup, coconut-curry chicken, or kale-sauce pasta. Suddenly, I didn’t have to waste any mental energy during the week figuring out what I was going to eat because I’d already decided on Sunday. Very quickly, I realized how many recipes I needed to prep in advance to feed my husband and myself on weeknights (two, so I had some variety but I could actually eat everything I made), as well as all of the other logistical details involved in meal planning.
MORE: 6 Meal-Prep Mistakes That Are Making You Gain Weight
On weekends, since we couldn’t eat out—something we typically love doing—I would make a special dinner, like homemade pizza. And sometimes I would invite friends over for the occasion (our social life did, admittedly, take a bit of a hit during this month).
I’ll definitely continue meal prepping, but now I can incorporate some lower-sugar recipes into the mix, too.
This is your body on sugar:
Keeping a stash of whitelisted snacks saved my life
Okay, maybe that is a slight overstatement. But I had a rocky start in which I severely underestimated the amount of added-sugar-free food I should bring to work and intense hanger ensued.
I started to order my favorites in bulk and keep a stash at my office so that I would have them handy at all times. Some of my favorites:
Finding a few restaurants that are transparent about the ingredients they use was also key because it helped me determine a few go-to meals for those days when I wasn’t able to bring my lunch (if you have Sweetgreen or Mulberry & Vine in your area, 10/10 would recommend).
MORE: ‘5 Things That Happened When I Went on a Low-Carb, Low-Sugar Diet with My Boyfriend’
And when all else failed, I knew I could grab a banana and a plain Greek yogurt from the local convenience store.
I didn’t notice a huge change in my energy levels
People asked me a lot if I “felt better” during my month with no added sugar. And the truth is that I had a cold for a couple of weeks during the experiment, so…no, not really. I didn’t notice any positive changes in my skin, either (and I was so hoping that this experiment would improve my complexion).
That said, I did feel more satiated by my homemade, no-added-sugar dinners than I did by the takeout I’d eaten previously—so I wasn’t as tempted to raid the pantry or the freezer afterward looking for something sweet to end the night with.
MORE: 5 Foods That Give You TONS Of Energy
And when I went back to eating sugar, I did notice that I just felt ickier on days after I had really indulged. Almost like a low-level hangover.
Even though I didn’t, Lemond says others might notice more stable energy and blood sugar levels, among other benefits. It just depends on the person and what their diet looked like previously.
I did, however, lose 7 pounds
To be clear, I didn’t set out to lose any weight. Every time I was hungry, I ate something. I made that pizza I mentioned on three separate occasions (one time with stuffed crust!). I had a small piece of homemade bread with almost every lunch and dinner (I was giving up sugar, so I definitely couldn’t nix carbs, as well—I’m not a robot). And I still had “dessert” when I was craving something sweet (hence the aforementioned bowls of blueberries and yogurt).
When I weighed myself two weeks in, I had lost six pounds. And in the last two weeks, I lost another pound. A yoga teacher even told me I looked slimmer toward the end of the experiment. Lemond says weight loss often does occur when people cut out added sugars, but that it’s not a guarantee (again, it depends how much added sugar you were consuming before—and apparently the answer was a lot for me!). She adds that if you do lose weight, it’s likely to be around your midsection.
But what about my sugar cravings?
Toward the end of the month, things like coconut Larabars started tasting super-sweet to me, much more so than they had before. Even Justin’s peanut butter started to feel like an indulgence.
I’m happy to report that, post-experiment, I still don’t have the burning desire for sweets every single night that I did before. When it does strike, I often find myself reaching for fruit and feeling satisfied afterward (who am I?!). And when I eat something savory—like bread or soup—I can tell right away if it has added sugar because it tastes off to me.
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Of course, I was curious to see whether ice cream would seem unbearably saccharine since I’d gone so long without it. But when I finally treated myself to a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough, it tasted…really good. What can I say? You can take the ice cream away from the girl, but…
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