I quit eating sugar — and didn't kill anyone
Did you know the food industry has more than 56 names for the deathly sweet drug?
She wants me to be funny. How can I be funny on demand? I’m not a comedian, I’m a writer. God, my head hurts. I can’t think clearly when I’m dreaming of that beautiful white powder. Just one little sniff, one lick, and I’ll be funny. If I sound like an addict dying for a fix—it’s because I am. Was. Before I quit eating sugar, it was my drug of choice in all its refined forms—from a biscuit dipped in chai to biscotti with coffee. I also ate anything that remotely resembled candy when I was stressed. It was the antidote to deadline-induced rage, a comfort blanket to anxiety, and handy reward for achievements.
When I quit eating sugar, I blamed the change for everything: headaches, weakness, nausea, loss of productivity, irritability… (maybe it’s just you, my helpful boyfriend sneaked in). I had to end my toxic relationship of dependency.
A sugar binge gives you an immediate high; thanks to a surge in the feel-good chemical dopamine; a quick burst of energy, by raising your blood sugar levels; and ultimately, a sugar crash. According to Healthline, eating sugar regularly changes your brain so that it becomes tolerant to the sugar. So you need more to get the same effect—kind of like cocaine.
That explains a lot. Of course, in a culture when a little mithai after each meal is a given (even your dabbawalla sends you an XS sweet treat) and your nani can’t understand why you would ever stop eating dessert, abstaining from refined sugar can be harder than celibacy.
It’s also everywhere. Natural sugar is found in fruits, vegetables, dairy and carbohydrate-rich foods. While refined sugar is found in the obvious—desserts, candy, aerated drinks, white flour—it’s also lurking in many processed foods, and condiments like tomato sauce (you traitor), salad dressing, fruit juices and has a number of aliases.
“There are 56 different names for sugar,” says Vishakha Shivdasani, a medical doctor specialising in nutrition. That’s more than the states in the Indian union, the movies on Deepika Padukone’s IMDB and certainly more than I’ll ever be able to commit to memory.
“Some of the common ones are fructose, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, palm sugar, coconut sugar, agave, malt sugar, honey, maple syrup,” Shivdasani adds. “They can be replaced with natural sugars like dates, raisins, berries but only for the people who don’t have insulin resistance and are not looking for weight loss. Otherwise, you can use sugar substitutes like Stevia or Splenda, erythritol or monk fruit sugar.”
My sweet lord: What to expect when you quit eating sugar
My focus was cutting out refined sugar. I began by banishing sugar from my tea, and eating a fruit before or after workouts to replace the protein bar I was used to. Alcohol contains sugar, so I took to drinking the very occasional gin on ice to drown my sorrows.
It’s easier to just drink water, black coffee or tea. I sniffed brownie boxes and deep-breathed in ice-cream tubs to satiate cravings. And began reading ingredient labels with a microscope—turns out milk compounds live in a lot of packaged foods and they all contain sugar. From cereal and flavoured yoghurt to mayonnaise and savoury snacks like pretzels, crisps and chevda, a total ban was in effect. What made this bittersweet divorce worth it was reminding myself that the empty calories of refined sugar can rob your body of essential minerals, cause weight gain, liver damage, amongst a host of other problems.
If it sounds hard, it is. Refined sugar sneaks into a lot of packaged food that isn’t even meant to be sweet—so the easiest way to avoid it is to bid adieu to the processed stuff and stick to whole foods instead. Still, after going through all five stages of grief, my sugar cut seemed to be working. Too well— my withdrawal symptoms made me crankier than a chainsmoker in rehab. I was getting plenty of sugar via natural sources and starchy foods, but I was still anxious, suffered from endless cravings (for carbs and cake), light headedness, fatigue and mild nausea—all common symptoms of a refined sugar detox.
There were no handy nicotine patches or vape-like replacements for dessert cravings. So, I went through days of self-loathing, tears, recrimination, tears—and sadly chewing on a frozen mango, pretending it was a popsicle. It took me many months, binge eating slip-ups, and a consistently mindful approach to be able to very proudly, and annoyingly say “I quit eating sugar (on purpose)”.
Happily, I now make an effort to eat healthier over all — snacking on Nutties has been replaced by poha. Homemade pasta sauce wins out and I eat a honey-covered amla when I’m feeling particularly wild and free. Now that I’ve broken the toxic habit, I can partake in the occasional cake party without sugar shakes and a fear of relapse. Because balance is everything, kids.
Spikes in energy have given way to more consistent energy. My inflamed skin is clearing up very slowly and I even lost a few kgs at the beginning of my refined sugar freeze out. I’m still waiting for the abs to come in and I’m told my heart will benefit from it. Will check in when I’m 65 .
The boyfriend was right, though. The irritability? That’s just me.
3 substitutes if you’re looking to quit refined sugar
- Stevia: A natural sweetener that’s extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub that’s scientifically known as Stevia rebaudiana. While Stevia is considered generally safe, more research is needed to determine whether the natural sweetener brings sustained benefits. Buy here.
- Date sugar: Made from granulated dried dates, it’s is hailed for containing the fibre and antioxidants found in dates. Still, the average Deglet Noor date contains 4 to 5 grams of sugar, so date sugar is still very much a sweetener, but in side-by-side comparison, date sugar has a lower sugar content when compared to white. Buy here.
- Monk fruit sugar: Monk fruit extract is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. The extract contains zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium, and zero fat. Buy here.
A note of caution: The above information has been shared in consultation with trained medical professionals. Please consult your healthcare provider to find a treatment plan that would work best for your needs.