Do you want to get control of your sugar cravings? Feel awake and energized without coffee? Are you ready to start the year off feeling like a brighter maybe even lighter you? Then join me over Lent in cutting out refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, alcohol and caffeine!
I know what you're thinking... no chocolate, bread or wine? That sounds ridiculous. But I'm not asking you to give up these things forever, just 46 days (March 5th through April 19th). I promise it is completely doable and absolutely worthwhile. This will be the second time I'm doing it and I'll be here to help guide you along the way with meal plans, recipes and tips to stay on track. And really, what do you have to lose? So you can get an idea of whether of not this is something you would be interested in, I thought I’d answer a few questions.
What made you want to give up these delicious things in the first place?It was really a combination of factors that convinced me to improve my diet and see what my life would be like without these substances. For one thing, over Christmas I discovered that my blood pressure was higher than my 87-year-old grandmother’s (to be fair she does take meds for it, but still!). Secondly, I was sick of relying on these stimulants for energy. Since joining the workforce, I had gone from drinking two or three coffees a week to drinking that in a day. These mugs were usually accompanied by something sweet. I wanted to get back to my body’s natural rhythms.
Last but not least, I saw a very poignant and provocative 1.5-hour lecture entitled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” from Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. In this video, he makes the bold claim that sugar is not just empty calories but in fact toxic to our body. Some of what he said really resonated with me and I certainly am not the only one. New York Times columnist Gary Taubes felt the same way and summarized the lectures and his thoughts on it in this article if you want to know more.
What exactly are you cutting out and why?When I say I “cut out sugar,” this brings up a LOT of questions, because nowadays there are hundreds of different types of sweeteners to choose from. My rule of thumbs was, if humans have had to refine, process or extract it, leave it alone. This includes white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, Equal, Splenda, etc. When reading labels look out for words ending in “ose”: Fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose and dextrose. If it does not occur in nature in the form you are eating it, just skip it. These concentrated sweeteners are stripped of most any other nutrients. They quickly digest and spike your blood sugar, which taxes your liver (which is responsible for regulating blood sugar), slows your metabolism and causes insulin levels to increase (promoting fat storage). Worst of all, though, they increase your sugar cravings – a ridiculously vicious cycle.
Refined/Processed/Extracted Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners
Refined/Processed/Extracted Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners
Now this is not to say sweet things are bad. Fruits and vegetables are sweet, but they contain fiber and a host of other vitamins and minerals that we need. The fiber in these foods ensures they are digested slower, do not spike your blood sugar levels as quickly and that the liver will have more time to process the fructose. I also did use some natural sweeteners VERY sparingly. This includes honey, maple syrup and molasses. When I say sparingly, I mean a few tablespoons for an entire recipe not a single serving.
Basically replace your bread and pasta with whole grains. By this I mean the actual grains themselves and not just bread and pasta made with whole grains. Whole grain breads almost always contain some kind of processed sugar. When grains are milled or refined, the germ and bran are typically extracted and this removes a large amount of nutrients and fiber. Even when milled whole, it takes a large part of the work away from your body’s digestive system, which means they will be processed more quickly and hit blood stream faster.
I did eat whole foods naturally high in carbohydrates and other nutrients to replace the refined ones, including oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and wild rice. I choose to go gluten free just to see if it made a difference for me. Feel free to include whole grains that contain gluten, though, such as barley.
Aside from being empty calories, the reality is alcohol is a toxin that our liver has to filter. If you want to read more about what alcohol can do to our health, check out this BBC article.
After the holiday season and all its parties, I felt like I owed my liver a break and realized it had been years since I had gone a month without a drink. That alone made me decide to go all out and cut it out for a least a while. But don’t worry, I promise red wine is not the only place you can get antioxidants.
This one is pretty self explanatory in terms of what I cut out. I avoided caffeinated coffee, black teas and green teas. Why? In part, because caffeine is processed by the liver and again I wanted to give my liver a break, but mostly because I wanted to know what it felt like just to have energy that was natural for once. The first week without it was hard, but after that I felt great. While I love coffee this has been one change that has stuck with me all year long. I now just drink caffeinated coffee on weekends.
Do I really need to cut out all of those things?No, of course not. Making a huge change is hard and doing too much may set you up for failure. Do what you can.
I would, however, recommend cutting out the processed sugar and carbs together, because only doing one will still leave your blood sugar and energy levels going up and down, making cravings worse and the whole process more difficult. Two of my friends decided to just cut out the sugar last year and I can definitely say they had a harder time.
If you are scared to give up coffee, I can also say that cutting out those sugars and carbs made it a lot easier for me to pass on a cup of joe, because my bloog sugar and natural energy levels were more consistent. If you don’t want to cut caffeine out, try to transition to less of it and in a form that is better for you. Green tea, for example, contains lots of antioxidants and has a bunch of benefits. I go into more in this post.
If you do want to drink alcohol, I'd say try to keep it in moderation and choose options that do not have added sugar. For example, gin and vodka don’t contain any added sugar. Try mixing them with chilled teas, some freshly pressed juice, club soda and a little honey.
What am I supposed to eat for 46 days?
It's true, no processed sugar and carbs does means most processed foods are off limits. Last year, I enjoyed a wide range of vegetables, fruits and grains along with animal protein and some diary. For inspiration as to what your dinner, lunch, breakfast and even dessert can look like, I'll be posting my weekly meal plans ahead of time. Since the challenge starts on a Wednesday, I'll be posting them on Fridays. They will contain 7-8 meal options that should feed two people twice (dinner and lunch) as well as a number of breakfast and snack options. I will also be posting a list of links to other blogs and recipes in case what I'm serving up that week does not appeal to you.
What kind of benefits can I expect to see?
1. Increased energy and improved mood throughout the day. This was huge for me. I used to drink two or three cups of coffee daily along with lots of sugary treats to keep from crashing. After week one, I saw a huge improvement in both my mood and energy levels.
2. Lose of excess weight. Cutting out high-calorie foods and replacing them with nutrient-dense, fiber-filled ones makes it easy to lose excess weight, because the sugar cravings start to disappear and because you'll need bigger portions to get the same amount of calories.
3. Improved appearance of skin, hair, nails, etc. Cutting out the empty calories and replacing with them nutrient-dense ones means your body is getting so much more to work with. Whole food is filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help repair cells and remove free radicals that cause aging and damage.
4. Lower cholesterol. Eating whole foods increases the fiber content in your diet, which will likely have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels.
5. Improved digestion. Again the increased fiber takes longer to digest, cleans your digestive track out and allows you to absorb more nutrients from your food.
Why do you call it a sugar detox?
The liver plays a key role in regulating blood sugar and processing caffeine and alcohol. These dietary changes not only increase the amount of vitamins and minerals you are getting, but also lessen the load on your liver – the organ in your body that is responsible for processing and removing toxins. By giving it a break, your liver can work on cleaning up everything in your body. Read more here.
Why did you choose to do this over Lent?
While I am not Catholic, I choose to do this over Lent for a few reasons. Firstly, it is a time when many other people are making changes in the lives either due to their religious beliefs (Lent) or New Year’s resolutions. This opened the door for getting others to join me, which really helped. I also knew that it would take at least a month to see health improvements from a change in diet and this is one time of year when there are no major holidays when I would feel like I was missing out or tempted to cheat. And last but not least, spring is the time of renewal and awakening. Starting out the year by doing something good for yourself feels amazing and so right!
Are you a nutritionist or a dietician?
No, I am not. I am just an avid health and nutrition enthusiast and passionate foodie who reads a lot about these topics and wants to share the positive benefits I have experienced. Please talk to your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet.