Sweet results

Mind over matter

Mind over matter

About two months ago (time flies!), I wrote about embarking on a sugar-free diet. At the time, I was only a few days in, but things were going swimmingly. The rest of the journey would prove to have some ups and downs.

The plan I followed was 21 days long. The first phase included only minimal sugar from natural sources like vegetables (no fruit allowed). The next phases re-introduced fruit, honey and processed whole grains, while the final phase allowed “treats” with a small amount of added sugar.

Some of what surprised me most over the course of the plan:

  • I didn’t crave what I expected to crave (ice cream, chocolate).
  • I didn’t miss what I expected to miss (Diet Coke, ice cream).
  • I gained a new appreciation for true whole grains (e.g. barley, quinoa, buckwheat). I already was a fan of quinoa but learned to use it in new recipes.
  • I discovered that a simple salad dressing of oil + lemon juice really is tasty and effective.
  • I was astonished at just how much sugar is found in some foods. Every once in a while, I like to have a chai latte from Starbucks. A medium (I can’t bring myself to use their sizing terminology) contains 43 g of sugar — or nearly 11 teaspoons! (The recommended max of added sugars a day for women is 6 teaspoons.) That was a sad realization but one that definitely made an impact.
  • IMG_1375A sugar source that you most crave might not be an “obvious” sugar like cake or chocolate. I discovered that the sugar I crave most comes in carbohydrate form — especially bread products. During the plan, I might have hurt someone for a slice of pizza or a sub sandwich on a nice chewy Italian roll. But a chocolate bar? Nah, no thanks.

So, as the plan went along, I was feeling GREAT.  I was wholly satisfied with the meals I ate — focusing on lean protein, unprocessed whole grains, produce, dairy and other foods in their natural state. I made sure to be prepared, cooking batches of quinoa, broiling chicken breasts and chopping veggies so I could throw meals together without much time to debate what to have. That enabled me to avoid eating something off-plan when in a pinch. Most of all, I felt even and stable. No indigestion or bloating or any similar issues. I felt clean and fueled and satisfied. I even successfully made it through a weekend away with my college roommate and our husbands at a baseball game in another city, early in the plan. (Though I do owe them a night out for drinks, because alcohol was not allowed in the first phase, and how can you visit with your college roommate without a toast or two?)

Midway through the 21 days, I’d lost some weight and I could feel the positive effects of this new eating plan. I was being proven wrong when it came to my skepticism.

And then I got cocky.

The last few days of the plan allowed you to eat a small treat each day, as a way to account for your added sugar allotment. The first couple days, I didn’t even have a treat. I confess that in part I was afraid to open the floodgates. But I also wasn’t really craving anything that badly (other than the aforementioned pizza).

That Friday night, I had a very small brownie sundae at a get-together. The next day, my husband and I set out for a weekend of bike riding. Our route would take us through some Jersey Shore towns known for pizza, so I made sure that our ride would coincide with a lunchtime stop. I reasoned that I’d count the pizza as my added sugar treat that day. I’d wanted to have a diet soda with the pizza (to me, they go together like mac and cheese) but the pizzeria we chose only offered Pepsi products, and I prefer Coke products, so I held out.

What was strange was that the pizza did not taste as good as I expected it to. It was a bit anticlimactic. Maybe I got a bum slice or two, I thought.

We went out for a seafood dinner that night. I had part of a fried tomatoes appetizer, drenched in marinara sauce. It sounded better than it was. And afterward we went for ice cream, and I had a small serving. Here came more rationalization: “I biked more than 30 miles today — I can cheat a little and overdo the sugar a bit.” I think because I was anticipating my first ice cream in 3 weeks of summer, I went a bit overboard, ordering a chocolate and peanut butter twist in a cup, with chocolate coating. (Rather than something simple, like plain vanilla, which might have been more satisfying.)

Again, though, it was anticlimactic and didn’t live up to expectations.

The next day we biked another 30+ miles. I had a couple more “cheats”: a white sandwich wrap, some french fries, a big Diet Coke. And now I started to feel like I was in the twilight zone — even the soda was not as fabulously enjoyable as I imagined it would be.

Early on Monday morning, I awoke feeling super bloated and just plain ugh. I got on the scale and couldn’t believe it. I was UP about 5 pounds from what I weighed before the weekend. Could my few “cheats” have had such a negative impact?

Long story short, it seems they did. Not only did I feel heavy and overstuffed but also sluggish and unmotivated. I couldn’t even blame the latter two effects on a weekend of bicycling because we were so conditioned from all our recent rides. I was super upset and disappointed in myself, feeling like it took me just a couple of days to completely unravel the previous weeks of doing so, so well on the plan.

As disheartened as I was, the lesson was invaluable. I couldn’t have asked for a more concrete illustration of how good it felt to eat so cleanly and with minimal added sugar. I immediately got back on track and within a few days felt great again.

Soon, I returned for my final weigh-in and was glad to find that the tide had turned. My total weight loss was more than 11 pounds. Along with that, I lost a total of 6.25 inches (arms, thighs, chest, waist, hips), with the most from my waist, which shrunk 1.75 inches.

In some ways, it’s crazy how great 11 pounds less can feel. On one hand, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But on the other, it makes me feel like a different person.

And speaking of a different person … I’ve changed in a lot of ways over the course of this endeavor, but I’ve stayed the same too. As great as I’ve felt on the plan, to be frank it’s still a struggle sometimes.

By far, the hardest part for me has been limiting myself to only one serving of processed whole grain a day. (That category includes cereal, bread, crackers, pasta.) For most of my life, I’ve been a cereal-for-breakfast and sandwich-for-lunch person. And even if I’m choosing a so-called healthy cereal like plain Cheerios or some form of Kashi, that’s still a serving of processed whole grain that contains added sugar. And even if I choose a whole wheat bread with zero or minimal added sugar, it’s still a serving of processed whole grain. Can’t have both now, so I’ve really had to adjust my typical menu. That’s still a work in progress. I also have to fight the mentality that if I’ve really adhered to the plan during most of the week, that I can balance out with some “cheats” on the weekend. That’s also still a work in progress.

So as time goes by, I’ll post more about my progress and my pitfalls. And I’ll remind myself how great I feel when all the pieces come together.

Not so sweet

Pretty much anytime you read or hear about exercise as a means to a healthy life, nutrition is mentioned next. They certainly go hand in hand.

Mmmm ... brownies.

Mmmm … brownies.

And just as it’s not always easy to find the motivation to exercise, it can be difficult to always follow a healthy, nutritious diet. I sure can attest to both. In my adult years, I’ve lost a total of 50 pounds over time, but have battled with that last 10 pounds, back and forth.

And my exercise has ranged from a big fat load of nothing to a list of physical accomplishments that includes four full marathons, a dozen half marathons and a 10-mile race thrown in for good measure.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my best intentions don’t always win out. I never met a dish of ice cream or a brownie that I could easily turn down. On the flip side, I’ve been known to binge on fresh summer fruit, too. (Is it bad to eat two mangoes in one sitting? They’re just SO good.)

Boooo ... sugar.

Boooo … sugar.

I know many people who have tried a sugar-free diet, both as a constant way of living and as a way to reset their systems. In the latter approach, they spent several days with zero sugar — not even in natural forms, like fruit — and slowly reintroduced it to their diets. Ultimately the intention is to weed out as much added sugar as possible. Natural sugar is not a bad thing, the key word being natural. But added sugar has no nutritional value and no reason for being, other than making foods sweeter and setting us up for a lifetime of cravings.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s a boatload of research on how bad added sugar is for us. There’s a new study that not only links it to heart disease but to a higher risk for death. Another study found that fructose (a form of added sugar) can create a domino effect that causes our “I’m full” sensor to essentially malfunction. Yet another looked at the link between sugar consumption and decreased brainpower. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Research also shows that sugar consumption creates a vicious cycle. You consume it, you crave it, you consume more, you crave more… you get the idea.

So: How much sugar is OK? What kind of sugar is OK? The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories a day, or about 6 teaspoons’ worth, from added sugars. (For men, it’s 150 calories and 9 teaspoons.)

OK ... in moderation.

Way more than a daily allotment!

For mathematical purposes when you’re reading nutrition labels, 4 g of sugar = 1 teaspoon. So if you’re eating one granola bar that contains chocolate chips that has 12 g of sugar (as I saw on a label of one today), there’s 3 teaspoons, or half your allotment for the day. From one 4-inch granola bar!

It can be hard to determine what portion of the sugars listed on a label are natural and what portion is not. The AHA offers great information about this and much more, here.

Aside from information sharing, my purpose in posting this topic is to share my experience in going sugar-free. For the past 6 days, I’ve been participating in a sugar-free diet test panel. I spent the first 4 days with zero sugar, natural or otherwise. Yesterday, I was able to add fruit back in, along with one serving of refined whole grain.

I had previously scoffed quite seriously at friends who tried this diet. I believe in all things in moderation, I said. Cutting something out just sets you up to really crave the taboo item, I asserted.

So what changed? I read more of the research. I took into consideration my friends’ raves about how great they felt. I realized that I needed a reset of my own — a final piece of the puzzle, if you will, in trying to live as healthfully as possible and eat cleanly.

Yum ... natural sweetness! / Photo by Chris M. Junior

Yum … natural sweetness! / Photo credit: Chris M. Junior

Do I miss ice cream? Yes. Surprisingly, I’m really craving some pizza. (Tomato sauce is generally loaded with sugar, and the white dough ain’t so great, either.) But I’m finding that I can survive without my daily Diet Coke, and that I can pass up the doughnuts and M&M’s in the office. I still love fresh fruit and consider it a yummy treat. And the more days that go by on my “eating clean” calendar, the better and more revved-up I feel. (The weight loss is a welcome side effect too!)

I still believe in “all things in moderation” — but I don’t think I was eating sugars in moderation. I’ll revisit the topic at the end of the test panel time period and let you know how I’m feeling then. In the meantime, I welcome feedback and/or comments if you’ve tried this way of eating yourself.