10 Things I Learned Going Sugar-Free For 60 Days
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It’s no secret that I love a good 30-day challenge.
Actually, just coming off the season of Lent, I even love a meaningful 40-day challenge.
But when I received an email from a friendly girl named Jacqueline last December — right in the thick of holiday baking season, mind you — asking if I’d like to participate in her course where participants Go Sugar Free for 60-day challenge?! Mmmm, let’s just say that I took a delicious bite of the freshly-baked ginger cookie I was munching on and decided this might be the place where I draw the line. Why?
Well, first off, I was iffy about the course because I honestly didn’t feel like I really ate that much sugar. Or at least, by comparison, I didn’t eat as much sugar as I used to. Some of you have heard me mention on the blog before that I had a major candy addiction growing up. (Like, major.) My mom didn’t really keep it in the house, but you’d better believe that when I was at school, silly amounts of my allowance were spent on Skittles and Hot Tamales and Junior Mints in the vending machines. Then once I went to college and had the freedom to stock my own pantry, I became known as the girl who ate Nerds for breakfast (yes, there’s even an article in our college paper about this), as well as the popular hair stylist friend on campus who would give you a “free” hair cut in exchange for a box of Chewy Sprees. The staff at my summer internship even gave me a box with 20+ different kinds of candy as my going-away present, knowing how much I snacked on it at my desk. However, after college, I discovered that I enjoyed eating items that I baked much more than candy. And somehow in my mid-twenties, I miraculously weaned myself off of the candy habit almost completely, in favor of homemade sweets and natural fruits and such. Granted, at first the baked goods I used as a replacement were hardly any healthier. But over the years, I’ve moved into some healthier baking, and generally just crave (and eat) sweet much less. That said, when I received Jacqueline’s email, I was still in the habit of usually “balancing out” my savory meals with a little something sweet afterwards on a daily basis. But I was nowhere near as addicted to sugar as I used to be, so I felt like I was doing pretty good.
Second, I was iffy about the the course because of the timeline. With the 60+ days beginning in January, I realized that the early winter session would overlap with the month that Kathryne and I were planning to spend in Austin, which basically sounded like no fun. We had a long list of restaurants that we wanted to visit, and I think anyone who travels would agree that eating out makes special diets and eating goals way more complicated. And let’s be real, I wanted some margaritas to go with all of those tacos!!
Third, and probably most importantly, I was iffy about trying the course because the idea of going sugar-free sounded too extreme. After trying all sorts of diets over the years, I have come to the pretty strong conclusion that I enjoy an “all things in moderation” approach to eating. I have the luxury (which I’m well aware is a privilege) of not having any food allergies. But while many of my friends are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan or gluten-free or dairy-free or Whole 30-ing or what have you nowadays, I’ve decided that I enjoy having a little bit of everything. So I choose to try and eat as healthy as I can, with a few indulgences each day. Granted, there were probably a few more indulgences than I was willing to admit when I received Jacqueline’s email. But still, the idea of cutting out cold-turkey seemed a little much, especially for a food blogger.
Of course, you know where this was going…
After sitting on the email for a few days and watching my sugar intake as I went to holiday party after holiday party, curiosity started to seep in and I began to think it might be an interesting experiment to see if I could actually do it. If I could actually kick those sweet-after-savory cravings once and for all. If I could actually notice a difference in my body, in terms of energy and weight and shape and skin clarity (something that piqued my interest in Jaqueline’s description of the site). If I could learn how to make smarter choices when eating out in Austin. If I could learn how to cook and bake more of my favorite foods with natural sweeteners. If I could actually go sugar-free.
Turns out, I could. And turns out, it was surprisingly easier than I expected.
So for anyone interested, today I’m sharing a little bit about the Go Sugar Free program, what I learned from it (because you know I love a good 10 Things I’ve Learned list), and how I’m choosing to eat now that the course has officially ended. No pressure to read on if this isn’t your kind of thing. (I didn’t think it was mine.) But it ended up up being a bit of a life-changer for me, so here’s the story…
The Course — What It Is
Well first, I should probably tell you a little bit about what the Go Sugar Free course actually is.
It’s not just a 60-day challenge. It really is a comprehensive course that covers tons of info related to sugars and natural sweeteners, the latest research about their effects on the body, and resources for cooking and baking and eating out and life in general without added sugars. Most of this info arrived in my inbox via these lengthy and incredibly well-researched emails that Jacqueline sent out each morning, as well as tips shared between other participants in the private Facebook group for Go Sugar Free.
What I didn’t expect was that a large portion of the course would actually be focused more on the life-coaching side of things. As in, actually teaching and encouraging participants how to make realistic goals for their sugar intake…and stick with them. (You know, the important part.) Jacqueline did a fantastic job of chiming in via the emails and Facebook group with fun and well-researched tips on how to handle various challenges that come your way with going sugar-free (or really, making any big life changes). But then the unexpected bonus was that she actually checked in regularly with each participant via a 1-on-1 email throughout the program, offering even more personalized tips and encouragement to stick with it. I’ll probably say it a hundred times in this post, but she was awesome. And I was impressed every day with her knowledge and passion and dedication to the participants in the course.
The Course — What It Isn’t
Probably my biggest relief came when I began the course and realized that it was not designed to be “extreme”. Quite the opposite, really. At the beginning of the course, each participant goes through a checklist of every added sugar and refined grain and makes a personal goal about how they would like to try and eat. So you can be as extreme or as moderate as you would like! If you just want to make a few tweaks in your diet, you can. If you want to go for the gold and really shake things up, you can. Totally up to you. (And Go Sugar Free members are given lifetime memberships, so many people take the course a 2nd and 3rd time, and try out different eating goals each time. Pretty cool.)
Jacqueline was also very understanding about choosing to make exceptions or little indulgences “when in Rome”. Or in my case, “when in Austin”, and killer margaritas are nearby. I definitely stuck to the program as much as possible, but took her up on the option to indulge in sweets a few times.
The program was also not necessarily designed as something you had to stick with indefinitely. The 60-day timeline was designed to give participants a solid chunk of time to really try out some new habits. But once the course concluded, everyone was encouraged to re-evaluate and see what habits and changes they wanted to apply long-term. You can read more about my conclusions below.
My “Go Sugar Free” Plan
So what did I decide to do?
Well in a nutshell, I decided that if I was going to do the program, I really wanted to go for it and cut out just about as many added sugars sand refined grains as I could manage. I opted to cut out all (added) white granulated sugar and brown sugar completely, limit my use of natural sweeteners like honey and agave and dates, somewhat limit naturally-sweetened fruits, totally cut out fruit juices, and only eat pre-made sauces that had less than 2 grams of sugar per serving.
My more extreme decision (or so it felt) was to actually with the refined grains checklist that’s also a part of the program. Your options ranged from just cutting out a few refined flours to cutting out all refined grains and gluten. While I’ve never been diagnosed with a gluten allergy, I have always been curious about what it would “feel” like to completely eliminate gluten from my system. So I decided to go completely gluten-free for the first month of the course, and then experiment with adding some whole grains (not refined grains) back in for the final month.
I won’t bore you with all of the ups and downs and the successes and failures of my 60+ days going sugar (and refined grain) free. But these few changes ended up making a pretty big difference in my life. So here are a few lessons I learned along the way, and an update on where I landed at the end of the course.
10 Things I Learned
1. Going sugar-free was actually way easier than I expected.
Truly! I don’t really know what I expected, but once I began the course, I actually realized that I already was doing a pretty good job beforehand with avoiding added sugars and opting for natural sweeteners whenever possible. Granted, I almost entirely gave up baking sweets at home during the 60 days (see #8 below), so the main temptation to indulge in sugary foods came at restaurants or parties. But once I kind of flipped the switch in my brain that sweets were off the table — and were literally off the table and out of the pantry and fridge in my home — I didn’t feel as tempted to reach for them after every meal. And when they were available or offered to me at a party, I had more willpower with each passing day to politely pass. Of course, everyone came to the course with different backgrounds with sugar, and it was harder for those who regularly ate more sugar and desserts. But overall, I was somewhat relieved to find out that — at least for me — cutting out added sugars was not nearly as daunting as I was worried it might be.
2. Cutting out refined grains was way harder than I expected.
Turns out that bidding farewell to refined grains was the much harder part of the course for me, especially during the month that I experimented with going 100% gluten-free. I realized I had plenty of willpower to pass on a chocolate chip cookie. But passing on a big bowl of pasta, or a slice of my favorite pizza, or — um — beer?! That’s where all of Jacqueline’s tips on self-control and accountability and all of that jazz had to come in. By contrast to refined sugars, I thought that I did a pretty decent job opting for whole grains before the course began. But in actuality, I realized that good ol’ all-purpose flour (and other refined grains) still showed up in my diet much more than I was willing to admit, especially when eating out. So cutting all refined grains out felt like a Very Big Deal, and affected my cooking and recipes at home more significantly. But the good news is that there are now tons of great resources and recipes and pre-prepared foods and restaurant options now for eating refined-grain-free and gluten-free, as everyone knows. So it was fun to discover new foods (namely, these crackers) and recipes that were deliciously gluten-free and refined-grain-free. And as you’ll notice with the food pictures on this post, all of the GF recipes I created during this time period were not lacking in deliciousness. ;)
3. My body adapted much more quickly to going sugar-free than I expected.
Lemme tell ya, 60 days sounded like a long time at the beginning of this course. But once we got rolling, I was surprised at how quickly my body adapted, especially with sweets. One of my biggest hopes for this course was to finally kick the habit of “needing” something sweet after eating something savory. That’s how my cravings have worked for my entire life, and I was doubtful that they could change. But I’m happy to say that within just a week or two, I felt like that lifelong cycle was finally broken. Crazy!!! My other big hope was that I could re-program my taste buds’ sensitivity to sweetness, to where a piece of fruit tasted “normal” and a slice of cake or piece of candy or cookie almost tasted too sweet. I was doubtful that too, but my friends who had taken the course beforehand swore it was possible. And sure enough, mission = accomplished. For the first time in my life, an apple now feels like a completely satisfying option when I’m in the mood for something sweet, a little honey goes a long way, and fresh berries feel like a downright treat. It’s almost as though our bodies might be designed to enjoy healthier alternatives — who knew?! :)
4. Eating out is one of the hardest challenges in making a big dietary change.
Without a doubt, eating out was definitely one of the biggest challenges of the program. I remember on my first night out during the program, I went to a beer-tasting happy hour with some friends and was exceedingly proud of myself when I passed on the IPAs, but then I realized that literally none of the other cocktails on the menu were both sugar and gluten-free. So I passed on getting a drink, and decided to just wait until we went to dinner at the dive bar restaurant next door. Well once we arrived, it turned out that nearly all of their menu items contained gluten! So I opted for a boring spring salad, and sure enough it came out with a balsamic dressing so thick and sweet it could have totally counted as dessert. Gah!! This happened again and again over the 60 days, especially with restaurants that weren’t known for having as many “healthy” options. And even then, while many restaurants clearly mark items as gluten-free, I didn’t visit a single place that marked anything as sugar-free. And let me tell you, restaurants sneak way more sugar into food than they let on, even into the healthier dishes. So I learned how to get better at asking the servers questions about sugar content if I was skeptical, I got better at asking for more dressings and sauces on the side, and I learned how to order drinks with less or natural sweeteners.
5. Sugar is hidden freaking EVERYWHERE.
On that note, I became even more aware of the general fact that sugar is absolutely everywhere. Restaurants sneak it into the foods you would least expect. But quite frankly, some of the biggest surprises for me came at the grocery store where ingredients and nutrition facts are clearly labeled on everything! Case in point — yogurt, breads, nut butters, protein powders, canned veggies, canned fruits, energy bars, cereals, sauces and condiments of all kinds — just look at their labels the next time you’re at the store. Sugar, sugar, sugar. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the sugar content in some of my usual favorites at the grocery store. But once I took a closer look, I was shocked, and it changed the way I shop for groceries. Label-checking for the win!
6. Some store-bought fruits and veggies smoothies and juices contain LOTS of sugar.
Speaking of label checking, one of my biggest takeaways from the program was realizing how many store-bought naturally-sweetened fruit and veggie products still contain lots of sugar. Of course, the natural sugars in them are processed very differently by the body than your typical granulated or brown sugars. And Jacqueline says that whole fresh fruits and vegetables are always welcomed with open arms. But I was intrigued to learn how many fruit and veggies — especially fruit and veggie juices and smoothies — often contain significant amounts of sugars. For example, I learned that my favorite mighty mango juice I occasionally buy as a treat at the grocery store contains a whopping 60 grams of sugar in a bottle — yeesh! Needless to say, I’m reading the nutrition facts a little more carefully lately even on “naturally sweetened” products as well.
7. I never knew that there was a link between sugar and…
…sleep, belly fat, adult acne, and so much more! As a nice bonus, I saw noticeable changes in all of these areas during my time going sugar free, as well as more stability with my energy levels and less swings. (Although I think that any of the belly fat or weight loss was counter-balanced by all of the chips and salsa we ate in Austin, oops. Worth it though.) So if you struggle in any of these areas, it’s definitely worth doing some research on how decreasing your sugar intake might help.
8. Baking was the hardest part (for me) of going sugar-free and refined-grain-free.
Cooking was the easy part, I think because so many of my favorite meals just include proteins and veggies and grains like quinoa. (Oh and Mexican food — I was positively delighted to realize that most of my favorite Mexi foods are both sugar- and gluten-free!) But baking was far more difficult, and I admittedly ended up avoiding it most of the time, which is not a solution for the long term because I love to bake! It’s just trickier to bake with natural sweeteners and whole grains. (And way trickier to bake gluten-free, as we all know.) Thankfully, the products and recipes available now are getting better and better. But I definitely whined a little about missing out on my favorite baguettes and blueberry muffins.
9. Having a good support system for going sugar-free is essential.
Thankfully, though, whenever I found myself feeling extra-tempted by those breads or muffins, I had the support of the Go Sugar Free community to turn to. One of the greatest benefits of this particular program was the very active Facebook page filled with current and past participants. All day long, people were sharing various tips and resources with one another, as well as sharing their struggles and successes, and cheering one another on. It was awesome. There’s a reason why support groups are essential when making big life changes, and the kind and gracious people who are a part of the Go Sugar Free community reminded me just how powerful that accountability and support can be. In the harder moments of temptation, they definitely helped inspire me to stay on track.
10. So bottom line, after 60 days going sugar-free, I’ve concluded that…
I want less sugar in my life.
Like, a lot less than I used to eat. But not 100% less.
I felt like I proved to myself that I could do the program and go 100% sugar-free, and I learned in doing so that my body feels better and life is still plenty delicious and enjoyable without it. But at the end of the day, I still land at “all things in moderation” for me, and don’t want to cut out sugar completely. If I’m eating out, or at a party, or have a craving to bake a favorite cookie recipe, I want to give myself the freedom to indulge in moderation and on special occasions.
But the big difference there being what “in moderation” looks like nowadays, and the idea of “on occasion”.
When I was in college, moderation was one box of Hot Tamales instead of two. In my early twenties, moderation was two brownies instead of four. At the beginning of this program in my early thirties, it was one serving of dessert (or “something sweet”) a day instead of two. Now, after completing the program, I feel like moderation now means that I indulge just a few times a week instead of every day. And whenever possible, I’m all for those sweets being naturally sweetened instead of chocked full of granulated sugar.
I also want to stick with the idea of sweets being a “special occasion” treat, more of a daily expectation. I want to choose them intentionally, and savor every bite, rather than just reaching for that third cookie.
I also really want to stick with the habit of eating less refined grains. I’ll be honest — after adding the whole-wheat ingredients back into my diet after a month of going gluten-free, I didn’t notice a difference in how my body felt, which just confirms my belief that I’ve never had a gluten intolerance. But I did notice a difference with cutting out refined flours, and know that I need and want less of them in my life. However, all things in moderation there too. When served a slice of my favorite non-whole-grain pizza crust from Waldo Pizza in Kansas City, I’m going to indulge. Or when the craving hits for my favorite Coconut Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies made with AP flour, I plan to occasionally whip up a batch. But now, instead of eating a few, I genuinely am content with just one. And whenever possible, I want to opt for whole grains.
It’s just how I like to roll, and probably how I’ll continue to eat for the rest of my life. But this program was definitely a life-changer in terms of what moderation looks like, and I feel great about the idea of a lifetime ahead of making significantly better (and much more informed) choices when it comes to eating sugars and grains. I’m also excited to be sharing some delicious recipes that are in line with those choices — as well as a few “in moderation” indulgences — here on the blog. I don’t know if any of you noticed, but I posted (mostly) sugar-free and refined-grain-free recipes all throughout the months of January and February, and have been continuing the trend ever since. So if you love the recipes happening here over the past few months and really the past year or two, hakuna matata — nothing big is going to change!! I will probably still pop in with a few more “indulgent” recipes every now and then. But they’ll be just that — occasional indulgences.
I have always blogged the way I eat, so all things in moderation here at Gimme Some Oven too. :)
So in the end, I’d call this a good experience! And one that I’d highly recommend looking into yourself.
If you’re interested in a structured program like this one, Go Sugar Free is absolutely the route to go. They have new courses opening regularly, with the next session beginning in May. So here’s an affiliate link if you’re interested in checking it out. And if you do, definitely let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear about your experiences!
Big thanks to Jacqueline for being such an incredible and encouraging teacher, and for inspiring this big change with sugar in my life. And big thanks to all of you, as always, for reading along and for continuing to try out the recipes I share here. Cheers to much more deliciousness to come!
As a disclaimer, I was offered a complimentary spot in the January session of Go Sugar Free, but I was not compensated to write a review. All opinions are 100% my own. I just really enjoyed and stand by this course, and highly recommend it! Affiliate links to the course are included.