There are lots of reasons to give up sugar — to name a few, it’s a health disaster, it creates cravings that are arguably as strong as those to illegal drugs, and it can cause anxiety and insomnia. There are also a lot of reasons not to give up sugar — to name a few, cookies, cakes and iced mochas. About six years ago, after I learning from an elimination diet that I’m extremely sensitive to cane sugar, I decided to pass up the pastry case forever. (Okay, who knows if it’s going to be forever, but at least for now.)
After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found I can tolerate almost any natural sugar except sugarcane. I eat fruit. Maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, and even limited amounts of honey, are all great. Sugars that have been fermented, like the ones in beer, wine and kombucha, are also fine. I can’t have high fructose corn syrup (although I think probably no one should), and I can’t have white sugar or raw sugar or cane juice.
I also try to avoid unnatural sugar substitutes, although I’ll compromise on that — I sometimes have Stevia, and I’ve had a pretty embarrassing Quest bar habit in the past (and occasionally in the present). But I try hard not to make them an everyday part of my diet.
What’s it like to withdraw from sugar?
In my experience, it was horrible. Google what happens when you quit sugar, and you’ll find that many people feel detoxed from it within a couple of weeks. That was definitely not my experience — it took about a month and a half before I stopped having awful cravings. I don’t know if that’s because I was majorly addicted or because I was still eating fruit or just because my body really holds onto things, but the withdrawal lasted a long time for me. Withdrawal, by the way, can be a variety of things. I was lethargic, got headaches and had really low energy.
The good news is, I did end up feeling a lot better eventually. My energy levels rebounded, and although I still don’t have limitless energy or anything like that, my energy level is more consistent than it was before. One of the coolest things about giving up cane sugar is that, once your taste buds adjust, things that used to taste just a little bit sweet start to taste a lot sweeter, so you can get that sugary taste with a lot less sugar.
What it’s like to avoid cane sugar?
Avoiding cane sugar in home cooking is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Admittedly, I don’t do a lot of baking anymore. It’s not that I can’t bake — I really love Black Bean Brownies from Chocolate Covered Katie, for example (I use grain-sweetened chocolate chips). And these Coconut Sugar Cookies were a hit with both me and Russell (who also eats regular sugar) this Christmas. But the point of my giving up cane sugar isn’t to pump my system full of alternative sugars, which can also be problematic for me in large amounts. But when it comes to lunches and dinners, most recipes don’t have sugar in them to begin with.
Avoiding sugar in packaged food, however, is another matter. Almost everything on the middle aisles of the grocery store contains HFCS or some form of sugarcane. When people find out I can’t have sugar, their response is often, “Oh, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t eat much sugar anyway.” I assure you, unless you’re purposely avoiding sugar (for example, if you’re paleo or keto or on WW or something), you are eating way more sugar than you think you are. It’s added into almost every item on the middle aisles of the grocery store — crackers, ketchup, peanut butter, pickles, you name it. If it’s shelf-stable, it’s almost certainly made with lots of sugar. I can usually find a brand of what I’m looking for that’s made without sugar, even in traditional grocery stores, but it takes a lot of label-reading
Am I 100% cane sugar-free? Definitely not. Cane sugar is so prevalent in our food that I’m almost convinced there are sugar particles in the air we breathe. That’s a joke, but there’s a little bit in a most of our food, and I’m not sure you can avoid it completely. I don’t ask what’s in my food at restaurants, so I know I get a little bit of cane sugar, but I do my very best to choose menu items that don’t have it. I know I can tolerate a little bit of sugar because I accidentally eat a bit here and there when it’s part of my food, and I’ve had friends who’ve told me things were sugar-free when they weren’t. But when sugar is served straight-up, like in a cookie or a sweet drink, I’ve always had trouble.
I’d love to answer some questions about giving up sugar if you have them. You can comment them here on the blog, or find my Instagram and either DM me or use the question box to ask me more. I’m no expert — I hope that’s obvious. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not really even trying to give advice here. I’m just trying to share my story in case it helps anyone else to navigate their own.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.