I always look like a million bucks by the end of January.
See? Faintly green. As dry as paper. Angry in the face. Puffy and bloated, like six zeros in a row.
Everyone’s always like, “Stop eating sugar and drinking alcohol and eating bread and stuff!” And I’m like, “Hahahahaha, k.”
But I feel gross and need to do something, so I started looking into what “cutting sugar” — and not “with my teeth,” AKA chewing — would actually look like, along with how the hell I was supposed to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
McKel Hill of Nutrition Stripped, Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD and Anne Markt, Certified Holistic Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, all weighed (haha!) in. Sorry if I’m in a weird mood while writing this, by the way. I AM DAY ONE OFF SUGAR.
***Talk to your doctor about all of this before you begin***
Step 1: Swear an Oath to Cut Out Added Sugar Forever
Step 2: Feel Like You Are Going to Cry if You Don’t Get Chocolate In Your Mouth ASAP. Eat a Candy Bar and…aw shit.
One of the first things that Shira did was empathize with that off-the-sugar-wagon mindset, “Well, I’ve ruined everything so I might as well continue to eat like this for the rest of the year.” No. “You’re fine,” she said. Take a couple of days and get back in the game!” Okay then. Rather than steps, let’s think about all of this in terms of solutions.
Solution 1: Get that gut in order.
Shira said told me that the makeup of your gut microbiome can actually affect sugar cravings. She recommends incorporating foods with “good” bacteria (think live cultures like lactobacillus) which can help balance out that delicate ecosystem. She’s into coconut kefir, raw sauerkraut and kimchi.
(Note: Raw fermented foods are not recommended for those who are pregnant or have a compromised immune system. Speak to your doctor about a probiotic supplement instead.)
Solution 2: Sure, you can replace added sugar with stevia, but don’t go crazy!
If you’re going to replace added sugar with stevia, don’t overdo it just because it’s “better for you,” or your taste buds are going to have a very hard time adjusting to non-sweetened foods, which is the point. Stevia is very sweet. Go easy on it. (All three nutritionists promised me that my taste buds will adjust, but it will take time.)
Solution 3: Get proper sleep.
Sigh. This damn sleep thing. Both Shira and Anne stressed the importance of sleep and relaxation. Anne said that if you get inadequate sleep, you’ll crave sugar (or caffeine) for energy. Can 2017 please be the year we stop staying up until 2 a.m. to look at multiple version of the same meme and actually go to bed? How bow dah?
Shira said if you’re craving bread (which has sugar in it, y’allll) it could be because your cortisol (the stress hormone) is surging, which can also peak from lack of sleep. She recommends making a serious effort to take a breather, whether it’s unwinding after a long day with an Epsom salt bath or taking five minutes to put in your headphones and listen to good music. Yes, to avoid sugar cravings.
Let me know if this has ever helped you not eat a third bagel because at this point I’m trying it all.
Solution 4: Drink water!
Drink it in the morning and throughout the day. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: your brain, while remarkable, confuses thirst with hunger. Dehydration can also make you tired, which causes you to reach for sugar to spike your energy, which will cause you to crash later — it’s a cycle. Stay hydrated, and since there’s controversy over the amount (and it all depends on your individual body) Anne’s rule of thumb is to make sure your pee is light to clear so you know you’re drinking enough water.
Solution 5: Start the day with a healthy breakfast.
If you hate breakfast, Anne suggests bulletproof coffee because the healthy fat will help you feel satiated and not jittery. For those who can stomach a morning meal (I wake up ready to eat another human), you want a balanced mix of carbs, protein and fat. Aim for real, whole foods that are dense in micronutrients, nothing processed, and obviously no added sugars.
Solution 6: Balance your macro nutrients at every meal.
Including snack time. And aim to eat every three to four hours to keep your blood sugar balanced. Anne said that at Dr. Lipman’s office, they encourage clients to fill two thirds of their plate with green, leafy vegetables (if you’re going for the starchy variety, shrink that down a bit), then add a high-quality protein (chicken, beef, turkey, fish, eggs; organic, grass-fed, no chemicals or preservatives). If you’re vegan or vegetarian, beans, nuts and seeds offer a “decent source” of protein. You also want to incorporate a healthy fat into each meal, such as avocado; nuts; seeds; a high-quality oil like olive, coconut or avocado; or ghee.
So that’s: 2/3 veggies, 1/4 protein and one to two servings of high quality fat.
And for portion control, Dr. Lipman’s website recommends:
Salads: about the size of two open hands
Vegetables: about the size of one open hand
High-quality carbohydrate, like a sweet potato: about the size of your fist
High-quality protein: about the size of your palm
Solution 7: Buy things plain and if you have to sweeten them, keep it natural.
When you’re starting to eliminate sugar, Anne said that first and foremost, you have to try to buy things plain to get used to the taste. If you can’t, rather than sweeten with honey, agave, cane sugar, maple sugar or chemical fake shit sugar (those are my words, not Anne’s!), try adding coconut sugar, Stevia, or pieces of actual fruit. If you fear that your sugar addiction is at an all-time high, avoid high-sugar fruits like pineapple, mango and banana, which will make it harder for your taste buds to adjust.
Solution 8: I feel like you know this already, but meditate, exercise and hang out with your friends.
We’re far more likely to crave sugar if our body is chronically in fight-or-flight mode, said Anne. Sugar puts more stress on the body, so the cycle continues. You know what else causes stress and therefore the urge to eat a brownie? Experiencing a lack of creativity or feeling lonely.
I know that I personally go into hermit mode when I’m trying to get healthy because it feels easier than being tempted by what my friends are eating or doing. This time around, I’m going to keep up what I started in December: turn social plans into fitness plans so that I can see friends, avoid alcohol and get exercise at the same time. And I’ll start meditating again, mom.
Solution 9: If you’re beginning to picture your roommate as a lollipop, try L-Glutamine.
Anne recommends this Amino acid that both can “heal gut lining and reduce sugar cravings.” When taken in high-quality form (from a good brand without junk fillers — she recommends Be Well) it can really help with symptoms of sugar cravings. Check with your doctor about this to ensure that it’s a good fit for you.
Solution 10: Substitutions
McKel Hill of Nutrition Stripped offered up these swaps:
If you want bread, try making your own homemade loaf, or, the baby-step version, opt for one that contains the most fiber you can find, which will help stabilize blood sugars (versus white bread). Eventually, this will lead to less overall sugar cravings due to a drop in blood sugar. Eat this bread with protein and healthy fats to further stabilize. Or, consume a whole food carbohydrate, like fruit, sweet potato, millet, quinoa or barley instead.
[Ed note: Leslie sent me a “recipe” for sweet potato toast and it looks easy/weird/good.]
If you want chocolate, eat magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, beans and maca powder, OR go for a high-quality, 80% dark chocolate bar (she suggests that you limit it to two small squares at a time and look for brands that are organic and support Fair Trade).
If you need sugar-sugar, McKel said to try a small amount (she stressed the small amount portion of this advice) of honey, maple syrup, fruit or dates to sweeten whatever it is you’re sweetening (i.e. oatmeal, smoothies, etc.)
If you want a sugary drink, try sparkling water with a splash of lime, lemon or grapefruit juice. Or, try 1/2 cup coconut water mixed with filtered water for a subtle-sweet taste while still decreasing sugar content. “It’s a good baby step.”
IS THIS NORMAL?!!?
You might feel tired or irritable for the first couple days during this process. The pros above told me this is normal, and what’s happening is that we are in detox mode.
Ignore Gandolf. THIS WILL PASS!!!! They promised me. In the mean time, drink lots of water (yeah, yeah, we KNOW!) and rest. Listen, if I cannot eat my daily pack of Reece’s Cups, you better believe I am going to take up a habit of naps.
Anne Markt is a Certified Holistic Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and is currently working with a Functional Medicine Doctor as well as studying Functional Medicine techniques for her practice at NAO and Be Well’s patients/Clients.
Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD (@shira_RD) is a Los Angeles based nutritionist and writer. She emphasizes self-compassion as a way to help people develop a healthier relationship with food.
McKel Hill (@nutritionstripped) is a Dietitian Nutritionist who runs wellness blog Nutrition Stripped.
Photos via Getty Images.