Lessons from a Sugar-Deprived Vegetarian

I hate being a cliché. I really do, but after massive sugar consumption over the holidays, and realizing that I no longer fit into clothes that I bought only a few months ago, I had to face the scary truth that my healthy eating habits have slipped. There were tears. Lots of them. My poor husband. I joined the masses of New Year’s resolutioners with a vow to be healthier in 2013. On Christmas Day, a friend invited me to join her in a 30-day sugar detox, starting January 1st. Her plan was to simply resist eating desserts and read food labels to avoid added sugar. Of course I couldn’t make things so simple for myself. I decided that in order to increase the likelihood of success, I needed more structure. I needed a set of rules. When it comes to carby snacks, if you give me an inch, I will take a mile. I didn’t trust that I could make real changes without slipping. Instead, I got on board with the Balanced Bites 21-Day Sugar Detox when a friend introduced me to it. I’m not going to spell out all of the details, but the big idea is to eliminate all processed foods, alcohol, and anything sweet (including most fruit) for 21 days.

There are 3 levels to the program, depending on where you are in your journey. There are lists of “yes,” “no,” and “limit” foods with modifications for athletes, pregnant women, and vegetarian/vegans (that’s me!). I stuck with level 1, which is the least restrictive, and unlike the other levels, I was able to eat some legumes, grains, and full-fat dairy. Yesterday was my final day of detoxing, and after finding myself overwhelmed with emotions and thoughts around the experience, I thought it would be best to get everything down in writing.

Let me preface it by saying that I have been a sugar fiend my entire life. It’s not just that I love bread and cookies and chocolate. Since childhood, these foods have been my go-to coping mechanisms whenever I’ve felt anxious or unhappy. When I was “on track” with whatever healthy plan I was attempting, I felt deprived. I attempted moderation, only to find that what started out as an occasional treat quickly became a daily occurrence. I’ve been working at this for years. A few months ago, I decided to go sugar-free for a week. I lasted 4 days.

I have now completed 3 full weeks without sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, or flour. What?? How?? Who? Where?Huh? Yup, I’m still in disbelief. It was hard, but not as hard as I had expected. I’m a total rule-follower, so resisting the “no” foods wasn’t that difficult because I had rules to follow. The cravings were manageable, but I did get sick of relying on the same foods for 21 days. By the last week, I was desperately craving more variety. A lot of people report negative physical effects for the first few days, and then they feel great for the rest of the detox. I did not have such a positive experience. I suffered from headaches and fatigue for most of the 21 days. I continued to exercise regularly, but it took me longer to recover than it has before. I felt deep muscle fatigue for days.  I suspect that some of the negative side effects were from the drastic reduction in total daily carbs, rather than from the elimination of sugar and flour. My energy seemed to even out a bit about a week ago, but my mood continued to be all over the place, and (WARNING: TMI!!) my menstrual cycle is totes wackadoodle. Yup, I said it. I warned you. I’m not about to argue that my body thrives on wine and croissants, or that this sugar/flour-free way of eating is totally wrong for me, but when it comes to long-term changes, I need to do some tweaking.

Lessons from the 21-Day Sugar Detox:

  • Plan, prep, plan, prep. I used to be good about this, but I got lazy. This was a good reminder of how important it is if I want to be healthy.
  • A lot of foods have natural sweetness and can be enjoyed if I’m not in the habit of bombarding my taste buds with sugar.
  • Coconut products and almond butter are delicious.
  • I do well with specific rules.
  • I seem to crave variety more than most people. If I get bored with food, I am more likely to stray.
  • It was a relief to be diet-compliant without counting calories. It’s something to strive for.
  • Dietary fat is (maybe) not evil, and it can improve satiety, ultimately reducing cravings. There are conflicting studies and opposing views on this topic. I need to research it more before deciding what I think is best.
  • I should get more of my carbohydrates from vegetables. I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat enough vegetables.
  • Regular exercise is important to my happiness. I need to eat in a way that supports an active lifestyle, which I *think* means increasing my consumption of healthy carbs (vegetables, grains, beans, fruit, etc.).
  • Protein. Protein haunts me in my sleep. The average American consumes much more protein than their bodies can use, but I don’t think that’s the case for this weight-lifting vegetarian. During the detox, I basically replaced carbs with fat instead of increasing protein. It’s something to work on.
  • Compulsion is compulsion, whether it’s in the form of chocolate or raw nuts. Of the challenges that I faced, this one is the most problematic, and the most difficult to solve, but hey, at least I found a topic for therapy this week.

While this was not the amazingly positive, transformative experience that some people report, I learned quite a bit about my eating patterns. Most importantly, I DID IT. I put mind over matter. Pre-detox, I beat myself up constantly for not having the will-power to resist certain foods. This little experiment proved to me that I DO have will-power. I DO have control over food. I would say that this lesson alone made it all worth it.

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