A chocolate frosted donut on an orange background with a chain and lock around it.
Yasu + Junko/Trunk Archive
Yasu + Junko/Trunk Archive
Health

I Cut Sugar From My Diet And It Improved Far More Than Just How My Clothes Fit

The first change I noticed came around day three.

When I cut sugar from my diet, I did it on a whim. I had just watched the 2014 documentary Fed Up after it appeared in my “recommended” section on Netflix, and its graphic depictions of how the body responds to repeated rapid intakes of sugar scared me into an impulsive sugar-free eating plan.

The thing was, I already knew how my body responded to sugar. I already knew that eating sugary foods triggers an insulin spike that helps the cells of the body to absorb the sugar; excess sugar ends up being stored as fat; sugar has addictive qualities; and sugar is added to just about every processed food, even things you wouldn’t expect, like salsa and peanut butter and deli meat, blah, blah, blah. I knew all of that.

The documentary was a well-timed reminder since, for the entire year prior to watching it, I’d been living with a “just eat the cake” mentality. I’d been in the midst of a separation and divorce and told myself I “deserved” to eat whatever I wanted to. If ever there was a carb within arm's reach, I dived in without hesitation or inhibition. Macaroni and cheese, buttered bread, donuts, cake, pizza, chips — I deprived myself of nothing.

My hips and belly expanded during this year of unfettered indulgence, but I was OK with that. Divorce sucks, I told myself, and dammit, carbs make me feel better, so I’m going to eat them. I still ate fruits and veggies and went to the gym a few times per week, so I figured I was “balanced.” I wasn’t worried about a few extra pounds.

What I did worry about, though, was my mental health. My moods were more down than up, and I was anxious all the time — tight in the chest, sluggish, always fantasizing about going back to bed and staying there indefinitely. I connected none of this to my eating habits. I told myself it was the stress of divorce, and that once the ink on the paperwork dried, I would feel better.

That’s not what happened. The dissolution of my marriage was complete and I was settled in my new home, but I felt worse than ever. The cloud of stress that had hung over me throughout my divorce process thickened into a prolonged, persistent unease — a sense that I was a weaker, slower, sadder version of myself. I cried easily and frequently. My short-term memory was unreliable and my sleep patterns were erratic. I’d crash into daytime naps sometimes, unable to keep my eyes open a minute longer, and then be forced to stay up late trying to make up work I’d missed as a result of napping.

I scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I’d had vitamin deficiencies in the past that had messed with my mood, so maybe that was happening again. She suggested we do a round of labs. That was around the same time I watched Fed Up and impulsively cut sugar from my diet.

I stopped eating obvious sources of sugar like white sugar, donuts, jelly and coffee creamer, but I also cut grain flour (bread and its synonymous products). I rediscovered my love of spinach omelets and big, intricate salads with homemade vinaigrette dressings. I snacked on fruits, berries and nuts. I wasn’t crazy strict — I ate tacos in corn tortillas and made honey mustard dressing for my salads. But, overall, I probably cut my sugar and grain flour intake by about 80 percent.

The first change I noticed, around day three, was that I had more energy. Like, way more energy. At the gym, for the first time in months, I felt the euphoria I used to always get from exercise. I felt more clear-headed. The tightness in my chest all but disappeared. Napping didn’t even occur to me. My short-term memory returned — finally I wasn’t dropping everyday vocabulary words! And though I don’t normally track my weight, I couldn’t help but be curious. I stepped on the scale at the gym and found I’d lost five pounds since my doctor’s appointment only one week before.

The weight loss was nice, but it surprised me less than the changes in my energy level and thought patterns. I did some research and learned that numerous studies have demonstrated a link between sugar consumption and depression. In her book Breaking Up With Sugar, Molly Carmel addresses this and a slew of other health problems sugar intake can cause or exacerbate. “Inflammation, migraine headaches, anxiety, brain fog, trouble sleeping” are just a few of the short-term issues Carmel talks about in her book — all of which I was suffering from and all of which disappeared when I stopped eating sugar. Carmel also gets into how, for many, sugar can be addictive, and that food companies know this and add it to their products to keep us hooked.

Given the drastic changes I experienced after “breaking up with” sugar, I’m a convert. This isn’t a diet for me. It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a thing I do to maintain my mental health, literally the difference between starting an antidepressant or not. Antidepressants have a place — they save lives every day. But I think most of us, if given the choice, would rather not take a pill if we didn’t have to.

And though forgoing bread and coffee creamer and macaroni and cheese sometimes feels like needlessly sacrificing a few harmless moments of bliss, I only have to think back to those months when I felt so tired and joyless. I’m happy now, and I feel like myself again. And honestly, that tastes better than any cupcake ever did.

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A chocolate frosted donut on an orange background with a chain and lock around it.
Yasu + Junko/Trunk Archive