Here's What Happened When I Quit Sugar for an Entire Year

Updated 01/21/19
Casey Vassallo
Casey Vassallo

New Year resolutions are more often than not clichés. We set broad, typically aspirational and unmeasurable goals. Most entail money, work, travel or health. To go on that holiday; get a raise; get fitter. If anything, it’s more a conversation starter around the New Year threshold, similar to ‘how are you?’ and weather chat. In all honesty, I don’t remember ever setting any resolution-style goals until 2016.

Back when my then-boyfriend—now fiancé —and I moved in together, we seemed to have a little thing for bacon. I know—processed meat —not great. We didn’t think so either and decided to avoid it for a year in the hope we’d ditch the bad habit. For good measure, we threw in soft drink. Full disclosure: alcoholic beverages didn’t count.

The year 2016 came to a close and we’d managed to do it. But before the year rounded out, I decided to set myself a new goal: no fast food in 2017. For me, that meant none of the obvious chains, from McDonald's to Grill’d. Rather than make it impossible, I’d allow myself the occasional late night falafel kebab from an independent. Suffice it to say, I stuck to that one too.

For 2018, I felt I should go bigger. Refined sugar, big. Like the years before, I’d developed a few bad habits. I was having peanut M&M’s with my tea, snacking on packets of Iced VoVo’s, and indulging in a scoop of Gelato Messina’s Pistachio Praline with a girlfriend whenever we caught up (too often). So I quit it to kick the sugar fixes. (Again, full disclosure, alcohol didn’t count.) Here’s what happened.

IT'S IN EVERYTHING

I was taken aback by just how much sugar I was consuming in general, despite considering myself a healthy person. I rarely eat meat, avoid dairy and cook well. It only became apparent how wrong I was after I started to closely examine the products I thought were safe. Disregarding the dietary index (where it breaks down grams per serving), I looked straight to the ingredient listing. The devil is in that detail. Sugar being the item consistently listed near to the top. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity and sugar is often second or third on most. Wholemeal wraps, muesli, and cocoa-heavy chocolate from health food stores were swiftly off my menu.

When it’s in everything, even in small doses, it adds up according to Advanced Accredited Practising Dietician Melanie McGrice. “When you’re getting those little bits in a whole range of different foods each day, like a little bit in tomato sauce, your breakfast cereal, your salad dressing,” she explains, “that can all really add up to be quite a few excess kilojoules that you probably wouldn’t be consuming if you were making your food from scratch.” 

That’s where the term 'wholefood' comes from. There’s been little, if any, processing of the food so it’s free from unnecessary stuff. Making a pasta sauce using organic tinned tomatoes, fresh chopped garlic, basil, oregano and onion is therefore free from what you’d normally find in something pre-bought. Let’s just say the weekly grocery shop was painfully long to begin with. I had to read the back of everything. Like most things though, the longer you do it the easier it gets. I avoided that isle and committed to memory the items free-from sugar.

THE SWEET FACTS

There’s a difference between refined sugar (sucrose), and the naturally occurring sugar we get from fruit (fructose) and dairy (lactose). “When we’re talking about refined sugar, its excess kilojoules without providing any nutrition,” McGrice explains. Aside the obvious facts, like it being a great attraction for bacteria in your mouth, it simply has no benefit. It’s also worth mentioning that when refined sugar is removed, many add in artificial or alternative sweeteners, which aren’t necessarily any healthier. That’s everything from your date syrup to stevia. 

THE BENEFITS

By cutting out sugar, McGrice says most can expect to see an improvement in complexion, energy, your mood, and maybe even lose a couple of kilos. In extreme cases, quitting sugar can mean a decrease in inflammation or joint issues too.

For me, my skin has been all over the place this year, which I put down to quitting sugar but also getting off the pill (thanks, hormones). But, I have more energy and in-turn do more exercise that’s helped me break up with a little stubborn weight I’ve been carrying around.

Now, if I eat something a little naughty, I can immediately feel it. I asked McGrice, when I’m out and have a burger for example, am I feeling nauseous after it because there’s hidden sugar in it? The answer was new information to me. “Your foods that have more refined sugar in them tend to be more highly processed, and have more saturated fat and salt as well, so when you’re decreasing refined sugar in your diet, you tend to be making a lot of other dietary improvements as well.” It’s obvious, but I didn’t even consider the run on affect quitting refined sugar would have. Because the two go hand in hand, almost always, I ended up avoiding more of the bad stuff inadvertently.

Throughout the year, the cravings decreased and naturally sweet things and raw treats were enough to placate my desire for it. Then there’s the actual matter of taste. When eating those healthier alternatives, less was more. “That’s when you really know you’ve made changes—when your palette changes,” McGrice explains. “When you have something and you go ‘Oh my goodness, that is so sweet, how did I drink or eat that before.’”

HELLO SUGAR, GOODBYE..

At the crux of it all, these food-goals are measurable. The challenge is to prove I can live without something. I don’t need it, I just want it. And while I think I’ve made a big enough adjustment to the way I shop and consume food for good, moving forward I will award myself with the occasional treat or a slice of birthday cake.

This year, I was toying with giving up a weakness that has little to no nutritional value. Hot chips. I caved on January 1. But what did McGrice suggest? “You’re not going to want to hear the answer,” she laughs. “I would say alcohol.” While she says the high kilojoule vice is the one thing she knows improves many issues, I’m not quite ready for that sort of commitment.

For those looking to make a food resolution this year, my advice is to start small and take the time to acknowledge how your body is adjusting and reacting to the change.

 Casey Vassallo is a freelance writer. Follow her on Instagram and visit her website for more.

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