If you’re like most Westerners, you’ve got a horrid little monkey on your back.
He keeps scratching and squealing in your ear. He makes you feel and look like crap.
That monkey is sugar.
If you are a “carbaholic”, “sugar fiend”, “sweet psycho”, etc. you are not a bad person.
You are not a weak person.
You do not lack “willpower”.
Processed sugar is a drug that is stronger than you. That is all.
Sugar fucks with your head and your heart. Sugar makes normal people crazy. Sugar does all manner of nastiness in your body that goes beyond mere body fat.
I don’t mess around when it comes to sugar.
(Given the genetic differences in how we metabolize nutrients, there are probably people who deal with sugar perfectly fine. You know who you are. You’re reading this wondering what the big friggin deal is. You’re the person who says shit like, “I have one square of chocolate and that’s enough for me.” Stop reading and go enjoy your unique genetic configuration that makes you deaf to sugar’s siren song.)
But those of you who are still reading this… you know of what I speak.
You know this monkey. How fierce and feisty it is.
How it whispers and cajoles and cackles and then grabs you by the face with its sticky fingers and pushes your maw right into the cookie jar.
Afterwards you feel dirty and ashamed, joints hurting, belly aching, head pounding. Helpless. Out of control. Bloated. Desperately thirsty.
And worst of all, looking around for more.
Another binge, marked in red on the calendar of your life.
You, dear reader — you know what darkness sugar gouges forth from your soul.
You want this little bugger gone. Forever.
Well let me ask you this:
Would you trade a few weeks of feeling like shit for a lifetime of feeling awesome?
Maybe you would.
From now until you die of something other than Type 2 diabetes or heart disease (such as, for instance, being shot by your lover’s wife at age 120, or skydiving), you can enjoy endless energy, youthful exuberance, and freedom from that little bastard monkey.
All it costs you is a few weeks of shit. That’s a darn good swap.
If you’re ready to trade, I’m ready to deal.
Here’s how to dump sugar for good, in about one month.
Step 1: Get your head right.
Before any of this begins, figure out and focus on why you want to do this.
Don’t half-ass this part.
This is a big decision and it’s gotta reflect your values, life priorities, and who you want to be from this day forward.
(If you aren’t ready and willing to make your move, that’s perfectly OK. Read through, think about it, and come back when it’s your time. No harm, no foul, no judgement.)
Buy a notebook.
Writing exercise 1: Write down all the reasons you want to give up sugar.
Why is this a meaningful project to you?
Brainstorm everything you can think of and write everything down. Here’s a starter list:
- You feel out of control when you eat sugar. It feels like sugar is the boss of you, and you don’t like that. You feel guilty, ashamed, regretful.
- Almost all chronic diseases are a form of diabetes — poor blood sugar and insulin regulation. You don’t believe me? Google “insulin” or “glucose” plus any chronic disease you like. Enjoy losing your evening to PubMed.
- 85-90% of diabetes cases are Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is 99% preventable. Nobody should ever get this terrible disease. You can stop this train right now.
- A high-sugar diet contributes to premature aging. That means wrinkles and people asking if you want the senior’s discount when you’re 45. If you won’t dump sugar for your heart, do it for your vanity and your cougar career.
- Do you want to be around for your grandkids? And be able to play with them? And beat the snot out of the little brats at baskeball? Hell yeah.
- Planning a pregnancy? Time to get healthy now — gestational diabetes is serious bidness and sets your kid up for problems later on as well. Plus, you need a healthy baby so that baby can eventually make grandbabies whom you can beat at basketball. See how this plan all comes together?
- Want to have consistent energy and be free of the blood sugar rollercoaster? Free of the shakies, crankies, bitchies, fainties, dizzies? Damn right you do.
- Sugar cramps athletic performance. You want slow-simmering, endless energy, not bump ‘n’ bonk.
- Sugar might make you insane.
Don’t do this for me, a clothing size, or anyone else.
Do this for YOU. YOUR body. YOUR future. YOUR life.
Your body works so hard for you. It loves you. The least you can do is not kill it prematurely.
Writing exercise 2: Forewarned is forearmed.
Write down all the obstacles you think you might anticipate.
- sugar pushers at work
- sugar pushers at parties
- sugar pushing family/relatives
- having sugar around the house
- feeling intense cravings and urges, wanting to rip your own skin off to get that sweet, sweet stuff
Think about strategies to deal with these things in advance.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all these potential obstacles. Stay focused on today.
Just get ’em out there so you aren’t blindsided by them.
Keep this notebook with you and review it daily. Set a reminder on your calendar or cellphone if necessary.
Step 2: Plan & schedule.
Give yourself at least 4-6 weeks to do this.
Use the first two weeks to get ready. Don’t just jump in.
Set yourself up to succeed.
(I’ll explain how below.)
If you do this without planning and preparation, you’re much more likely to bomb out, and then feel even worse.
Help yourself do this. Be your own best friend.
Start your sugar-free life on Week 3.
Don’t start this when you’re PMSing. Let Week 3 rip about the 2nd or 3rd day of your period, when the hormonal demons are quiet and you’re ready to rumble.
I’ll walk you through this step by step.
If you haven’t already done so, make your list of reasons to do this, and the obstacles you may encounter.
Again, keep this list handy. Refer to it daily.
Grieve your loss.
Get out a piece of paper and write down all the feelings you feel (physical and emotional), and all the thoughts you have about sugar. Thoughts and feelings like:
- Giving up sugar makes me feel sad.
- I’m afraid of being a health nut.
- I’m excited to get rid of this.
- Abba-Zabba, you my only friend.
Understand that you will grieve this loss.
Yes, I’m serious. You will go through withdrawal, sadness, anger, bargaining, the whole nine yards.
Again: Forewarned is forearmed. And hey, it’s normal. You and sugar were tight. Be sad. Be mad. It’s OK.
If necessary, have a little ritual funeral for sugar. Bury a chocolate bar in the back yard. No shit. This works.
You’ll probably be tempted to go hog wild on sugar the day before you start Project Fuck Sugar. If you want to, do it. Binge your face off.
Stay checked in and notice how that feels. Notice how it tastes. Eat slowly, meticulously, tasting every last molecule of that sugar. Eat that sugar until it burns your tongue then keep going. Make yourself utterly ill.
Leave a notepad and pen by your bed. Wake up the next day and write down how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Whenever you doubt this project, read your notes from The Morning After.
Understand all the forms of sugar.
- table sugar
- “natural” sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, agave
- anything else ending in “syrup”, e.g. corn syrup, rice syrup, pomegranate syrup
- almost anything ending in “ose”: glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, etc.
All labels. Of course, you should be cutting down on foods with labels anyway, but for now, read labels.
Understand that sugar itself — as a molecule — is not “evil”.
Our bodies know how to metabolize various naturally occurring sugars, and ultimately, our bodies run mostly on glucose.
When we’re talking about getting off sugar, we’re talking about getting away from processed sugars in processed foods. We’re not talking about a banana, or a sweet potato, or a little honey in your tea.
Prepare your environment.
Do NOT rely on willpower. Ever.
Willpower WILL flake on you like your wastoid high school friends did when they saw Principal Meany coming to bust you for setting the wastebasket on fire in second period history.
Rely on structures and systems.
Think of this like toddler-proofing your life. Sugar-proof yourself.
Otherwise you’ll stick your fingers in the electrical sockets and drink
bleach soda. Again, not because you’re bad or stupid or weak, but simply because sugar is a drug that is stronger than most humans. We’re wired to dig it. You’re normal.
- Clean your house. Get any and all sugar-containing items as far away from you as possible. Clean your cupboards and your fridge. If anyone else in your house absolutely must have sugar, get them to hide it and/or keep it the hell away from you.
- Clean your work. Desk drawers cleaned out. Have a plan to avoid toxic coworkers as much as possible.
- Clean your routine and your schedule. Find another route than the one past the bakery. Take the long way to the bathroom at work to avoid the lunchroom with the brownies.
- Have a backup plan. Find other things to substitute for when you want sugar, e.g. gum, tea, a stick to gnaw on, scream therapy, a walk, etc.
Tell people. Make a bet if necessary. Gather some cheerleaders as well as drill sergeants. Get as many helpers as possible.
Practice saying “No thank you” and “Wow, that does look delicious, but I’m full” or “I simply couldn’t eat another bite of that wonderful confection now, but could I take some for later?” (then toss it out on the way home).
Most people should be polite enough not to make a big deal of it. With some rude-ass sugar pushers who get up in your grill about not eating that candy, you need stronger stuff.
Lie if need be. Tell people you’re having “blood sugar issues” and your doctor has advised you to stop eating sugar for a month “until the tests come back”.
Tell your people no matter how much you beg, plead, or cajole, do not give you sugar. You are Odysseus strapped to the mast, listening to the siren call. Make sure those ropes are tied tightly.
Accept that this will suck.
But you can do this.
This week, don’t do anything about sugar. Yep, it’s still not time yet.
Instead, you’re going to make sure your existing eating is giving you the nutrients you need.
Do NOT go low carb while you get off sugar.
Actually don’t go low carb ever. Almost nobody thrives on it, especially women.
Keep the carb fires stoked with a cupped handful of carbs at most meals.
But think “starch” instead of “sugar”. Think “stick to your ribs”.
Choose starchy, high-fibre carbohydrates to keep yourself fuelled and kill the cravings.
This includes stuff like:
- beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
- whole grains (like wild or brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, teff, millet, buckwheat, slow-cooking oats, etc.)
- sweet potatoes
Yes, I said potatoes. Those motherfuckers are golden. Seriously, try to over-eat them in the same way you’d over-eat a bag of M&Ms. You can’t. By your third boiled potato you’ll be saying uncle. Have a baked potato for breakfast and you’ll want to drop-kick the world all day. ENERGY LEGS!!
Now, I know that primal eater types avoid grains and beans/legumes. Fine.
If you’re used to being off that stuff, great.
If you aren’t, now is NOT the time to try.
One thing at a time.
If possible, avoid processed starchy foods like bread, pasta, crackers, etc. But they’ll do in a pinch.
Keep the fibre content as high as possible. (Read the labels — sugar even finds its way into bread and crackers.)
Remember, our goal is to GET OFF PROCESSED SUGAR. Not quit eating nutritious, slow-digesting, high-fibre carbs that help fuel our tank and keep our hormones happy.
Ditching processed junk food that you can’t stop eating is not the same thing as going low carb.
(Look, I’m not gonna be a dick about the details here. Whole grains are tasty but white rice with sushi is damn good too. Our priority is getting rid of sugar, not becoming a food fascist or carbphobe. Just eat some starch and don’t make it weird.)
Bring some fruit into your life.
Enjoy some sweetness while getting some tasty vitamins, fibre, minerals, phytonutrients, and other good stuff.
Get plenty of fat and protein.
When you get enough protein and healthy fats along with slow-digesting carbs and fibre, your hunger and appetite hormones (along with your brain’s happy chemicals) often tend to start naturally re-balancing themselves.
In other words, you will feel hungry when you should feel hungry, and full when you should feel full, and overall you will feel less anxious and crave-y and unable to stop eating.
Every meal should have a palm-sized portion of protein and a thumb or two of fat.
- Breakfast: Omelet with black beans, cheese, avocado, tomatoes, and a few chunks of yam
- Midmorning snack: Cottage cheese, chopped nuts, a sprinkle of cooked oat groats & berries
- Lunch: Chicken on salad topped with lentils and olive oil vinaigrette
- 3 pm snack: Hummus and baby carrots with a boiled egg
- Dinner: Chili with kidney beans & brown rice, topped with a little blop of real sour cream
Are you missing sugar now after that scrumptious day of fat and protein? ‘Cause I sure ain’t.
All right, if you’ve done the work from Week 1 and 2, this is the week sugar goes bye-bye.
If you haven’t done that work, do it now.
Do not proceed unless you do those first steps of processing, planning, preparing and practicing.
If you’re ready to move forward:
This week will probably be the worst one.
If you can make it through these 7 days, it will get a whole lot easier.
If you’re a ladyperson with a monthly cycle, start week 3 around the 2nd or 3rd day of your period.
Decide how you want to roll this week.
You have a couple of choices here.
Option 1: Phase sugar out gradually.
Option 2: Cold turkey.
This is your call.
Personally I’ve found that cold turkey works better, since it seems like even small amounts of sugar when you’re deep in the crazy will set you right back to square one. Later on, you may be able to tolerate it better.
But again, your call.
You can always try a few days of one option or the other, and see how it goes. If you hate that option and fuck it up, no big deal. Now you know that strategy doesn’t work for you.
Remember: No failure, only feedback.
No matter what happens, it’s all just information that you can use to make better decisions in future.
Remember: Plan your menu. Plan your substitutes and strategies. Plan your interactions with sugar pushers.
Plan especially for your low moments — usually afternoons and evenings, or after some familiar stressful event.
You know when those low moments will be. It’s not like you should be surprised by evening snacking by now.
Plan, plan, plan.
Once you get into a routine, you won’t have to use as much brainpower, but for now, plan like crazy.
You are going to bestraddle this sugar bitch like a Colossus of yore. But you can’t do that without a plan.
Alexander the Great didn’t just wake up and go, “Oh, maybe today I’ll conquer Persia,” then go hunting for his armour like the car keys he threw out thoughtlessly the night before. Dig?
Keep a daily journal.
Use your notebook to help you plan as well as to record:
- What you are thinking
- What you feel, physically
- What you feel, emotionally
Every day, take 5 minutes (or more) and write down your thoughts and feelings.
Set a reminder in your calendar or on your cellphone to help you remember to do this. It’s really important.
I suggest a twice-daily check-in:
- once in the morning, to strengthen your motivation and plan ahead; and
- once in the evening, to record how the day went, and problem-solve for tomorrow as needed.
Schedule a non-food reward at the end of this week.
Give yourself something to work towards. I recommend a massage or something that makes you feel really groovy.
Your desire for sugar will go up when you’re stressed, so seek out rewards that relax you.
Things will taste like shit.
Just get through it.
Coffee will taste like dirt. Water is less appealing than soda.
However, salsa is still pretty damn good, even compared to ketchup and sweet relish. So that’s something.
Grit your teeth.
Your tastes will change. I promise. It only takes a few weeks, if you can just get through these first days.
Use substitutes sparingly.
Don’t just swap sweet tastes. You need to train your taste buds as well.
A bit of stevia, Splenda, or diet soda will do if things are getting real ugly.
Now that your tongue isn’t being fried by sugar, you can notice other flavours.
Eat slowly. Put your fork/knife/chopsticks/hands down between bites.
Slow the fuck down. Notice how things taste.
Cut the booze down as much as you can. Or have a designated sugar-security person.
If you’re used to drinking a lot, don’t try to reduce that now.
But understand that drinking seriously affects your judgement. So, just like you should have a designated driver, have a buddy who keeps you out of the sugar after you chug-a-lug.
Oh, and dump the rum and Coke or worse, vodka coolers. Grownup women drink Scotch or expensive red wine.
If you fall off the wagon, get right back on IMMEDIATELY.
Your clever planning plus your cheerleading squad should be keeping you out of the pitfalls.
But hey, life is imperfect. Shit happens.
If you have a slip into sugar, don’t hesitate. Jump back on that wagon as fast as possible afterwards.
Clean the slate, throw out the empty wrappers, and go!!!
Nothing is lost if you have a slip. Keep moving forward.
Go back to your original notes about why you’re doing this, and how badly you feel after that sugar binge.
Don’t bullshit yourself with navel-gazing, self-pitying stuff like, “Oh, now it doesn’t matter because I’ve already screwed up, I’m such a failure, I might as well just lie here and die, blah blah blah.”
Get over yourself. You’re a warrior and you took a shot to the gut. Fine. Suck it up.
Shut up with the whining, stop crying, wipe your nose, and get back in here, soldier.
You’ve made it through one more or less sugar-free week!
But not with sugar, obviously. Again, I recommend some kind of stress-busting reward. Something that makes you feel all “ooohhh” in your body.
Tip! The more you care for yourself, the less you’ll want sugar as a security blanket. Love the shit out of yourself as much as you can.
Movement dissipates cravings.
Movement is cravings’ release valve. Move accordingly.
When the cravings are weak, move gently (e.g. a walk).
When the cravings are strong, move powerfully (e.g. sprints, heavy lifting, rounds punching the heavy bag, etc.).
Watch your stress.
Stress will make your sugar cravings worse. Deep breathe like crazy through this.
Don’t take on any new responsibilities right now. Practice saying “no”.
Start looking for patterns.
Now that you’ve gone through the first sugar-free week, start looking for patterns in your relationship with sugar cravings.
When does it strike you the worst?
Then think back and ask yourself:
- What was happening just before that craving hit?
- What was I doing?
- What was I feeling?
- What was I thinking?
Cravings aren’t random. Find the patterns.
Feel as good in your body as you can.
Sugar is your way of self-soothing.
Sugar stimulates the same pathways in the brain as drugs do. That’s why it’s so damn hard to dislodge.
Find other ways to feel good in your body. (Not just in your brain.)
Get touched. Hug your loved ones, dog or cat. Pet a fuzzy blanket or wear your favourite fluffy sweater. Get a massage or pedicure. Sit in the warm sun, a hot bath, or a sauna. Go to bed early. Get your freak on.
Once again: Be compassionate, caring, and fierce-momma-bear loving with yourself. The more wise kindness you give yourself, the easier this will be.
Keep eating slowly.
Taste. Savour. Enjoy other things.
If you fall off the wagon, get right back on IMMEDIATELY.
Yep, same rules apply.
We’re in the home stretch.
Things should be starting to fall into place now. It should be getting a lot easier.
(If it isn’t, don’t feel badly. You might just need to go for an extra week or two. Again: No failure, only feedback.)
Reward yourself again.
Remember: No food rewards. Anything else is fair game, though.
Keep eating slowly.
One bite at a time. Mmmm.
See a theme here?
This week may be PMS week, so be on your guard. Keep sugar-proofing your life.
If things get really hairy and out of control with the cravings, try a combo:
- One tablespoon (15 grams) of liquid fish oil
- A few squares of dark chocolate (75% cocoa or higher)
- 200-300 mg magnesium
(You needn’t mix all that together, but props if you try.)
I’m also told that 5 grams of glutamine + a few tablespoons of heavy cream kills sugar cravings. That sounds fucking disgusting but hey, any port in a storm.
If you fall off the wagon, get right back on IMMEDIATELY.
You did it!!!
How do you feel?
Awesome, I hope. (Or maybe not quite yet. Your period may be swinging by again. Hang in there.)
Don’t get complacent.
Now, don’t get lazy. If you’ve followed all these steps, you’re out of the worst of it, but sugar is sneaky.
Understand that going back will make you feel just as shitty as before.
Sugar is like an abusive partner — after it beats you up and tells you what a piece of crap you are, it brings you flowers and promises never to be so mean again.
Until the next time it slaps you.
Understand that sugar hides in things.
Keep reading labels.
Understand that foods can creep back in to your space.
Be vigilant and keep crap away from yourself. Sugar-proof your life as much as you can.
Understand that you are vulnerable every time you go back to sugar.
If you absolutely must have sugar now:
- have it in a context where you can’t binge afterwards;
- have a buddy looking out for you;
- eat SLOWLY and MINDFULLY, tasting that sugar carefully and savouring it;
- anticipate that for a few days after, you’ll be jonesing again — plan to get through it.
Keep writing in your journal, if you like. It’s very helpful.
Notice what works for you, and doesn’t.
There are no “rules”. Only YOUR data and YOUR reality. You’re a special snowflake.
Be honest. Gather the intel. And observe carefully.
What do YOU need to feel and function best?
Focus on what you can eat. And on how great you feel.
Keep eating those yummy whole foods.
Keep eating that filling fat, fibre, and protein.
Keep eating those beautiful, colourful fruits and veggies.
Keep taking good care of yourself.
Every week you don’t have sugar, reward yourself with something wonderful (and non-food-related) for your body.
You might enjoy reading my colleague Ryan Andrews’ account of his sugar-free year: Sugar Daddy.
Up for a new challenge? Then why not try:
- phasing out all processed foods
- going primal (here’s the quick-start guide — look how far ahead you are now!)
- eating more organic and local foods
- learning to cook a few new dishes
The world is your oyster now. Take a deep breath. Aahhhhh.