Lessons Learnt From Going Sugar-Free
Part of me can’t believe it’s the end of January already, (merely because of the sound of it.) The other part is very much questioning at what point it gained an extra 56 days, as it has also been the longest month imaginable. This hasn’t been helped by the fact I’m still currently frozen and soaked through as I write this, given that a socially distanced walk outside is currently the only thing we can do, and this weather is bleak to say the least. It’s the type of weather, and type of afternoon, that has me craving a packet of chocolate Hobnob biscuits to dip into my cup of tea as I warm up by the fire. But I started this year by deciding to do a 30-day challenge each month, with January being to cut all refined sugar from my diet.
Read also: 35 Challenges to Try for 30 Days
For the most part, I really stuck to this. Except on days like today, when I’ve allowed myself a piece of 90% ultra-dark chocolate whenever I just desperately crave something sweet - after all, this was about cutting back, not depriving, and this month especially called for the occasional comfort food.
For me, New Year’s resolutions never stick, and I don’t like the idea of overhauling all habits on one day of the year as I do believe we can reinvent ourselves, switch up our habits and change our thoughts/behaviours at any given point. Having said that, I also know how much will, consistency, determination and perseverance it can take to make that change, whatever it might be, and so I wanted to take that pressure off by giving myself 30-day chunks to “try things out” and ease into the things I want to commit to.
The main reason I wanted to start with cutting out refined sugar is because undergoing another surgery recently got me thinking about my diet. To be honest, I don’t usually have a lot of refined sugar anyway and I’m a relatively healthy eater - I know to add fibre and protein to each meal, avoid processed foods as much as possible, load up on fruit and veggies and swap white grains for brown. But it doesn’t matter how long I go without sugar, one little cupcake, or brownie, shows its addictive qualities instantly and has me reaching for more ice cream, chocolate bars and cheesecake, especially over Christmas.
Read also: Another Tick to the Surgery Bucket List
I somehow felt like all this sugar was slowing down the recovery from my facial reanimation surgery and was causing the swelling to last for longer than it should do. And, even though it had only been 3 months (out of a 12 month recovery timeframe) when I first embarked on this sugar-free challenge, I felt like there were additional things I could do to speed up the process. Along with aiding my surgical recovery, I also just wanted to feel less bloated, more energetic and have less brain fog so that I could achieve more, and just actually want to do more, in a month where I knew motivation would naturally be tested.
So whilst the aim was to hopefully get completely back to my low refined sugar diet, I gave myself just 30-days to kick start this habit again and get back on track. I chose to still eat natural sugars found in fruit and occasionally sweeten my full fat plain yoghurt with a little bit of natural honey, if I desired.
I must admit, being in lockdown made this challenge far easier than expected as I wasn’t forever faced with friends birthdays, indulgent dinners out and constant office doughnuts - even at 10am on a Monday morning (there was always something to celebrate!) I simply just didn’t buy treats or keep them in the house, which massively helped.
There were a couple of nights that led me frantically scouring supermarkets on Deliveroo for sweet treats and considering the £10 minimum order, plus £3.99 delivery fee, for the sake of a harmless chocolate bar. But after most of the evening obsessing over should I/shouldn't I, it thankfully became too late to do anything about it and I’d instead head upstairs, brush my teeth and go to sleep.
I learnt a lot of lessons whilst doing this challenge, some of which were surprising added bonuses:
1. Sugar is in absolutely everything.
Seriously, even in foods you would least expect. I started looking at labels whenever I went out food shopping and found sugar in sauces, dressings, cereals, protein shakes and yoghurts. Luckily, most of the items on my shopping list actually don’t contain it, but some did, and it’s not always labelled clearly as ‘sugar’.
2. Finding a why has never been more important.
As with everyone right now, lockdown has presented its own number of challenges for me - including a new house search. Although I said in some instances it has been much easier, a lot of the time I still found I really had to focus on why, and my motivation for the challenge, in order to get through tough days when my anxious and stressed emotions wanted me to give in to sugary snacks.
3. I discovered a different type of willpower.
That late night refusal to order Deliveroo snacks? The avoidance of a yummy chocolate brownie cake that my housemate made and left on the side for a few days? All proof that I have far more willpower than I allow myself to acknowledge, and a reminder that after lockdown, I can still find enjoyment and be around these things without feeling as though I need them in order to have a good time.
4. Enhanced mental clarity.
Since my brain surgery in 2019, I’ve always felt a little bit “broken” in the mental clarity department. I sometimes - ok, most times - make a lot of silly mistakes at work, have extreme brain fog and feel a lot slower doing anything cognitive. I’m happy to say I’ve noticed a massive improvement to this by cutting out sugar. I feel better all round; I’m thinking better and acting more productively.
5. No more energy slumps.
I’ve felt so energised this month, considering it’s been a relatively dull January in lockdown. I’ve literally felt like I can conquer the world and have achieved far more project wise, with things I’m working on. I’ve also added daily movement and sometimes - don’t judge - I’ve had that much energy, I’ve worked out twice.
6. Fruit and nuts became staples.
Oh, and lots of water. A lot of the time, I noticed I was eating simply out of boredom, or as a distraction from something I was avoiding, and so a little handful of nuts or a piece of fresh fruit, were the perfect choices for whenever I felt tempted to snack.
7. I slept better.
Since my first surgery, I still have occasional nights where I can’t shut off or sleep at all. I think my mind is always so on overdrive now. But since cutting sugar, these insomniac nights have lessened and when I did sleep, the quality was far better. I stopped relying on alarms and instead relied more on my own internal body clock, trusting it to wake me when needed.
8. Improved skin texture and glow.
Most likely a combination of better sleep, moving more and drinking far more water to combat hunger cravings but cutting sugar has also led to less breakouts, less skin irritability and improved texture and glow. Plus, my face lift swelling has massively started to decrease.
9. Controlled hunger and cravings.
Another one of my reasons to start this challenge was wanting to kick the “need” for sugar, which I know actually only increased with my exposure to never ending treats at Christmas. I noticed after just a week or two of cutting sugar, my cravings were gone and a piece of fruit started to become a completely satisfying enough option whenever I wanted something sweet. There’s a certain freedom that comes without feeling like you need to scour the fridge at 4pm for something sweet - even whilst WFH.
10. I discovered my love of cooking.
I got WAY more creative cooking paella dishes, spaghetti bologneses, risottos and healthy curries. Suddenly, searching through recipe books, venturing out to get the ingredients (in a lockdown where you can’t go many other places) and experimenting with new foods has become something I now very much look forward to and has encouraged me to build much needed confidence in the kitchen. Not to mention, it’s also hugely benefited my savings by cooking from scratch, getting inventive with leftovers and batch cooking.
11. Weight maintenance/less bloat.
I didn’t lose weight, as my diet was already pretty good before and so I didn’t have too much to cut out, not to mention this wasn’t my main goal. But thanks to no added sugars and therefore no alcohol, I definitely lost the Christmas bloat, which actually made me want to incorporate daily movement.
12. Lowered anxiety and better moods.
I’m naturally quite a positive person anyway; always seeking to find the meaning and lessons in an event, and understanding the importance and power of a high energy state. But, my down days did increase last summer and in the lead up to Christmas. I put this down to it being around the time of more surgeries, coupled with the social anxiety of a nearing festive period with a visible difference. But, I was also consuming a lot more sugar around this time and generally wasn’t feeling at all healthy, confident or focused. I’ve since noticed that without it, I now have the occasional bad moment, as I’m sure we all do as humans, but I no longer have bad days. And there’s a huge difference between the two. I feel much more in control of my emotions, confident within myself and abilities, and trusting of the path I’m on.
Bonus: Cutting sugar is in fact aiding my recovery.
Not really a lesson, and maybe just a placebo effect, but a month ago I couldn’t smile at all. My face was still very much swollen and it was difficult to communicate. Within 30-days of no sugar, my smile is returning, my nose movement is back and as a result, I feel far more reassured with the surgery and direction. I was told 6 months would be the soonest that I’d start noticing any changes, and so maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe it's a combination of the better sleep, increased water intake and daily movement that cutting sugar has also aided, but within 4 months, I’m satisfied with my progress so far.
Progress video I posted on @beautybrainuk
They say that it takes 66 days to form a habit (I) and whilst it has been a really strict month, I’ve not really missed added sugars, alcohol or processed food binges. As a result, I do intend to keep it up long enough for it to become that fixed habit.
What I will say though, is that progress far outweighs perfection and just one day of positive action towards a goal is better than no days, and no action, at all. It’s important not to beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon or slip up with your resolutions, habits or mini challenges. Just start again the next day and do the best you can. I already know my cake baker best friend is sending me a yummy chocolate slab in the post any day now, and I fully intend to allow myself to guilt-free enjoy it. I’ll just continue the next day with the intention of becoming more mindful of why and when I consume sugar.
For my February challenge, I’m on a mission to join the 5am club (which also means turning my phone off an hour before bed to avoid blue light at night). I’ve purchased a beautiful new alarm clock, which I hope will help make that more enticing, and whilst I know it sounds bizarre to actively attempt to lengthen already long days stuck inside, my motivation for this one is productivity related - (I’m building an exciting new course for BITB and really want to hold myself accountable to achieve this by the end of Feb).
Tell me, how did your January challenge go if you did one, and will you be doing one in February? If so, what have you got planned?