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”.
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. Some folks will say it’s no big deal.
But you 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 month of feeling like shit for a lifetime of feeling awesome?
Of course 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 4 weeks of shit. That’s a darn good deal.
If you’re ready to trade, I’m ready to deal.
Here’s how to dump sugar for good, in just 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.
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:
- 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.
- Sugar causes aging. That means wrinkles. 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
Think about strategies to deal with them 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 4 weeks to do this.
Use the first week 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 2.
Don’t start this when you’re PMSing. Let Week 2 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. This includes:
- 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.
Read labels. All labels. Of course, you should be cutting down on foods with labels anyway, but for now, read labels.
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.
- 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 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 2 around the 2nd or 3rd day of your period.
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. Trust me.
Don’t go low carb while you get off sugar.
Keep the carb fires stoked for this month with small portions of carbs (about half a fist) at most meals. Don’t over-carb, just have a little bit of carbs with each meal.
But think “starch” instead of “sugar”. Think “stick to your ribs”.
Choose starchy, high-fibre carbohydrates to keep yourself fuelled. Such as…
Beans/legumes, tubers, and WHOLE grains are your friend.
Small portions of beans/legumes (especially lentils for some reason — they’re sorta magic), whole grains, or starchy tubers help immensely with cravings.
Now, I know that primal eater types are off 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.
Whole grains means WHOLE grains. If what you’re eating does not look like a seed, that is not a whole grain.
Rolled oats are not whole grains. Oat groats — which look like grains of brown rice — are whole grains. Steel-cut oats, which are the oat groats cut in half, are close enough for now.
“Whole wheat bread” is not whole grains. Wheat berries are whole grains.
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 SUGAR. We’ll worry about the rest later.
Keep fruit moderate.
Fruit is your sugar. So save it for when the sugar cravings really strike badly. If possible, opt for less-sweet fruits, such as apples, pears, plums, and berries.
Most of the time, go for high-fibre starchy stuff (again, beans/legumes, whole grains, and yams) instead.
Get plenty of fat and protein.
When you dump sugar, you get to eat more fat. YEAH!!!
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.
Get plenty of friendly bacteria.
Take a probiotic and/or eat real sauerkraut, kimchi, or other fermented foods daily.
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 gin and tonic or expensive red wine.
If you fall off the wagon, get right back on IMMEDIATELY.
Ideally this won’t happen. Your clever planning and cheerleading squad should be keeping you out of the pitfalls.
But hey, life is imperfect.
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!!!
All is not 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.
Congratulations! You’ve made it through one 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.
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 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. As far as your brain chemistry is concerned, sugar is not much different than cocaine.
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 or a sauna. Go to bed early and get some lovin’.
Keep eating slowly.
Taste. Savour. Enjoy other things.
If you fall off the wagon, get right back on IMMEDIATELY.
Yep, same rules apply.
Congratulations again! 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.)
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.)
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. Week 5 may be the week of your period 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.
Focus on what you can eat. 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
- cutting down your carbohydrate intake even a little more — perhaps taking the carbs out of dinner/evening meals (remember, when carbs go down, fat goes up)
The world is your oyster now. Take a deep breath. Aahhhhh.