The 21 Day Sugar Detox

When I try to explain my relationship with sugar, I tend to refer to it as that ex who is  just no good for me. Once I finally saw past the sweet, candy-coated, emptiness of the calories I was consuming, all that was left was how lethargic, heavy, and stuffed I felt. So finally I declared, “That’s it, Sugar, you’re not good for me” and I cut him out of my life. I un-friended him on Facebook and I even bought a vegetable slicer—because, hell, I’m replacing all those noodles with zucchini spaghetti. And for a while, I’m good. I feel more energized, more focused, I sleep better, and I breathe better. It’s awesome.

But then Sugar comes back around and he’s like, “Hey girl, I heard you were having a party… I brought you those brownies with peanut butter cups inside that you love so much.” And I’m all, “Nope, I don’t do sugar anymore.”

But as the night wanes, I tell myself, “Well, just a taste of this peanut butter cup brownie won’t hurt.” It’s comfortable and familiar and it makes me feel good. Before I know it, the love affair is back on, full throttle, and all I want is pad thai and pizza dough. For who understands me, knows me, and never judges me like a slice of apple spice pound cake?

It’s an unsustainable relationship. And Sugar and I will mend ways and break up, I fear, many more times before I’ve really wrapped my head around how much better I feel without him.

I won’t bore you with the oh-so-bitter details of why sugar is bad for you because you can learn more about them here, here and here. Be warned, there is definitely a good amount of fear mongering out there when it comes to sugar and gluten intake, but it’s important to know the facts about the negative impact that sugar has on our bodies and also be aware that, as with anything, excess consumption is bound to have negative repercussions. Excessive sugar intake has been linked to diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, eczema, and gum disease. Not to mention that it’s highly addictive.

I’ve never exactly been the picture of healthy eating habits and I never gave much thought to just how much sugar I was consuming—either natural or processed. After all, the bottom of the food pyramid, the category we’re told to consume the most of, is a giant spread of rice, bread, and noodles. So for all intents and purposes, I figured I’d nailed it. Turns out—and you may have guessed this by now—the sugar found in said rice, bread, and noodles is not actually good for us. At all. Which is why I decided to do my first sugar detox.

Here are the rules I followed for my 21-day sugar detox. They’re actually pretty simple!

DON’T eat anything with sugar. All bread/pasta/rice products are out. Baked goods, obviously, are a no. Avoid potatoes, corn, quinoa, and legumes.

DO eat lots of meat, protein, vegetables and anything else you can find that’s high in fat or fiber. Nuts are great, and so are eggs. Get creative, or don’t, but stick to the rules.

Depending on what level of the detox you commit to (i.e. how many allowances you intend to make for yourself), sweet potatoes are on the sometimes list. So are green bananas. Both of these guys are definitely sugary in their own natural way, but far less so than regular potatoes and ripe bananas. It’s recommended that you incorporate one serving daily of either of these if you work out regularly.

It’s also important to buy meat and eggs that are organic and grass fed, since so many chickens and cows are corn-fed and grain-fed it means that if they’re consuming it, when you eat them, you are too. You’ll also get to avoid a world of hormones, growth promoters and antibiotics that so often wind up in the meat we eat.

Part of this process is about keeping your blood sugar levels as even as possible. Therefore, if you’re going to partake in dairy products during this detox, you should stick to whole-fat dairy because your body processes non-fat and reduced fat dairy in the same way it processes any kind of sugar: it will lead to crazy blood sugar spiking of the unwanted variety.

With this knowledge and a vague plan, I set off for Whole Paycheck Whole Foods to get my high-protein / high-fat / gluten-free on. Now, the key to success for any detox is utter and total preparation. Boil some eggs, bag some almonds and keep that ish on you all the time. Especially at first. That’s my best and most prominent piece of advice—be ready to feed yourself something high in protein and sugarfree at the drop of a hat.

Another trick that helps a lot is to find ways to replace what you’re cutting out. If you’re like me and live on a steady diet of noodles and sauce, crack open a spaghetti squash, or get a julienne peeler and make noodles out of sweet potatoes or zucchini. If you’re all about those Yukon gold mashed potatoes, make your best cauliflower mash with garlic and butter. Before you know it, you will forget you’re only eating vegetables.

Make some treats for yourself. There are hundreds dozens of gluten, sugar, and dairy-free baked goods online that turn out to have a real natural flavor and a deeply satisfying texture. Take this from someone who spent a whole Saturday during my first detox just looking at bread recipes online. Do yourself a favor and make some imitation bread.

Another tip: drink water. Drink all the water. Put lemon in it, steep tea in it, put it on ice and drink it all day long. It’ll wash the toxins out of your body, stave off cravings, and generally make you feel more awesome.

There will probably be some side effects, not unlike anything you’ve felt if you’ve ever tried to give up coffee. You might feel achy, you might have headaches, and there’s a pretty good chance that your body will revolt a little bit. You may discover midway through your detox that when you need to use the restroom, there’s a sense of—erm—urgency, if you will. That tummy ache you’re feeling is Candida die-off. Candida is a fungus that lives happily and symbiotically in your small intestines so long as we keep feeding it sugar. Stop feeding it and, well, it’s going to die. And that can be kind of unpleasant. (Sorry.)

After about 7 days of the detox, a really magical thing happened for me. My sinuses opened completely. For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from what the fancy medical professionals refer to as sinusitis. It’s a chronic inflammation of the nasal cavity, which makes breathing through my nose a non-starter. It can also cause a lot of sinus pressure headaches. As it is, sugar, gluten, legumes, and dairy are all inflammatories, and when I cut them out of my diet my sinuses became less inflamed and I could breathe through my nose. It was amazing.

For me, that was the health benefit that sealed the deal. A lot of people I know now who detox from sugar do it to lose weight, feel less bloated, and because it makes them healthier. It will help you achieve all of those things, and a lot of people experience benefits that far surpass the basics. Some people with minor gluten intolerances discover that rashes and acne clear up, and that they end up needing less sleep.

You will also find that after 21 days, that brownie sundae won’t look so tempting. Your body will have adjusted so wholly that you’ll think it’s too sweet. You’ll have a new appreciation for the natural sweetness of foods like grapes, sweet potatoes and bananas: healthy sugars that you can gradually reintroduce to your diet. There’s a lot of winning to be had.

So then, day 22 rolls around and you’re probably wondering what happens next. You’ve stabilized your blood sugar, reacclimated your taste buds to life’s natural sweetness, and you’ve even killed off that funky bacterium that was living in your intestines. Sure, now you can start to reintroduce natural sugars back to your diet, like fruit, and well… fruit. So it’s totally smooth sailing from here on out right? That depends. If you have also completed the detox you may have discovered that sugar is literally in everything. Ketchup, and buffalo chicken wings, and taco shells.  So it gets pretty tough to avoid. I’m willing to guess that even the most diligent among us (a group that does not include myself) struggle to truly steer clear of sugar long-term.

Yes, that means I fall off the wagon. It means my cheat days turn into cheat months where I fall several paces behind the wagon, sipping pumpkin spice lattes and eating Nutella crepes. It happens often enough, but I can tell you my body has not let me forget the benefits sugar-free eating. I can’t get halfway through a plate of pasta before I can feel my sinuses begin to close. So I try to go easy and be fair on myself when “just this one peanut butter cup” turns into all the french fries at In ‘N’ Out. I try to avoid bread and pasta and potatoes and for the most part I succeed. Everything else I try to keep attainable: I’m not a stickler about sauces or cheeses, and I have reintegrated beans and rice into my diet. The goal is to improve quality of life after all.

There’s little else that the heart of a carboholic like myself wants more than a big pile of noodles, covered in cheese, topped with breadcrumbs, wrapped in a sourdough bowl. Followed by a brownie, covered in cake. (Duh.) So take it to heart when I say that, although the 21 Day Sugar Detox was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done for myself, it’s absolutely been one of the best things and I’d do it again.

Here’s the link to the full program for those of you eager to give this a go yourselves.

Photo by Rob Adams

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