Week 1: Motivation (Or How I Survived a Trip to the Fair)

Well, I’m one whole week into my reduced sugar challenge and I have to say it hasn’t been quite as bad as I expected. But that’s probably because it’s only been seven whole days and my motivation is still pretty high. I’m pretty sure that’s what got me through a couple of really big challenges this week, but as I near the end of a stressful week I am starting to crave sugar more and more. We’ll see how I feel around April 21!

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So, what challenges have I encountered, you ask? Let me tell you! First was a trip to the Arizona state fair with my parents while I was visiting them in Yuma. Now, before you say “Well, it’s just a fair, how bad can that be?” Let me remind you that THIS is a common sight (and smell!) at state fairs:

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Also, I should add that at this particular fair the claim to fame is the $5 jumbo cinnamon rolls, for which there was a line that wrapped around the huge warehouse hanger! A 20 minute wait! So….yea. I was a whole two days into the challenge so I was still pretty motivated. So while it was definitely a challenge, it wasn’t a true test-the-mettle challenge. But my experiences at the fair paved the way for me to distill my first lesson from the April challenge:

Lesson One: When you can’t have sugar, fat is your friend.

Yes, fat. Not too much fat, of course, but the right dose of the right fat can help me fend off those powerful sugar cravings. Fat, that precious substance that our bodies need to keep healthy but has been so demonized in our culture in the past few decades, triggers the same kind of satiety response in our brain as sugar. Our bodies crave fat in similar ways as sugar. On this challenge, I’ve learned that a moderate portion of some kind of fatty food is enough to stave sugar cravings for a while. Of course, since I’m trying to opt for whole and minimally processed foods that means that the fat I eat is not derived from potato chips or nachos. But a half avocado can do wonders for my sugar-starved brain.

Of course, there isn’t usually a fresh farm produce stand at most state fairs. So I coped with my time at the fair (and the excruciating time in the cinnamon roll line) by opting for choices that I figured would satisfy my urge without busting my sugar limit. While we were there, I opted for a couple of carne asada tacos, a dill pickle, a locally-made dried beef stick, and the most fabulous ear of roasted corn I’ve ever tasted.

tumblr_mcd171gnbs1rsfae9o1_400After my weekend to the Arizona was over, I came back and settled in for my daily routine sans sugar. Now, before the challenge my typical morning routine entailed making a (sweetened) cup of coffee and eating a (sweetened) cup of yogurt, which packed a whopping 22g of sugar. So this routine obviously had to change, and for the past week I’ve been opting for plain, no sugar added Greek yogurt and coffee with cream but no sweetener. And the result has not been that bad! I’m starting to taste the natural sugar in my yogurt as my tongue and brain get more sensitive. Also, this change in my morning meal has altered another fundamental part of my food habits, leading two the second lesson of the challenge.

Lesson Two: When coffee is not a liquid dessert, it becomes less appealing.

Before starting this challenge I would typically drink 3-4 mugs of coffee in a day. One when I woke up, another around 11am, another around 3pm, and sometimes another around 5pm. I have been under the impression that I’m just a caffeine addict who has built her life on caffeine stilts. But in the past few days I have only had a single morning cup of coffee, and nothing more, leading me to think that maybe my coffee addiction isn’t so much about coffee as it is about all the sweeteners I put into my coffee. Now that I’m not making my coffee into a dessert, I’m not only finding in slightly less satisfying, I’m also craving it less. I sometimes feel a need for a  pick-me-up in the 3pm slump, but I don’t feel beholden to coffee throughout the day as I usually do. But don’t get me wrong, I still love that morning cup of coffee. And I’m also starting to appreciate the taste of coffee as coffee even more.

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A weird development that I’ve noticed is that I am consistently staying under my 30g limit every day. In the past week I’ve clocked in anywhere from 10-15g of added sugar every day, so less than half of what I’m allowing myself. But, I don’t necessarily think this is cause for celebration. Because not only am I allowing myself natural sugar (in moderation) I’ve learned another sneaky lesson.

Lesson Three: What’s the difference between sugar and refined carbs?

I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is not a damn thing! After all, sugar is a simple carbohydrate. And I’m pretty sure that sugar and refined carbs are basically doing the same thing – giving us a big energy spike that sets us up for a big energy deficit. I discovered this lesson when I was having some strong sugar cravings and was stranded on campus without food. I needed to make a decision on what to eat, so I stood in the campus market and picked up an apple, a turkey sandwich, and some sparkling water. And while the sugar craving may have been defeated by just eating something, I noticed that the bread in the turkey sandwich was immensely satisfying. In fact, anytime that I have eaten bread in the past few days it sends little tingles to my brain and, sure enough, eventually I’ll crave bread AND sugar.

So, for me the answer is to just limit refined carbs too, because they make my sugar cravings much MUCH worse. And to be honest, bread just isn’t worth it.

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So, I’m seven days in and three lessons wiser. I’ve also noticed some positive changes too. First and foremost, I actually feel much more energized throughout the day (even without the extra coffee!). This is probably a combination of having stable blood sugar (which means I don’t crash) and opting for water or sparkling water as my go-to beverage. All this daytime energy is also helping me sleep better at night – I’m falling asleep faster and waking up feeling better. This creates a positive energy cycle: The stable blood sugar and water give me more energy, helping me to sleep better at night, helping me to feel more rested and have more energy the next day, and so on it goes.

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I also think I’m noticing positive differences in my skin, but it’s really too early to tell. I’ll know more next week. Also, the past two day have been R-O-U-G-H in the cravings department. I’ve never wanted a gummy bear more badly in my ENTIRE LIFE. So I have a feeling this next week is really going to kick my ass. But, I still have a pretty high level of motivation, so I think it will be okay. I hope!

Also coming up next week: an update on my challenge co-participants! I can’t wait to hear more about how they are coping with the challenge and share that information with you.

Till next week, friends!

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April Challenge: Reducing Sugar

I’m kicking off the second season with a challenge that I have decided for myself (rather than decided for me), and I think it’s going to among the most difficult challenges I’ve ever done! This month, I’ll be reducing the amount of added sugar in my diet down to the recommended level for adults.

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In this post, I’ll share the inspiration for the challenge, the goals and lessons I hope to learn from the challenge, what I anticipate to be the most difficult, and of course – the rules! But before I get to any of that, let me introduce my challenge co-participants! For this challenge I’ll be joined by my mom, Esta, and one of my closest friends, Melissann. They both live hundreds (or thousands) of miles away but will be participating nonetheless. I’m glad to have their support and, so far, they seem excited about joining in. I hope we all can share our challenges and triumphs together.

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Okay, on to the inspiration for this month’s challenge. I’ve been aware for the past few years that the food industry puts a lot of added sugar and salt into foods in order to keep them “low fat” and still palatable. Again, I’ve known this but, obviously, I just didn’t care. When I wanted something sweet – I’d just eat it. OR – I’d opt for the “sugar free” variety of the food, sweetened with sugar substitutes. For the past 2 years, I’ve known that I have been gradually increasing the amount of sugar I eat. But the increase was steady and came along with a more general decision to just stop obsessing over food. Women’s obsession with food and weight is not accidental, my friends (hint: that’s the patriarchy). And for a while I just decided enough was enough.I was going to eat what I wanted and love myself anyway. And I did! But now I’d like to try eating to support my body and its strength, not necessarily eating whatever I crave and definitely not eating in order to shame my body into submission. The first step in that process, for me, is dealing with sugar.

My go-to solution in the past has been to choose the low calorie but still sweet versions of food – the low fat yogurts and the carob chips and whatnot. These are foods that I can feel less “guilty” about (again, that’s the patriarchy) but are still sweet. But its time for me to just accept that artificial sugars are not the answer. When artificial sugars deliver sweetness on the tongue, it signals an oncoming sugar rush to the brain. But when the rush doesn’t come the brain craves sugar with a vengeance. For me, those powerful cravings can lead to sugar binges so derailing because my brain is going to get that sugar, dammit. The binges don’t happen right away, they might build up over the course of a day or a week. But when binges happen, they are often the result of a perfect storm: ongoing sugar craving + stress/feeling overwhelmed + opportunity = BINGE.

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That’s been my sugar formula for as long as I can remember, and my continued reliance on artificial sweeteners has only made the problem worse. So by the time I watched the awesome documentary, Fed Up, co-produced by the amazingly amazing Katie Couric, I wasn’t hearing anything I didn’t already know. But watching that documentary made me entertain a new possibility – maybe I am addicted to sugar?

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Now, I don’t make light of addiction nor do I throw that word around carelessly. Addiction is real and scary and an actual issue in our families, communities, and society. But, I think it is possible that sugar makes us behave in ways strikingly similar to addiction, but we as a society don’t see it as a problem because, well, it’s just sugar. But maybe it’s not just sugar? While there might not ever be conclusive evidence that sugar is the sole culprit in causing certain health problems, I think there is enough evidence to conclude that it’s probably a significant factor.

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So, when I watched Fed Up just a week after deciding to bring back the blog, I knew I had found a stellar premiere challenge for season two. Whether I’m addicted to sugar or not, I can’t say. But what I can say is that I’m tired of that binge-and-bust cycle of sugar, and I have been wanting to do something about it (and my overuse of artificial sweetener) for a while. Plus, I figure this challenge will be a good opportunity to be more aware of the kinds of foods I eat and how they make me feel, keeping in line with my general life goal of eating well for my body. So my goals for this challenge are:

  1. Maintain more stable levels of sugar day to day, rather than the peaks and valleys that come with binges and busts.
  2. Cut out artificial sweeteners and see if that makes a difference in my cravings and/or behavior.
  3. Keep myself from retreating to sugar when I feel stressed and/or overwhelmed. In other words, try not use sugar as a crutch for feeling better.
  4. Generally improve my awareness of my nutrition and food choices.

Now, here the rules. For the month of April, I will:

  1. Consume no more than 30 grams of added sugar daily
    • Sugar that occurs naturally in food is okay because that sugar is often accompanied by enough fiber and other nutrients to slow digestion and keep blood sugar from spiking too high
    • Therefore, fruits are allowed and won’t count toward the 30g ceiling
  2. Whole fruits are okay, but dried fruit and fruit juice are not
    • Again, the idea is to avoid high sugar spikes, so fruit needs to come along with fiber
  3. I don’t want to end up sugar-binging on fruit, so no more than 4 servings of fruit in a day.
  4. As much as possible, choose natural and minimally-processed foods, if only because food manufacturers don’t distinguish between natural and added sugars on food labels, making it difficult to track my 30g of added sugar.
  5. No “rolling over” of unused daily sugar grams into a weekly total. I can see myself starving for sugar all week so that I can have a “legitimate” binge on the weekend. Doing that is maintaining the binge and bust cycle, not challenging it.
  6. No artificial sweeteners. If I want a sugar substitute, I will use honey.

These are the rules I’ve decided for myself. I think they are doable. I hope they are doable.

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Over the past week, I’ve been paying attention to how much sugar I eat and where the biggest sources of sugar come from. For the past seven days, I’ve had an average of 50-60g of sugar a day, which doesn’t include the number of servings of artificial sweeteners I have in things like coffee and yogurt. So I’m going to be cutting sugar in half, and cutting sweets even more since I won’t have artificial sweeteners as a substitute.

And while I’m on the subject of coffee and yogurt, holy sugar batman! My typical yogurt choice (Dannon Light & Fit Greek and/or Greek Crunch yogurt) has anywhere from 7g to 12g (!) of sugar in one tiny cup! That’s almost half of my daily amount! And it gets WORSE! My typical coffee creamer (Coffee-mate Natural Bliss Vanilla) has 5g of sugar in every TABLESPOON! So that means that if I put two tablespoons of creamer in my coffee and couple it with a container of my usual yogurt – I’ve just downed up to 22g of sugar before noon. From my beloved coffee and yogurt! Noooooo!!!

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Well, the buck stops here. Everything I’ve read in preparation for this challenge has warned that when you cut sugar the first five days are the hardest. Especially if you’re used to having a lot of sugar, then in those first few days your brain will be going through withdrawal. The various sources I’ve read say to be patient with yourself as you’re likely to be more irritable and annoyed for the first few days. So, dearest friends, please be patient with me too.

I’ll check in next week to tell you all how it’s going. I’ll also try to get my co-participants to check in and maybe write a guest post. You’ll be hearing from us – wish us luck!

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