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Live a low sugar life: How I reduced my sugar intake to improve my health

In April of 2019, after returning from a trip to Turkey and having enjoyed some of the most delicious (and sweetest!) desserts I've ever had, I realized that I had a full blown sugar addiction. I had been pretty good about maintaining a healthy amount of sugar for months prior to vacation but this trip really set me back. Even though I knew I was on an unhealthy path, I couldn't seem to get off the sugar train. And the summer seemed to bring with it endless evenings of drinks on patios and get-togethers on the weekends which didn't make it any easier. It was only after a family member innocently mentioned that I was eating a lot more sweets than I usually do and he guessed I wasn't "being healthy" anymore did I realize that I needed to find a way to curb my sugar intake. The fact that someone else besides me recognized my diet change was the tipping point! I made a few lifestyle changes after that and here I'll share some tips that were most effective, and doable, for me.

Tip #1 - Changing my environment

By removing nearly all the sugar from my home, I made the path to eating sugar much more difficult for myself. No ice cream in the freezer, no cookies in the pantry and no chocolates at my desk at work made it much easier to stay on track. That's not to say that I didn't still have cravings for sugar…I definitely did and would be extremely disappointed when I looked and found nothing in the cabinets to satisfy my cravings. But eventually I would get distracted with something else and would forget about it and move on. By changing my environment, I reduced the need to elicit willpower to make a healthy decision. The decision was effectively made for me since I had almost no sweet food in my house.

I'm not saying that it's easy to change your environment, especially if you're living with family, friends or roommates who like sweet treats. However, I do my best to keep any sweet snacks in my house at least somewhat healthy. Sometimes I have dark chocolate bar on hand (85% cocoa or higher is usually best) which is great sweet snack and usually has only about 5 grams of sugar per serving. I also find dark sugar hard to overeat since it's a little bitter - usually about 2-3 squares will do it for me. I'll also usually have some dried fruit in the house and just a few bites can usually satisfy my craving. Keeping low sugar treats on hand help curb my cravings without throwing me completely off track.

Some environments, like your workplace for instance, you can do little to change and may need to call on that willpower from time to time to avoid eating those donuts in the kitchen. If you're like me and you're lucky enough to work from home, this is no longer a problem!

Tip #2 - Get your partner/friends/family on board

My husband loves sugar even more than I do! Since we live together, changing my environment meant changing his too which meant I had to get him on board with my plan to make our home a low-sugar spot. I convinced him that we both needed to change our sugar-eating ways and that this change would benefit both of us. He didn't really agree but he went along because he knew it was important to me and because he could get plenty of sweet treats at his office.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have an open conversation with those you live with if you're trying to change the way you eat. Changing your environment has been cited by experts as an effective method for creating or changing a habit and this can be very difficult to do without support from those around you. I know this from experience! If that means speaking to your mother or favorite aunt to ask them to stop bringing over homemade cookies, then have that conversation and let them know how serious you are about starting a healthier lifestyle.

"Habit-formation advice is ultimately simple — repeat an action consistently in the same context." – British Journal of Independent Practice (citation)

Tip #3 - Treat yourself once in a while (maybe)

Once I was able to remove most of the sugar from my home, I became really good at keeping a low sugar diet during the weekdays since I typically don't go out. It's fine to splurge a little on the weekend when you go out to a party or to a friend's place. I've found this to work really well for me with food and alcohol - I'll eat healthy meals through the week and skip dessert (most of the time!) and then will indulge guilt-free during weekend outings. Psychologically I've found it helpful for me to not make sugar completely off limits. The key is to indulge a LITTLE and not binge eat sugary foods when you do decide to treat yourself. As much as I am a proponent of healthy eating, I cave once in a while and I'm fine with it! Why? Because it prevents me from feeling like I'm depriving myself.

One caveat to this tip is to have a strong understanding of how you operate and work within that. I have friends who would prefer to COMPLETELY avoid something rather than indulge once in a while because they know they would have difficultly a) refraining from binge eating when they do indulge and/or b) have difficulty getting back to eating sugar free the next day. I totally get this - getting off the path can sometimes mean that it is difficult to get back on. I know this from experience after my few months of sugary indulgence in 2019. Also, sometimes the simplicity and ease of making a very black and white decision that you WILL NOT eat sugar is much more straight-forward and mentally easier to maintain. It definitely reduces the number of decisions you need to make (i.e. when you might choose to indulge, how much you'll allow yourself to have, etc.) I absolutely would go this route if I was looking to reduce my sugar significantly (e.g. if I was pre-diabetic or trying to lose weight). Taking some time to reflect on how you best operate can help you to choose a path that works best for you. And if you reflect and still can't tell what works best, experiment with different approaches and see for yourself.

Tip #4 - Eat before you go grocery shopping

I cannot stress this one enough - it is so simple to do that there's really no excuse for not doing this one! I can personally attest that it definitely matters and will absolutely change the way you shop. By making sure that you are full when you go grocery shopping, even when you see junk food items that you absolutely love, you'll be full so you'll be way less likely to pick them up. I used to go shopping right after work when I'm typically pretty hungry but when I realized what poor choices I was making, I decided to go home first to eat a healthy snack or keep one handy with me at work before going to the grocery store. Not only did this help me make healthier choices but it also saved me money! I usually buy less because I'm only picking up the items I really need and not making impulse purchases.

Pro tip: when it comes to grocery shopping stick to the perimeter of the store. The perimeter of the store is traditionally where you'll find more whole foods like produce, fresh bread, meat, dairy, eggs and less processed foods. Of course, this isn't a hard and fast rule - there are whole foods and other healthy items in the aisles like canned veggies and fish but there are also a TON of processed foods. Usually what helps me is to have a shopping list for the aisles. I often don't use a shopping list for the perimeter as I just grab what I like and what is in season / on sale. But for the aisles I will have a list so I just go and grab what I need instead of having to walk through all of them.

Now that we've discussed ways to reduce sugar consumption, let's discuss what NOT to do:

Don't indulge in sugary food and drinks just because you went to the gym

I was definitely guilty of doing this in the past. Our mind is an incredible machine and we can always find a way to justify what we want. So going to the gym and then telling ourselves that we deserve an ice cream after dinner for all our hard work is perfectly reasonable - we all do it!

This is one area where I had to make a conscious effort to reframe this way of thinking. I started to think to myself that if I worked out and then had dessert that this would CANCEL OUT the work out I had just had. Whenever I told this to myself, it would help prevent me from reaching for dessert after dinner because it would mean my time at the gym was a waste. Ultimately, you have to be honestly with yourself that these activities are not 1 to 1. It's difficult to lose significant calories even from a very difficult workout so it's unlikely that you'll work off an entire dessert.

Don't try to be super healthy on special occasions and while on vacation

Now everyone will have a different take on this depending on what works best for them but I've found that trying to be super healthy, for example no sugar, unhealthy oils, processed foods, can be very difficult to maintain during special occasions or when you're on vacation. Like I mentioned, I'm generally a proponent of indulging once in a while and special occasions and vacations would be the times to allow for more indulgences. In the past, I've tried being so disciplined that I didn't eat the cake at my own birthday celebration! And while I achieved my goal of not eating sugar, in retrospect it wasn't really worth it. Enjoying a bit of cake with my family on my birthday wouldn't have killed me and it definitely would have been more fun.

That being said, this can be a slippery slope. Be aware of how many special occasions / events you're attending and how much you're indulging in sweets. If you're on vacation multiples times a year for extended periods then maybe consider how you can limit sugar the majority of the time and indulge when it will be most satisfying.

Also, I'll point out that just because you allow yourself to indulge sometimes, it doesn't mean that you need to shun all healthy foods. Since my palate has adjusted to eating mostly whole or minimally processed foods, when I do go on vacation or celebrate a special occasion, there is always nutritious foods included in the mix. Just because I'm on vacation, I don't drop salads in favor of French fries at every meal. I enjoy salad and other healthful foods so they're always part of my diet but I may include some less healthy foods like pizza or fries as well. This is the best tactic when it comes to your body as completely changing your diet, especially for a few days, can really impact how you feel. For example, not eating any greens or other fibrous foods can impact your digestion and leave you feeling bloated or even constipated (not a good feeling on vacation!).

Don't be too hard on yourself

We’re all human and we've all done things that we've later regretted. Remember that time you promised yourself that you were going to eat healthy all week but caved and got that full-fat, full-sugar Frappuccino in a moment of weakness? We've all been there. Although you might be disappointed in yourself afterwards, there's really no reason not to get right back on track. In my experience, it's best not make too much of it. You can consider that weeknight ice cream an occasional indulgence and move on. The worst thing you can do is to consider the whole day or week a write off because you got off track once (been there, done that). This is just one of the many ways our minds can work against us by finding a way to justify indulging in unhealthy foods.

I used to be very hard on myself in these situations but recently found that just showing myself some compassion goes a long way and makes me less likely to dwell on these seeming 'failures' which helps me to move on from them more quickly. And it's so much more positive! Another thing I would also do is to reflect on why I may have made a bad food decision. Why did I feel like I needed a Frappuccino in the middle of the day? Did I have a protein-light breakfast that left me feeling hungry an hour later? Did I sleep poorly the night before which left me craving sugary carbs? By figuring out what might have gone wrong, you can come up with solutions to prevent this from happening again in the future.

I wrote this post specifically about sugar because it's the type of unhealthy food that I struggle with the most - and it seems to be in just about everything! But I definitely think that these tips apply just as well for other junk foods that don't necessarily have sugar in them. Also, I recognize that all of what I have stated above is easier said than done - I know this from experience! But I definitely think it is worth trying to find a way of eating that is consistently healthy rather than going from one unsuccessful diet to another. Just the process of experimenting to see what healthy eating habits work best for you can be a great way to find something that works for you and most importantly, is sustainable. And for me personally, I know that if I can slay my sugar addiction, that is one huge step forward in terms of overall health.

I hope these tips help you as much as they've helped me! Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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