One of the common themes in most news from the media about the sources of our national obesity problem is the amount of salt and sugar in the foods we eat. In fact, American processed food has become so salty that one researcher predicted that if things continue on the way they are, the food we eat 15 years from now will be like brine! The amount of sodium in packaged foods can be alarming, and the fact that there are about 25 different names for sugar is a pretty good indication that we're eating way too much of it.
So it is not suprising that one of the first things mourned by people looking to change their ways is sugar. I hear the same complaints over and over: "Coffee tastes weird without a packet of Splenda." Suggest to a Southerner that she not drink sweet tea and be prepared for mutiny. For real, one of my co-workers almost hit me with a stapler when I implied that her ginormous styrofoam cup of sugar water may be part of the reason her clean eating hasn't taken off. Liquid calories are still calories, and liquid sugar is like calories that haven't taken their Ritalin. You can eat fruit, vegetables, and whole grains all day long but if you top it off with an innocent "treat" of some sugar, you will erase all of that good work. I know, it isn't fair. Get over it.
I know it can seem insurmountable to consider life without sugar. As a former sugarholic, I've been there. I can clearly remember thinking it was completely unrealistic to think that I could live the rest of my life without added sugar. But I do. I get plenty of sweetness through fruits, vegetables, and the occasional drizzle of honey and by and large have lessened my sweet tooth to the point where baked goods are actually a little nauseating to me. I know. It's weird. I never expected that.
It ain't easy, but it does happen. You can retrain your tastebuds to recognize and appreciate foods in their natural, unsalted, unsweetened state. All it takes is some time and nerves of steel. Before long, what was once as bland and watered-down as a rice cake (don't eat rice cakes) will simply be food. It won't be a reward, it won't be a companion, it won't be anything other than wonderful, healthy, nourishment for your body that you will eat and then move on from. And isn't that what food is for anyway?
Some tips to get yourself over the first few days/weeks/homicidal thoughts of living the unsweetened life:
1. Stop expecting food to soothe, reward, vindicate, justify, or erase feelings. Food doesn't give a crap about you or your problems and isn't going to fix anything. Stop expecting it to do anything other than interact with your body in the only way it knows how. It doesn't know that you had a bad day and those calories weren't supposed to count.
2. Don't set yourself up for failure: change your behavior as well. If you know that every time you go to XYZ Restaurant you want to order the huge ginormous dessert, don't go there. I used to get a piece of 60% cacao chocolate almost every time I went to the grocery store, to the point where I became like some Pavlovian dog as I neared the end of my grocery shopping, knowing that I was going to have that chocolate. It was becoming a problem, as I didn't have a need for that much chocolate in my nutrition plan (unless I was seriously PMSing in which case back off) and I didn't like the habit I was forming. But instead of just trying to use self-control to not buy the chocolate, I changed my total behavior at the store. I shopped at a different store for a few trips and was sure to be either on my phone or otherwise engaged when I neared checkout so I would be distracted from it. It worked. After just a couple of trips, the habit was broken and I was no longer self-sabotaging.
3. Avoid sugar alternatives. Fake sugar is not acceptable in a cleaneating environment, and it will not help you get over a sugar habit. Quite the opposite, actually, as research points to evidence that man-made sweeteners actually trigger your brain to crave more of it. No, the point here is to alleviate your dependency on sweetness althogether. We are learning to eat food in its natural state, not a hyped-up version of it.
4. Be patient. Sugar is a tricky little devil. It's been said that sugar withdrawl can be even harder than quitting smoking, so be patient with yourself and the amount of time it will take for your tastebuds to get with the program. It can take days or even a couple of weeks for your body to adjust, but it will. I promise. Eventually, you will look at those big frosted brownies in the bakery case and think, "ugh, I used to eat that whole thing?!"
I know that seems crazy but it is possible if you are willing to put in the time, patience, and forward-thinking that it takes to give your tastebuds a fighting chance. They deserve it!
Are you struggling with sugar withdrawls? Have a unique challenge or question for how to make the conversion? Let me know how I can help; I've been there!