A few years ago I cut sugar out of my diet entirely.
I remember the day I decided. I stood on a scale in my bathroom, me and only me, and stared at the number that stared back with its digital seriousness.
I’d always been thin – even “skinny”, when I was growing up. I look at pictures now and realise what my grandparents meant when they said “We need to fatten you up!” and I laughed at the idea but now realise that seeing my collarbones meant something.
At the time it simply meant that I could eat literally anything I ever wanted and never gain a single pound. I’d go to McDonald’s with a friend and order a quarter pounder with cheese meal and then, because I was still hungry, order another meal and eat that too. And I would look exactly the same the next day and the next and the next.
And then I got a chronic illness and the whole world changed and my body changed and my life changed.
It’s now called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), but I’ll call it CFS to keep things simple.
I could write an entire book about my experience with it and the 15 years I lived with it and didn’t understand it and was scared of it and hated it and got tired of it and was misunderstood because of it, but the long and short of it is that CFS combined with me simply growing up and crossing that mystical 30 year boundary when your metabolism changes… meant that I couldn’t eat like I did before. At least, I couldn’t do it without experiencing the impact of food on my body.
This was very new to me. The idea that I would choose to put this food in my body and feel good and healthy and have energy; or put that food in my body and feel tired and exhausted and have no energy…I’d never experienced that before. I didn’t make any connection at all between food and energy. And now I needed to.
One of the toughest things about CFS is that it affects every human body differently. There is no universal cure, no one size fits all diet or programme or plan or process which “fixes you”.
And everybody tried to fix me. Oh, how they tried.
“Have you tried…?” became a phrase to bring dread to my soul (still does, to be honest). It’s the well meaning suggestion from someone who doesn’t know, hasn’t been there, and thinks everything is fixable.
And I tried them anyway. Despite the soul destroying exhaustion that came with every glint of hope (which was then extinguished after the new fixit, didn’t), I tried.
I tried multi vitamins, and all the vitamins. And vitamin B12. In tablet form, in gummy form, in powder form. I tried protein powders and energy powders. I tried drinking more water and less fizzy juice.
And I did try going off certain foods. I remember reading or being told that the biggest danger to my health was white flour, potatoes, and sugar, so I went off those for six months. (You try being the guest of a farmer’s family in Northern Ireland for Sunday afternoon lunch and explaining you won’t be having anything with potatoes, white flour, or sugar in it. I now know what it is to be an alien.)
I tried more green vegetables. Less food. More food. Counting calories. My sister, who is a nurse, was telling someone at the hospital she worked at about my CFS and they (with a completely serious face) told her that their nephew or cousin or sister or whoever had CFS, and they “tried eating everything lemon, and it completely healed them. Lemon juice, lemon in everything. Has she tried lemon?” We laugh about it now, but I cried at the time. The seriousness with which someone could suggest something so dramatic as if it’s just a fun thing to try, when everything I tried broke my spirit and didn’t heal my body, was and still remains mind boggling to me.
(Side note: if you know anyone with ANY illness you don’t specifically and personally understand, please, for the love of God, do not suggest anything to them. The very best thing you can do and the only thing which will marginally help is to sympathise, listen, cry with them, and support literally anything they want to try or not try. That’s it.)
So when I tell you now that, on that day when the scale read 199.2 and I decided to get serious about my health and energy, and I decided to go off sugar entirely…please understand there is a great deal behind that decision.
My CFS never disappeared, but over the years I had learned to “manage it”.
I figured out things that worked – for me – and things that didn’t work – for me – and half the time it was all a bit of a crapshoot and the things that usually worked didn’t and vice versa. I’d sleep and get exercise and drink water and eat well, and then I’d wake up in the morning with literally no energy whatsoever and have no idea why. Or I’d go out with friends and eat whatever I liked and stay up too late and wake up the next morning with all the energy and no idea why. I gave up understanding it, honestly. I just figured this was something I’d need to live with and that’s the way it goes sometimes.
And then (insert another entire book here) I began working through a book called Boundaries, and the associated workbook, and realising I had some serious boundary setting to work on.
Emotional boundaries. Spiritual boundaries. Physical. Financial. Relational. Literally every category of my life either had boundaries which were placed on them without my permission, or had none at all. I didn’t know how to set them, didn’t know what to do with the ones I had, and had a lot of work to do.
And I did it. I did the work. I read and thought and prayed and mulled over and cried and got angry and asked questions and considered and tried and wondered. And I changed things.
A lot changed in my life around that time (again, another book), but one of the big realisations was that, for my health, sugar was a trigger for me.
I discovered sugar was a trigger for me, leading to more unhealthy eating
I looked at when I made poor decisions about my health and the food I put in my body (or didn’t). And every time, without exception, it started with sugar. If I was making healthy choices and not overeating and using wisdom…and then had “just one piece of cake”, it always spiraled for a little while after. I’d have another piece, and then a cookie, and then the whole box or bag. I’d order takeaway because why not, I was already falling down the pit, and then I’d feel rubbish because of all the fat and sugar and salt and processed food, so I’d be too tired to cook healthy food and would order takeaway again…and the cycle would go round in circles until i finally pulled myself together and stopped eating that kind of food and started walking again and drinking water.
So when I stood on that scale and faced the numbers and knew I had 60 pounds to lose, I instantly knew cutting out sugar was going to be the fastest and easiest way to get to healthy.
A part of me knew it wasn’t about the weight or my body shape – but it would also be a lie to pretend I was being all noble and mentally healthy, when really I was tired of not having one single piece of clothing I felt both comfortable AND pretty in. And I refused to simply go shopping to buy more clothes to feed my poor eating choices. There’s absolutely a time and season for buying new clothes so you feel beautiful, but there’s also a time to face up to why you have to buy new ones when you could just set some boundaries and wear the ones you have (and like).
I’m rather an all-or-nothing person, so I started that day. That Monday morning. No more sugar. I literally threw away anything in my house which had sugar in it, and started buying more fruit and less carbs. I downloaded the MyFitnessPal app and started counting my calories and tracking everything. I weighed myself weekly and started to see the pounds drop off – but more importantly than that, I started to see something new I hadn’t seen since I got CFS.
I. had. energy.
Like…all the time. I mean, okay, sometimes I would be physically tired, but I’d go to bed and get sleep and then I’d feel fine in the morning. That NEVER had happened before. Always before when I started getting fatigued, I’d feel it for days or even weeks after. If I chose to eat processed food or takeaway/restaurant food or sugary things, it’s like it would weigh in my stomach and mind and body for weeks. (I think it did.)
And it kept going. The longer I was off sugar, the better I felt.
And – this was the most shocking thing ever – I started to have literally no desire for sugar whatsoever.
I didn’t want the doughnuts. I’d look at them and see exhaustion and fatigue and dragginess and a “food hangover” (when you wake up in the morning and have to drag yourself out of bed and drink lots of water and it takes you to the afternoon to feel better).
It didn’t bother me to skip dessert when I was out with friends or at someone’s house. They’d offer me cake, and I’d say no, and I wouldn’t feel badly at all. (Most of the time they felt worse for me than I felt for myself.)
Now, this process took a good solid three months.
The first four weeks were AWFUL. I mean, AWFUL. It was all the detoxing you’d expect with any addiction – and let me tell you, all in caps with spaces between so you can understand me:
SUGAR. IS. AN. ADDICTION.
Sugar is an addiction.
It is an addiction so when you have some, you want more.
It is an addiction so when you break it, you feel horrible and shaky and angry and everything looks miserable.
It is an addiction so even when you go off it for a while you tell yourself you can “just have one” and it will be okay (but it’s not).
It is an addiction that brings pain to your body and your life and the consequences flow into other peoples’ lives too. People you love and care about.
It is an addiction so it encourages you to make decisions that you wish you hadn’t, and which take a lot of work and reparation to fix.
I know a tiny bit about addiction because I’m addicted to coffee. I don’t pretend I’m not: if I were to cut coffee out of my life, I’d have horrible migraines for a week or so, and then I’d be okay. I’m all right with that because coffee doesn’t trigger me to bad things: it actually does the opposite. Coffee brings me joy in the morning and encourages tradition and routine. I drink a few big mugs of it in the morning and by the afternoon I switch to decaf things and my body and I are okay with this.
But sugar is a different kind of addiction. It entwines itself into your entire body and it took me literal months to get it out of my system.
What’s really funny is that I thought I was “entirely” going off sugar on day one. And it took me a few months to realise I wasn’t.
I was cooking something, and I reached for a sauce – I don’t even remember what kind of sauce. Tomato ketchup, or brown sauce, or sriracha sauce. Whatever it was, I suddenly stopped and thought “wait…does this have sugar in it?” and turned the bottle round to read the ingredients.
Sugar. Right there. Might even have been the first ingredient, but it was definitely in the top three.
Hm….I thought. There might be a little more sugar in things than I realised. I better check.
So I started checking.
Oh, shit, I thought.
Let me tell you something: the reason sugar is an addiction and all of us are completely addicted to it is because IT. IS. IN. EVERYTHING.
Everything processed, for sure. Every sauce, every packaged food, every frozen dinner. Every juice, every drink, every loaf of bread, every vegetable medley, every tortilla, every packet of crisps.
I started going through my kitchen again, like I had at the beginning, and I felt a great despair. How in the wide world was I going to do this? I’m not a farmer with an organic garden to draw from, and I don’t have six hours to cook every meal.
But I’m also stubborn as a rock, and when I go in I go all in.
So from that point I decided I would stop eating anything which had sugar (or glucose syrup) listed in the ingredients. That was it – that was my rule. If the packet or bottle or box said sugar, it was a no, and I’d figure out a replacement.
It was really hard.
Almost too hard. My sister and I almost fell out arguing about it a few times – she wanted me to be a little more gentle with myself, and less rigid and less strict, and I didn’t know any other way to be in order to get where I wanted. I’d point to the 20 or 30 pounds I’d lost already and say “This is how I am doing this!” and she’d point to the meal she wanted to make for me and say “This is what I wanted to serve you!”
I made some compromises so I could actually live in this world with my no-sugar decision
I did make some compromises – not only for my family and those who love me, but for myself. I decided:
- Honey and molasses were okay. These were unprocessed, raw, “healthy sugar”, and I noticed when I used those there were no repercussions. No triggers. No overeating the next day. No shakiness or exhaustion.
- Sweeteners were also okay. This was a hard one for me: when I started, I was off sugar AND sweeteners both. It made things nearly impossible, like as a human in the twenty first century, to eat. It definitely made a food reward of any kind nearly impossible. What’s really interesting is that before I went off sugar, anything with sweeteners made my whole body shake. I’d drink a fizzy drink which was diet or sugar free and look at my hand and it would be shaking, and I’d realise instantly what it was. But when i went off processed sugar…that stopped happening. I’m not sure why, but I decided a Diet Coke now and then didn’t do me much harm. And sugar free chocolate isn’t quite the same as a proper chocolate bar, but it’s certainly a lovely treat.
- When at restaurants, or a friend’s home, I wouldn’t ask questions. There’s a Bible verse about “eating whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience”, and I went with that philosophy. I’d say no to something which obviously had sugar in it – like lemon meringue pie or scones with jam or a sweet cocktail – but otherwise I’d just order what was healthy and not eat too much of it. I remember before I made this rule, going to a vietnamese restaurant with a client, and innocently asking what on the menu had sugar in it. The poor waiter came back to advise me that there were literally three (out of about a hundred) items which did not have sugar, and even then I’d have to ask for the item without any dressing or sauce. I did, that day, but decided not to go that route anymore. It was too difficult, and it focused the conversation and experience entirely on me. I realised I’m not ALLERGIC to sugar – I’m not going to go to hospital or lose a leg if I have something with sugar in it – I’m just trying to make the best choices I can. That helped relieve me, and led to better eating-out experiences. For me and those I was with.
I also started making things for myself, at home, to make it easier for me to have choices in my own home:
- I made my own chicken and beef stock. I literally could not find a single stock packet, or powder, or cube, which did not have sugar or glucose syrup in them. I think i found an organic pre-prepared stock without sugar, but it was so expensive it would be cheaper to just make my own…and then i realised hey, I could make my own! So I started doing that every few weeks. I’d buy a chicken, and boil it in a big stock pot with celery and onions and carrots (and sometimes some thyme or lemon) for an hour and a half or so, and then I’d drain out the stock water and let that simmer for a few hours. And meanwhile I’d shred the chicken and use it for a meal or freeze it. Once the stock had simmered down, I’d freeze it in ice cube trays, and then have little chicken stock cubes in the freezer to use anytime. I did the same thing with beef stock.
- I found a company who sells sugar free sauces – SkinnyFoodCo. I bought tomato ketchup, brown sauce, BBQ sauce, sriracha sauce. They were different, and not quite as good as what I’d been used to, but I began to get used to them. (Not every sauce works – I tried their sugar free ranch dressing and it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had in my life, so apparently there are limits.) I started stocking those as normal in my fridge so whenever I reach for a sauce, it doesn’t have sugar in it.
- I started finding sugar free sweets and treats to enjoy when I did want to – Yumbles for doughnuts and brownies and cookies and cakes, and Freeist and SweetRobyns for chocolate and treats, and FreeFromFellows for gummy sweets and Ethical Superstore for more of the same.
- I got creative with how I would bake things – using honey instead of sugar in muffin recipes, making sugar free treacle scones. I stopped baking sweet things as much, and started having fresh fruit and Greek yoghurt and honey, or smoothies, or nothing for dessert. (Imagine that.)
“Isn’t it hard when other people are having something sugary? What do you do when you’re at someone’s house and they offer you something with sugar?
And I started changing how I spoke about what I was doing. One of the questions I’ve been asked more times than I can count is, “Isn’t that so hard when other people are having something sugary? What do you do when you’re at someone’s house and they offer you something with sugar? Do you go to restaurants at all?”
I realised what they were asking was, “Don’t people find it rude when you say no?”
And my answer is:
It’s never rude to make a good, healthy decision for your body.
When I started going off sugar, I was a little shocked to discover the peer pressure that kicks in when you make healthy choices. I know sugary things are entwined into our social culture – particularly in Britain – combined with the social construct which says that saying no is rude. Standing out is rude. Rejecting someone – or the biscuit or cake or sweet they offer you – is rude.
But here’s the thing:
Other people do not have to live with the consequences of your decisions.
Only you do.
If I took in the pressure to have cake when I knew my body didn’t really want cake, because I didn’t want to offend the person whose birthday it was, they didn’t have to wake up feeling draggy and sad and angry the next morning. They didn’t have to deal with the impact of not just the one piece of cake, but the snacks I’d buy on the way home, and the food I’d order the next day, and the next, and the next.
I knew the repercussions of my decisions, so I could firmly say no, and know what I was saying no to. I wasn’t saying no to them or their birthday or our friendship. I was saying no to pain and exhaustion and sadness and weariness and fatigue.
I learned the phrase which worked the best – for me, and for others – was to say, with a smile, “No thank you, I’m off sugar just now”. Sometimes I’d add “I’ve found it helps me feel better”, but most of the time I wouldn’t bother defending it or over-explaining it. The key was not just to say it, but to mean it with all my heart. To be gracious, and pleasant, and absolutely firm. There was no doubt in my mind, so there was no option to dither, and they’d nod or smile or move on, and all would be well.
The ‘just now’ was particularly helpful, because I discovered a lot of people feel rather judged or guilty when you share you’re off sugar. They know it’s an addiction, or they know they often choose to eat what isn’t the healthiest for their body, or they’re trying to or wish they could lose weight, and stating I was working on it was hard for them to hear. I learned to let them feel whatever they felt, or even express whatever they were worried about, and not try to convince them of anything. Maybe they needed to make different choices; maybe they didn’t. Maybe they had other things going on I didn’t know about. I’d just listen, if they wanted to talk, but I wouldn’t tell them it was okay and they could eat whatever they wanted and it wouldn’t matter. I don’t know someone else’s story, and every human body is different. If it became a conversation I’d enter into it, and if it didn’t that was okay too.
If I thought it would help, I’d give people a heads up beforehand. “Just to let you know, I’m off sugar just now, so if you are having a dessert I’ll be saying no, but don’t feel bad about serving it. I am perfectly comfortable having nothing, or having a coffee or something”. Usually they’d kindly have some fresh fruit or another option prepared, but they learned I meant it when I wanted them to enjoy what they had. I love seeing people enjoy good food, and I’m thankful there are many people who can enjoy it without feeling the significant impact I feel. That’s a beautiful thing.
Sometimes they’d go to extra effort to find out what they could use. ‘What about honey? Is it okay if I use that?’ and we’d have great conversations about sugar alternatives, and they’d have fun and learn something new, and we’d all enjoy a dessert together.
I want a healthy relationship with food. Not an abusive one.
The thing I wanted the most – and still want, and am still working on – is a healthy relationship with food.
I want a healthy relationship with food. Not an abusive one.
Food isn’t something that abuses me: my choices abuse me.
My selection of this food rather than that food, this sugary thing when I know what it will do to my body, is abusive because it pushes on my body what it doesn’t really want. It’s been so fascinating how setting myself on the path of eating healthier and choosing exercise and being clean and making good choices, my body literally tells me TRULY what I want and need.
I feel like having some broccoli, so I add that to my evening meal. I am thirsty for water, so I drink some. I want a little sweetness, so I add honey to the chicken dish.
The problem is, when you confuse the body with too much sugar or unhealthy eating or living, your body isn’t hearing or telling you the truth. You watch an episode of Friends and they all order pizza and are sitting around eating it and laughing and suddenly – even though two minutes ago you were comfortable and full – you are starving and want to order a pizza, too. They pull ice cream out of the freezer and you do, too. You’re thirsty so you drink a sugary drink.
And your emotions get in the game, too. You’re angry so you eat more. You’re sad so you finish the whole Ben & Jerry’s container. You’re frustrated so you order takeaway instead of making dinner. You are tired of trying so you just grab whatever is closest at the store or in your house. You shop when hungry and end up throwing the Pringles and the sweets and the snacks into the basket – and then they’re sitting there in the cupboard when you have a bad day (or a good day), so you eat them. So instead of choosing what your body wants, you choose what your emotions want.
I did it. I still do it. I struggle with this every day, because the journey isn’t over.
I haven’t “arrived”.
I was going to wait. I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a long time. I wanted to write all this, and then finish it with “and so I lost 60 pounds and I did it, good job me” and everyone would celebrate and I would be happy with myself and all would be well.
But that’s not the reality today.
A pandemic hit, and I made it through and am still dealing with the repercussions, and I came within four pounds of hitting my goal and then went the other way. I let myself have sugar again and started creeping back to old habits again and started gaining weight again. I’ve gained 20 pounds back and started ordering takeaway and stopped walking as much and I’m not in the healthiest place I want to be.
And yet here’s the difference: Now I know I can be there.
Now I know what it takes to get there. Now I know it’s possible, because I did it. Now I know, for sure, what sugar does to me and why it is the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life to go off it and stay off it and listen to my actual body, not the emotions and pains and fears swirling around within it.
So I’m back off sugar again. I’m a little more flexible now than I was – I’ve discovered I can have just one cookie at a friend’s house and be okay – and I know myself better too. (If I eat sugary things in my own house, with no one watching me, I won’t be okay.)
People ask, “but will you stay off it forever?” and “could you do this for the rest of your life?”
And the beautiful answer is, I don’t know.
I know i CAN…but I don’t know if I will. Or if I need to. Or how my body will keep changing as I get older.
And I’m starting to realise this is a good and healthy attitude towards a lot of things I get asked about. Do I think I’ll…do this, go here, live there, be like this…for the rest of my life? I have no idea. I never have, but I probably pretended I did. If pandemic has shown anything, it’s revealed we were never in charge of our plans the way we thought we were.
So go ahead. Make your plans, and I’ll make mine. I’ll stay off sugar and make better choices and one day I will actually hit that goal I set several years ago. And – if it’s like any of the other goals I’ve set and achieved in my life – it will probably be fairly anticlimactic when I get there.
Because hitting the goal isn’t really the point.
The journey there is what matters.
It’s where all the learning is. About me, about my body, about what’s healthy and helpful and what isn’t, and how I move through this strange, bizarre, beautiful world along the way.
Still learning, here.