Saturday, January 30, 2016

How I Went Sugar-Free Without Losing My Mind

This stuff...unfortunately...is not on my radar anymore.
I stopped eating sugar and sugar-containing foods in April 2015 to address some health issues that had been plaguing me for years. I didn't feel I was the worst sugar addict in the world at the time--my main "sugar" was agave nectar. I bought it in huge two-packs at Costco and baked with it, put it in sauces and stir-fries, in tea, in smoothies, etc. I was also a huge fan of maple syrup and honey (I have since gone completely vegan so honey isn't kosher on that account as well.) I used natural, organic cane sugar in recipes calling for granulated sugar. I very rarely ate store-bought sweets and desserts and didn't order them at restaurants.

Still, stopping sugar affected more areas of my life than I imagined. It was hard to figure out how to make oatmeal taste good in the morning. Most mixed drinks and cocktails involve syrups and sugars. Almost all Asian food has it in one form or another. Ketchup, cereals, bars, breads (even gluten-free breads,) non-dairy milks, Sriracha sauce, a lot of tomato products, some salsas...all contain sugar. When you start reading labels, it's staggering how many things contain sugar of some sort, and a lot of times more than one kind of sugar. I could have said, "Oh, the sugar in Sriracha is minimal...a few drops of that probably won't hurt." But what about the other umpteen-jillion processed food products I eat that contain minimal amounts of sugar? It all adds up. And when I quit sugar, I wanted it to be all or nothing, because I was desperately looking for results in my health.

So I bought a lot of cookbooks and searched a lot of recipe blogs for non-sugar-containing "sweets." The best one in my opinion? Ricki Heller's Living Candida Free. Hands down. (Here's her blog.) Ricki's a genius when it comes to vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free cooking and baking. I had to stock up on a bunch of pantry items I normally wouldn't have on hand to make her recipes (like stevia, hemp seeds, chia seeds, alternative flours, nuts, seeds, etc.) but once I had acquired 10 or so recurring ingredients, I could make a lot of her dishes.

I stopped ordering mixed drinks or cocktails (I had already cut way back on alcohol anyway in July 2014.) Now, on the rare occasions I drink (maybe once a month,) I order wine. It's not "good" for a sugar-free diet, but at least there's no sugar added.

I went on a huge search for the best organic, natural, plant-based alternative sweetener I could find. The winner? Lakanto monk fruit sweetener. It's granulated like sugar, is a 1:1 substitute in most recipes, comes in white and golden, and has no aftertaste unless your recipe calls for enormous amounts (and then the only thing I notice is a slightly "cool" flavor, almost minty, not entirely unpleasant. If you bake with it and use more than say 1/2 cup in a recipe, you'll see what I mean.) I make this zucchini cake, this banana bread, and this pumpkin bread with it, and to my non-sugar-eating taste buds all three are delicious. I use the golden Lakanto on my morning oatmeal and the white in my afternoon green smoothie. A 1/2 teaspoon of the white is yummy in a hot cup of maté or green tea.

I relentlessly went through all the food in the house, reading labels to see what I could still eat. I had to replace a lot of my tomato products and condiments (like mustard) with health-food-store versions. I also had to find a different gluten-free bread to keep on hand. (I'm not 100% gluten-free, and I don't have celiac or anything, but I find I do feel better avoiding gluten at least somewhat, in the areas where it's easy to do. The best ready-made gluten free and sugar free bread I've found in my area (Colorado) is Kim and Jake's Buns out of Boulder. Health Food stores here in the Springs stock their buns, but if you're not in Colorado it looks like you can order online. They freeze awesomely, and I can heat up a frozen bun in tinfoil (I like the crust a little moist) in my toaster oven in 18-20 minutes. It's kind of like a crusty French bread-feel, goes great with pasta dishes and soups. I'll have to do a separate post about going mostly gluten-free...)

The health benefits of quitting sugar have been amazing. The first thing I noticed was total remission of Interstitial Cystitis-related bladder pain. (Hal-le-lu-jah, because that's a wretched, wretched disease. I had already been trying a ton of other remedies for that, for months and months with very little improvement.) I haven't had an IC "flare" since the end of April 2015 (about two weeks after quitting sugar,) and prior to that I'd had bladder issues for over 20 years. I've also had about a 95% recovery from IBS. (That took about 6 months off sugar to really start becoming apparent, and it continues to improve. I've had IBS since I was a teenager.) Mood swings, energy level, and brain fog have all improved as well. Now, I do want to say that I attribute part of these health improvements to some other things I do as well - I eat vegan; I take a regular list of supplements and vitamins; I juice veggies; I try to eat low-salt and low-fat as much as possible; and I exercise. In fact, I was the healthiest person with health problems I knew, up until I quit sugar.

I hope this post will help somebody who might be struggling with problems in their health that don't seem to improve no matter what they do, and/or just people who are looking to quit sugar. Tell me about your health journey in the comments below!

Update: Just found this article about the benefits of quitting sugar on Prevention Magazine Online.


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