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I gave up sugar for Lent and this is what I learned.
It wasn’t something I had thought about for very long. Sometimes things take a great deal of planning to do right; in this case I decided…
It wasn’t something I had thought about for very long. Sometimes things take a great deal of planning to do right; in this case I decided the night before.
But somehow, I did it.
I don’t really tend to give up things for Lent. This isn’t because I don’t see the value in it; fasting, in its various guises, is not only good for the body, but also good for the mind and our sense of self-control. Rather, I never found a good enough *reason* for fasting something over Lent. I’ve fasted various things before when I saw reason to do so. I gave up alcohol for a month because I found myself having a beer most days and I wanted to check that I wasn’t encouraging any kind of a reliance on it. On a few separate occasions, I’ve given up my smartphone for anything up to three months, just to make sure that when I go back to using it that I am using it purposefully and not as a pacifier. I’ve given up reading the news for periods, just to make sure I am focussing on things that really matter to me. But none of these occasions were during Lent, and each one of them had a *reason* for the ‘fast’.
This year, while my friends were discussing what they were planning to do over the Lent period, I decided that I wanted to do something as well. So, waking up on Ash Wednesday, I decided I would give up sugar. Just like that. I had my reasons: To test my control and to increase my awareness of where the substance appeared in my food.
Of course, I wasn’t going to count naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, vegetables and beer; after all, I’m not completely mad.
(Don’t question me on that last one, by the way. Seriously. I can cope without sugar, but you can take my beer when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.)
So, now that I’m out the other side of a sugarless Lent, what did I find out?
1. It was hard.
Firstly, I can’t stress enough just how challenging this was for me. It has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done with my diet — and I had some funny ideas about food before I even started. I didn’t think I would last two weeks. But somehow I have done it. And, just for a while, I’m going to let myself feel proud about that.
But there were times when I really struggled. The first three weeks were really hard. I found myself thinking about sugar and sweetness all the time and had to remove myself from the room when biscuits were getting passed around the staffroom. But after about three weeks, that all fell away. Things got a lot easier. I could sit on the sofa in the evening with my wife while she made her way through the last part of a pot of Ben and Jerry’s without much temptation.
But before I began, I knew there was going to be an exception to my fasting. Towards the end of Lent, we were due to attend an 80th birthday meal and a wedding party, both on the same day. We thought it would make things difficult if I asked to see the ingredient list of the food we were offered or turned down parts of the meal so generously provided for us by our hosts. So we agreed that this day would be an exception in my experiment where I would take a break from my fast and join the world of the sugared.
It was fine. The day felt like normal. No problem.
But the next day was horrible. It was like I was starting all over again. I craved sweetness. I stared at cakes. I sniffed at chocolate before my wife whipped it away from under my nose.
Just one day back on sugar and all my progress was lost and my will power broken. The addiction wasn’t forged from habit; it was instant.
2. I’m thankful for ready-made food.
Sugar is everywhere. Over the past month and a bit, I have become adept at scanning through ingredient lists for its name even in the most unlikely products. Mayonnaise, pickled beetroot, cream crackers, beef-chilli; it’s difficult to find any kind of packaged food without it. As a result, I’ve been making a lot more things from scratch, which has been fine. But more often than not, I’ve just not been having those things. There’s a reason we all buy mayonnaise rather than spending an hour dripping oil into a blender of egg white. It’s the same reason we buy jam donuts from the supermarket rather than making them at home in the deep fat fryer. Because it’s just not worth it — your time and your money are much more valuable. Plus the stuff you buy is probably going to be better anyway.
Trust me, my homemade mayonnaise is terrible.
3. A low-sugar diet is an unaffordable luxury.
This was something I really didn’t expect. I don’t know why; in hindsight, it seems obvious. It’s part of the reason our obesity epidemic is more prevalent among lower income families, but I only really noticed it for myself when I started searching the labels in the supermarket. Cheaper food has more sugar in it. For example, I wanted a treat for our evening meal and so decided to buy naan bread. Out of twelve different offerings at our local supermarket, only the most expensive was made without added sugar. It was four times the cost of the cheapest option. But check the nutritional information and you’ll see that sugar content tends to increase as cost decreases. It might not be that way for every product, but as the principle food shopper for my family and someone who has been consciously checking labels for the past month and a half, the over trend made itself clear to me very early on and has only been confirmed as my experiment has progressed.
It’s easy to understand why. As food gets cheaper, its quality decreases and something needs to be added to make up the flavour gap. But I worry that we have grown so accustomed to added sugar entering our food under the radar, that it is becoming not only more difficult to avoid, but also something where the more affluent are receiving the benefits of their advantage without even realising it. It encourages those of us who are able to afford top-line products to think that those who suffer from obesity are suffering solely as a consequence of their own dietary choices, rather than being affected by a weighting of the market in favour of those who can pay more.
I’m not saying that is the sole cause of obesity. But I am certainly considering it now as a factor.
4. We need to talk about meat.
As a family, we don’t tend to eat a lot of meat. I do the majority of the cooking and I keep a fairly strict meal routine. We have meat once a fortnight and fish twice a fortnight. But the thing about protein is that it keeps you fuller for longer. I found that while cutting out sugar, it was easier on days that I had higher protein intakes. Luckily I already have alternative protein sources in my own diet because of my adventures in DIY Soylent over the last few years, so I was able to boost the protein in my diet fairly easily. It made things a lot easier, but I recognise that creating homemade protein shots out of egg white and whey powder isn’t for everyone. For most, extra protein will mean extra meat.
Unfortunately, meat is one of the most energy and resource intensive foodstuffs. If we are going to try to solve obesity in part by encouraging reductions in the sugar content in our foods, we are going to need to think about what sort of things we are going to use to satiate our cravings, and the ecological consequences that may follow.
5. I want to continue.
This is maybe the most surprising part of the whole thing to me. There is no doubt that coming off sugar was horrible. But it is, in part, because of that that I want to continue leaving out sugar from diet, albeit to a lesser degree.
There are little tips and tricks I have picked up that I want to continue: Mashed banana instead of jam in my porridge; Hot chocolate made with milk, coco and artificial sweetener (this one saved me on more than one occasion); an increased consumption of protein (although still way below the higher limits. Unless you want to kill your kidneys, you want to keep protein below 200g a day, whatever your weight. I averaged around 130g.)
The benefits of a sugarless life have, largely, outweighed the difficulty in obtaining it. I have lost weight and am probably in the best shape of my life. I feel confident that I am in control of my food and not the other way around. To be sure, I don’t plan on continuing on completely sugar-free — but I want sugar to be special in the future. I like the idea of the treat with friends really being a treat because I haven’t had anything sweet for days. I like the idea of knowing exactly what is in my food by paying such close attention to labels. Moreover, I like the idea of my food being part of an intentional life. I don’t want to consume sugar by mistake. I want to be in control of when, where and how much I consume because I have seen what it has done to me and my relationship with what I eat.
So that’s what I’ve learned. I’m sure more will come to me as I continue to press my experience; but, for now, I feel that I can rest safe in the knowledge that though sugar is going to play a much lesser role in my life from now on, that I know I’m sweet enough.