It seems everywhere you look, someone somewhere is touting the benefits or even the necessity of “quitting sugar.” Sure, sugar isn’t health food, but is it really so bad that it needs to be eliminated entirely from your diet?
After years in the field of nutrition and spending a few of those years working with clients who wanted to “detox” or “quit sugar,” I’ve spent the last few years working to help people understand an important lesson: the all-or-nothing approach is almost always unsuccessful.
It’s possible to eliminate sugar, but it’s not the only way
Cutting all sugar from your diet might work for a time period, say 30 days, or even a year. I spent an entire year avoiding all added sugars, sweets, homemade desserts, and anything that wasn’t meat or vegetables. However, at that time I was trying to recover from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and I felt so sick that sugar wasn’t even appealing. I didn’t white-knuckle my way through that year. I simply didn’t care.
Since then, I’ve resumed eating sugar here and there. I don’t eat a lot, but I don’t avoid it entirely. Basically, I take one day at a time. I stay in touch with how I am feeling, and I try to minimize adding stress to my life that comes from having to follow dietary rules.
It’s this outlook of balance I encourage my clients to adopt as well. What are your long-term goals? Typically when women come to me for nutrition advice, they want to balance hormones, address thyroid issues, lose weight, get pregnant after infertility or miscarriage, or feel better after chronic illness. For most, quitting sugar is not their primary health goal. Instead, quitting sugar is often viewed as a vehicle to get what you want—often quickly. But any kind of temporary modification to achieve faster results will usually produce results that don’t last.
Sadly, most people just want the quickest way to anywhere. But quick is not better than sustainable when it comes to health. I know, because most women I see now come to me with frustration that their Whole30 or avoiding sugar for three months helped “a little” but didn’t ultimately get them to their goal.
It’s worth asking yourself: would you rather have fast results or a long-lasting effect that won’t need rigorous protocols to be maintained?
Often resolving health concerns isn’t as easy as a one-ingredient detox
While sugar is a problem for some, other factors can contribute to health problems too, like inflammation, stress, poor sleep, too much processed food, and poor gut health. While sugar can be avoided and might reduce inflammation or improve gut health, true health is not just about what you take away. It’s about what you give.
You can avoid all the bad stuff in the world, but if you aren’t filling your body with what it needs to heal, no amount of avoidance will produce health. My year of sugar avoidance did have some great results. I lost 90 pounds. However, my inflammatory markers were still off the charts, I was as tired as ever, and my thyroid antibodies had reached an all-time high. So if avoiding sugar and losing weight didn’t turn me into the picture of health, what did?
When I stopped my strict sugar avoidance and started focusing on adding elements that my body needed, my energy levels improved rapidly. In less than a year, my thyroid disease was in remission. I finally felt like the picture of health that I had been aiming for.
In that time, I did gain back 10 pounds, where my body has hovered ever since. I had actually lost too much weight from my obsessive avoidance of sugar, and while I looked skinny, I was bone-tired and people kept asking if I was dying (true story). When I gained back those 10 pounds and started focusing on nourishment over avoidance, people started commenting on how happy and healthy I looked and wanted to know what my secrets were.
I can tell you that for me, it came down to a few simple things. Instead of narrowly focusing on what I could not have, I did three other things.
01. I added everything I could for gut health
This meant eating more fiber, more bone broth, more fruits and vegetables, and adding in supportive supplements, like collagen and glutamine. I didn’t so much care what else went in with those things, but I made sure to eat good things for my gut on a daily basis.
02. I stopped rigorously tracking
During the year that I lost significant weight and avoided sugar, I tracked everything. Calories, macros, grams of sugar, nutrients. It became a constant source of stress. I sometimes avoided eating because I didn’t want to have to write it down. I would get meal-planning paralysis because there was no more joy in what I ate or prepared for myself.
When I started focusing on what I added, rather than what I took away, I didn’t have to “track” anything. I just asked myself, “Did I do something good for my gut today?” Or, “Did I do something to relieve stress?” If the answer was yes, then I moved on. I even stopped counting how many ounces of water I drank. I drank water when I was thirsty and allowed myself other beverages when desired.
03. I never consumed anything that my body said “no” to
I have a lot of food allergies and even more sensitivities on top of those. My one rule was that I would never eat something I knew I was allergic or sensitive to. Why? This would undo the good things I was giving to my body to heal. But sugar is not something I’m allergic to, so when I wanted a treat, I could indulge. There’s a big difference between following an arbitrary rule (like “all sugar is bad”) and following guidelines that apply directly to your body (“dairy products make me sick”). Instead of adhering to a specific diet, I listened to what my body told me it could and could not handle.
Balance is possible
I’ve maintained this way of eating for seven years now, and I’ve never been healthier. My inflammation levels are still at an all-time low. My thyroid antibodies have not peaked since, not even in the postpartum periods after having my babies (usually a big trigger). My weight has remained stable, even though I’ve not counted calories or macros, and there have definitely been seasons where I’ve eaten far more comfort foods than anything else.
So no matter what your health goals are, remember: sugar isn’t everything. Listening to what your body needs and recognizing what causes discomfort in your digestive tract or joints or anywhere else, is the only thing that matters. That’s not as easy to latch onto as a fad, but it will produce more lasting results that are applicable to your health needs. And I’ll take my personal health over silly clickbait trends any day of the week.