On March 22nd, 2011 — almost on the first day of spring, which seems fitting for rebirth — I ended one year of dessert-free, sweet-free, and candy-free living.
Twelve months. No cake, no candy, no gummi worms, no Twinkies, no crême brulée — no added sugar of any kind.
Am I somehow a better human being? Do I have exceptional self-control? Neither.
I simply wanted to explore what it would be like to live without something that most North Americans take for granted.
Month 1: The initial experiment
This whole experiment started back in March of 2010. It was my goal to live 30 days without any added sugar in my diet. [Remember, this means no added sugars. I was OK with the naturally occurring sugars in fruits/vegetables].
At the time, several things were on my mind.
- I was working on the All About Natural Sweeteners article.
- I was working on the All About Gluttony article.
- I was reading about Buddhism and attachments to food, material items, alcohol, etc.
- I was reading about addictions.
- My sister eliminated most desserts from her life (and she used to eat them every day).
Like you and everyone else, I’m a product of my environment. What I read, what I do for work, and who I hang out with influences what I do.
I also started to notice how I felt and acted around sugar, and I didn’t like it.
Sugar changed my physical and mental state. Whenever I ate dessert my energy tanked, I got really thirsty, and I felt bloated.
Sugar also changed how I thought about food rewards. When I ate dessert, I wanted more dessert (thanks be to dopamine). And this led to more internal dialogue (e.g.: Should I have another piece? Life is short – maybe I should? blah blah blah…).
I think I spent at least 2 hours each week just debating whether or not I should eat dessert. Not exactly productive.
Make no mistake, my original sugar experiment had little to do with body fat and health – well, at least not my physical health, although I was starting to wonder about my psychological health. I wanted to test myself and see if I was attached to desserts.
Everyone says they have a “guilty food pleasure.” But isn’t this an artificial idea created by modern society (and food companies)? Do we really require a food vice?
In the end, my 30 day experiment was a success. So, what did I do at the end of the experiment? Did I spend day 31 crushing cake?
Nope. Instead, I found myself not missing desserts. And really, I felt better physically and mentally. So I figured I would roll with the no-dessert theme and see where it took me.
Fast forward 11 months – past birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day — all the candy-centric holidays. It’s now been one year and I’ve had no desserts.
During this time I’ve realized a few things. Maybe you’ll find them useful on your own eating journey.
Lesson 1: Desserts are addictive
Addiction: an overpowering craving to repeatedly engage in an activity that provides temporary relief at the expense of terrible consequences.
Yikes. Doesn’t this describe most North American eating? It’s easy to get attached to processed foods. And by attached, I mean addicted.
- You crave it.
- You think about it.
- You rely on it.
- The food takes over.
As powerful as attachments/addictions can be, during the past year I was reminded of something even more powerful:
We get to choose what we do.
If we have enough incentive to eliminate a food (or include a food), we get to choose accordingly. We are in control.
Now, while it’s easy to place dessert in the “addictive” category, I also realized just how trivial dessert is. Think about it.
- Not eating cake is easy when compared to raising kids.
- Not eating cookies is easy when compared to running a business/non-profit.
- Not eating ice cream is easy when compared to maintaining a marriage.
- Not eating a candy bar is easy when compared to 60 minutes of box jumps, Power Wheel crawls and jump rope.
Seriously, isn’t it about time we put food in its place?
Lesson 2: We don’t eat sugar “in moderation”
The standard American diet is composed of over 60% processed garbage. Nearly 90% of the carb-dense foods we consume are highly processed, and mostly in the form of refined flour/sugar.
Our view of moderation can get skewed because we often think of eating as “one-off” occasions. A dessert here, a dessert there. But these desserts add up faster than we imagine.
Three bowls of ice cream per week isn’t a big thing, right? Well, three bowls of ice cream each week means 156 bowls each year. Is that moderation? I don’t know.
Lesson 3: Isn’t this a habit?
From the previous example, it seems to me that eating 156 bowls of ice cream a year, 3 bowls a week, whether moderate or not, constitutes a habit.
Unfortunately, we don’t often realize the compounding impact of our food habits until it’s too late (e.g., 42-inch waist, heart attack, cancer, etc.).
Our habits catch up with us – sooner or later. And it’s important to make sure we’re monitoring our habits, making sure they match up with our values and our goals.
Lesson 4: It’s hard to get fat on whole foods, particularly plant foods
Without desserts (and other processed carbs) in the diet, it’s tough to gain body fat. Really.
If we listen to hunger/fullness cues and eat, in particular, whole plant-foods (without added sugars), it’s challenging to get fat.
On average, each of us eats about 4 pounds of food every day. So, for most of us, if our 4 pounds are made up of whole, energy-dilute plants, we’ll be set.
Another bonus: I found that my hunger/fullness cues were much clearer with desserts out of the eating equation. With lots of sugar comes lots of drive to eat. This is great if you are trying to gain weight (or even maintain weight). But not so great if we want to get (or stay) lean.
During my last physical exam (where I do my annual weight check), after only a few months without desserts, I was already down several unintended pounds. Why? I just wasn’t as hungry. Without dessert, you might be surprised how your appetite changes.
Lesson 5: The all-or-none approach can work
Most of us agree that the all-or-none approach doesn’t work. But I’ve used it successfully many times in my life. I’ve used it with alcohol, drugs, smoking, animal products, car ownership, credit cards, cable TV – and now desserts.
But here’s the catch. To make the all-or-none approach work, we need strong incentives. The all-or-none approach will probably fail when incentives are weak/superficial. But when incentives run deep, the all-or-none approach can be a useful tool.
I want to completely eliminate desserts to look better in a tank top.
I want to eliminate desserts because it will benefit me spiritually and physically. It will promote peace of mind — I’ll have less daily attachment and internal dialogue.
Maybe Dan John is right: If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.
The final bonus of the all-or-none approach is that the thing you eliminate becomes a non-issue. This eliminates the regular internal dialogue that goes with it. And speaking of internal dialogue…
Lesson 6: Internal dialogue sucks
Food tension is the worst. You know the self talk:
- Should I have the cookie? Or shouldn’t I?
- I’ve eaten mostly nutritious foods this week; I deserve a cookie.
- The experts say to eat everything “in moderation”. I might as well have a cookie.
- It’s only one cookie (for the fifth time this week).
- I only live once.
Those internal debates are a bitch. When this tension develops, the way we solve the tension is by making a choice: eat it or don’t eat it. “Eat it” usually wins.
Lesson 7: Taste re-calibration is possible
Recently I was at a friend’s house and asked for some peanut butter. The peanut butter was natural and organic, so I was happy. But after my first bite, I immediately knew something was different.
It was the “no-stir” variety. Apparently this means there is added sugar and oil to smooth it out. Holy sweetness. It tasted like candy. The friend I was with couldn’t tell sugar was added.
Introduce yourself to taste bud re-calibration.
Fruit wasn’t sweet enough when I was eating a dessert each week. Now it is, because my taste buds changed. Everyone’s do when they change their eating habits, especially when dropping certain foods, like I did with sugar.
Eat more sugar and fat and that’s what’ll taste best to you. Get rid of the sugar and fat and you won’t even like the stuff if you go back.
Lesson 8: Some people aren’t addicted to desserts/sweets
Yes – it’s true. Some folks can eat a reasonably sized piece of dessert, enjoy it, and move on to the next thing. I’ve witnessed this first hand over the past year.
If this describes you, maybe eliminating desserts isn’t something you need to do. Seriously, don’t read this article/post and get any weird ideas about dessert elimination.
My suggestion? Be your own nutrition expert and find what works for you. And if there’s an area of your life where your attachments are becoming overbearing, perhaps you can apply this article to that area.
Lesson #9: Change occurs at the desire level
I’ve made some substantial eating changes in my life that have stuck for the long-term. After some reflection, I’ve noticed the following theme among my successful long-term nutrition changes:
Change must occur at the desire level.
What do most people do when making a food change? They resist. They think about all of the “off-limit” options they’re missing out on. And deep down, they haven’t truly acknowledged or embraced that the new way of eating is best for them and the world.
Most of us desire a cookie but settle for an orange. But what if we started to desire the orange, enjoy the flavor, and know that consuming it aligns with who we are and what we believe in?
Back in my bodybuilding days, I’d go 4 months without desserts leading up to a contest. But I still desired desserts. I dreamt about them at night and sprinkled packets of Equal on everything to get my fix.
I built up a stash of sweets to immediately consume after the “diet” was over. Since I still desired desserts, nothing really changed long-term, things just changed while I was “dieting.”
Now, I choose fruit instead of cookies because that’s what I truly want. And importantly, desserts aren’t off limits. If I really want dessert, I’ll have it.
Will I ever eat dessert again?
Will I ever eat desserts again? It’s a good question. And the answer is that I probably will.
I just know that for the past year it’s been a privilege to eliminate them from my decision catalog. But life circumstances change. And I don’t want to put the pressure on myself that comes with saying never.
Of course, some of you reading this probably can’t fathom the idea of no desserts for a week, let alone a year. Trust me, I was the same way.
If you would have asked me 3 years ago to cut desserts, I would have laughed with you as we held hands and skipped to the bakery.
Fortunately, we can allow our eating to evolve. You never know what might change.
Summary: What my dessert-less year taught me
In the end, here’s what my year of dessert-free eating taught me.
- Desserts are addictive
- I don’t like foods that cause withdrawal symptoms when I stop eating them
- The more desserts I eat, the more I want
- We don’t eat desserts “in moderation”
- It’s hard to gain fat on whole foods, particularly plant foods
- The “all-or-none” mindset can work to your advantage if you have enough incentive
- It feels good to eliminate internal dialogue
- We can recalibrate our taste buds
- The key to making big eating changes is changing at the desire level
- When we care about something enough, we can choose to do it
Quite a few great lessons there, at least for me. Well worth giving up a little sugar.
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