-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

21 Days Without Sugar Experiment: that was hard! (part 1)

running-advice-bugThere seems to be tremendous interest right now in the health effects of sugar in our diets. Many people say that it is sugar, rather than fat, that is leading people to be overweight. Documentaries like “Fed Up” talk about both the addictive nature of sugar and how the idea of “eating better and exercising more” makes little sense when the environment makes it practically impossible to eliminate sugar additives from your diet in the first place. No matter how hard you try, the deck is simply stacked against you, so the thinking goes.

SugarSo 21 days ago I set out to see if it was possible: could I eliminate sugars from my diet and what would be the impact on my behavior and general sense of well-being? I didn’t go into this trying to fix some specific problem or to lose weight. Rather in the end I learned a lot about how it felt and really how hard it was to do it.

The ground rules of my test
First things first, what did this experiment mean to me? I planned to eliminate foods containing sugar or sugar additives as ingredients in food. That would include anything appearing on a label such as sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, malto-dextrine and many other items. This was not intended to be a test of one type of sugar against another or their respective nutritional values. As an athlete I wanted to keep some carbohydrate in my diet so I kept WHOLE fruit (not fruit juice) and some carbohydrate (such as rice or pasta) so long as those foods didn’t include sugar additives. Most bread, for example, includes various types of sugars (depending on the recipe) so most bread was out. I also kept some cheese in my diet, which includes lactose (sugar from milk) but I would not have eaten something like sweetened yogurt or even sweetened almond or soy milk because of the added sugar in those products. Why keep cheese, you ask? Because I have been trained to have desert after a meal and a little cheese and fresh fruit was about my only choice.

In the beginning I thought, “this will be easy” (seriously I did!) because I cook at home a lot. I figured that so long as I was cooking, I simply wouldn’t add sugar to what I was cooking and I would live on meats, nuts, vegetables and whole fruit. But it only took about one meal to figure out just how hard this was going to be. Even cooking at home, nearly every condiment and sauce in my pantry for preparing foods had sugar in it. To my astonishment, this included most of your basic condiments such as mayonaise, ketchup, bar-b-que sauces and the like. The first cook-at-home meal, was pretty plain until I got out to the store to buy new versions of pretty much everything in the fridge. It didn’t stop with condiments either. I was floored to see sugar in places that I thought I could most definitely eat — like bacon (MEAT!), beef jerky (ALSO MEAT!), potato chips, and bread.

I replaced many things with alternatives, most of which tended to be locally made or small-batch products. I found mayo, fresh garlic sauce, hot dogs, and peanut butter, all without sugar, but it certainly took some doing. The first lesson of this is that if you look at the labels, you may be surprised at where you find sugar as an ingredient.

It got even worse when I headed out onto the road for the first of three trips I had planned during this three-week period. At the airport before a long flight, I literally could find no snacks in the store that didn’t have sugar in them. I finally found some nuts (salted almonds and cashews), but these were alongside a dozen other types of nuts that did include sugar. I further tested myself that night going to a nice restaurant in Chicago and asking if the Cesar salad dressing had sugar in it: “all of our dressings have sugar in them,” said the waitress. The chef came out and offered to make some from scratch for me without sugar.

I would say that in the first three days of this experiment, I was mostly in shock. What I thought might be easy was turning out to be a challenge of the greatest order. And to be clear, I’m not one that eats much in the way of sweets, junk food, or fast-food to begin with. I haven’t had a bowl of sugary cereal or a sugared soda in literally years. So for this to be hard for me, suggests that for people that have a sweet tooth, this would be much, much harder.

How did it feel?
Apart from the initial shock on just how limiting this experiment would be, I felt a number of things that I didn’t expect. In the first three or four days, I had headaches that felt very very familiar. They felt just like the withdrawal headaches I had when I cut out caffeine almost 15 years ago. (Yes, that’s correct, I don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, so I have been through these types of dietary changes before.) I was grumpy and felt almost panicked about having not eaten enough and was spending a lot of time thinking about what and when I would eat again. I began to notice that I didn’t feel full until maybe 45 minutes after I finished a meal. I normally feel full by the time I finish eating. I understand that this may be because sugars raise your blood sugar levels more quickly, so eating foods with less sugar provided a slower response in my body.

The next thing that I noticed was that I was sustained for a much longer period of time. That first day in Chicago — which was a very busy work day — I didn’t get hungry at all between my very early breakfast (prior to 7:00AM) and almost dinner time. But once I got hungry, the hunger came on strong and I needed to eat very soon thereafter. This has been something that I noticed throughout this experience — the length of time meals sustain me seems to be longer, but once it is time to eat, it’s really time to eat.

In terms of my body, I found very little difference in my energy level. My workouts seem to be going fine. I had less “gas” (sorry), which is something that I get when I eat sweet foods. In the two races that I had during this time, I used Honey Stinger brand gel, because it contains only honey and no “sugar additives”. (Granted, this is sugar, but we’re talking one gel pack in three weeks during a race that last 1 1/2 hours at high-intensity.)

Did I lose weight?
A number of people have asked if I lost weight during this period. This wasn’t my intent, but I did lose about four pounds in three weeks. I noticed that the fat on my belly, although there isn’t that much there anyway, slimmed down and my stomach became more sculpted. I also noticed that my chest leaned out a bit. This is interesting, because as an endurance athlete I have at times wondered why I would have much body-fat at all. But if the sugar is hiding in all of these foods that I eat (such as bread and peanut butter) that would make sense.

What’s next?
In the next chapter of this article, I’ll write more about what I took away from this experience and how it will shape my eating going forward. It’s been an interesting experiment to be sure and I think I have some ideas that I can share about ways to help you watch the sugar that may be hiding in your food.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
@coachjoeenglish @runningadvice & RUN Time


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  1. 1. 21-days Without Sugar: Five Things I Learned (series part II) | Running Advice and News May 26th, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    […] to let it slip back into the unconscious. Once you know something you can’t un-know it. After my 21-day experiment to eliminate added sugars from my diet, I was left feeling overwhelmed by the experience. Not only do I now look for sugar on […]

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