From Withdrawal Headaches to Flatter Abs: What It's Really Like to Give Up Sugar
In my nearly six years since adopting a plant-based diet, one of my most oft-repeated phrases is that "vegans aren't automatically healthy." It's the point I make to dispel the misguided idea that veganism automatically spells weight loss, as well as the blind dismissal of my daily eats as "rabbit food." Oreos and Doritos: both technically vegan. And I make a mean batch of dairy-free mac and cheese.
But I've only recently just started to detect the holier-than-thou undercurrent of my own argument. "Vegans aren't automatically healthy," I'm really saying, "But I am."
Truth be told, I have prided myself on my healthy diet for some time. I actually find great joy in stocking my fridge with fresh produce and cooking wholesome recipes on a near-nightly basis. I'm both a nutrition nerd and a hippie at heart, and half a decade later, I still get a thrill out of the fact that I can nourish my body exclusively with plants grown from the earth. But a couple of months ago, I began to not only detect my own condescension, but also realise that it was less warranted than ever. I had started to fall into the very trap I had always criticised: Using the fact that I was vegan as my fall-back for "wellness," I actually hadn't been eating so healthfully for some time.
That hypocrisy became too obvious to ignore around the start of 2017, when holiday indulgences, a lack of consistent exercise, and too many late-night orders of french fries (my kryptonite) had started to show up in more ways than one: The obvious, of course, was that my clothes were feeling a little too tight, but my skin was also more breakout-prone than usual, I felt sluggish and bloated, and was constantly fatigued. After a few weeks of regular sessions at the yoga studio didn't breed any significant changes, I knew it was time to double-down on my diet.
I chose to scrutinise my sugar intake almost out of sheer curiosity—part of me wondered if that was really the issue. Did a few holiday sweets and the occasional night out drinking really add up to a detox-able "problem?" To find out, I deferred to UK-based nutritionist Emily Maguire. Her take: Even those of us who consider ourselves "healthy" could probably stand to try a sugar detox.
"I think people are most surprised by just how much of an effect sugar has on their bodies—something that they would never have been able to notice had they not cut it out," she said, adding that in addition to having the ability to make our bodies go haywire in minimal amounts, sugar is virtually everywhere in the modern diet. "Because there are over 50 different names give to sugars, it can make it even harder when reading food labels to determine what foods actually contain added sugar." That goes even for mostly-virtuous vegans like myself.
And as luck would have it, Maguire happened to be in the process of finishing up a new 30-day detox plan with fellow nutritionist Karen Thomson called the Sugar Free Reset, and was kind enough to let me trial it in the interest of finding balance again. I read through the e-book and accompanying materials, marked February 1 on my calendar as my official start date, and attempted to mentally prepare myself for a lifestyle overhaul that was in many ways subtle, but nonetheless pervasive.
Keep reading to see what the plan entailed, and how my experience went down.
Before even reading through the book, I had already said my (tearful) goodbyes to wine and chocolate, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they actually weren't technically off-limits. And that's what I immediately liked about Maguire and Thomson's plan: Rather than a cut-and-dry list of "eat this not that," there was a pretty extensive section of "grey area" foods to enjoy in limited amounts rather than cut out completely. It was a great way to outline indulgences that were still healthy (I'm looking at you, dark chocolate), and even though I really wanted to do this the right way and commit to cutting out alcohol, sugary fruits, and sweets of any kind, having those "sometime" foods in the back of my mind made it all seem a little less daunting.
That being said, I did note the presence of legumes like chickpeas, beans, and lentils on the "in moderation" list, which made me take pause. As a vegan, legumes and pulses are a big source of my daily protein intake, so I thought it best to check in with Maguire to see what her recommended course of action would be. She said that in my case, it wasn't a big deal to fill up on legumes, and advised incorporating tofu into my daily eats as well. The priority, she said, was to remove any and all refined sugars from my diet.
I'm one of those people who loves grocery shopping, so I had to restrain myself from gliding into Trader Joe's on the back of my shopping cart with arms outstretched on Day 1. I was swept up in the excitement of turning over a new leaf, and couldn't wait to stock my fridge with appropriate foods. (The Sugar Free Reset includes a whole variety of recommended recipes and a meal plan if you'd like that kind of rigidity, but given my dietary restrictions and preference to whip up my own recipes, I decided to freestyle my meals with the plan's restraints as my guide.)
My enthusiasm began to dissipate, however, when I started reading labels—something I've always done, so I was astonished to notice ingredients that I hadn't before, to the point where I wanted to know if someone in the Trader Joe's manufacturing plant was messing with me. Jarred salsa, for example, apparently contains sugar. Come again?
Slightly deflated but determined to keep my chin up nonetheless, I stocked up on all kinds of fresh produce, three kinds of (plain) tofu, beans, and almonds—in an attempt to avoid any sneaky sugar that might be hiding in so-called "unsweetened" almond milk, I would be making my own. It turned out that this task is not only easier than anticipated and much more cost-effective—homemade almond milk is actually far tastier, too. I also spied some red lentil pasta in TJ's "new items" section, and immediately grabbed two bags. It almost felt like a loophole to be eating pasta, but with just one approved ingredient, I was technically in the clear. I whipped up a big batch with a homemade sundried tomato pesto and almond-based "feta"—divine.
The week chugged on without much to report. I started my days off with my usual smoothie—sweetened only by berries— and filled up on stir fries, salads, cauliflower "rice" bowls, and the aforementioned pasta dish. I began bringing my own lunch to work, as I began to realise that there's no real way of knowing what forms of sugar are hiding in meals prepared by anyone other than myself. I began to guess that this was likely a huge culprit of my bloat and slight weight gain—I had been eating out and using Postmates a lot lately.
My first big lapse happened when I traveled east for a quick visit with my family that weekend. One glass of wine turned into two, and while the rest of the fam noshed on my sister's birthday cake, my mum surprised me with a pint of vegan ice cream. Rather than feel bummed and left out, I decided to allow myself a small scoop, and mentally checked any guilt I felt for the lapse. It was extremely helpful that Maguire's plan has a whole section that advises on what to do during a slip—the gist is "don't panic and move on."
In spite of that evening of indulgence over the weekend, I dove into the second week with newfound resolve. I was feeling great, energised, and already, my jeans were fitting a little better. Then Wednesday rolled around, which happened to be my lovely colleague Amanda's birthday. After picking up a batch of vegan cupcakes in her honour—from my favourite bakery, no less—I permitted myself half rather than skip out on that delectably fluffy frosting entirely.
I can't remember the last time I had such a palpable sugar high, but I was probably in grade school and wearing a Halloween costume at the time. My brain felt buzzed and loopy, and my hands visibly trembled. "This can't be possible from half a cupcake, right?" I wondered aloud. "Dude—sugar is no joke," said Amanda, before offering me the second half. (Woozy and honestly a little too conscious of how much the sugar was messing with my system, I declined.)
As I made my way into week three, I thought it was safe at this point to assume that I had simply bypassed the typical hunger pangs and fatigue that seem to accompany most cleanses. Boy, was I naive: Tuesday hit, and suddenly I was thrown into a fog. I felt nauseous and unfocused, and the most bizarre symptom of all was that while I was utterly exhausted during the day, I had trouble sleeping at night. Was this my punishment for my momentary lapses over the past couple of weeks? I touched base with Maguire to make sure this was all normal, and that I hadn't just overdosed on almonds or something.
"Yes—within the couple weeks of reducing or totally eliminating sugar from your diet, you can experience certain symptoms and side effects, almost like withdrawals," she replied. "These can include things like headaches, nausea, tiredness, a change in sleeping pattern and cravings." In my case, it was all of the above—and since week three was the first full week where I really stuck fast with the plan without any slips, perhaps that explained the delay in my withdrawal.
But it was nonetheless gratifying to know that the detox was having an impact—not to mention that my body was doing its job to restore balance. I did my best to address my symptoms by getting as much sleep as possible, swapping my power yoga classes for some at-home stretching, and finishing off the day with a thorough soak in a clay and Epsom salt bath. Pressure point massages with eucalyptus essential oil helped my aching head. And once I got through those rough couple of days, I quickly began to see the payoffs of my persistence.
As abruptly as the fog made its appearance, it disappeared—and the clarity it left in its wake was practically blinding. I felt focused and more energised than ever before; my sleep patterns—always an issue—suddenly became consistent and efficient. My skin glowed. I happened to meet with natural aesthetician Sadie Adams that week, and as I told her about my detox, the conversation turned to the misconceptions surrounding diet and great skin. "A lot of my clients assume that dairy is the worst possible thing for their skin," she said. "Not even close—sugar is definitely the worst."
It was around this time that I realised that for the first time in months, I hadn't gotten the usual breakout on my chin that usually denotes the arrival of my period. Coincidence? I think not: Sugar has a huge impact on our hormones, and clearly something was finally in balance.
Barring those couple of days when I felt positively awful, I did my best to stay consistent with yoga and hiking during the 30 days, and I was beginning to witness just how well a clean diet pairs with regular workouts: Not only was I feeling gains during my sweat sessions, but I was seeing them, too. The faint outline of abs began to peep out of my midsection, and I began noticing some definition along my upper arms as well. Consider this proof that you really can't out-train a poor diet—even if the diet in question wasn't entirely poor to begin with.
I was feeling (and dammit, looking) so good that Day 30 arrived… and I didn't want to stop. Save for a celebratory glass of red wine, I didn't feel compelled to immediately gorge on everything I had been missing—because as I looked back on the experience, I realised I actually hadn't been missing much of anything. The small bites and sips of cocktails I had been stealing beforehand—the little, nearly unconscious moments of indulgence that added up to the bloat and fatigue I had been feeling—felt positively forgettable compared to this newfound, multifaceted sense of wellbeing.
It's been nearly a month since Day 30, and I'm still basically living that sugar-free life—if that isn't a testament to how much better I'm feeling, I don't know what is. I say "basically," because it doesn't technically feel like cheating anymore when I have the occasional glass(es) of wine, or nosh on some late-night fries (still my kryptonite). But now that I've been able to actually chart how much better and balanced I've felt over time—all while making relatively minor adjustments to my lifestyle—I don't feel like I'm making a huge effort to "be good." Whereas I might have ordered a lentil salad for lunch in the past just for the sake of being virtuous, now I happily make that decision knowing that I'm fueling this elevated sense of wellness, and that I won't feel bloated and sluggish within a matter of hours. On the flip side of that, when I do indulge, I'm present enough to actually enjoy every bite or sip. All in all, I'm much more conscientious about my diet on every level, and I think that's the key to mastering that game of give and take.
I've always had the best luck with diet reboots or cleanses that are, at the end of the day, reasonable: Giving up sugar in all its forms might seem like a steep demand at face value, but what I like about Thomson and Maguire's plan is that it allots for those tiny indulgences that keep us sane. Whenever I copped to being on a sugar detox to friends during those 30 days, the response was either "But wine!" or "But chocolate!" Even though I committed to cutting both of those out for the most part, knowing that they were technically available to me in minimal amounts was something of a comfort, especially in the beginning. And after some time—really, mid-way through Week 2, when those crazy withdrawal symptoms hit me—I realised I didn't really need them. This all made for an easy transition into post-cleanse maintenance mode, which is why that line between "during" and "after" has ultimately been blurred for me.
But perhaps the most salient lesson of all is that I was in serious need of a reality check. Even health nuts like myself aren't immune to complacency, and that alone made me blind to the small ways I was sabotaging my own wellness until suddenly my jeans were too tight and I couldn't make it until 2 p.m. without crashing hard. "Vegans aren't automatically healthy," I can say now. "Myself included."