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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 eventually, I started to fall into the very trap I had always criticized: Using the fact that I was vegan as my fall-back for "wellness."
I chose to scrutinize my sugar intake almost out of sheer curiosity—part of me wondered if that was really the issue. In order 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 says, 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 given 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. To embark on a sugar detox, I turned to nutritionists Maguire and Karen Thomson, along with registered dietician Isabel Smith.
Read on for more about my experience with the 30-day sugar detox.
What Is The Sugar Detox Diet?
A sugar detox is exactly what it sounds like, according to Smith. "This simply presents a time when we work on cutting out added sugar to help create new habits and reduce the amount of sugar we're consuming," she explains.
As luck would have it, Maguire recently put together a 30-day detox plan with fellow nutritionist Thomson called the Sugar-Free Reset, and she 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 the first of the month 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.
How Does it Work?
As you can probably guess, the priority, Maguire said, is to remove any and all refined sugars from your diet. 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 "gray area" foods to enjoy in limited amounts rather than cut out completely.
According to Smith, if you stick with it post-detox, there are many benefits! "Less sugar is better for our bodies as a whole and generally for mental health too," she explains. Aside from your physique, sugar has a huge impact on our hormones, which can lead to breakouts and an oilier complexion.
As with any diet, there are potential drawbacks. "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," says Maguire.
Not only that, but completely cutting anything from your diet can often result in a relapse that's difficult to recover from. "Sometimes people can hop off and be dying to dive into their fave sugary sweets... not so good," adds Smith.
How to Prepare for a Sugar Detox
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 one. 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 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. 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 discouraged 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 sun-dried tomato pesto and almond-based "feta"—divine.
How to Follow the Sugar Detox Diet
Like I mentioned, the detox outlined some gray areas, which made following the diet easier. It's a great way to see indulgences that are 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 "sometimes" 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. In general, you'll want to focus on water consumption, healthy fats, leafy greens, berries, and clean proteins.
Is a Sugar Detox Worth It?
Despite a few minor relapses, it was gratifying to know that the detox was having an impact—not to mention that my body was doing its job restoring balance. I felt focused and more energized than ever before; my sleep patterns—always an issue—suddenly became consistent and efficient. My skin glowed. I happened to meet with natural esthetician Sadie Adams that week, and as I told her about my detox, the conversation turned to the misconceptions surrounding diet and great skin.
According to Adams, many people assume that dairy is the worst possible thing for their skin, but she says sugar is actually the worst.
It was around this time that I realized 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.
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 realized 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.
The Final Takeaway
At the time of writing, 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 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, when I do indulge, I'm present enough to actually enjoy every bite or sip. All in all, I'm much more conscious about my diet on every level, and I think that's the key to mastering that game of give and take.
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."
Katta R, Desai SP. Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(7):46-51.