I stopped eating sugar last April. I read Gary Taubes’ article “Is Sugar Toxic?” in the New York Times Magazine, and I was motivated enough by the facts in that article to learn more. I watched renowned expert in childhood obesity Robert Lustig’s youtube video Sugar: The Bitter Truth, and I was hooked into this idea. I decided to try an experiment. I thought I would try not eating refined sugar for one month, and see how I felt. I wasn’t intending for a sugar-free existence to become my way of life. Now, almost one year later, I think that stopping eating sugar has been one of the best decisions for my physical health and emotional well-being that I have ever made.
I wasn’t really anticipating noticing much of a difference, to be honest. I am an acupuncturist – I walk the line between normal person and health nut. I didn’t eat very much sugar to begin with. For me, my daily intake of sugar last spring consisted of a spoonful of sugar in my morning coffee (yes, I am an acupuncturist who drinks coffee. No one is perfect.), 100% juice fruit juice throughout the day (2-3 glasses, maybe?), and the occasional piece of organic dark chocolate for dessert. (And let’s be honest, the occasional small Dunkin Donuts sugar-filled coffee in the afternoon when I was working at the hospital and needed a pick-me-up.) This is far, far less sugar than is eaten by the average American. I tried not to eat foods that contained high fructose corn syrup. We shopped at organic and natural foods stores. In short, I was already not the norm. I wasn’t drinking 5 cans of soda per day and snacking on candy bars. I didn’t really think that I was going to feel any different.
I was wrong.
The first thing that struck me during my little experiment last spring was that after about 2 weeks, I didn’t miss sugar. I didn’t crave a piece of chocolate after dinner. I didn’t miss the sweetness in my coffee. My body physically didn’t crave sugar and psychologically I didn’t miss the taste. The next thing that struck me was that naturally sweet foods started to seem REALLY sweet. Foods that I never would have categorized as sweet began to take their rightful place in my mind as having a sweet quality to them. Dates. Apples. Rice. Yams.
As an acupuncturist, I have been taught to see the world through the lens of Chinese Medicine. Chinese Medicine assigns qualities to all the foods that we eat. Foods have a “taste” quality – such as bitter, or acrid, or sour, or sweet. Sometimes the taste quality is obvious but othertimes it is much for subtle. These tastes are important because different tastes act in different ways in the body. This is very important when we use food as medicine, which we very frequently do. Therefore I knew, logically, that many foods are inherently “sweet” even though they aren’t loaded with added sugar. But I never thought of rice, barley, or yams as being a sweet food. When I stopped eating sugar, I realized that they are. Stopping overloading my taste buds with artificial sweeteners and refined sugar has allowed me to actually taste food how it is supposed to taste.
By the end of the month-long experiment, I was noticing other changes, too. My energy was more stable throughout the day. I didn’t have a dip in energy after eating. I often woke up feeling refreshed, which in my busy world, was often unheard of for me.
I was also, interestingly, less hungry. Before, I used to get ravenously hungry, and then I would eat large quantities of good and healthy food. But it was like I just couldn’t be full. After my month-long experiment, my hunger was much more stabilized. I would get normally hungry around mealtimes, but I seemed to need to eat smaller portions in order to feel satisfied.
Why is this? All of these health symptoms could be explained by more stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. They can also be explained by Traditional Chinese Medical theory, too. In TCM, the energetic of the Spleen controls our day to day energy, as well as our digestive function, metabolism, and appetite. The Spleen energy plays a role in our sleep cycles, in endocrine function, and in the strength of our muscles. Each energy system in TCM is associated with a taste. The taste associated with the Spleen is Sweet. This means that naturally sweet foods are nourishing to the Spleen, but an overuse of sweet foods can actually damage the Spleen. (And foods thousands of times sweeter than fruits and vegetables...such as sugary drinks and candy...disaster.) When my Spleen energy was not being damaged by the overly sweet qualities of refined sugar, it was able to function smoothly and maintain a healthy level of energy throughout the day. It maintained a stable appetite, felt full at adequate times, and improved by metabolism.
Since I had decided that my experiment wasn’t hard, and I was noticing these positive changes, I decided to keep going. Indefinitely. Just to see.
I don’t know exactly when, but at some point during this process, I realized that I had lost weight. Now, I’m a runner, and I was at a completely healthy full-bodied weight to begin with. So this was not at all my intention in stopping eating sugar. But at the time, I was not running nearly as much as my body was used to, and I still lost weight. I saw this as an added bonus. After a few months, my weight leveled off and I’ve been at a steady weight for about 6 months, with few changes to my diet or exercise routine. So my assumption is that the weight that I lost was weight from including refined sugar and fruit juice in my diet, and once I was no longer feeding a potentially toxic chemical into my system, my weight leveled off again. To a good, happy, healthy, nourished level. I bring this up because SO MANY PATIENTS, particularly women, ask me about losing weight. And while acupuncture can be an effective modality to stimulate metabolism, suppress appetite when appropriate, and regulate digestive function, I think the single best thing any woman can do to achieve this goal is to cut refined sugar out of their diet. Completely.
No one is going to argue that refined sugar is good for you. Nutritionists have long talked about refined sugar as “empty calories” – calories that offer no beneficial nutrition to the body, and therefore are just additional calories for us to need to burn off. But Taubes, Lustig, (and others before them) made a very different argument, and a compelling one: The problem isn’t so much that sugar lacks positive nutritional benefits, but that it might actually be toxic to the body. The body does not process all calories in the same way. And calories from sugar (and high fructose corn syrup) – specifically those from the fructose - are processed in such a way that they are inherently different from calories from whole grains. And it seems that there is more and more compelling research and theories and arguments that say that the way that the body processes calories from sugar may in fact be harmful to our long-term health.
Taubes' article notes that studies have shown that if you overload animals with simple fructose (the part of sugar that makes it sweet), their livers turn those calories into fatty tissue. The kind of fatty tissue that can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks. And moreover, if you give them sugar in liquid form – like in a soda or even fruit juice – it overwhelms the liver that much faster. Other research has linked metabolic syndrome to heart attacks and other cardiac events…and there may be compelling evidence linking sugar consumption to fatty liver and therefore to metabolic syndrome.
Just last month, Lustig and colleagues published a new paper in Nature arguing that sugar should be regulated the way that alcohol and cigarettes are regulated. They suggested a number of measures to make us consume less sugar, including a tax on sugary beverages or a minimum age requirement. I won’t get into any sort of political or social discussion here about whether sugar – or any substance – should be banned. I bring it up because I think it highlights the seriousness of this issue – scientists are looking at how sugar acts in the body and thinking that it is very reasonable to suggest that we regulate it the way we do well-known drugs.
One of the most interesting things to me, in my own little experiment, is that I feel better emotionally, too. Now, this could be because I feel better physically and therefore I am in a better mood. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think that I handle stress better when I am not eating sugar. I think that I sleep better, am less anxious, and do a much better job of not getting overwhelmed. I can’t offer you a biomedical or physiological explanation for this, although I am sure one exists! From a TCM perspective, of course, it makes perfect sense. I already mentioned that excess sugar intake damages the Spleen energy. The Spleen, like all energy systems, has a psycho-emotional manifestation in the body. The Spleen controls our intellect, our thinking and analytical mind. Imbalance in the Spleen also manifests as excessive worry. When my Spleen is not being damaged by refined sugar, I am more focused, have a clearer head, and worry much less.
TCM nutritional guru Paul Pitchford and well-known acupuncturist Bob Flaws both argue that sugar also damages the Liver energetic system. The Liver energy is in charge of making sure that energy flows smoothly throughout our whole body. When the Liver gets stuck, symptoms such as headaches, painful periods, mental tension, anger and frustration, digestive issues, tight muscles, and aches and pains arise. Stress easily causes our Liver energy to get stuck. So too, do “heavy” foods, such as fatty meat, greasy or fried food, or, you guessed it, overly sweet food and sugar. Because our Liver needs to be healthy in order to properly deal with stress, we stack the blocks against ourselves by consuming sugar and then expecting to handle all the day to day stresses of life seamlessly. When I stopped burdening the flow of my energy with sugar, I found that I was able to handle stress much more easily – I didn’t get upset over little things, I was much more patient and less irritable.
So I guess all of this is really to say that I strongly advocate trying a sugar-free lifestyle. Or at least limiting it as much as possible.
Most people respond to this idea with “Oh I could never do that!” or “I would miss such-and-such too much.” And to that, I say, Yes, yes you can do it. Give it a try. I bet you will be surprised at how easy it is. (Not at first. Studies show that it takes about 2 weeks to stop craving a food.) So give it a good month. See what happens. If you can’t bring yourself to give up everything, start small. Give up soda. Give up fruit juice. Read labels at the grocery store and don’t buy anything that has sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or cane juice as an ingredient. Stop having dessert at lunch. Slowly take sugar out of your diet.
These articles I have quoted here talk about all sorts of diseases possibly being linked to sugar. Metabolic syndrome. Diabetes. Heart Disease. Heart Attacks. Cancer.
60 years ago we didn’t know that cigarettes caused cancer. And now look. What might we know about sugar in another 60 years? In 20? In 10? To me, I just don’t want to take my chances. I think there is a very real possibility that I’ll be telling my grandkids someday how when I was young, you could just walk into a store and buy a giant candy bar and a soda and no one thought anything of it! And they will be shocked.
Who knows? Maybe that won’t come to pass. But in the meantime, I know what my body is telling me, and it is telling me to keep living without refined sugar. It thanks me everyday.