Oh, 2018 — you were the best of times, you were the worst of times. That was the year I landed a groovy new gig as a magazine editor in Kansas City and took a luxurious 11-day Norwegian cruise. It was also the year I collectively felt awful, physically and emotionally.
Thanks to a raging sugar addiction, I had managed to gain 60 pounds. My physician was crestfallen. Head in hands, he nearly admonished me: “Michael, how? That takes effort.”
Actually, it didn’t.
Over the span of those 12 months, food had accidentally become mindless comfort. I wasn’t tuned in to my nutrition, let alone my food intake.
So, at the beginning of 2019 — as a sort of Hail Mary pass to my overall well-being — I gave up sugar. And sweeteners. And starches. And gluten. For an entire year.
I decided to do it for two reasons: One, because I was 150 percent addicted to sugar; and, two, it was wreaking havoc with my health.
As I look back, it probably would have been easier to give up oxygen.
So Long, Sucrose
Given that I had evolved into a 50-year-old sugar-aholic, I knew I would need guidance, so I hired a life coach/nutritionist to hold my hand as I started my journey. She became my touchstone (and subsequent lifeline) to food.
She armed me with counsel and what seemed like a 14-page laundry list of things I couldn’t eat and a half-page leaflet of approved keto foods. With my lifelong penchant for the sweet stuff, she and I had a quiet love-hate relationship.
She helped me to become hyper-mindful of what I was eating — and when. I would furiously check labels and read about which foods contained obscene amounts of natural sugar. (I’m looking at you, bananas.)
When it came to withdrawal, I figured the first week would be hell. It was. And so was the second, third, and fourth. Searing headaches, insane mood swings, and unexplainable itching were the norm up until about Valentine’s Day.
The worst though? One week in, my bod gave up — and I curled up in the fetal position awaiting certain death.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” my nutritionist said. “This is normal. It’s known as the ‘keto flu.’”
My body — which was used to being fueled by sugar and carbs — was switching over to running on fat. (Which means: Reducing my carb intake forced my body to burn ketones for energy instead of glucose.)
She suggested that I journal about the experience. So, I chronicled the good, the bad, and the ugly — including the unexpected, upending rage that happened a few months into said experiment.
As the weeks became months, I was diligent in my quest to eschew sugar. I was eating caveman-tastic meals — all meat, all veg, all the time. But as I got more entrenched in this no-sugar journey, I became disenchanted. Processed sugar is in everything.
Every. Last. Possible. Thing. (That unassuming can of wasabi almonds I craved = 7 grams of sugar!)
Even more daunting? My cravings didn’t subside until April. Mercifully, by that point, I noticed there were some interesting perks to avoiding the white stuff. Weight was falling off me and I was down nearly 25 pounds without a substantial amount of effort.
Meanwhile, my hair was growing like a weed — even my stylist noticed that it had become thicker and more luxurious. I was practically a sugar-free Breck Girl.
Countless friends lambasted me throughout those first several months for trying another gimmicky attempt at weight loss. Most chided me for simply not exercising moderation.
I tried to explain that losing weight was never my goal in this sugar-free endeavor. My intent was to see what it did to my health. Turns out, a smaller waistline is a nifty byproduct of not eating sugary byproducts. Who knew?
The Sweet Rewards
Early on, my nutritionist and I made one concession: a lone packet of honey in tea or coffee, which became the difference between successfully completing this experiment and eating frosting out of the can.
So, what did I eat? Real talk: I ate my weight in guacamole. And charcuterie — minus crackers — with pickled veggies, artisanal mustards, and overwhelmingly odiferous bleu cheeses. A bacon cheeseburger (sans bun) was a near-daily staple.
And because sugary drinks are omnipresent, I drank 272,589 club sodas — give or take. Looking back, I probably should have invested in La Croix stock.
Six months in, typical aches and pains were nipped in the bud. The constant creaks and groans my body made subsided — especially in the morning.
Working out became significantly easier. I started sleeping like a rock — and popping out of bed every morning ready to tackle my day. Sugar-laden me would have required a caramel macchiato to get going.
My libido saw a resurgence. The old me would always choose a cookie over nookie. I’m not 18 again, obviously, but I definitely have a bit more pep in my step.
But the big, unexpected winner? My skin. I hadn’t had so much as one blemish, blot, or breakout in months.
Through all of it, I kept journaling — and posted the occasional blog about my experiences. I put it all out there, writing about subtle changes that were becoming routine.
Almost Off the Rails
Things were going swimmingly until late May, when my father suffered a stroke and later passed away. Thankfully, not one neighbor showed up with a tater-tot casserole.
But staying true to my sugar-free diet was a piece of cake (pun intended) compared with trying to stay sober. Dad’s stroke triggered my need to drink — and at this point I had been sober for more than three years.
For over a month, I white-knuckled the urge to guzzle wine straight out of the bottle. I didn’t slip, but as anyone who’s in recovery can tell you, it was dicey.
When doctors moved my father from the hospital to hospice, I spent a good majority of the midnight hour tearing through his house looking for wine. I didn’t find any. That’s what we call divine intervention.
All Pros, Zero Cons
What did I learn over those 365 days? One: That I have an insane amount of willpower. And, two, that my taste buds have completely changed. Even the tiniest bit of something with natural sugar — say a handful of raspberries — now tastes overwhelmingly sweet to me.
So, thanks, 2019: I will look back on you fondly. All jokes aside, that year proved to me that taking a leap of faith and committing to better health could help me overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges — as well as an unholy penchant for pecan pie.
I came, I saw, I conquered my cravings. And that’s the best treat there is.
Michael’s Top 3 Success Strategies
- Watch for hidden sugars. Sugar isn’t always marked as such on ingredient lists. From fructose to sucralose (or any other -oses, for that matter), sneaky sweeteners and sugar-laden additives are everywhere, so be vigilant.
- Cut yourself some slack. In 2020, quarantine grazing got the best of me at first. And that’s OK. After stress-eating in the spring, I made changes in my approach by autumn. I have no regrets about how I coped during a wildly stressful period in my life.
- When in doubt, prep it out. My meals and snacks were planned out days in advance so I could stick to my program. Many meal-delivery services also offer keto or paleo meals. Snoop around and find something that works for you.
Tell Us Your Story: Have a transformational healthy-living tale of your own? Share it with us at ELmag.com/myturnaround.
This originally appeared as “Goodbye, Sugar” in the January/February 2021 print issue of Experience Life.