By the end of last year, I was becoming increasingly less tolerant to sugar, chocolate and a few other foods I’m usually okay eating reasonable amounts of. I proved to myself I could exercise a lot of restraint during Christmas, however, when January first rolled around, I decided to go refined sugar free for 2 weeks to see if it would help clear up some GI issues I was having (bloating and heartburn). After 2 weeks had passed, I decided to go the whole month. And now, with February only two days away, I really don’t have much desire to return to eating sugar.
I’ve been extremely interested in the importance of a healthy gut and the whole body implications that happen when a gut dysbiosis occurs (when your gut bacteria populations get out of balance with too many bad bacteria, and too few good bacteria). We have more bacterial cells in our body than we do our own cells so their influence over how we feel mentally and physically is profound. Our gut bacteria produce more than 30 neurotransmitters including 80-90% of our serotonin (1), which is responsible for mood, behavior, sleep, memory, appetite, digestion and sex drive. They also produce vitamins, minerals and molecules that imitate our hormones, as they try to influence us to eat certain foods to benefit them. So it wasn’t a surprise when I started to feel different as the month went on.
Just to clarify, I had no refined sugar, but still ate fruit, veggies, dried fruit, and natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, as well as meat and healthy fat. I majorly stayed away from wheat products, as I have an intolerance for them and I have a genetic predisposition that puts me at a higher risk of developing Celiac Disease. So, to help clear up my gut I had to stay away from wheat as well.
My husband had a nasty stomach bug all week and I was interested to see if eating no sugar would help boost my immunity. We have 70% of our immune cells in our gut (2), which makes sense since we consume food with many different microbes on them, so we need strong defenses when coming into contact with the outside world. When we have a gut dysbiosis, there can be changes to mood, energy, appetite, digestion, and reduced immunity. Sugar and other processed foods, feed our bad bacteria and starve our good bacteria, which can cause this dysbiosis. Our good bacteria produce mucin which helps keep the lining of our intestines strong and also helps keep our immune cells separate from the food stuff. If we aren’t feeding our good bacteria well enough, or we are eating a lot of sugar and processed foods, this lining becomes damaged and our immune cells become exposed to the contents of our intestine (sometimes referred to as a "leaky gut") and begin to majorly go on the defense. This greatly increases inflammation, which affects the whole body as inflammatory molecules increase in the blood which circulates all throughout the body, including the brain. (Side note - the cause of depression, in a lot of cases, is now being considered a result of inflammation, which can come from the gut if one eat a lot of processed foods and sugar).
Long story short, I wanted to eat less sugar to keep my gut healthy and my immunity strong. And it worked! I haven’t been sick this year and actually, haven't had so much as a cold since last spring.
I really started to feel very energized, awake and little fatigue throughout the day. I woke up with a clear head and much less difficulty getting out of bed, even at 5:30 a.m. I even started going to the gym before work 4 days a week, which I found to really help reduce stress during the day.
I started to notice changes to my body as well and could see I was noticeably leaning out. I’ve always heard about how “white” carbs (sugar and processed grains, crackers, bread, pasta, cookies, croissants, cereal, granola bars, etc.) tend to be the cause of those stubborn few extra pounds around the midsection and it really seems to be true. I have wanted a visible six pack ever since I started working out in high school, 10+ years ago, and even though I have certainly tried eating well and working out, nothing compares to cutting out wheat and sugar. I can now see 4 abs after only a month, which is huge motivation to continue!
I had experienced a few cravings for chocolate and cookies. Every time I open the freezer or cupboard I see chocolate left over from Christmas staring at me. I would feel the urge to eat it, but reminded myself that it’s not going anywhere and will be there, if and when I decided to eat sugar again. After two weeks, it did become easier to resist sugar. I had come this far, I wasn’t going to give up now, besides, I was really starting to enjoy it and how it was making me feel.
By the third week, I really noticed my mood was improving. It could have been because it was starting to sink in that I was finally finished school, or that I was going to the gym before work everyday, but I felt like a storm cloud had lifted. I was feeling lighter, and laughing and getting excited more easily.
I started to really enjoy eating whole, natural foods. They feel very nurturing when you eat them. For snacks, I was eating a lot of nuts and seeds, fruit, oatmeal with coconut, walnuts and blueberries, kefir and granola and peanut butter. I started to research recipes for snacks without refined sugar. My favourites are posted here and check out my favourite overnight oat recipes too as they are refined sugar free as well. I bring overnight oats to work with me to eat after the gym everyday. I also found dark chocolate bars without refined sugar, which are delicious and I plan on doing a quick video blog about my favourites very soon.
I continued to have a ton of energy and a really clear mind. I don’t really have many cravings anymore as I am thinking more about the healthy treats I can eat. After going a month without sugar, my palate has become re-sensitized to the taste of sugar. For example, I find things like tomatoes and dried banana chips to be really sweet now. I enjoy the natural flavours in food a lot more, which has only encouraged me to want to continue this journey. I think on February first, I will eat some almond brittle I got for Christmas (from the One of a Kind Show, I get some every year!), but only a small taste and then I'll be back to being refined sugar-free for a while. Eventually, I’d like to only have dark chocolate; no cookies, cereal, candy, milk chocolate, granola bars, etc.
I am confident, now more than ever, that if you want to feel your best (happier, less stress and anxiety, awake and full of energy) and lose weight or lean out, then switching to a diet of whole foods, nothing processed or refined, will get you there the fastest. Even in the absence of intense exercise (I always recommend at least walking and stretching). And if you are interested in cutting out refined sugar, do it with the right intention. Don’t quit eating sugar just to lose weight. Sugar will then become something you can’t have and you will want it so much more. Then, if you end up eating some, you could experience shame and failure and all these other bad feelings for just trying to better yourself. It will become a roller coaster and won't be successful long term. Try quitting (or limiting) sugar for the long term goal of just trying to live a healthier life, with more energy, a clearer mind and the satisfaction that you have control over what you eat and how you feel. Your success will be dependent on your perspective and your positive mental attitude. There is also something really special about fully appreciating and enjoying the taste of natural, whole foods.
Food Staples for Going Refined Sugar Free
My go-to foods for when I'm craving something sweet.
- Oats - I like to blend oats to a powder and use them instead of flour. You can also cook them and top with fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, unsweetened cacao powder or cacao nibs. Or try overnight oats, which can be made in a variety of flavours and are sweet and creamy.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder - mix with coconut oil and/or maple syrup to make chocolate syrup, perfect or nicecream, or put the mixture into the freezer for hard chocolate, refined sugar-free! You can also add unsweetened cocoa powder to smoothies, oat meal, granola, nicecream, basically anything to add chocolate without any sugar.
- Maple syrup and honey
- Bananas - can be incorporated into a number of things like smoothies, nicecream, banana muffins, banana pancakes, sliced up onto cereal, a smoothie bowl or oatmeal, or eaten with a heaping spoon of peanut butter, which I found myself craving all the time. Dried bananas taste like candy to me now; they are delicious, so simple and healthy!
- Cinnamon and vanilla - add to everything!
- Nut butters
- Nuts, seeds and dried fruit
- Granola - adds a satisfying crunch to yogurt or kefir
- Cacao nibs - sugar free, unrefined chocolate. Perfect for adding to oats or yogurt.
- Coconut flakes
1. McIntosh, J. (2016, April 19). "Serotonin: Facts, What does Serotonin Do?." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
2. Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Di Cara, G. & Frati, F. (2008) Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clin Exp Immunol 153(1), 306.