[Note: The opinions experienced in this article are solely the author’s. Anyone who wishes to start a new diet should consult a medical professional before doing so.]
I like to think of myself as not addicted to sugar. I don’t drink bubble tea ever (yes, I know) and growing up my idea of a binge was to have a full Mars bar (30.4 grams of sugar), while others around me gleefully spooned their way to the bottom of an Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food (32g sugar per serving).
While I might have been consuming minutely less sugar than my smaller framed friends, here’s the thing with the sweet stuff: sugar in any form, naturally occurring, artificial or processed isn’t great for the body in excess. And chances are we’re all consuming more than we need. According to Health Promotion Board, an average individual consumes about 12 tsp (48 g) of sugar daily with 6.5 teaspoons coming from drinks, and 5.5 teaspoons from food. While that doesn’t look too calorie dense (186 calories) when you consider they’re empty calories with no vitamins or minerals, there are better nutrition choices.
So what started me down the no/low sugar path? Vanity. I wanted to lose weight before my summer beach holiday. Also, I’d long held a suspicion that sugar and processed carbs like bread and pastry negatively affected my mood and acted as a trigger for my chronic eczema.
While simple on paper, the experiment was brutal. My partner and I were going to observe a no- to low-sugar diet (10-15g a day) for 30 days. This meant cooking all our meals, which we would have to keep fairly clean (salt, pepper, fresh herbs were fine) as so many condiments – such as teriyaki sauce (1 tbsp = 7g of sugar) and ketchup (1 tbsp = 4 g of sugar) – contain sugar. There would be no snacks unless it was grilled lean protein like chicken or low-carb and low-fat cottage cheese, and the only “sugar” we would knowingly allow would be lactose (milk sugar) from the milk in our morning flat whites.
To make things uncomplicated we decided to adopt a predominantly carnivore diet which meant we only ate unprocessed animal products (chicken breast, grass-fed steak, eggs and cottage cheese) and low-sugar vegetables and fruit (such as broccoli, avocado and berries), drinking only water, tea and coffee. I won’t lie, it was a struggle to keep this up but eventually we found a good balance in a morning egg dish; a salad at lunch with an adequate amount of protein (about 100-150g); and chicken rice (without rice or skin) and grass-fed rib eye steak (Foodie Market Place actually has reasonable steak prices under $3.50 per kg) for dinner which really kept us satiated. For dessert, it was either a handful of frozen berries and the odd treat of sour cream, sprinkled with stevia and blended blueberries.
I won’t lie, this diet was anything but easy (and pretty antisocial) – I would not recommend anyone to try this without first consulting a doctor. As I’d observed a keto diet before and had no current medical issues, I decided to give it a go for 30 days, but on the premise, that I would stop if I observed any negative effects to my health or wellbeing.
Predictably, the first week was the toughest. I craved sugar and generally felt like I had less energy and found it hard to focus on work. I was clearly going through a “withdrawal” period. To keep myself on track I started wandering down the supermarket aisle to sniff out the hidden sugars I’d inadvertently been consuming all this time.
Brown sugar boba milk = 92g of sugar
Vitamin Water: 1 bottle = 32g of sugar
Mee Rebus: 1 serving = 32g of sugar
Kopi: 1 cup = 16g of sugar
Low fat flavoured yoghurt: 1 cup = 24g of sugar
Fresh orange juice: 1 cup = 24g of sugar
Milo Cereal: 1 serve = 8.1g of sugar
Seasons Ice Lemon Tea: 1 bottle = 23g of sugar
Seeing how insidiously sugar has been hidden in everyday food items gave me motivation to continue.
It got better
The second week in I started to see some progress, my skin was noticeable brighter – too much sugar apparently causes a process called glycation which damages collagen and elastin – and I didn’t have any PMS pimples. My mood was noticeably more stable, which made me think how erratic I must have been during the years where I started the day with a double Kopi C, I also noticed I wasn’t experiencing any post meal energy slumps and when I did, I had some almonds and a coffee. More importantly, my chronic eczema had calmed down, the spots on my feet were no longer swollen or bleeding, and my lifelong habit of scratching my face stopped.
Curious to see how I would progress after a month, I trudged on.
I lost weight
By week three I saw the scales move. By then I’d dropped about 1.5 kg even though I’d not really been exercising. Another plus I noticed was the improvement to my sinusitis. I wasn’t sneezing and blowing my nose all day and because of that I was also snoring less – at least that’s what my partner said.
This week also presented an unavoidable social commitment, my mother’s 70th birthday lunch. I made sure to inform her about my diet so she wouldn’t be confused when I refused my favourite char siew. To avoid showing up hungry, I also ate a small steak before going to lunch and comforted myself with the fact that I could eat more crispy roast pork even though I would only be able to smell the egg tarts. It helped that my partner was there with me for moral support and my relatives were more curious than nosey about the diet, a few even commented that I was looking healthier. By this week, I also allowed myself to have a bottle of Coke Zero as a treat. That first taste of “sugar” was honestly bliss. Even though what I was consuming was artificial sugars (aspartame and acesulfame K), which also shouldn’t be consumed in excess.
The routine got comfortable
Moving into week four, it was starting to feel normal to have predictable meals. It was also deadline week and frankly, not debating what to eat saved us both a lot of time. By this stage neither of us felt any mental side effects, which also dispelled an assumption I’d previously held that I needed sugar to think. Our energy levels were lifted by our by-now regular exercise and both of us felt more rested every morning.
After four weeks, the diet came to an end rather unceremoniously. On the weekend, we both decided not to stock up on steak and to start introducing carbs back slowly. We started first by consuming some sweeter vegetables and fruits (e.g. carrots, mango, cherries) and with each introduction, we took note of any adverse reactions.
Our tastebuds have changed for good
My first taste of carbs (we shared a pizza) wasn’t as heavenly as I thought it would be. In fact we both left feeling like we ate too much. I did go in search of bak kwa and while it tasted amazing, I noticed how much sweeter it tasted now. Surprisingly I didn’t immediately down a glass of wine immediately, but when I did a few weeks later, three sips saw me all flushed and a bit tipsy (it used to take me three glasses to feel this way). My favourite lunch of nasi padang strangely tasted too greasy and sugary. While my soul was overjoyed to have its soul food again, by taste buds and queasy stomach post-meal said otherwise.
Ultimately, while the month wasn’t easy, it was worth it. I lost 3kg and was at my lowest weight ever (68kg), I had less of a stomach paunch and my body wasn’t holding onto water like it normally did. My skin had improved and my eczema and sinusitis were the best it’d ever been, which really was the biggest benefit for me. Mentally, I also felt really proud of my achievement and it gave me more confidence that if I ever needed to give my body a reboot again, this would be one avenue to explore.
Months on, I still see the benefits. Was it sustainable? I’m on the fence about this as it wasn’t always easy to cook or pack every meal or make plans that catered to the diet. Regardless, it’s permanently altered the way I look at food. Going the low-sugar route helped me see the benefits of choosing more whole fresh foods and to be mindful about my sugar intake, which I really did need to monitor. It may not be fun to be that person who says no to a slice of cake but really, knowing what I know now, I’ll rather be judged than to compromise my health, and for what? A cheap sugar rush? No thank you, I’ll get my kicks elsewhere.
This story was first published on Shape.