This month my daily health challenge is to not eat any added sugar. Foods with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit and plain yogurt, are okay but nothing with sugar, honey, maple syrup, or even Stevia or sugar alcohols (a newer sweetener common in protein bars and all those high-protein ice creams). I knew that would eliminate a lot of foods but I was surprised by just how many! In the week before the challenge started, as I started reading food labels in earnest, it was disheartening to realize sugar is in e v e r y t h i n g. Salad dressings. Crackers. Even my tea/coffee creamer which is just a plain soy creamer was hiding one gram of added sugar/serving (why??).
So far I've been doing well not eating added sugar. However, I did take one planned skip day on Valentine's Day. Chris planned a date for us including dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, The Uprooted Kitchen, which had a special set menu for the occasion. So that night I ate dessert (a lemon olive oil cake with cashew cream frosting and lemon curd – yum) but didn't otherwise eat added sugar that day. Honestly the challenge hasn't felt very hard although one night I dreamed that I was buying six huge cookies! Ha! The subconscious reveals its secrets. Cookie dreams aside I'm more than half-way through this challenge and feeling good.
An important factor in my success so far is that we already eat a very healthy and intentional diet. I've been reading nutrition labels and looking at sugar content for years. Chris, as a nutrition professor, is a fount of health knowledge and we love discussing food, ingredients, and health behaviors. So for me jumping on a diet of no added sugar is very different, and I am sure much easier, than someone eating a typical American diet. Still, even with my knowledge around food I spent time getting prepared for this challenge. In January I started thinking about the upcoming challenge and read labels more closely to discover hidden added sugar. Because of this I knew ahead of time which go-to foods I would need to skip and thought about alternatives.
A few of the modifications I am making and foods I'm eating this month include...
+ On my way to Orange Theory two mornings per week I usually eat about 1/4 cup of Trader Joe's High Fiber O's cereal. The cereal has less sugar than many cereals but still has 9 grams of sugar/serving. Instead, I'm eating half a banana as I drive to class.
+ After a workout I like to have a protein smoothie when I get home. A few months ago we switched from a flavored, sweetened whey protein to an unflavored, unsweetened one purchased in bulk at Sprouts. My post-workout smoothie usually includes: frozen banana, 1/4 cup whey protein, frozen blueberries, frozen chopped spinach, 1 - 2 tablespoons peanut butter, and almond milk.
+ As mentioned, my plain soy tea/coffee creamer has some added sugar. Our unsweetened vanilla almond milk was a thin and unsatisfying substitute. Then I discovered Nutpods creamer at Sprouts which is dairy and sugar/sweetener-free. I like the thickness and am enjoying the French vanilla flavor. I'd love to try some of their seasonal flavors when available (hello, peppermint mocha).
+ A breakfast that I am loving is quick-cook steel cut oats, cooked on the stove, with Earth Balance spread and dried unsweetened cherries stirred in, and a dash of cinnamon on top.
+ Another breakfast option is homemade granola. I worked from this recipe and added about one-third of a cup of peanut butter, thinned with water, to the oats mix. I had hoped it would make it stick together but it didn't. To the cooked oats I add dried cherries, toasted coconut, and toasted cashews. I eat it with plain yogurt. It's definitely very plain compared to traditional granola but when I eat it with yogurt I don't miss the sweetness.
+ A couple of scrambled eggs with shredded cheese, sliced avocado, and salsa wrapped in a low-carb tortilla (Chris likes to have these on hand) is satisfying.
+ We make pancakes on Sunday mornings and often used Kodiak pancake mix. It has added sugar! So instead I returned to our favorite recipe and skipped the brown sugar. On top of my pancakes I have Earth Balance spread and plain yogurt.
+ During the week I was often eating half of a bag salad kit from Trader Joe's for lunch but the dressing has added sugar. Instead, I wash and chop lettuce on the weekend and make sure to have toppings on hand to make my own salads. I love romaine + diced red pepper + feta + spicy cubed tofu (skipping the sugar in the recipe) or half a can of tuna + avocado + toasted walnuts. For dressing I make a jar of my own using Molly Wizenburg's recipe from her book A Homemade Life (3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 6 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon spicy mustard, 1 teaspoon salt). I used to make my own salads all the time when I was working full time and I'm remembering that I make great salads.
+ A quick, high-protein lunch is a hard boiled egg, a cheese stick, and a few slices of Tofurky deli slices.
+ I haven't felt like there have been too many dinner modifications. I did realize that our favorite Trader Joe's meatless meatballs have some added sugar so I skipped those on spaghetti night (and made sure to make my own sauce). Ketchup, our favorite sweet and spicy jalapeno slices, and dill pickle slices are often dinner additions but are out for month. I miss them but am also fine without them.
+ My homemade granola + plain yogurt
+ Trader Joe's Crispbread seedy crackers + cheese
+ Peanut butter banana muffins with sweetener omitted + schmear of plain cream cheese (it's probably the no added sugar talking but these taste like cupcakes with frosting to me)
+ Peanut butter and banana (so delicious, so filling)
+ An unsweetened version of our go-to energy chunks. To get the consistency right (the syrup helps hold it together) we added some chia seeds mixed with water. Plus some unsweetened coconut flakes and some unflavored whey protein powder. For a batch this week we omitted the chia seeds but used dates which are stickier. Usually the boys devour our energy chunks but they haven't been into these. But I am thinking we could cut down the maple syrup in our usually recipe and maybe they'd still like them (or eventually come around).
The hardest part about the challenge is eating out or at someone else's house. We don't eat out often but on the occasions I have I think ahead of time about what I could order or even eat something ahead of time at home . That way I can order something small from the menu to be sure I choose something without added sugar. The same goes for eating at someone else's house which comes up when we have family gatherings.
Avoiding added sugars for a month is making me think a lot about how I want to eat when the challenge is over. I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying not eating added sugars. I also like how "no added sugar" is a simple rule that can guide a whole diet in a much healthier direction. I'm eating fewer breads, crackers, and carbs generally which is interesting. I would never eat a strictly low-carb diet (unless directed by a doctor) but reaching for carbs also often means reaching for added sugar. I like that by eating no added sugar I avoid the sugared carbs but can still enjoy carbs when I want them (like the peanut butter banana muffins I make, tortillas, and my recipe for quick biscuits all have no added sugar). Interestingly I've felt that I've been snacking less although I haven't been tracking my diet so I can't say for sure. I'm also not sure if I'm eating more or fewer calories overall. What I do know is that I feel really healthy and want to carry some of these eating habits into the future.