More energy. Changed taste buds. Better sleep.
After a month without sugar, the (completely unscientific yet very compelling) anecdotal evidence is in from some of the more than 3,000 folks — myself included — who tackled the Star Tribune’s 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge.
Overwhelmingly, challengers said they found that going for a month without added sugar (no cookies, no cake, no fructose-laden sauces) made them feel better. Even if, like Maple Grove participant Tim Deets, they’re “not claiming perfection.”
“I think my energy level is more balanced over the day,” he said. “I have not seemed to get the midafternoon crash.”
But the benefits of reducing added sugar can go beyond energy.
Researchers have found that cutting out added sugars can boost metabolic health and reduce the stress that consuming the sweet stuff puts on organs including the pancreas and liver, according to a scientific review by SugarScience, a site run by health scientists at the University of California, San Francisco.
Studies by University College London researchers and others have also found that accountability is a powerful motivator, something that the members of our closed Facebook group demonstrated as they supported one another, banding together to figure out how to get through tough moments and stay positive. A look at data from the monthlong, very active group showed that the posts that garnered the most comments were often ones from folks seeking help or in need of encouragement.
All told, the group created more than 23,000 posts, comments and reactions — from recipes for cheese-stuffed dates to suggestions of mayonnaise brands without added sugars. Some were thrilled to discover that sugar-free peanut butter tasted so good. Others found that many of the packaged breads made without added sugars tasted like “cardboard.”
Throughout February, many participants reported — in the Facebook group, in e-mails and even phone calls — that they were sleeping better, and that troubles such as inflammation, night sweats and aches and pains lessened as the month went on.
“My arthritic aches and pains have greatly diminished,” said Kathy Obler of St. Paul. “After a couple of sugarless weeks I can hardly believe these are my knees!”
“The mental fog that went with the roller-coaster quest for sugar is gone,” she said. “Now the overly sweet treats I loved have lost their appeal.”
Not everyone noticed physical changes. Many reported simply feeling positive about being more in-the-know about what they were eating and drinking.
“I found it eye-opening. Added sugar is in what I considered to be pretty healthy food,” said Paula Doll-Wildenberg of St. Paul. Being part of the challenge taught her to be a “better consumer by reading labels more carefully.”
Mary Hanson-Busch of New Prague said she was shocked to learn how much added sugar she had been regularly consuming.
“I don’t drink pop, so that was easy, but smoothies and blended coffee drinks were frequent purchases for me,” she said. “I feel like I can continue to pass on products that have added sugar or other sugar substitutes and hope it leads to better food choices overall.”
And like Wynn Martin, many in the challenge found they actually enjoyed eating more vegetables and fruit and less processed and packaged foods.
“It was a good change in our house,” said Martin, who lives in Minneapolis.
This was what I ended up liking most about the challenge, too — the fresh foods we added to our shopping list. Cucumber slices instead of crackers. Fresh pineapple and mango instead of blondies and brownies, with no whining from our kids.
We also managed to (mostly) wean our youngest off ketchup, although some of this effort was undone when, out to eat as a family, she saw that red bottle on the table before we did. (My efforts at a homemade, date-sweetened ketchup were completely rejected, as were date and cocoa “brownie” bites.)
When the Star Tribune decided to host this challenge, our hope was that we’d learn about the added sugar in packaged foods, sauces and condiments, which would spur us to create new, healthy habits to keep sugar consumption more in line with current recommended limits.
Weight loss wasn’t one of the goals, but we did hear about it from lots of folks taking part. Many said they dropped a few pounds (this was true for me), while some said the scale didn’t change at all. Others, like Hanson-Busch, said they lost a dozen pounds or more.
Some of the most inspiring feedback we’ve received has been from those who are newly empowered to permanently take charge of how and when added sugar makes its way onto their plate.
“I have always been pretty conscientious about what I eat, but have never avoided sugars like this. It has been eye-opening,” said Mary Swanson Senneka.
“The challenge has made me more deliberate about what I eat. I will go back to eating sugars. I love a piece of dark chocolate now and then or a cookie or ice cream. But I think that I now want to be able to decide when I consume sugar — my choice on the chocolate, not a manufacturer deciding to put it in soup.”