We have all won this challenge — no matter how much added sugar passed through our lips this month.
The whole point of the Star Tribune’s 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge was to take stock, be more mindful of the amount of added sugar in the food we eat and learn about the current research and best recommendations on the health impacts of the sweet stuff.
It’s not a challenge that’s measured in numbers like pounds lost or gained, or even in Girl Scout Cookies avoided. More helpful markers would be in self-discoveries made, healthy habits formed, new foods tried.
Now, the question is how can we hold onto at least some of what we learned from the challenge once the calendar turns to March?
When added sugar creeps back into your life (and, of course, it will), it doesn’t need to bring a feeling of failure with it, said local trainer Leslie Branham. She suggests writing down one or two changes you made during the challenge that worked for you and made you feel good.
“You can intentionally just keep going with those things,” she said. “Keep those specific foods on the grocery list, keep making the same thing for breakfast, continue to pack your lunch the night before, or keep making a couple of your favorite recipes from the challenge.”
For me, this means hanging onto my sugar-free breakfast and 3 p.m. snack of fruit or nuts instead of a cookie.
As you keep collecting healthy habits, they can turn into your “new normal,” Branham said. “They don’t seem as hard or require any additional mental effort any longer. Then, guess what? You then have the mental energy to add more new ones!”
Building an arsenal of healthy habits is what she suggests we focus on, instead of trying to strictly follow a specific plan long-term. That way, an occasional indulgent night out or birthday party sugar-fest doesn’t mean a total slide back to unhealthy habits.
“It’s what you do every day that makes a difference,” she said. “It’s not what you do every once in a while.”
It can also be helpful to think about added sugar in terms of positive eating.
Whenever you can, substitute a healthier treat or meal for a not-so-great-for-you food that has lots of added sugar. Swap a banana and almonds for that doughnut. Or a couple soft-boiled eggs for the sugary flavored yogurt.
Every time you choose the healthier option, it’s a win.
Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health, suggests we head into March with two simple goals: focusing on the first meal of the day and trying to avoid sugary drinks.
“In the food category, cereals are mostly where these added sugars hide. If we pay attention to cereal and beverages, we would be probably tackling most of the source,” she said.
Malaeb is also a big proponent of the Mediterranean style of eating — which emphasizes healthy, plant-based fats, eating lots of vegetables and fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts, and choosing poultry and fish more often than red meat.
“That’s been shown to be a very healthy, very sustainable, enjoyable, palatable style of eating. Where people don’t feel like they are deprived or restricting,” she said.
If we take away nothing else, the challenge at least taught us more about foods and that appear to be healthy but actually have as much added sugar as a decadent dessert -- like flavored yogurts and many kinds of ketchup.
And remember: Sugar isn’t evil on its own — overconsuming it is the problem.
Doctors say naturally-occuring sugars in fruits, veggies and other foods can be good for us. But because added sugar is such a common ingredient in processed and packaged foods, it can be easy to have way too much sugar without realizing it.
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And if trying to go cold-turkey by not eating any added sugars this month didn’t work for you — or even felt like it backfired at times — that’s OK too.
Your personality may be better suited to trying to make gradual changes instead.
Dr. Donald Hensrud, who runs the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, said that a dramatic change can help some people feel empowered. Others are much better able to tackle making improvement in their diets one small increment at a time. If that’s you, it’s never too late for baby steps.
As we finish the month strong, I’d love to hear from you about what this challenge has meant for your health, how you’ve felt and what you’ve discovered.
Here are some of my takeways: A new love of muesli for breakfast, which keeps my energy much steadier than croissants. A renewed appreciation for the sweetness and natural flavor of so many whole foods, from the carrots in my soup to the steamed milk in my latte.
And kids that happily now see fruit as a treat. (My husband started calling dried fruit “Skittles” and it caught on.) Another victory? My kids are at least trying vegetables without dunking them in ketchup first.
I’ve appreciated the folks who have helped me along, like the kind Trader Joe’s cashier who showered our four-year-old with stickers because she was disappointed by the lack of sugary items in our grocery cart.
Most of all, I have loved connecting with so many of you — both in our awesome, supportive Facebook group (more than 2,800 members strong) and through your e-mails, where you shared recipes, asked lively questions and offered much-needed and much-appreciated words of support.