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Sugar, the Devil in the Agave-Coated Dress

30 January 2011 29 Comments

So I did it! Thank you to Katie for getting me to do a 10-day Sugar-Free Challenge and to those of you who joined in! If you joined in, comment and let us know how it went for you. If you are still sugar-free, give us an update, and if you have trialed sugar-free before (or are still doing it!), I would love to hear if it benefited you.

I have to say, the results were far and above what I expected. I am excited to share them with you today …

But first, I want to address my own definition of sugar-free, because I think this is important. A lot of what I see as “sugar-free” on the Internet is more specifically “refined sugar-free.” That is, many people define sugar-free as merely not containing processed white and brown sugars … but agave nectar is okay, and many times all other unrefined sweeteners are considered okay (maple syrup, sucanat, etc.). But, I’ve never been okay with this definition. To me, sugar-free means no added sweeteners. I concurred with Katie that stevia (particularly since used in such amazingly small amounts) does not have the same impact on blood sugar, but we agreed that all of the other “natural sweeteners” still have a strong impact on insulin.

So for ten days, I cut out all added sweeteners (natural or otherwise) with the exception of using a wee bit of stevia to make these sweet treats for my afternoon cravings.

Here were my goals:

  • Cut my sweets cravings so that I’m no longer grabbing chocolate chips to snack on in the a.m. and no longer feel the need to have a sweet after every single meal.
  • Go back to my old ways, where one or two cookies was enough to satiate (my sweet tooth had grown to want four or five of those homemade cookies in a day).

Here were the results for my goals:

  • It took about three days for my chocolate cravings to vanish, which I was grateful for. I actually used to dislike chocolate, but over the past few years I acquired a taste for it, and now find I was going overboard with snacking on it. Not a single chocolate chip has crossed my lips, even two days after the challenge has ended!
  • It took about seven days (yep, a full week) for my “sweets after every meal” craving to vanish, but it did. I admit, I think that one was helped along when I made those sugar-free treats. But, I still only had a few of those (they were small, fudge-piece sized) in the afternoon each day, and if I had a sweet after dinner, it was fruit.

Here were the ADDITIONAL results:

  • Men, look away. For the past ten+ years I have had those dreaded monthly cramps – just for one day each month mind you, so I shouldn’t complain too much, but in the past few months they were getting worse and worse. They vanished. I kid you not. The day hit, the day where I expected to be in some miserable pain, and nada. Not only did the cramps stop getting worse, they completely disappeared. Never in a million years would I have thought that something as simple as sugar could beย instigating them.
  • Okay men, you can join in again. Here was another big surprise, my sleep improved. I slept more soundly and woke up more refreshed. This benefit kicked in around day 5, and lasted during the rest of the challenge. But when I had to return to testing some cookbooks and product reviews on day 11 (post challenge), even though I only used natural sweeteners (and not a ton of them), my sleep immediately became less restful. Yes, sugar-free benefits were gone just by adding “natural sweeteners” to my diet (sorry!)
  • Finally, my workout performance improved. I was getting some dizzy spells when working out prior, but not during the sugar-free week.ย  I was strong during my workouts, lifted quite a bit more, did more pull-ups and push-ups, and recovered faster. Though I upped my weights, my muscles weren’t as sore as they normally would be. Nice.

Now here is my dilemma. I really did get over the cravings, and would actually love to continue with sugar-free living … without being too overly-strict about it of course. I had a touch of incidental sweetener in a couple of meals … no big deal. The small amounts in a savory meal seemed to balance out, not causing any cravings or side effects to return. I’m also a believer in honey … but again, in small amounts. And, my test showed that fruit is no problem. My body actually loved fruit and I never once felt an insulin jolt from it.

But, with cookbook testing, product reviews, and recipe creation, I know I can’t yet goย long term with that sugar-free challenge. Okay, I can, it is my choice, but I’m not ready. However, I will continue to reduce sugar’s hold, and who knows, maybe you will see a dairy-free AND sugar-free cookbook from me in the near future! I can at least guarantee that my next book/cookbook will be lower on the sugar-spectrum.

So what are your thoughts on sugar and sweeteners?


  • Sara said:

    Awesome, congrats!! I’m on Day 13 and you know I too had no cramps this month from my “visitor” and I didn’t even think about this being related but now I’m reaaaally wondering! I’ve also been sleeping like a rock, but that’s not terribly different than normal ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Danielle said:

    Congratulations! I also sleep much better and just feel healthier overall when the sugar is kept at a minimum in my diet. It only takes a few sweets before I feel uncontrollable sugar cravings again. I would LOVE to see a sugar-free and dairy-free cookbook in the future. It seems like 3/4 of the great dairy-free recipes are for sugary desserts and the Lord knows I don’t need more temptations to bake dessert. Best of luck finding a good balance for your lifestyle!

  • alisa (author) said:

    That is awesome Sara! That would be so interesting if there were such a simple link as cramps to sugar. Wow … revolutionary breakthrough ๐Ÿ™‚

    You are so inspiring! I wanted to keep going with you, but some product reviews were backing up that have sugar. I’m thinking of joining you again though with the sugar-free thing soon!

  • alisa (author) said:

    I’m with you Danielle. Every time I open up a dairy-free or vegan cookbook, it seems like the focus is on dessert! I’ll have to work on that.

    Yes, it doesn’t take much to bring those cravings back, does it?

  • Katie said:

    My sleeping patterns (i.e. waking up at least once a night) didn’t chnage, but the 10 days were super stressful, and I am sure that had a huge part in that. Actually, now that I think about it, I was usually waking a few times a night and lately its down to once, which is a huge improvement for me!

    Also, I noticed I was craving savory nighttime snacks. I always snack on something before bed and before it was always cookies or homemade pudding or something. The last few nights I’ve been eating veggies and hummus or rice cakes with savory dips. Interesting. I wouldn’t have even thought of this without reading your post.

    I’m ready to start again!

  • alisa (author) said:

    Hmm, maybe, just maybe it is helping your sleep then? Let’s hope!
    Can’t wait to read your sugar-free wrap up. Give me a couple weeks to do these reviews and I’ll take you on in a second challenge! We should have a competition with the challenge … like who can make the best sugar-free cookies ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Rachel (tea and chocolate) said:

    Congrats on finishing the challenge! I did a sugar-free challenge back in September mostly to get my cravings under control. I didn’t necessarily sleep or exercise better, but my “need” for sugar dropped significantly. Now a couple of cookies or some chocolate satiates me just fine.

    Also I definitely agree with you on the natural sweeteners like agave or honey being sugar as well. I don’t understand what else they would be!

  • alisa (author) said:

    Thanks Rachel! Good to know that the benefits have lasted so long! I wasn’t sure if I might eat a sweet and be right back where I started, but sounds like your cravings have stayed low.

  • Christin@purplebirdblog said:

    Congratulations on your successful sugar-free time! I have cut sugars down drastically in my diet, and a little maple syrup or honey can go a long way when I want to use them. I love me some stevia and use that often. I am just getting brave enough to bake with stevia, and I’m looking forward to experimenting!

  • Deanna said:

    Congrats on making it through the 10 days! My feeling is that the less sugar the better. Though, clearly, I love to indulge in some healthier, more naturally sweetened items from time to time.

    Oh, and as for recipe testing, small children, significant others, neighbors, friends, and coworkers all like it when you pass the goodies along to them. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Tanya said:

    Wow….I might have to do that. I have a question….can you still have dried fruit that doesn’t have added sugar? Or is all sugar out? No fruit? No dates? Like Larabars, for instance that have dates for sweetener. I guess it’s “added” so you couldn’t have it?? But if I ate a date alone, is that bad?

  • alisa (author) said:

    Tanya, totally up to you, but I allowed fruit (including some dates) and it worked well with my body. I don’t see any problem with the sugars from fruit since they are part of a whole food. They didn’t seem to spike my blood sugar at all … at least that I noticed. I had a about 3 servings of fruit each day, and a few of the days noshed on a date when I felt like candy. It seemed to work ๐Ÿ™‚

    I am reading The Paleo Diet Book by Cordain, and he says no go on dried fruit (concentrated I guess?), and I didn’t have any, but I don’t think a little is a big deal. Again, it is still a whole food, just without the moisture. Maybe have it with some water, tehe.

  • alisa (author) said:

    Katie at Making Food and Other Stuff bakes a lot with stevia. I’m trying to remember her new rule though. It works well with certain baked goods, but not with others (I think she said no go on cookies?).

  • alisa (author) said:

    Thanks Deanna! You are actually the one I always find when I’m looking for healthier treats. Yes, I just need more neighbors to share with (no one lives around here!) – can’t wait to move.

  • Alta said:

    Great job. I too feel a lot better without it, but I’m not ready to give it up either. WhAt a dilemma, huh? Cause once you start, its so easy to want more.

  • Shirley @ gfe said:

    What incredible results, Alisa! I believe them. Sugar causes so much inflammation. It’s even considered a big player in heart disease per the info in the book, Sugar Shock, and elsewhere. I tend to call recipes that are refined sugar free, sugar free, too, because many eat that way. However, when I first went gf, I went df, and true sf as you’ve defined it. It was really amazing how great I felt. Those aches and pains of all kinds sure did go away and the stomach flattened, weight was lost, etc. Very inspiring post, dear. It just so happens I haven’t had ANY sugar (by any definition today) and that felt pretty good. Maybe tomorrow will be Day 2?


  • Shannon said:

    oh man, i am very much in the camp of needing sweets after every meal and one not being enough to satisfy… need to kick this, and quick! i feel like when i get to a better place the occasional sweet won’t throw me off. But yeah, when I want to bake, that’s where I have the problem… tasting the batter, then the result… even the promise of bringing them to work or a party isn’t enough for me to stop testing right now ๐Ÿ™

  • alisa (author) said:

    I’ve never heard of Sugar Shock – thanks for the recommendation Shirley! You are always an inspiration, and it so doesn’t surprise me that you went for it with the healthy free-from route. Wow, no sugar just by coincidence? Hmmm … sounds like you don’t need a challenge!

  • alisa (author) said:

    I hear you Shannon! Believe me … I think taking a break helped me a ton in terms of cutting cravings (and not licking the batter! Definitely guilty of that one A LOT in the past), but continuing on with sugar-free seems tricky.

  • Sarena (The Non-Dairy Queen) said:

    Isn’t it funny how we start to crave things like that? I am glad you got over the crazy stuff and saw improvements. I don’t really do a lot of sugar and I definitely use stevia as a sweetener. I think everything is good in moderation, so I don’t have a problem with sugar all together. I like food challenges, especially when you see an improvement! Great Job!

  • Ricki said:

    Congrats, Alisa, and I’m so glad it worked out this well for you! Keep at it–yay! I have to admit that even now (yep, almost 2 years into it), I still crave sweets. Gah! But it is getting better. Today I actually also craved greens! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I agree that blogging/food testing can be a dilemma, but it IS possible not to taste, or to taste only a teeny tiny teensy weensy amount. Difficult, though.

  • Sugar free – week 2 « Among the Tortillas said:

    […] of how they can basically bring me to my knees. I hadn’t thought about it being related, but Alisa mentioned it on her blog and it got me wondering. We’ll see what happens next month, though I […]

  • Mali K (The Mali K Whey) said:

    Oh my, the fact that your mentrual cramps disappeared is enough to make me want to cut out sugar right now!

  • Marie-Eve said:

    congratulations!!! it is not easy to avoid sugar, but very rewarding!

    One of the reasons we crave sugar after a meal is that most people eat food that is highly Yang. Too much meat will cause that. I suggest having more Ying foods with your main meal and this will make your meal more balanced, so you won’t try balancing it out with sugar afterwards.

    A few tips… eggs, meat, cheese and salt are very Yang. Alcohol, sugar, oil, spices, caffeine, tropical vegetables and fruits, refined foods and most food additives of a chemical nature are very Ying.

    Trying to balance your meals should give you what you need and eventually reduce cravings for highly Ying desserts or coffees…!

    going sweetener-free and dairy-free is the best gift you can give to your body.

  • Rachel said:

    Your story is really interesting. When I quit sugar, within a month I had reduced cramps and reduced inflammatory bowel disease symptoms. The next month both of those were gone entirely. I have always been a good sleeper so I didn’t experience better sleep, but I do find the afternoon slump is gone, and when I travel I no longer feel exhausted.

    However the most important effect, and the reason I decided to quit sugar, was on my mood. One or two days a month I would get SO depressed and scared. That got a lot better and eventually went away entirely as well.

    All of these symptoms come back when I have sugar. I don’t like artificial sweeteners and I don’t trust agave nectar or stevia, I allow honey and maple syrup but in small quantities. It helps that they are more expensive than refined sugar. Things like “brown rice syrup” and “evaporated cane juice”, I don’t see how these are any different than HFCS or sugar. In fact as far as I can tell “evaporated cane juice” is just another way of saying “sugar”.

  • Anita said:

    So, would date syrup be considered ok since it is only fruit? Or would you classify that in with all the other sweeteners? I don’t think I can live without this (http://tiny.cc/g6iw5) date ice cream this weekend!

  • Eryn @ Pumpkin's Pantry said:

    I, too, have had a hard time defining recipes that don’t contain any sugars- natural or refined. Especially since fruit and pretty much everything contains some amount of sugar! Great post, and I have been any-sugars-but-dates/fruits-free for about 5 months now, which I NEVER thought would be possible for me. I do, however, have a freezer full of recipes I have tried with natural sugars just begging to be eaten ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Dairy Free and Fit » It’s Never Too Late said:

    […] Sugar, the Devil in the Agave Coated Dress […]

  • alisa (author) said:

    Anita, Sorry for my delay! I missed this comment. I think dates (whole form) would always be better than just the syrup, but it’s probably not as bad as other sugar forms!