The book I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson (no link here due to selling of weight loss) debuted last year but appears to be finally gaining some real momentum in the blogosphere. I haven’t read the book but I did spend some time on Ms. Wilson’s website on which she shares her sugar-quitting origin story. Long story short: Ms. Wilson has Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid gland, and after she quit eating sugar (emphasis appears to be on fructose) her symptoms improved and she felt better. She also lost the weight she had gained with the onset of the disease (weight gain is a common symptom of Hashimoto’s). She then wrote a book about it inviting others to take her 8-week challenge to quit sugar to “lose weight; boost energy; and improve your looks, mood, and overall health” according to the Amazon description.
If Ms. Wilson’s condition improved because of changes she made in her diet, I think that is awesome. Perhaps this information could also help others with similar problems, although I don’t believe there is much reliable evidence at this time to show how completely eliminating sugar from one’s diet vastly improves various diseases or conditions (in fact we’ve found that even diabetics can incorporate some sugar into their diets while still maintaining good blood sugar control). I am aware, however, that people are highly individual and that some dietary changes will work for some and not for others. Often it is a matter of experimentation on the part of the individual to find out what works best.
What bothers me about this sugar-quitting trend is the emphasis on weight loss. In fact, the short Amazon blurb refers to weight or weight loss no less than three times. So is this diet about feeling better or getting thinner? Those two things don’t always run hand-in-hand. While I’ll never deny that quitting sugar could make some people feel better, its chances of producing long-term weight loss are no better than any other diet – 5% of people will succeed, 95% will fail. There is no evidence that it will do better than this for long-term results.
All of this reminds me of the time I quit sugar. Twenty years ago I had just moved to a big city and worked at a small company that had no problems abusing my time and good work ethic, and I frequently worked 10-12 hours a day. I was living in my aunt and uncle’s basement temporarily and I wasn’t cooking as much as I normally did so I wouldn’t disturb them. More than once I remember eating three cookies for dinner before passing out early for bed. In general I was super-stressed and tired and my diet was lacking. After a few months of this, I started to develop a few unpleasant symptoms that, after numerous visits to the doctor, seemed to have no apparent medical cause.
I turned to alternative medicine to find relief. Based on some books I read, I thought eliminating the sugar in my diet was worth a try. I managed it easily for about a month. I also tried to limit refined grains. Some of my symptoms improved. Some of them lingered longer but eventually went away after a few months. And yes, I inadvertently lost 5 pounds.
Other things changed too. I got faster at my job and didn’t have to spend quite so many hours there. I got my own apartment and cooked for myself more often. I relaxed more. I made more friends and had more fun. Six months later, my original symptoms resolved (and I gained the 5 pounds back). Despite the fact that I was no longer restricting sugar as much, I was convinced sugar had been responsible for my symptoms. And I was secretly thrilled I’d found another way to tip the scales in the downward direction if needed.
Unfortunately, a by-product of eliminating sugar was an intense desire for sweets whenever they were available. In the initial sugar-quitting stages I did not crave sugar at all, but within a month or so, if a sugary treat showed up in my office (as it often did), you can bet I wanted as much of that thing as I could get. Avoiding sugar became a full-time job of fighting my cravings. Because you know what? I like sugar! Maybe not all the time…but yeah, once in a while a well-placed Oreo cookie hits the spot. Eliminating sugar was my first real foray into restricting specific foods, and it would only get worse from there.
I’ve never been able to completely eliminate sugar (or any other food group) for more than a month at a time and luckily I’ve never had to for medical reasons (during my darkest dieting days, I sometimes turned to quitting sugar short term to lose weight). Years later I’ve discovered that those unpleasant symptoms arise when I am – surprise! – really stressed out and exhausted. It turns out I needed more than just a diet intervention – I needed a whole lifestyle intervention! I no longer eliminate any foods, and because of this I don’t overeat on any type of food. I aim for a diet balanced between healthy and pleasurable. I’m under no illusion that sugar is a health food – I am a dietitian after all – but completely eliminating foods I enjoy was not a sustainable action for me in the absence of serious health problems and ultimately lead to worse eating behaviors.
I tell this story to illustrate a point: Sometimes diet interventions help improve health issues. Sometimes focusing on food masks deeper problems. Sometimes eliminating foods results in an inadvertent weight loss (and usually that weight comes back). Of course I’m going to say it: sometimes food elimination ends up being just another diet to lose weight intentionally. And we know about the effectiveness of weight loss diets.
I hope for anyone with a medical problem or health issue that your experimentation with food elimination is fruitful and brings relief. For the rest of us just thinking about weight loss, stop and ask yourself if food elimination is a practical, sustainable model for you and know that one more disguised diet might not bring you any closer to your dream weight or to a healthy relationship with eating.
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