I grew up on Hamburger Helper, tater tots, and fruit cocktail in a can … but I have no regrets about my upbringing. It’s what our family could afford, and we were always well-fed. Plus, the comfort foods were a welcome crutch for all of the emotional issues I had in childhood. Still, sweets have particularly been a big part of my life since the beginning — so much so that over the years, I developed a borderline sugar addiction.
Now I’m a mom in my 40s, I know the way I feel physically translates straight into parenthood. When I’m sluggish and tired with a clouded brain, I just don’t try as hard. I mean, let’s face it: Motherhood is challenging enough on its own without starting the day physically feeling like crap on top of everything else.
So a month ago, I decided I was tired of feeling like said crap — I wanted to get healthier and I was willing to do something big to get there.
Enter, the Whole30. I’d heard about it before, and after doing more research, I figured it was probably the best place for me to start. It’s basically a 30-day reset to get your body back to its original factory settings (so to speak.) And to do so, that means cutting sugar entirely. Yep — as in zero. sugar.
It felt drastic and mind-boggling and crazy at first. I thought I’d feel overwhelmingly deprived and die after being subjected to a 30-day prison sentence of only water, celery, and carrots. But spoiler alert: I ate hearty, filling foods and did better than I thought I would.
Now that I’ve made it to the end of the program, I’m proud to say I’m enjoying the following benefits:
- 12 pounds lost.
- 2 clothing sizes lost.
- Elevated moods.
- Great energy throughout the day.
- Better mental clarity.
- Reduced anxiety.
- No more snacking all day or strong sugar cravings.
- Down to 1 cup of coffee in the morning, but it’s no longer a necessity (gasp! I know).
- Whiter teeth.
- Big reduction in puffiness and appearance of varicose veins.
- No more morning aches or stiffness in my hands.
- Smooth digestion, far less inflammation.
- Restful sleep.
- Much better confidence.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy at first — and it was WORK — but I wound up finding plenty of things to eat that kept me satisfied despite having to go without sugar, alcohol, dairy, bread, legumes, and processed foods for 30 days. (Yes, really.)
Here are six things I learned while kicking the sugar habit for one whole month.
1. Sugar withdrawals are no joke.
My body was used to a steady stream of sugary treats, and I had two whole days worth of a bad headache. I started it on a weekend when my husband was home, because I knew this would probably be the case. And let me tell you: It was no fun.
In hindsight, I should have weaned myself off of sugar a week or two before, perhaps eating half the usual amount one week and then another half after that. But I knew I would probably lose enthusiasm for starting the program altogether and I wanted results — fast.
After the first two days, I felt better, though not 100 percent. I made a list of projects I could do around the house to keep my mind occupied with something other than delicious sugary treats, and I’m so glad I did. That first week alone, I cleaned out several bins of my kids’ school work from years’ past and I organized my bedroom closet and two junk drawers. It helped me pass the time between meals, and kept my mind off of daydreaming about candy.
2. How I feel physically affects my parenting.
Take it from me: Feeling like crap carries over into other areas of your life without you even realizing it. With my old eating habits, I got shorter on patience and grouchier by the day. I was also less confident and less enthusiastic about pretty much everything, but especially when it came to how I parent.
It was a slow start, but on the fourth and fifth days after eliminating sugar and eating whole foods, I really started feeling good. My moods were a lot better and I was noticeably calmer. I was more loving towards my kids, and I felt like I had better mental clarity overall. I wasn’t as irritated with on-the-spot parenting decisions. I took my time to think through an argument between the kids versus just yelling. (I’m not saying I’m never going to yell at them again, but I certainly felt a marked difference in my anxiety and stress levels.)
3. Sugar is lurking everywhere — even in places you wouldn’t expect.
Before my first grocery trip, I started going through the food I already had at home. I was honestly floored to see sugar listed in the nutrition information on things as basic as a can of green beans and even carrots.
There’s also a ton of sugar in ketchup, which is easy to forget; and I was surprised to see 11 grams of sugar in just one cup of the whole milk I usually buy.
I didn’t scrap all of these items for the whole family, since I was the only one on the meal plan, but I’m now a lot more aware of what I’m buying — and putting into my body.
3. It’s worth trying new things.
My Hamburger Helper childhood was warm and comfortable, but I didn’t learn a lot in the way of cooking much outside from what we usually ate. To me, cooking with fresh herbs and spices was only for those fancy-pants chefs on TV. So to say there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to not killing my fresh herbs, might be an understatement:
But I eventually learned the difference between cilantro and parsley, and I’ve made several new recipes with fresh ingredients since. One of my favorites was a foil-packet salmon meal with fresh lemon slices, capers and olive oil.
I also made a slamming sweet potato soup with ginger and coconut milk that I really loved to go along with a tuna salad.
Not all recipe attempts faired as well, however. I tried to make my favorite chicken marsala recipe by substituting coconut flour for regular white flour to dredge the chicken, and it was a total disaster, to put it lightly.
It gummed up really bad and ruined the taste of the sautéed mushrooms. I should have known better, but alas, I did not …
But even for the few recipes that flopped, I loved the other new stuff I tried, and it was worth learning what the heck to do with new ingredients. My advice: Be careful not to try too many new ingredients at once, so you avoid overwhelming your psyche (and your budget).
4. You can decide that the way you feel is more important than what’s “easy.”
There is so much temptation out there to deal with, it’s no wonder we all cave to consuming way more sugar than we ought to. I know we all say “moderation is key,” but it’s sure hard to put that into practice when there’s a Snickers bar staring you right in the face.
When I was cleaning out one of the junk drawers, I immediately found some candy inside. My mouth started to water right away, but I refrained. At first I thought, “Oh man, no one will know, it’s just a few little pieces of candy!” But I knew I would know, and I wanted to make it through 30 days no matter what, just to prove to myself that I could. So I didn’t eat it. I threw it across the room, cleaned out the rest of the drawer, and then I put it away in another cabinet later.
One of the things I’m most proud of after this entire experience is that I’ve finally come to this realization: The way I feel physically is way more important than what’s easy and right in front of me. Sure, it may be easier to order a cheap fast-food meal with the kids, but I know my health, my moods, and my energy will pay for it later. And so will theirs.
The key is remembering this: You can still enjoy treats, but you have the power to choose what, how much and when.
5. It made me hyper-aware of what I’m feeding my kids.
It’s mostly business as usual when it comes to feeding my kids, but I did make a few important changes. We had a box of the yogurt-granola and sweetened-flakes kind of cereal in the pantry that the kids love. Instead of switching it out completely, I mix it about half and half with plain old boring corn flakes, so they’re still getting a treat, but it’s way less of a sugar rush. I’m hoping their teachers at school thank me!
Also: a diced strawberry, palmful of blueberries, or diced banana really does dress up a boring bowl of plain-old Corn Flakes, Rice Chex, Rice Crispies, or Toasted Oats.
These days, I pay way more attention to labels at the grocery store. Plus, I let my kids try the new foods I’m making and talk about why I want to change up what I’m eating.
To my surprise, they really like eating roasted sweet potatoes, avocado, and macadamia nuts. They weren’t fans of the salmon or spinach greens I made, but my husband has also liked the new stuff. (Except for the coconut chicken marsala disaster, but I’ll give him that one.) Still, we’re all a little healthier overall.
6. I might want obvious sugar, but I don’t need it.
After 30 days without sugar and eating whole foods, I’ve learned that even though my taste buds might really want sugar, my body doesn’t actually need it and the cravings will pass. I know my overindulgence in sugar had a lot to do with my moods and energy levels, and it feels good to have finally tamed that beast.
Don’t get me wrong, I still eat all sorts of natural sugars commonly found in fruit, and even the sweet taste in regular sweet potatoes. And I still enjoy life — I’m not going to eliminate added sugars from my diet forever. But life sure feels a lot more vibrant now with some newfound awareness and the power of choice (… and a little less Hamburger Helper).