“Sugar is the next nicotine.”

Sugar is the next nicotine

A few weeks ago I listened to Dan Pink’s latest podcast, where he interviewed Tom Rath about his new book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. (You may know Rath as the author of StrengthsFinder 2.0.)

One line has rattled around in my head ever since: Sugar is the next nicotine. It’s enjoyable, addictive, and terrible for you, and a major cause of our country’s epidemic levels of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Rath told Pink that if he could make just one change to improve his diet, he would start with sugar.

Funny thing, I’ve been off sugar for 30 days now. Today is the last day of my Whole 30, and I’ve been thinking for weeks about what Day 31 will look like.

Regardless of whether or not sugar is actually responsible for our public health disaster, I do know that having a little sugar makes me crave more, and it’s all too easy for me to slide down the ramp from no sugar to just this once to a handful of chocolate chips twice a day. I’m not good at moderation

That’s the whole reason I’m doing the Whole 30. I let bad habits creep back in–moderation becomes indulgence, over time–and I need to hit the reset button.

Sugar is the next nicotine

This Whole 30 has been a breeze. My two downfalls are sugar and wine (another form of sugar, I would say), and since I haven’t been consuming them, I haven’t been craving them. They’re not in the house to tempt me. (I wasn’t able to quit Diet Coke until I quit keeping it around for guests.)

Since I began this Whole 30, I’ve been thinking through what I want my post-Whole 30 boundaries with sugar to look like. I love the idea of moderation, but I wonder if I’d be better off just quitting it completely.

I completely identify with Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts on the abstainer vs. moderator divide. She writes:

You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

Interestingly, Rubin says that those who are prone to decision fatigue often are better abstainers than moderators. That describes me perfectly, and I suspect it’s one of the reasons my Whole 30 was so easy this time. One set of decisions carried me through the whole month.

It sounds spartan, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels good. I feel good.

I’m also thinking about rules I could create for myself now to make these decisions easier later. For example, Chris Guillebeau uses the $10 rule when traveling to avoid insanity: he always pays $10 or less for something that will improve his life, without thinking too much about it. (Think: a parka when he’s caught in a downpour, a pricey sandwich when he’s starving in the airport.)

I could do the same for myself. Desserts could be okay on national holidays and my kids’ birthdays. A glass of wine is legit for date night, and a champagne toast is fine at a wedding.

These all sound good in theory, though I suspect it would be easier for me over the long-term to just skip it altogether.

Tomorrow’s Day 31, so it’s time to decide.

Do you have any experience quitting sugar? Do you abstain, or moderate your consumption? Share thoughts and any tips you have in comments.

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  1. Jen says:

    I don’t have any experience quitting sugar, but I think about doing it all of the time. I’m interested in hearing more about your experiences with the Whole 30. I guess I’ll dig through your blog and try to learn more 🙂

  2. Jacey says:

    I listened to that podcast too, and I think hearing that statement was one of the things that pushed me to finally do a Whole 30. I’m also an abstainer, and it’s been so much easier to have the same set of decisions carry through the whole month. I’m nervous about the transition out of Whole 30, but hopeful that keeping sugar out of my house will at keep the cycle at bay.

  3. Sugar is definitely my downfall in my diet. I recently went to a new dr, and had to fill out all the new patient forms. When it asked what diet I followed, I put “whole foods”, but later thought I really should put “whole foods plus cookies”. The only time I’ve been successful at cutting out sugar was when I had gestational diabetes, ad I knew someone else was depending on me to do it. (All the more reason for me to cut back now, I know we’re all more predisposed to diabetes now.) And I too am a terrible decision maker–I actually have a horrible time taking the Myer-Briggs quiz because I can’t make a decision to answer the questions! I think I need to check out Rath’s book!

    • Anne says:

      “I actually have a horrible time taking the Myers-Briggs quiz because I can’t make a decision to answer the questions!”

      Oh, yes. I completely relate–it took me years to figure out my type, and that’s why!

  4. Olivia says:

    Oh, I struggle with this. And I agree, the more sugar I have, the more I want. But an entire life without cookies and chocolate cake is too sad for me to contemplate. What I’m experimenting with at the moment is a no-sweets-after-6pm rule. That’s when my will power is weakest, and one cookie becomes half the box. I used a tip from The Power of Habit (habits are easier to replace than eliminate) and replaced my evening treat habit with a cup of green tea and so far so good for about a month. I don’t think it’s enough of a shift yet, but it’s a start.

  5. Clare says:

    Sugar is glucose, the body breaks down the majority of food stuff that we eat into glucose. Anything that contains starch, bread, potatoes, vegetables etc, all get converted to sugar in the body. It is also the substance required to transport vital amino acids such as tryptophan, across the blood brain barrier into the brain. I wouldnt want to cut all glucose from my diet, I think that like with most things, moderation is key. It is just when we get all bingey (like me on a friday night with a tub of ben and jerries) that health problems can occur. Sugar isnt really bad…we are 😉

  6. Libby says:

    My New Year resolution was to quit eating excess sugar. I used to be a 3 cokes a day and couple candy bars person. The first week was awful. No one told me how bad caffeine withdraw would be…but after that…I felt great! My pudge disappeared, I had more energy…it was fantastic. After 6 months of no sugar (processed sugar)…I have switched to moderation. I allow myself to eat sugar on special occasions, but I don’t pick up candy bars, cake or soda hardly ever. I’m so happy I did this! I would definitely say though, moderation was not an option to me. If I choose a goal, I will do it. I do not go back on what I’ve told myself…and I think sometimes people forget how much power they have because they are told that eventually they will fail. It’s not true! Everyone can accomplish their goal!

  7. I am actually pretty good at moderation. I could do the $10 rule. Which I think is brilliant, btw. I have walked a moderate path for quite a while. Sometimes it is a weakness-I don’t push myself when I should. Sometimes it is a blessing-in losing 50 pounds and keeping it off for over 15 years except for pregnancy weight gain.

    • I do things because they need to be done, not because they are easy. Running, early rising, goals. I decide to do them, and I do them. Anyway. It tools me until after age 30 to realize that not everyone is wired that way. =)

  8. I’m not good at total abstention – I always get resentful. But I’ve been eating too much sugar (and drinking too many chai lattes) recently. Trying to find a balance, and also trying to develop a regular exercise routine, has been hard for me.

  9. Faigie says:

    I think the problem with stopping sugar is that you really have to see the effect it has in order to stop it. I also did the whole 30 (I did not find it such a breeze) and eat paleo now but, for me I don’t see the sugar effects right away, its cumulative. I wish it would hit me right away so that way I would know for sure

  10. Deborah OBryan says:

    I am much better not having any sugar. When I eat sugar, it always leads to eating more and more sugar. I’ve been following the Paleo way of eating and feel great. I don’t want to go back to the old way of eating. Congrats on completing your Whole30!

  11. Elle says:

    I have been on and off sugar a few times in my life. I went Whole 30 earlier this year and felt so much better I stayed on it. I come from a family with a history of sugar problems: diabetes, hypoglycemia, personality changes. My sweet offspring turns into a different (scary) person after ingesting sugar, so I try to keep sweets out of the house, except for special occasions.

    Luckily for me, I am an abstainer. Like you, I can make something off limits and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel deprived. I just call on my inner Pavlov and think about how awful I will feel if I indulge in said off-limit item, and that always works for me. I do wish my local grocery store sold no-sugar bacon. Prosciutto is a poor substitute.

    I found your site from link hopping a few weeks ago, and I really enjoy your insights. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Kate says:

    Awhile ago I was seeing a nutritionist and when she had me quit sugar – she had me quit sugar – I wasn’t even allowed fruit of any kind. I did it for two months and when I finally fell off the wagon for a handful of blueberries, they were the sweetest and most wonderful tasting thing I could have ever eaten. EVER.

    I definitely agree that I’m a better abstainer than moderator but that’s largely because I’m a great rule follower. When I did WW after my first child was born, I had a great deal of success with moderation but I had guidelines that made it easy for me to follow (I can have that small scoop of ice cream with frozen strawberries every night because I eat responsibly all day).

    I like the idea of giving yourself freedom to have a treat every once and awhile – birthday/date night – but leaving them as treats.

  13. Leigh Kramer says:

    I have no idea what I’ll do about sugar once my Whole 30 is done, in part because I want to figure out what I’m going to have to eliminate for good. I like sweet treats too much to eliminate them altogether but I could stand to eat them less. And probably eat better quality dessert- bye bye, candy corn. Sniff, sniff. A couple of years ago I cut out desserts for a month and it helped reset my habits for quite a while. I’m usually pretty good with moderation.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve noticed that you’re good with moderation–and I’m jealous! Not me. {sigh}

      Looking forward to hearing your Whole 30 assessment–and how you’re planning to move forward–when it’s all over.

  14. Kelty says:

    Ugh. I don’t want to consider that what you’ve said about sugar/wine/insert-indulgent-food-here is true about me, but it probably is. On a parallel note, this decision-fatigue thing has been quite a game-changer for me to consider. It makes sense of so many of my common struggles! Thanks for being so transparent about it. I’m appreciating seeing the examples of how it applies to different areas of your life.

  15. I am totally with you on the abstaining. On a related note, I just finished a three-day juice-fast/detox that started started with juice only but turned into juice, popcorn, and minestrone soup. So maybe I’m not that great at abstaining or moderating :).

    And Real Food on a Real Budget was fantastic. So practical and helpful.

  16. Kristin says:

    I probably should be an abstainer, but am trying hard to be a moderator- since I really don’t want to completely give up things like sugar, wine, etc. I do know that eating sugar affects my cravings though. I have been thinking about a Whole 30- I have a son that I am a bit concerned might have gluten issues, so I would do it with him. This would be such a tough time of year to do it though.

  17. Jamie says:

    We gave up all processed sugars and white flour in our house years ago, and do very well on honey, maple syrup, and a little stevia here and there. I make sugar cookies and cake with homemade frosting each once a year using real sugar, and that’s it. (We do have wine and fruit.) I would never go back to eating sugar, because it turns me into a train wreck, but I appreciate how hard that initial transition is!

    Potatoes Not Prozac is a fantastic book for anyone looking to clear their life of unhealthy sugar and learn how to set healthy boundaries. It will really help you with making choices and setting guidelines for yourself if that’s something you need (although as an ISTJ, I’m super good at boundaries!). 🙂

  18. The very idea of quitting sugar terrifies me. As does the idea of not quitting sugar. Both of which tell me that I have a real problem with sugar (I’m pretty sure I’m addicted). The reason quitting scares me is that I have a long track-record of failure when it comes to self-discipline. Three weeks is my usual limit for tolerating any type of restrictive diet or schedule. And even without the craving for sweets, I would still have the memory of enjoyment to tempt me.

  19. Jennifer says:

    I can totally relate! I struggled with quitting Diet Coke for two years, and I think I’ve finally kicked it for good! With certain things, I just abstain — its easier and even though I’m an INFJ, I too struggle with moderation.
    I found that when I accepted an “abundance” mentality, I was able to throw out the junk food and indulge in healthier treats. Its my own version of the $10 rule; I’m frugal by nature, so spending a few dollars on a treat is hard for me, but I need to give myself permission to indulge where I truly want to (homemade gingerbread tea latte) so that I don’t go all out on something not worth it (boxed cookies, bleh).

  20. Ana says:

    Sugar is not my nemesis so much as complex carbs (bread, pasta, crackers, chips, all of the whole-grain variety, all eaten in larger-than-reasonable quantities). I still need to get my mind around the idea of a drastic diet change…its hard right now because I would be the only one in my family doing it, and we tend to eat together. I’m not a big meat-eater (prefer to avoid it as much as possible), so doing things like Paleo or Whole 30 are, though not impossible, more challenging.
    I think I’m a moderator in some things, and an abstainer in others…I can’t really classify myself neatly one way or the other. If I am trying to moderate, though, I need to be specific about what is allowed—i.e. After a month of “no baked goods”, I switched to “no baked goods at work” (for a way to avoid the daily goodies people were bringing in, tempting me when I walked past for my water refill at 10AM)…that way I can still sample anything we’ve made at home, or have a piece of cake at a birthday party once in a while. You could do: no wine at home (only out and about), or no wine by yourself (OK, that sounds bad, but I do often sit down with a good book and a glass of red wine at the end of the day) so you can include date nights in, if your husband is drinking with you. You can also not keep it in the house, having to pick a bottle up specifically for the occasion (and then pouring out or cooking with any excess so its not around the next day) so you are not tempted. Just some thoughts for how I might go about it…

  21. 'Becca says:

    I have very little trouble moderating sugar. If I have too much–especially if it’s not balanced by protein and fat and fiber–I go into “sugar shock” where I feel shaky, dizzy, and frightened until a sudden energy crash. My dad is also like this, so throughout my childhood he helped me to make better food choices and to recognize sugar shock for what it is so I’d be motivated to avoid it. I’m also sensitive to artificial sweeteners, so I just don’t eat a lot of super-sweet-tasting things. In the one season of my life when I drank soda or Koolaid regularly (teens and early 20s) I rarely ate candy, cake, etc.

    Right now I’m pregnant and have noticed slightly increased sugar cravings: I start eating a baked squash with butter and decide it really needs a drizzle of honey. Coffee with just milk (my usual) tastes wrong; it needs 2 tsp. of demerara sugar. Sometimes a Reese’s peanut butter cup is what I really feel like eating. I figure the baby is trying to tell me something. It’s not like I’m eating HUGE amounts of sugar. Since I’ve rarely had food cravings that led me into binging on anything truly bad for me, I figure I can trust cravings to guide me. It seems a lot of people are “broken” in that respect and have cravings that can’t be trusted.

  22. Heather says:

    I can definitely relate. I gave up sugary things for Lent a few years ago and decided to keep going after Easter. For me, it’s easy to abstain (at least on this thing) than it is to “just have one.” I really think I was addicted to sugar! (I still have it – e.g. in granola bars, yogurt, etc. but I try to watch it and I don’t eat cookies, candy, cake, etc.) But I still drink wine. 🙂

  23. Karin says:

    Funny you should mention this (rules for after the Whole 30) now. I’m in the middle of my Whole 30 (at your suggestion — thanks!) and was just trying to figure out how to avoid my sugar cravings after it. I was thinking maybe “dessert only on Shabbat” (Jewish sabbath). I’m definitely an abstainer too — the only part of the Whole 30 I’m having trouble with is “eat nuts and fruit only in moderation”!

  24. Sarah says:

    I say soda is the new cigarettes but similar idea. (Seriously how are we going to feel about elementary school Coke parties in 20 years!?!) I’ve gone back since my own Whole30 but you have me reconsidering…

  25. Mandie says:

    Oh, that definition makes me an abstainer, most definitely. The problem is that I’m great at it until I’m not- cue me crying on the phone to my husband at the store last night- I’m just so tired of eating the same approved-for-gestational-diabetes- snacks every day, and I wanted cookies. I have been pondering what things will look like for me, diet-wise, once this baby is born. I do want to make responsible changes, but I don’t know how drastic to go.

  26. Amanda says:

    Maybe 3 years ago I cut out sugar for a month. It definitely wasn’t easy, but it felt good. I could probably stand to do it again. In general, I’m a good moderator. Some things I can moderate having in the house, and some I can’t though 🙂

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