No Sugar No Cry

cupcake saying "yeah"

In my inaugural venture with self-experimentation, I (reluctantly) attempted to alter a long-held dietary bad habits.

Did I succeed? Have I relapsed? Was I cranky?



I love a good oatmeal raisin cookie. Or cake with lots of icing. Or Lucky Charms. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a sweet tooth. Eggs for breakfast? No thanks, I’ll have a danish. Skipping dessert occurred with the frequency of a solar eclipse.

A more recent bad habit was delaying a sweet treat until after my son was in bed—usually around 8:30 p.m. You know how kids worry their parents are having a party after bedtime? My son would have been devastated to find out that, more often than not, it was true.

About 5 years ago, I gradually eliminated my intake of sugary beverages; now all I drink is water, tea, coffee, and booze. But could I take the next step and eliminate the sweets?

First, let’s explore the reasons why, as Frankenstein’s monster would say…

“Sugar bad!”

Sugar, specifically refined sugar, is the new bad boy in the nutrition world. Some parents react to high fructose corn syrup like you are feeding their children a bag o’ glass. I don’t think anyone (apart from an unscrupulous Domino executive) would argue that lots of sugar is good for you, and most recent research suggests it may be very, very bad for you.

Donut cake
Deliciously horrible.

Sugar is a nonspecific term encompassing many different substances we eat. Sugar’s most familiar form is “white sugar,” or sucrose, which is a disaccharide (two sugars) composed of one molecule of glucose attached to one molecule of fructose. Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides—the most simple sugar molecules. High fructose corn syrup, i.e. poison goo, contains glucose and fructose in roughly equal measure.

Most recommendations suggest limiting added sugar to 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, per day (I’ll talk more about “added” sugar in a sec). Why? Diets high in these sugars have been linked to many chronic health conditions, including:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disease, particular fatty liver
  • Some cancers
  • Alzheimer’s dementia
  • Premature aging

Consider the death, suffering, and cost of these conditions and their complications. Still want that cookie?

All natural?

Some make a distinction between “natural” sugar and “added” sugar, with natural sugar contained in fruits and vegetables and added sugar a refined substance later added to foods. This is a bit deceiving. First, all sugar is technically “natural,” but natural doesn’t always mean healthy (um, cyanide is natural). Second, the underlying sugar molecules in natural and added sugars are the same; it’s the mechanism of delivery that is different, and makes the difference.

This mechanism is related to the concept of glycemic index, a measure of how quickly sugars and carbs raise your blood sugar after ingestion. Foods with a high glycemic index—e.g. sodas, juices, and sweets—cause a steep spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid decline, and those with a low glycemic index—e.g. fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts—cause a more gradual, steady rise.

Low glycemic index foods result in a more gradual blood sugar rise by two mechanisms: their sugars are contained within cells, which must first be digested by the body to free the sugar; and they are eaten along with indigestible fiber, which helps you feel fuller and eat more slowly.

Why are spikes in blood sugar (caused by high glycemic index foods) a problem? Rapid fluctuations in blood sugar seem to be an independent risk factor in the development of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Time-restricted eating

As a secondary effect of cutting out sweet, post-bedtime indulgences, my last bite of food in the evening was around 6:30 p.m., and my first bite in the morning around 7:00 a.m. Without additional effort, I was limiting the daily window in which I ate—known as time-restricted eating.

Evidence for the health benefits of time-restricted eating is weaker than that for sugar restriction. Mouse studies have shown that time-restricted diets—compared to an equivalent-calorie diet in which mice could eat any time of day—result in less obesity, better blood sugar control, and decreased inflammation. Early research in humans suggest similar effects, but large studies have yet to be performed.

Materials and methods

For the past 4 weeks, I have made the following two changes in my diet:

  • Significantly limit added sugar.
    • Eating “real” rather than processed food was my first-line defense against extra sugar. Fruits, veggies, meat, dairy, or anything else I could find in nature.
    • Honey—a staple of my prior breakfasts—is mostly glucose and fructose, so it was out.
    • Before eating something (gasp) processed, I scoured the ingredients. I was vaguely aware that many products contain added sugar, but still stunned by its ubiquitousness. Many breads and buns, for example, contain sugar.
    • I allowed myself small volumes of ketchup and mustard for dippin’. A man has to live.
    • Once per week I was permitted a “cheat dessert,” which I ate soon after dinner.
  • Completely restrict all food between dinner and breakfast.
    • I drank water and did not eat the toothpaste 🙂

That’s about it. I tried to keep everything else in my life, including my exercise routine, unchanged.

Could I have attempted more significant changes? Sure, but I’d be less likely to stick with them. Perhaps I’ll try a more ambitious experiment if I go part-time or during my eventual retirement.

child eating shave ice
Hawaiian shave ice


First, a few observations.

  • Social pressure to eat dessert can be powerful, especially with homemade strawberry rhubarb pie this time of year.
  • My family and friends know I am a sucker for sweets, so I was forced to explain my experiment to avoid confusion and offense. As a result, many people knew I was doing it, which increased the pressure to stick with it. Making my plans public helped me resist a few strong cravings I experienced near the beginning.
  • During the first week or so, I had headaches at the base of my skull—especially during vigorous exercise. I’ve never had headaches like this before, and it would be quite a coincidence if they were completely unrelated to my new diet. I’m not sure exactly why they occurred, but they eventually subsided.
  • On some evenings I had an extra beer or glass of wine in lieu of dessert. Maybe not the greatest substitute, but it worked.

Physical Change

The spare tire: bane of the aging male. Any ounce of weight I gain accumulates just above the pants line. One short-term goal of this exercise, which I’m happy to say I accomplished, was to let some “air” out of mine.

  • Weight
    • 5/9/17: 160.3 lbs
    • 6/9/17: 155.7 lbs
  • Waist (belt line) and spare tire (belly button level)
    • 5/9/17: Waist 34.25″, spare tire 35.0″
    • 6/9/17: Waist 33.25″, spare tire 33.5″

Mental/Psychological Change

I generally suck at noticing how a given pattern of eating or drinking affects my mental state, so I made a special effort to monitor this.

First thing in the morning, I felt sharper and less groggy, even if I had a relatively poor night’s sleep. During week one, a close outside observer (hi sweetie) noted that I was slightly more prone to irritation and annoyance, but I returned to my baseline level for the remainder of the experiment. Regardless, my mood did maintain a more even keel throughout the course of the day, which made logical sense given the (presumed) steadier blood sugar levels.

Could some or all of this have been a placebo effect? Sure, but a placebo effect is still a real effect, so I’ll take it.

In a telling encounter near the end of the experiment, an oncologist colleague brought me cookies for helping him with a few cases. I graciously accepted and placed them on my desk, and noticed that the urge to take a bite was essentially nonexistent. At the end of the day, I took them home for my son, and gave myself an internal high-five.

dessert shop in France
I’ll take one of each?

Do I still like cake?

In an ironic celebration to end the experiment, I ate a huge slice of cake with thick, creamy icing. Apparently some individuals who eliminate sugar find desserts much too sweet, but not me. It was delicious. However, about 15 minutes later I felt mentally fuzzy, akin to the unpleasant buzz of too much caffeine. To me, it was pretty clear I was more sensitized to sugar than I had been a month prior.

Will I go back to my old habits? I highly doubt it. The modest but welcome physical and mental changes I experienced are worth the sacrifice of a cookie here and ice cream there. I plan to stick with my current sugar regimen for the foreseeable future.

What to you think? Have you tried any specific changes to your diet?

17 Replies to “No Sugar No Cry”

  1. I love it when I get to read about diet experiments and the results, especially when I don’t have to do them.
    We did a similar experiment last year and there is definitely a noticible change. I just wish cake wasn’t so darn good!
    We gave up coffee and sugar at the same time. Especially deadly. We also drank an ounce of ACV in at least 8 ounces of water every morning. We called it our morning poison. I guess we should have separated these out to see if one was causing more benefit than the other, but after a few days of withdrawal symptoms we did feed much better and had more sustained energy.

    Tom @ HIP

    1. Doing caffeine at the same time would be brutal. I would sometimes substitute a coffee for a sugar snack in the afternoon if I had a craving. I don’t think apple cider vinegar would have done the trick 🙂

      I have also found that the flavor of a really good, ripe fruit was more bold and intense compared to before, so “dessert” for me would often become strawberries (since they are in season now)

      Take care,
      Dr. C

  2. I have a serious sugar addiction. I’ve been on and off the wagon more times than I care to count. I always feels better when I’m restricting my sugar intake, but then fall back into my sugary ways. It’s really encouraging to see a fellow sugar lover have success with a sugar restrictioned diet. Thanks for writing on this topic, hopefully it’ll be the kick in the butt I need to tackle this vice…again.

    1. You can do it!

      For me, there were 2 keys that (I think) made it work:
      1. Knowing it was only 4 weeks helped me rumble over any rough patches. By near the end, my cravings subsided enough that I decided to stick with it. We will see, however, what happens in the long run:)
      2. Chest desserts once a week and not being 100% strict with sugar (e.g. condiments) took the edge off as well

      I’d love to hear about your confectionary adventures at some point!

  3. Wall Street Physician says: Reply

    Nice post. I’ve been doing portion control and limiting the sweets since January 1st. I’ve lost 10 lbs (170–>160) and my waist is thinner as well.

    Continuing the medical research theme, did you control for other variables (sleep, exercise)?

    1. I tried as best I could to keep anything else that could potentially affect my weight the same, particularly exercise. However, I did NOT keep track of portions (although I can’t remember any crazy binges), which I think helped me stomach the loss of sweets. Congrats on your success!

  4. I’m also a sugar addict. My mom likes to joke that she wishes she named me ‘Candy’ instead!

    My fiance and I used to eat dessert every single night. As I’m getting married soon, I’ve been scaling it back: no nightly desserts and no sugar in coffee. I also wanted to see if it made a difference in my skin, because I do think what you eat (like sugar and milk) affects you in other ways besides just your weight. At first, I think I suffered from withdrawals, but my skin stayed pretty clear. The second I eat sugar again, I’m pretty sure the zits will erupt again 🙂

    I think it’s awesome you lost weight, and didn’t even have to exercise! Imagine the results when you combine the two.

    1. I used to be 7x/week dessert eater too. My amazing wife is 38 weeks pregnant and has chosen to continue with on-demand desserts for now, but she may try to join my sugar protest after the baby arrives 🙂

      More than the weight, I am excited about my spare tire deflation. All the men in my family have a similar body type—weight gain around the waist—and it’s been a lifelong struggle to be rid of it.

      If what you eat affects your skin, what does it mean that I love sushi!
      Dr. C

  5. I’ve been on the keto diet (under 20-30 carbs/day, high fat) for two months. The first week I wanted ALL THE SWEETS even though I don’t normally eat a ton of them. I do love donuts and muffins, though. I went from 140-133 in about 10 days. I don’t think I am getting the right nutrition, so I am going to add more fruits and veggies (so, higher carbs) but I don’t think I will go back to the way I was eating. I had no idea how pervasive sugar was in our foods until I had to look at every label. Good for you for taking on your sweet tooth!

    1. Thanks Jax! I listen to Tim Ferriss’ podcasts and he talks a lot about the ketogenic diet. It seemed a bit too extreme to start with, but perhaps it will be a project for the future. That’s an impressive 10 day weight loss!

      Take care and good luck,
      Dr. C

  6. I’ve given up “sweets” for Lent several times. Instead of losing weight, I have more than made up for the caloric deprivation with fatty treats like potato and corn chips. Never lost a pound or an inch. Kudos for losing some yourself!

    I lost all kinds of weight as a high school wrestler by eating less sugar, carbs, protein and whatever else might pass through the GI system. I keep hearing about the intermittent fast, so I tried that on for size the day before last. 36 hours with nothing but water and it felt pretty darned good. If nothing else, I think it’s a good exercise to remind your brain & body that food can be enjoyed intermittently. Not encouraging anorexia; that’s more of a body image problem. It felt really good to ignore the mild pangs of hunger.


    p.s. I gave up diet soda and the associated caffeine a couple months ago.

    1. It’s so engrained in our society to eat 3 spaced-out meals a day, but it’s probably not the way we lived in the caveman days (don’t worry, I’m not going paleo on you). It was more feast or famine, so to speak.

      Another bonus of fasting intermittently is that one loses the nearly-constant thought of “When and what am I eating next?” I’ve experimented with skipping lunch in the past, and it made preparing for work in the morning (no bagged lunch to make) and the workflow in the day much simpler.

      Wrestling is intense. I don’t know wrestlers sweat off all that water weight before matches. It can’t be too healthy. Better to wrestle in the WWE and diet like Andre the Giant.

      Take care,
      Dr. C

  7. I also hear the siren song of baked goods. They cannot be in the house for long. At work today, there was the following freely available 1) frozen yogurt, 2) leftover frozed yogurt 3) Lemon graham cracker cake 4) donuts
    I resisted all but the first frozen yogurt.

    1. I have found it most effective to simply not have junk food in my house in the first place, a task easier said than done. Resisting temptation has always been a challenge for me, so why make it harder than it has to be?

      Junk food at work is a whole other bag of chips. Someone is constantly bringing in cake, bagels, cookies, or some other scrumptious-looking food in the common areas where I work.

      At least froyo pretends to be healthy 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  8. Wow 5 lbs in 4 weeks. That’s incredible. All because of reducing sugar content. I definitely need to run a similar experiment and see how I do. I gave up caffeine a couple of years ago and felt much better. This sounds like a fun experiment that I definitely need to do. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. I am still a caffeine hound, but its elimination may be in the cards for the near future. Problem is that I not only need the caffeine, I LOVE coffee.

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