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Lessons from a Sugarless Month

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April 28, 2010

Trista Cornelius, Contributing Writer

I gave up sugar for one month - no refined or raw or unrefined sugar, no agave, no maple or rice syrup, no honey, no Frankenstein sugar substitutes, no freakishly natural sweeteners - no sugar. It shouldn't have been a big deal because I don't eat much sugar to begin with - no candy, no soda - but I took on the challenge because I dreaded the idea of it so much. Any time I resist something so mightily, I know I have something to learn.

I didn't experience any withdrawal symptoms, nor bursts of energy or health; I felt pretty much the same. The only difference I really felt in a life without sugar was the distinct and persistent realization that I couldn't have any. The thing is, I didn't believe I ate that much sugar. I didn't want to admit that maybe I over-indulged. I didn't really believe that sugar is bad for me. I didn't really believe I'd attain anything great or noticeable from its absence.

A person can be told repeatedly, even by a figure of authority, like a doctor, to quit smoking, drink less alcohol, stop eating animal products, etc., but until they feel the truth of the advice, the wisdom of it in their cells, its just talk. It wasn't until I quit sugar that I felt a glimmer of understanding and empathy for this. Until now, I'd had little patience for the people in my life who needed to change their diets but wouldn't, people whose whole lives would be dramatically improved, I was sure, with a plant-based diet, but who continued to eat meat, cheese, dairy, and processed foods.

Three weeks into my sugarless month, I was sitting at an auto dealership waiting for my car's oil to be changed. Two women sitting near me talked loudly enough for me to hear. The woman with a Prius said to the knitting woman, "He has diabetes and did nothing about it for years." The knitter asked, "Has it affected his eyesight?" The Prius owner responded passionately, "Yes!" And then she added, He - lost - his - foot." Apparently, that amputation made him finally start to change. The Prius owner looked to be in her mid-sixties. I assumed she was talking about her husband, but later it became clear - she was talking about her son, someone close to my age.

Why is it so hard for us to change, especially when it comes to food? Why do we choose the comfort we think some foods give us, even when those very foods make us sick?

For me and sugar, it was that I didn't believe it was bad for me or a problem to begin with. I also did not believe that life without sugar could be as good as life with sugar; therefore, life without sugar would be stringent and hard, not nourishing and comforting. I thought that not feeling any immediate improvement in my life without sugar proved to me that what I'd been eating was fine.

My "sour" month is over, and I'm free to eat sugar again, but to my deep surprise, I haven't craved it yet. I thought for sure I'd make a pan of Dreena Burton's "Blondies" (Eat, Drink, Be Vegan) and make myself try to have just one rather than half the pan. Now, I find, I don't want sugar at all. And yet, I hope I find a way to have an occasional Blondie or cookie and be satisfied with just one, rather than choosing an all-out baked goodies ban like I'm happy to do with animal products and caffeine. Maybe with sugar (vegan, of course), I'll learn to have both pleasure and restraint. Maybe by staying close to this vice, I will stay connected to my newfound empathy for others who have not yet found the power to abandon the food choices that keep them sick.

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