Gretchen Rubin

Why and How I Quit Sugar

Why and How I Quit Sugar

I've written many times—though fairly briefly—about how and why I quit sugar and really, almost all carbs (except for nuts and non-starchy vegetables). How happy this change has made me! My life is so much sweeter without sugar.

I'm considering writing something where I explore the subject more deeply, where I explain why I did it, how I did it, and why I've stuck to this way of eating since March 2012.

I should make clear that I'm writing about how and why I quit sugar. I'm not arguing that everyone should make the choices I made, for the reasons I made them. I decided to eat this way because of my own conclusions about the research, my own idiosyncratic challenges and frustrations (mostly, my crazy sweet tooth), my habits, my preferences...etc., etc. I'm not telling my story as a nutrition expert (which I am not). I'm telling my story as an example of what works for me.

One thing I've learned is that everyone's happiness project looks different. There's no magic, one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone. We all have to figure out what's right for us.

That said, I also believe we can all learn from each other. If I hear that something works for you, maybe it will work for me. I can try it, and see. I've cribbed many of my most happiness-boosting ideas from other people.

There are many versions of "quitting sugar." Some people give up all sugar, in all forms. Some people give up "sweets." In case it's useful to you, here's how and why I quit sugar.

In a nutshell:

In Happier at Home, I wrote about understanding that I'm an Abstainer, not a Moderator. That was a very helpful thing to know about myself. (For more about Abstainers vs. Moderators and to quiz yourself, read here.) So even before 2012, I'd mostly given up sweets.

Then during a family vacation in 2012, I read Gary Taubes's book Why We Get Fat, and as I describe in Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I was struck by a lightning bolt and immediately changed my way of eating overnight. No gradual steps, no thirty-day program, no substitutions—it all changed at once, overnight, and effortlessly.

Then, because it was such a relief and benefit to eat this way, I've stuck with it ever since.

Since that time, I've learned a lot about the challenges that we might face when we try to quit sugar, and better, I've learned the various strategies that can be used to overcome those challenges.

For instance, I stick very closely to a low-carb diet. You wouldn't believe what I abstain from.  I find it almost fun to be so strict about it—hey, everyone needs a hobby! But I've learned that most people don't want to do that.

So what can you do, if you're considering quitting sugar? For starters, you can apply the 21 Strategies for habit change. For instance, you can use...

  • The Strategy of Abstaining—but this works only for Abstainers! And within that, you can use the planned exception.
  • The Strategy of Clarity—this allows you to invoke the power of the bright-line rule—for instance, "I don't eat hors oeuvres," "I don't eat at a child's birthday party," "I never eat samples in stores," etc. This can be useful for avoiding kryptonite situations.
  • The Strategy of Loophole-Spotting—how I love studying the ten categories of loopholes! We're so hilarious and ingenious with coming up with loopholes for ourselves. We all have our own favorite loopholes (mine is False Choice).
  • The Strategy of the Four Tendencies, with my Four Tendencies personality framework—whether you're an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel—to harness the strength of your Tendency or offset a weakness. (Want to take the quick, free quiz to learn your Tendency? It's here. Two million people have taken this quiz.)

And so on. In fact, all 21 strategies can be invoked to quit sugar.

The most important thing to realize is that there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to quitting sugar. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.

Many people tell me, "You shouldn't demonize a particular food group," "You should just indulge in moderation," "It's not healthy to be so strict with yourself," or "You should eat a different way." I absolutely recognize that while my approach works great for me, it's not what everyone would choose to do. Of course.

But my way does work extremely well for me, and many people do seem curious to learn more about what I do. For instance, people often ask me what I actually eat every day. Spoiler alert: I eat a lot of eggs.

For me, what's the greatest benefit of quitting sugar? Easy. It's the fact that I no longer feel any cravings for sweets or carb-y foods like bread. I've quieted that boring noise in my head about "Now, later; two, three; it's my birthday; it's special; more, more, more." I'm not distracted and drained by my attempts to resist a plate full of cookies at a meeting, or the free samples at a bakery, or the ice cream we have in our kitchen freezer. I don't eat sugar, so those temptations vanish.

For me, it's so, so, so much more pleasant not to eat sugar! Someone said, "But where's the joy in life without the occasional brownie?" and I said, "Not eating brownies gives me more joy than any brownie every did." For me.

That's me, that's my experience. I'm not saying it's true for everyone—but it does seem as though many people are interested to learn more about my experience.

I do think that in my case, being an Upholder made it easier to quit sugar. But I've seen all the Tendencies have great success with quitting sugar.

  • As an Upholder, it's pretty easy for me to make rules for myself and stick to them. Also, the coldness that Upholders sometimes have—and which I definitely have—makes it easier to keep my expectations for myself, even when they conflict with others' expectations. "You baked these cupcakes yourself! They look delicious. But no, I won't eat one, I don't eat sugar."
  • Questioners think, "Look at all the data about why quitting sugar is great for health." (Gary Taubes is a Questioner, by the way.) There is a lot of research about the benefits of quitting sugar.
  • Rebels think, "I refuse to be chained by cravings," "Big food companies can't control me with their fancy packaging and clever campaigns," "You think I can't give up sugar? Watch me!" A Rebel friend eats exactly the same way I do, but for very different reasons.
  • Obligers think, "I need to set a good example for my family and co-workers," "So many people depend on me, I have to take care of my health," "My nutritionist/doctor/etc. knows how I'm eating and will be so gratified if I stick to this." Note: some Obligers can get external accountability from something like an app—my sister Elizabeth has talked about this on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. Some Obligers need actual accountability from a real person—e.g. Weight Watchers. Many Obligers can use something like my Better app, which creates accountability with real people, but in a virtual setting (this works for Obligers who have tricky schedules or who don't enjoy meeting in groups).

In my case, when I quit sugar, I stopped eating anything with a lot of sugar or carbs. So I don't eat something that's obviously sweet, like a cookie. Or something that's high in sugar, like ketchup. Even if it's naturally occurring, like a pineapple.

I don't drink much alcohol, but I'd already given up most alcohol for other reasons.

I don't enforce this way of eating on my family (though they'd tell you that I talk about my eating habits with a fair degree of frequency). As I discuss in Better Than Before, in the Strategy of Other People, it has been interesting to see that even without trying to change their habits, my big habit change has altered their habits. As a family, we eat far less sugar (and carbs) than we used to do. As research shows, when one person in a group makes a big change, others are more likely to change.

That said, my husband loves his "Ice Cream Saturday" where he eats ice cream every Saturday; one of my daughters eat Oreos for dessert every day; etc.

What's wonderful for me is that in the past, the presence of that ice cream or those Oreos would have been a big distraction. Could I have one, two? One bite, two bites, a tiny bowl, another tiny bowl....and so on. So boring, so draining to battle a craving! Now that I never eat that stuff, I don't think about it. It doesn't tempt me any more than a package of uncooked rice. This means less conflict, because I used to be annoyed when my husband bought ice cream, because while he is a Moderator, I'm not. But now he can buy all the ice cream he wants. Why? I don't eat sugar!

One crucial thing to note about cravings is that they grow with the promise of fulfillment. If you think, "As soon as Lent is over, I can't wait to eat a chocolate-chip cookie!" you will crave cookies. Because I know that I just won't eat the stuff, ever, my cravings dissipate. At least for Abstainers, giving something altogether is far easier than indulging in moderation, because that occasional indulgence will keep re-igniting the craving.

I eat this way all the time—on vacation, on Christmas Day, on my birthday, at a dinner party at a friend's house. Most people wouldn't want to be so strict, but that's what works for me. Being an Upholder might make this easier, because it doesn't really bother me what other people think. Also, because I act this way all the time, people have adjusted to it and don't expect me to eat a dessert. No one's feelings get hurt, no one is surprised. They don't even cut me a piece of cake. Are they thinking, "Oh that's just Gretchen, with her extreme, rigid way of eating"? Probably. Do I care? Uh, no, not really.

That said, I do occasionally have a bite of something sweet, out of curiosity. At my book group meeting the other night, my friend served halva, which I'd never tried. So I ate a few bites to taste it (delicious, by the way). I do this very rarely, though, because I really do dislike the craving feeling, and if I eat one bite of halva, I'll want another bite. Which I did. I don't like to use that self-control, so I rarely put myself in a situation where I need it.

Wow, the more I write about this, the more I have to say.

What are your questions, interests, insights, challenges, frustrations? If I wrote something about why and how I quit sugar, what would you hope to read about?

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