How much attention do you pay to the food you eat? Do you buy everything at the supermarket, or do you shop at local farmers markets? Are you an omnivore, or a hardcore vegan? And do you ever read the list of ingredients on a jar of peanut butter? Our EVS volunteer Janny decided to challenge herself and tried to scratch all processed sugar from her diet for one month.
They say it takes only 21 days to change a habit. After this time, your new behaviour has become so normal, that you no longer realize that you are doing something special, and you simply continue your behaviour without thinking about it. In more scientific terms: when you learn something new (whether academically or physically), your neurons form new firing patterns, or abandon old ones. After enough time has passed, you are ‘hardwired’ to continue that new activity.
Trying something new
This knowledge underlies the success of the “30 Day Challenge” that you can see popping up all over the internet. The phenomenon was popularized by Google-engineer Matt Cutts’ TED Talk “Try something new for 30 days”, in which he explains how he radically changed his life by setting himself various one-month challenges. A relatively simple challenge with a realistic deadline is a great way to try out a new diet, start working out regularly, become an early riser, or even learn a new language.
I have already experienced the power of behavioural change myself on various occasions. For example, my last apartment was on the 2nd floor, and the elevator took ages to travel up. Without the structure of a challenge, I found myself arguing with myself every single time I got home (“Let’s take the stairs!” “But my bags are so heavy and I already walked all the way home!” “Grmbl… OK, I’ll wait for the lift”). At a given moment, I simply told myself that from that day on, I would take the stairs. The first couple of days were still a struggle, but after a week I already noticed that I didn’t even think about walking towards the stairs instead of the elevator anymore.
The challenge: no refined sugars
Lately, I found myself thinking more and more about healthy food. Although I already consider myself to be quite a healthy eater – vegetarian, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, no sugary drinks – I still have one big vice: my sweet tooth. I absolutely love chocolate, and I have quite a hard time keeping my hand out of the cookie jar. When it comes to a bag of crisps on the table or the pastries in my kitchen cabinet, I find myself in those same auto-negotiations as described above. I can usually control myself in the supermarket; but once the snacks are in my home – or worse, I’m at a party – I find myself mindlessly eating all the cakes and sweets that I can get my hands on.
Thus, the idea of the 30 Day No Sugar Challenge was born.
I decided to ban all refined sugars from my diet. I would still allow myself ‘natural’ sweetness, such as fruits and honey, but I would refuse to eat any sugar industrially derived from sugar cane, sugar beets or fruit.
Ready… set… go!
The Black List
The first week passed without any real problems. My Challenge was a good excuse for me to skip several of the “unhealthy” aisles in the supermarket, and it was easy enough to explain the concept to my friends and colleagues, who pretty soon stopped offering me candy (except for some friends who liked to tease me and try to “bring me over to the dark side”). Luckily, it is Summer time, so I could eat loads of natural sweet things, such as raspberries, strawberries, and – my favourite – water melon!
I spent a lot more time than normal in the supermarket, carefully reading the labels on products that I would otherwise simply throw into my basket without thinking. I soon found that just about any product in a jar contains sugar, so that meant that there would be no short-cuts for me this month, and I would have to cook absolutely fresh, without any pre-processed pasta sauce, Indian curry, pickles, salads, or even mustard or mayonnaise. Even my beloved kabaču ikri (cabbage “caviar”) which I buy directly from a local farmer listed sugar on the label, so I „illegally” finished the open jar in my fridge, and then set out to learn what is actually in that stuff, and I made my own batch, without sugar.
My biggest problem turned out to be bread. As a Dutchie, I love to eat bread for breakfast, lunch, and perhaps even dinner. But traditional Latvian bread is loaded with sugar. In fact, most types of risen bread contain a little bit of sugar, which is necessary for the yeast bacteria to work. I decided to go for the bread which at least does not mention sugar in the list of ingredients, hoping that meant that the bacteria ate up all the sugar.
By week three, I was still pretty happy with my new diet. When people asked me “how long do you have to go?” I actually couldn’t even tell them precisely. I tried not to let the peer pressure get to me at parties or camping trips, and just brought my own honeyed bananas and water melon. Would you believe that even salted peanuts and paprika-flavoured crisps contain sugar?!
I suffered my biggest crisis when meeting some friends in a coffee place on a hot day, and I realized that I could drink none of the cold beverages (ice tea, soda, juice) they offer there. I finally selected an ice coffee without sugar, even though I hate the taste of coffee, but I just wanted to have something other than water!
Last week, I suddenly realized that I had passed day 31, and that I was actually allowed to eat sugar again!
Before I started my Challenge, I had expected that I would be constantly craving for chocolate. But now that the time had come, I didn’t feel the least urge to rush to the supermarket for a bar of Laima. I am actually still quite happy with the new diet, and I think I will try to keep it up a bit longer, though perhaps a little less strictly.