Sugary snacks were rare in my home growing up, but that only made my sweet tooth more voracious: As a child I learned if you happened upon a plate of cookies, the only sensible response was to mash as many into your face as possible, since there was no telling when that would happen again.
Recently, I started to worry that too many of my dietary choices involved caramel. I was in pretty good health—I went hard on the leafy greens (partly to balance out all the candy), and I walked everywhere. Yet sometimes after snacking like a trick-or-treater, I'd get queasy or have inexplicable headaches. I also didn't like how out of control I felt. I couldn't pass a bakery without walking in, even if I wasn't hungry. And if I was? Just pray I didn't mistake your finger for a madeleine.
The worst part was, I hardly ever enjoyed dessert anymore; I scarfed it down joylessly. So I decided to take a break and quit sugar for a month—not just cookies and cakes, but anything with added or artificial sweeteners. One friend predicted I'd last three days. Another said three hours. Here's how it went:
I start checking ingredients lists and discover that my favorite foods are loaded with sugar. It sneaks into almost everything, even sushi. Even corn chips. (I mean, what in the actual hell? Who puts sugar in corn chips?) I make plain oatmeal with berries my morning go-to but hate how bland it tastes. Plus, my energy levels are way off— I'm sluggish and cranky as all get-out.
I crave massive amounts of starches—without sugar, the biggest source of carbs in my usual diet, I think my body's looking for a replacement. And all I want is dessert. Via Google I learn that sugar triggers the same feel-good hormones as sex or drugs. In one study, rats chose it over drugs. Maybe this isn't just about willpower—I might be going through withdrawal.
My midafternoon energy crashes are gone, and I'm starting to feel good. And now that my taste buds aren't being bombarded with sugar, they've gotten more sensitive—everything tastes sweet, even fennel. I have one teensy slipup at dinner with friends, who push me to take a spoonful of dessert. It's only sorbet, but shockingly, I can't stomach it—it's too cloying.
I'm amazed at how clearheaded I feel, and I've even shed four pounds, though I wasn't aiming to lose.
After my detox, I no longer try to skip all sugar, but I've scaled way back— I feel better when I'm eating less of it. And when I do have dessert, I've learned to take a small piece and savor it. For the first time in my life, I'm a one-cookie woman.
This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.