The Great Grand Diet Trial Of 2011: February

October 18th, 2011 - filed under: The Food » Food Styles

In 2011 I set about on a journey to regain my health – a series of dietary experiments. You can read the backstory here. Prior to beginning these trials, I had used an elimination diet to clear up a systemic Candida infection. I was also healing my gut/digestion through the intensive application of probiotics via fermented foods and beverages, and it worked, because cultured food is magical!

The Test
In February, I eliminated sugar and wheat.

The Theory
Ah, sugar. If there’s one thing and one thing only that all the dietitians and all the nutritionists and all the doctors and all the alternative health practitioners can actually agree upon, it’s this: sugar is baaaad!

And since I suspected that my underlying issues stemmed from erratic blood sugar levels, it made sense to make processed sugar my first target. In my case, for this experiment, “sugar” meant: white sugar, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, sucanat, rapadura, jaggery, etc. It did NOT include: maple syrup, molasses, raw agave syrup (I trust my source), or the natural sugars found in fruit/coconut water/etc.

[I know that agave is a contentious product, but that's another discussion. Please just know that I've done my research and I feel comfortable using agave in moderation. I also know from experience that in MY body, agave doesn't cause an insulin spike the way that other sugars do.]

Concurrently, I cut out all wheat. There is a certain school of nutritional thought (the primal/paleo crowd) that argues against the inclusion of grains, especially wheat, in the human diet. They believe that because wheat is a relatively new food (only ~10,000 years), our bodies have not evolved to properly use and digest the stuff. This was one of those researching “throw-your-hands-in-the-air-everyone-says-something-different-dammit!” moments that I’ve written about, but I have to say the theory really intrigued me.

Mostly, it resonated with me intuitively. I knew my blood sugar stability was, well, unstable. I knew it was related to food but I hadn’t been able to pin down the cause. However, it certainly seemed like on mornings when, say, I had pancakes for breakfast, I would spend the rest of the day struggling with intense “sweets” cravings, eating and eating and never feeling full. Or, if I had a big hunk of bread with dinner, I would go to bed kind of cranky and “down”. Since refined carbohydrate (even “whole grain” products) are converted into “simple sugars” (glucose) in the body, it seemed to make sense that wheat was a possible blood sugar trigger for me.

The Results
During February I allowed myself free reign of RAW desserts, without restrictions, to get over the no-sugar hump. Refined sugar is seriously addictive and coming off that shit is HARD! I sweetened my coffee/tea and ate my RAW desserts with abandon, and it worked like a charm. By March I was measuring a more modest amount of agave into my drinks, and dessert was relegated mainly to the weekends.

I found a lot of helpful substitutions for wheat, like gluten-free cornbread, raw crackers or rice crackers, corn chips or rice cakes, corn tortillas and cabbage leaf “wraps”, and tamari soy sauce (standard soy sauce is made with wheat).

Eliminating sugar and wheat definitely improved my overall well-being. My blood sugar was more stable (though not completely so) and my moods dramatically improved. Like, dramatically. I very much believe that cutting out sugar is one of the best things a person can do for their mental health . . . but that’s just my opinion!

It was hard, at the time, to parse out which effects were due to removing sugar and which were the result of the missing wheat. And in fact, I didn’t figure that out until many months later. But we’re not there yet! At the end of February all I knew was that I was feeling better already. And so far, it hadn’t been too hard at all . . .

. . . but of course, March would change all that!

Edited to link in the rest of the series:

Putting It All Together

  • Joelle Wilson

    It’s great that you found a way to cut out the things you need to cut out of your diet. I’m slowly changing over to a new diet myself. Reading your blog post today has been very encouraging. Thanks for posting about your food journey.

  • Lauren

    When I eat sugar I feel nasty. I really try and stay away from it as much as possible. I feel pretty good when I stay away from sugar, so I’ve never even thought about wheat…but this is so interesting! I look forward to reading about March.


  • Kaitlyn@TheTieDyeFiles

    Wow, a commendable effort to succeed in eating no wheat or sugar. So awesome that you felt great and that you are so in tune with changes in your body. I’m going to have to look into agave now!! I hadn’t heard of the controversy. And I love your post on fermented foods. I have to have my daily dose of kombucha!

  • Ali Seiter

    I completely agree with eliminating sugar and wheat from the diet–I cut out sugar long ago and wheat just recently, but the absence of both have truly improved my well-being, especially stomach problems.

  • Sarah

    I’ve been thinking about cutting out sugar myself – I don’t eat much of it but when I do I feel yucky and have intestinal issues. My prob – no source of raw desserts like you have. BUMMER. I would miss my dark chocolate fixes!

  • Kelly

    I understand this completely. Bread and sugar (especially in the form of baked goods) are the bain of my existence and I am all too familiar with the symptoms on my body: bloat, major mood swings, lethargy, lack of motivation/inspiration/clarity (fuzzy-headed) and massive cravings which create a vicious cycle. I recognize how eliminating these foods has had incredibly positive effects on me but, sadly I always fall back into bad habits. I think finding the right subs, such as those you mentioned, is key.

    My brother and sister-in-law are avid Paleo converts (I swear it almost seems cultish) so I know a bit about it. I do appreciate some of the Paleo beliefs such as trying to stick with local ingredients and meat that is sourced from animals that are grass fed/hormone free. I don’t know if they poo-poo ALL grains though. I, personally, do not have the same negative effects from quinoa or couscous for example.

    It’s so good to be in touch with your body. After just consuming some really awful shite that has me suffering from all the symptoms I just mentioned… You’ve got me thinking of starting an elimination “diet” again, but maybe I will use raw sweets and other goodies to pave the way…

  • kris

    Funny thing… As of late ive been feeling tired, sluggish and down and it was even more recently that I started connecting the dots of 1. Ran out of my B12 supplements, 2. Have included more sweets into my diet and 3. Have included more wheat again as of late. It seems when the temp drops…and pumpkins come to town…pumpkin muffins and cupcakes seem the perfect treat.
    In the back of my mind I think I knew it was a form of self sabotage. Your posts this month are bringing that to light.
    Looking forward to the rest of your MOFO posts!

  • jenny B

    did this include alcohol? ( As a sugar)

  • Laura Agar Wilson

    I completely agree with your thoughts on sugar, when I eat too much refined sugar (even just a little bit now days) I wake up feeling like death with a sugar hangover. I still do eat some refined sugars occasionally in things like PB&Co nut butters and some chocolates, but when I do I try and combine them with other high fibre or high protein foods to try and slow the sugar release a bit. Not sure how well it works but it seems to do the trick for now. I also had a bit of a surprise after I did a detox for a few days and even avoided stevia – how much more sensitive to sweetness I became – it was like my taste buds had reset! Now I add about half as much stevia to things as I used to.

  • Schabe

    I’m intrigued! But did you only leave out wheat or also the related types of grain? (like Spelt for example)
    Greetings from Austria, Bernadette

  • Meghan

    I may have to try out the no-sugar thing at some point!

    Wheat though… I hear from so, so, so many people about how wheat is the devil. But I really feel at my best when I’m eating a ton of wheat! I was seriously at my healthiest (and able to maintain a healthy weight, I tend to be on the scrawny side) when I spent a semester in Austria and had pretty close to an all-carb diet. :-)

  • alison

    I totally agree with your observations re: sugar! I’m fortunate that I’ve never had a large craving for sugar; I’m more of a salt person when it comes to snacks. However, your experience with wheat [thus far] is a great example to me as to how bodies are different. Like Meghan below, I too feel great when consuming plenty of wheat (and carbs in general, actually), but corn causes great digestive trouble for me, so I have to avoid it like the plague!

  • Annie

    That’s the thing about nutrition, while there is a lot of science involved, it’s also important to think about your ideals, what you like, what you don’t like and what works for you.

  • sarah

    The hubby and I are actually Primal now. I know I had emailed you a while back when I transitioned away from vegan (he never was) and, as usual, it has been research, more research and experimentation since then (a year ago?). We went gluten-free this April, mostly for his sake – he has chronic sinus issues and I’m on a mission to cure them eventually. I feel that gluten consumption may contribute to this but the more research I did, the less I wanted to eat it myself. I can tell you that now I can DEFINITELY tell if I eat gluten and feel much better if I do not (seems to be the consensus, eh?). We transitioned to Primal this summer. We cheat occasionally with gluten-free things (quinoa, rice, sorghum) but otherwise are trying to be completely grain-free. I agree with Kelly though – my body doesn’t care if I eat rice, for example, but I feel it’s better to substitute a vegetable or something because rice isn’t particularly nutritious anyhow.

    This lifestyle is really resonating with me so far… the only thing I consider a foundational principle is WHOLE foods – fruits and vegetables, nuts, berries, etc. The factors I have always/am experimenting with are meats, grains, and dairy. I have never had a moral opposition to eating meat (local, ethically raised, that is). Everything is from a nutritional standpoint.

    SUGAR IS MY WEAKNESS. This has been the big thing I’m trying to cut down on now. It’s easier when you don’t bake as much (gluten-free) but there still is coffee, tea, chocolate, etc. I try to use maple syrup or raw local honey as much as possible instead, but still. And I know when I was raw it was much easier to consume less sugar (no taste for it).

    Also, for Meghan, Schabe, and anyone else not in the US, I’ve heard recently about the hybridization of wheat in America. Oh, you know, probably just more secretive genetic modification of our food supply *bitter sarcasm*. My understanding is that there is no nutritional value left, just glue, basically. I’m inclined to believe this because I have a friend who has awful eczema outbreaks when she consumes gluten. She went to Europe last year and ate bread while there and was fine. She got home and thought she would try bread here again. Immediately broke out. So I would imagine the source of the wheat is very important.

  • Annie

    About a year ago, I decided to cut out sugar/sweetener from tea, herbal tea, coffee etc. In the colder months, I drink some sort of herbal tea pretty much all day and I realised that these 1/2 or 1 sugars were adding up to quite a lot. Occasionally someone will make me a tea or coffee and put a sugar in by accident, and oh my god it tastes so sweet and kind of… bad. And it kills the flavour of the actual product.
    This is really the only time I ate sugar that was added to something (not naturally occurring) and I’ve noticed a huge improvement – no crashes, no sudden lack of focus (the kind when you read the same line over and over again because), no grouchies in the morning… Ok, *less* grouchies in the morning, I have never been and never will be a morning person.

  • Rebecca Hawkes

    I recently cut out sugar for a month, which I agree is so hard. Especially as so much food has it in (boo for Alcohol too!) and I have a sweet tooth, also a love of baking…tricky. I didn’t feel much of a change in my mood however. When I went back to it, food with sugar didn’t taste as good as they once did…It is interesting. I’d love to be able to change my diet to something as healthy as your own but not sure I have the willpower to stay away entirely from the sugar… Thank you for sharing this with us. X

  • Lisa

    I have been struggling with this myself for MONTHS. I am REALLY trying to cut out both sugar and gluten. Sugar usually isn’t an issue for me – I have never been much of a sweet eater. The bread is the hardest dietary for me – I LOVE IT!! But when I get my mind set and struggle thru and past the cravings my mood gets ugly, I get lethargic and I start craving chocolate. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on gluten. I do think though, as I also read in these comments, that the “gluten issue” is caused by GM foods. I truly feel that A LOT of the “food allergies” in the past 20 years are due to us messing with what wasn’t broken to begin with.

  • April

    I am so glad that you shared this. I talked to my husband about it (he is my favorite sound board) and decided that I need to eliminate sugar as well. With my busy brood, my morning caffeine fix (heavily sugared) has me flying with an inevitable afternoon crash. I am not a dessert person, but labels reveal just how much sugar they sneak into processed products. I need to do something about that!!

  • Lou

    Totally agree with you on the sugar call – since I have eliminated refined sugar, my mood is SO stable and GOOD. Amazing! Glad to hear your experiment is getting positive results for you, it’s incredible how powerful food is :)

  • Elizabeth

    Hi, Sayward! New reader here! I am enjoying this “diet experiment” series since I feel I have been on a great diet experiment of my own for the past three years. No luck yet with my “perfect” diet so, alas, still experimenting. My question is regarding your preface. You mention healing your gut through the probiotics in fermented foods. Do you have a post or posts you can direct me to where you describe how exactly you did that? Did it take large amounts, were you consuming it everyday, etc. I currently take a “probiotic” but it seems to make so much more sense to get it through a live food source! Your persepctive would be appreciated! Thank you!

  • Rachel

    I have not done the intensive research that you have, but I have to say on days where I don’t have sugar (or minimal amounts) I always feel better and more alert/vibrant. If you are cognizantly aware of the food you consume you can really take a look at what makes you feel good (not just what tastes good).

  • Meghan

    Humans sure are complicated! :-)

  • Meghan

    While Sayward is catching up on MoFo commenting (mofo is hard!) here is her post on eatin’ beasties: with links to the recipe sorts of things at the bottom.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    You are the bestest!

  • Elizabeth

    While I appreciate reading that post again (it is linked above so I had already read it), and I appreciate the recipes and “how-to” make the “beasties,” what I was asking is how did you heal yourself that way? How much of it did you have to eat, how often did you eat it, how long did it take, how did you notice improvement and after how long, etc. Does that make sense?

  • Velvet Lipstick

    This is so inspirational! I think I’ve sort of known all along that cutting sugar out of my diet would be really beneficial to my overall well-being (especially since chocolate is pretty much a staple of my diet, and my mood swings are often and frustrating), but having it spelled out like this is sort of eye-opening and exactly what i needed! I think it will be really hard, but you’ve really given me the courage and push I need! Thank you! :) Your diet trial series has really been inspirational and informative! I just stumbled across your blog today, and I know you’re putting it on an indefinite hiatus, but I’m going to subscribe anyways in the hopes that I’ll get to read about the rest of your experiment soon! :)

    Wishing you all the best!

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