This piece was contributed by Jessica Mathis at The Unplug Initiative. Please take a moment to check out her blog! She’s an incredible writer with amazing tips on self improvement, living with mental illness and creating a better life! I love her content and I’m sure you will too!
The Effects of Sugar
If you’re like me, you’ve read numerous articles and scientifically-backed data about sugar. It’s nothing good. Most of us have heard about how added sugar dramatically increases the chances of obesity and diabetes, which in turn, increases the chance of heart disease.
Refined carbs, like white flour and the dough we make from it, are just as bad as table sugar because our bodies process it the same way.There’s no fiber and hardly any nutrients left. Your body processes these foods quickly, causing your blood-sugar to spike–and your hunger to come roaring back. The standard advice is to reduce processed foods and added sugars (soda, candy, cookies, pastries, baked goods–some of the biggest offenders), while also eating more veggies and whole grains. I had heard it all. Or so I thought.
Sugar Effects Your Brain & Mood
What I didn’t know was how sugar was affecting my brain. I called it “brain fog”, but it more accurately can be described as a deficit in cognitive abilities. Declining memory recall and capacity, mood swings, increased risk of depression–just a few of the nasty effects sugar has on the brain. Not to mention how incredibly addictive sugar is. I accepted these cognitive deficits as being a side effect from my job or from poor sleep.
Making a Change
Knowing that more vegetables and vitamin-rich foods were good for me, I tried to add more good things to my daily meals and snacks, instead of eliminating or replacing my favorites. I put spinach in my macaroni and cheese and ate frozen burritos that had once fresh vegetables in them. I thought this approach would help things.
I still felt sluggish and tired, even when I got enough sleep. My energy levels dipped throughout the day. I was cranky and irritable, often for no discernable reason. I had a list of passions and related goals I wanted to pursue, but I found it so exhausting. My mind didn’t seem to have the bandwidth. I felt physically exhausted, too, and exercise was out of the question. Part of it really was my physically demanding job, compounded by getting up at 3:45am.
A Profound Realization
Fast forward to August 2019. I was working in an office. I was settling into a new apartment in a new state. Some things in my life got better, but I was still experiencing brain fog and all the nasty mood swings. Why was I still struggling, even when I got away from what I thought was the source of all my problems?
I had no insurance, no access to medication, and my mental health was declining. It was frustrating, especially since I didn’t know why it was happening. Then, I came across an article on Facebook. It talked about how sugar is linked to depression. One of the many things it does to your brain, of course. I was floored by this information. I knew it was worth a shot to cut out sugar and refined carbs, so I decided to make a real change. No more baby steps or half-measures.
In December, I began a journey that changed my life. I don’t say that lightly.
It took less than two weeks to see a difference.
I felt happier more often. My mood felt more even, instead of having major mood swings. I noticed I wasn’t getting as irritated as I used to. My mental and physical energy both surged. I was able to exercise. I was pursuing things I loved. I felt this renewed sense of passion in my life, something that had been very hard to sustain. Something I blamed on just not trying hard enough.
I was wary to praise the reduced sugar in my diet as the reason for these things. I thought it could be the excitement of these choices and being on a high from learning how to do basic cooking and finally making healthier meal choices.
But I’ve been doing low carb for two months now, and I can stand by these results. No more brain fog. No more energy spikes and dips. No more feeling like I’m “running slow” mentally, like an outdated computer. I can exercise, I can do physical things more easily, I don’t feel tired for no reason, and I don’t get irritable and moody out of nowhere.
In addition to these benefits, I learned to cook and meal prep–both of which were a huge confidence boost. What loomed as an overwhelming task for so long became doable. I proved that it wasn’t too difficult. Nothing seemed impossible anymore.
Tips for Getting Started on Your Low-Carb or Low-Sugar Diet
Low-Carb or Just Low Sugar?
In my case, I wanted to do low-carb diet. This is due to being insulin-resistant and needing to prevent diabetes, which doesn’t discriminate what type of carbs you’re ingesting. For me, that meant getting under 100 carbs a day (easy because I was well above that before). I’m now between 50-80. My carbs mostly come from vegetables and some dairy products, but I do still have my morning cereal, made from whole grains.
You can pursue a low-carb diet like me, where you consider all carbs of all sources, or you can choose quality carbs that offer vitamins and fiber (fruit and whole grains). This was my approach at first, but my diet was still wildly unbalanced. Keep in mind that you want to make sure you’re getting plenty of servings of veggies throughout the day. Consider multivitamins and supplements to shore up any holes in your diet.
An easy way to think about your meal planning is to focus on more whole foods, not processed or pre-packaged foods. The perimeter of the store is your friend: fresh produce, meat (not deli cuts), cheese, and eggs.
Start with Simple Swaps
Instead of upending my entire diet in one day, I thought about it in simple swaps. I took my biggest carb offenders–cereal and toast in the morning and pasta for dinner–and looked at replacements. I will admit I kept the cereal, a whole grain variety that I eat with almond milk. The added fiber and fortified vitamins are good for me and filling, too. For dinner, I swapped in rotisserie chicken with vegetables.
I didn’t try to switch out everything at once, giving up all my favorite foods at once. It took some trial and error, but I found delicious things that I loved, eventually replacing my trail mix, my tortilla chips, my frozen burritos. Instead, I eat equally delicious, but more nutritious choices.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Find delicious choices you will stick with, and don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t like something, that’s fine. Try something new! It’s a beautiful world out there.
Track Your Total Carbs or Total Sugar
I knew I needed to be realistic about my sugar intake. So I decided to track my meals for a few weeks. I immediately noticed how many things were high in carbs, even though I thought they were healthy–my energy bars, my protein shakes, my whole grain chips, my trail mix, even my yogurt. All of these were either naturally high in carbs, or had added sugar. With this information, I found lower carb alternatives for trail mix (a regular nut mix, with no candy or dried fruit) and yogurt (a high fat, low carb greek yogurt) and replaced the other things.
It was just an eye-opening experience, and I recommend it for how much information you can glean. You’ll see at-a-glance just how healthy you actually eat (or don’t, in my case).
Once my diet had shaped up, writing everything down gave me the chance to take a high-level look at my nutrition. It showed me where there might be gaps, like not getting enough vegetables. Recently, I realized I wasn’t eating enough in general, so I added something more substantial for lunch so I wasn’t so hungry in the evenings, even after dinner.
Fat is Not the Enemy Anymore
It’s really hard to retrain yourself how to think about fat. For so long, we thought fatty foods should be avoided like the plague. To be fair, some of them actually have earned that reputation. Trans fat puts you at a greater risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes 2, and it can raise your bad cholesterol levels. Most fried foods and baked goods contain trans fat and should be avoided.
However, our bodies and brains need fat to thrive. The good fats are found in things like animal meats, eggs, avocados, olive oil, canola oil, walnuts, almonds, tofu, dark chocolate, and more. These things are also traditionally low in carbs, too. Without carbs as your primary source of energy, your body turns to fat. Therefore, you need more fat so that your body uses it for its primary energy source.
If you’re trying to stay away from traditionally high-fat foods because of their reputation, you will likely be more hungry and experience side effects like headaches, hunger pangs, and irritability. Trying to do both a low carb and low fat diet is dangerous and unnecessary. Fat is your friend!
The Lesson I Learned
This entire low-carb experience has shown me just how incredibly in denial I was about my eating habits. It seemed too difficult and overwhelming to change, but I’m glad I took the steps to do it.
I now can cook for myself in a variety of ways. Baked chicken isn’t boring to me. Vegetables aren’t boring to me–they can be cooked in so many ways I didn’t know! Seasonings are the greatest gift to previously boring meals.
I have all this physical and mental energy. I feel like I can take on new tasks. The whole world feels brand new.
I hope you’re already a role model for healthy eating, but if you’re not, I promise you can do it. It’s never as hard after that first step. It took me years, but it was worth it when I finally came around. If I can do it, you can do it.
Be sure to share this post to encourage all of your friends on their health journey!
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