It may surprise you to learn that just over a hundred years ago, we consumed roughly 2 lbs of sugar a year. Now, we consume around 152 lbs per person a year or 3 lbs per WEEK. That’s a frightening change and we’re seeing the fallout in the health statistics of our modern life which include soaring rates of diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure and more – all of which have been implicated in our high sugar, high processed food consumption. Our sugar tooth has certainly lost all sense of moderation, hasn’t it?
Want to immediately boost your health and vitality? Why not take the 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge? I won’t lie. This is one of the hardest food challenges you can ever try but if you manage to cut your sugar levels and bring in whole foods to replace your sugar habit, you’ll give your diet a needed hit of nutrition. Take the challenge and learn new eating skills, recipes and habits that you’ll be able to keep forever – and hopefully keep your sugar levels in check along the way.
What is the 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge?
For 7 days eat a diet free of added sugars like table sugar (white, brown, raw, etc.) but also free of its other iterations like fructose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and its 56 names used by the food industry. Also steer clear of “sugar” replacements like maple syrup, coconut sugar, rice syrup, molasses, agave, and honey. They have the same effect on our blood glucose and can be just as addictive (1). Be sparing too of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) like aspartame and stevia. Research on NSS replacements for sugar have either returned worrying results or is still in the early stages.
Going sugar-free, though, doesn’t mean cutting out natural sugars found in whole foods. For instance, fruit is still allowed. We’re simply cutting out added sugars, i.e. table sugars, honey, high fructose corn syrups, etc. You’ll want to be reading labels for these ingredients and passing on foods that contain them. When you do, you’ll be surprised at how many foods contain added sugar – even some brands of soy sauce or sushi will sneak in sugar of some sort. Go with the brands that exclude these sugars.
For a week, try to go completely sugar free to bring your cravings, taste buds and health into better alignment. A week will show you just where your weaknesses and strengths lie. For best and most nutritious results, try focusing on a whole foods diet by making whole foods at least two-thirds of your diet. Doing this will turn the standard American diet on its head and instantly and drastically cut your sugar intake.
Currently, the standard American diet is roughly 62% processed foods, 26% meat, and only 12% fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes (but half of this last category is french fries). This way of eating is horribly unhealthy and we see its consequences in high rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and chronic kidney disease, among others. Flipping these numbers around can only help reverse this terrible trend. If this is your diet, definitely do the 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge!
Why Go Sugar-Free?
Our consumption of added sugar is a relatively new phenomenon. As mentioned before, we only consumed around 2 lbs per person per year just over a hundred years ago but now consume more than that in a week. Throughout our evolutionary history, we ate fruit and honey for our sugar. Even sugar cane was not consumed like it is now. Instead, today’s forms of sugar are only possible thanks to modern technology and its processes which refine various sugars into their ubiquitous forms that pop up in most everything on our grocery shelves.
Why is this? Sugar makes a spectacular preservative and flavor enhancer but also gives texture and color to foods, particularly in the processed food industry. It’s also highly addicting. This makes sugar a key ingredient along with salt and fat that helped explode the frozen, heat and serve, fast food, and processed food product markets. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us discusses this revolution in the food industry and its deleterious health impact.
While our taste buds have fallen in love with these new food products and their continually expanding offerings on the shelf, our bodies can’t meet this cultural and culinary shift and react in a number of horrible ways – from tooth decay and cavities, to insulin resistance that leads to metabolic syndrome disorders like diabetes and Alzheimer’s, to various autoimmune issues and cancers. That’s just for starters. For an interesting read on sugar, as well as the sugar lobby, pick up a copy of Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar. It’s eye-opening.
In reclaiming our health and waistlines, the place to start is with diet. That means a two-pronged attack of cutting down on our over-consumption of sugar and processed foods which actively destroy our health while at the same time consuming mostly whole foods which will build, maintain and repair our bodies in maximum health.
What are Whole foods?
Whole foods are plant foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, and are free from additives or other artificial substances like preservatives, emulsifiers, conditioners and artificial or natural flavors before being consumed.
Examples of whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, tubers, and whole grains. Everything else is not a whole food. See my article What are Whole Foods? to get a good understanding of whole foods. For the carnivores out there, I would add that fresh meat in the butcher and seafood sections of grocery stores can supplement a whole foods diet even though they are obviously not plant-based. Same with eggs and milk. The healthiest and most long-lived cultures in the world eat this sort of diet.
Why Whole Foods?
The benefits of whole foods are amazing:
- Cancer prevention
- Beating heart disease
- Lowering blood pressure
- Preventing and reversing diabetes
- Prevention of gallstones, kidney stones and osteoporosis
- Asthma prevention
- Better digestion
- Most sustainable diet for the planet
In the Kitchen
During the Sugar-Free Challenge, avoiding added sugars and focusing on whole foods should be the center of every meal, making up at least 70% of everything that goes into your mouth. This will mean passing on processed foods which include most boxed meals and kits, frozen meals, heat and serve meals, and fast food. Try to limit your pasta and bread consumption as these are both processed foods. I realize that might be biting off more than you can chew for most people in addition to going sugar-free. However, making whole foods the stars of any meal and giving things like pasta or bread a limited supporting role will really help your health.
Going sugar-free means more time in the kitchen since most convenience meals are processed or contain additives and artificial substances – especially sugar. Added sugar of some sort is usually one of the top 3 ingredients in processed foods. Going sugar-free also means watching what you drink. You probably know how much sugar is in your soda, but you might be surprised by the amount of syrup or sugar that goes into your Starbucks latte or bottled tea. Many beverages come loaded with extra sugar so definitely learn to read labels.
Why 7 Days?
One week isn’t a large commitment and is easy to plan. Plus you won’t feel overwhelmed by learning a ton of new recipes or feel like you’re completely giving up your eating lifestyle for good – though, hey, if you like the changes and the benefits, please continue!
Seven days are good for dipping your toes into a sugar-free or whole foods diet, learning new recipes and eating patterns, and can help you transition to eating healthier overall. And besides, who doesn’t enjoy a new challenge to get excited about?
Whenever we try something new or try to change habits, we should remind ourselves of a few things:
Firstly, we’ve been doing things a certain way for a while. When it comes to food, we’ve trained our bodies and minds to like what we’re already doing. When we try new foods, we may go into withdrawal from the removal of our usual foods. That and our gut biomes have adapted to our old eating habits and will undergo a shift when our foods change. Most people don’t realize this and think their body is reacting negatively to the new foods when really, it’s mostly withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve ever tried to give up coffee or colas for a week, you know what I’m taking about! The same is definitely true for sugar. Use this week to learn how addicted your body is to your current way of eating. You might find it eye-opening.
Secondly, we are creatures of habit. Don’t expect to like or love all the food recipes. If you’ve never tried something before, try it with an open mind. Think of this week as a way to experience new foods or find new recipes to incorporate into your meal rotation. See it as a fun exercise, not a drag, and you’ll have better results.
Thirdly, when we take on a food challenge, the experience is usually new. The recipes will take longer to organize and prep simply because you haven’t spent years making them. In time the ingredients and recipes become second nature and you can modify them as easily as your current meal rotations. Expect the learning curve rather than be upset by it. Most of these recipes are quick and easy for beginners.
Fourthly, food is culture. If your family and friends are sugar lovers who have never seen a sugar-laced goodie they didn’t love, you may feel peer pressure over your new food selections or feel tempted to cheat and eat like normal. Remember that this is only a week-long challenge. If others tell you to cheat or give you grief, you can point out gently:
- Your health issues if you have any
- Any health issues in your family
- That you are trying to alleviate or prevent any health issues
- And that you could really use support since this isn’t easy
Many people if approached this way will be more considerate and helpful, especially if you tell them you don’t expect them to eat like you (some immediate family members will fear any food changes). Accept this and remember that you are the only person who can truly make the changes you want. Respect and love yourself enough to try what you’re wanting to do, no matter what others think.
All this said, we’re human and we get cravings. Don’t beat yourself up if you lapse during the challenge, just continue on with the next meal and be proud for what you do follow. Also, try not to make the challenge impossible by scheduling it around holidays. Only the most willful and possibly masochistic can survive holidays and their associated foods. On the flip side, if you’re trying to give up the excesses of the holidays, by all means, use this challenge as an excuse!
Now onto the nuts and bolts.
How It Works
The 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge is pretty straight-forward. You’ll be avoiding added sugar for all meals and drinks for a week. To do that:
- Pick a week to do the 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge.
- Make room in your fridge and in your mental space for the change.
- Plan out and organize your meals for the week for best results. Design them with your family or friends for added support and team-building if they’re willing.
- Make your grocery list.
- Buy the food.
- Prepare the meals yourself or for best results, with your family. Healthy food habits are teachable moments, as is food preparation. Children can’t learn healthy food habits if not exposed to them or taught the recipes. Cooking together means time together. Make cooking social.
- Eat and enjoy – the more the merrier!
7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge Recipe Suggestions
It’s easiest to enjoy the challenge and keep with it if you include meals you already like that are sugar-free or whole foods based. Love your green bean casserole or cheddar mashed potatoes? Bust them out this week!
Organize around meals such as breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and desserts. We tend to make the same handful of meals so don’t feel like every single meal for the week must be new and original. That gets expensive and stressful fast because you have to buy a larger variety of food and learn too many new recipes you may not be at all familiar with. Also, why waste any leftovers?
Check out the recommended week-long plan and more general pantry list so you can take the challenge and run with it. Feel free to mix and match however you like to make this challenge your own!
Now onto the week’s meal plan!
7 Day Whole Foods Challenge Meal Plan
Breakfast: Spinach and cheese omelet, cup of grapes on the side.
Lunch: Mediterranean chickpea salad
Dinner: Tilapia tacos; Substitute any white fish
Snacks: Fruit and nuts
Breakfast: Grapes and walnuts with yogurt
Lunch: Avocado and tomato salad
Dinner: Tomato soup with avocado and cucumber salad
Snacks: Yellow squash dippers and hummus
Breakfast: Strawberry, banana, spinach, coconut milk smoothie
Lunch: Tuna fish and spinach with avocado, tomato and cucumber salad
Snack: Sliced apple with cheese
Dinner: Drunken mussels
Breakfast: Eggs scrambled with spinach, sliced half an avocado on the side
Dinner: Ginger veggie stir fry; Optional add-in: beef, pork, chicken or seafood
Snack: Olives and stuffed peppers from the grocery store olive bar – or anything from the olive bar
Dessert: Pecan-stuffed dates
Breakfast: Fruit bowl of strawberries and banana
Lunch: White bean salad with anchovies; substitute chicken, pork sausage, smoked clams, mussels or oysters
Dinner: Shrimp zucchini linguine
Snack: Red pepper hummus with cucumber dippers
Breakfast: Cheese and egg breakfast tacos; Optional add-in: Ground sausage
Lunch: Lentil soup with avocado and tomato salad
Dinner: Sweet potato gnocchi and grilled salmon
Snack: Olives, cheese and whole-grain crackers
Breakfast: Blueberry and banana oatmeal
Lunch: Red lentil salad with feta
Dinner: Sexy fish stew
Dessert: Banana, cocoa and coconut milk smoothie
If none of these ideas tickle your fancy, feel free to find ones that do! Curries, stir fries, soups and stews make for hearty eating. Why not give them a try? So many recipe resources exist on the internet to find these and more. My favorite is allrecipes.com.
In order to cook a whole foods, sugar-free diet, it’s helpful to know how to stock your pantry. This is a general list, so don’t think this is your shopping list for the challenge. While a few items on this list are not whole foods, the vast majority are and these ingredients can make up a fantastic pantry for eating healthy and deliciously:
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries
Nuts and seeds – walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds
Olive, sesame or coconut oil
White or apple vinegar
White cooking wine
Tilapia or cod filets
Canned or fresh tuna, anchovies, mussels, oysters, clams
Canned or dried white beans, chick peas, lentils, black beans
Fresh cuts of meats (be careful as even ground pork or ground turkey often now includes natural flavors – check the ingredients)
Fresh or canned diced tomatoes
Yellow squash, zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, etc.
Spinach, kale, greens
Rice, barley, buckwheat, oats, kasha
While fresh and from scratch is best, let’s face it, not everyone has the time or willingness. Here are time savers and substitutions:
- Instant oatmeal and cream of wheat
- Canned beans and vegetables: drain and rinse them though
- Frozen vegetables and fruit
- Frozen fish fillets
- Canned diced tomatoes
- Store-made guacamole, salsa and hummus
A Week of Healthy Eating
And there you have it – everything you need to know to take the 7 Day Sugar-Free Challenge! Hopefully you will enjoy the foods and the benefits they quickly bring in terms of better health, energy levels, mental clarity, sleep and digestion, and a range of others. If you enjoy these foods and their benefits, why not permanently include these and other deliciously healthy meals in your routine?
Good luck with the challenge and happy eating!
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