No sugar update – day 29

Today is Day 29 of my 30-day reset of not eating sugary snacks and treats. It’s gone surprisingly well.

When I started my mission get back into my no sugar lifestyle, I imagined that I’d slowly cut out one day’s treat over a period of several weeks and that by the end of it I’d be back on track. My first steps were to make sure I had something else to eat in place of my Monday afternoon snack, to remove any cash from my wallet that might make it easy to buy something I didn’t want, should I accidentally wander into a bakery or coffee shop.

After a couple of weeks of this I found that, even on the days I was allowed to have an unhealthy snack, I didn’t want to, so the 30-day reset began. In contrast to previous attempts at this, I’ve found the last 29 days to be quite easy and I haven’t really missed the cakes and chocolate.

I wondered why this was, because in the past it’s been really hard and I’ve struggled.

I think that because I’ve had several long periods where I haven’t eaten sugar, my body knows that this is my “normal”, so once I made the decision to go back to this and started to not eat cakes and chocolate, my body accepted it quite easily. I guess it knows that I am someone who doesn’t eat refined sugar, which is exactly the person I want to be.

I know some people think that cutting out something is a bit extreme and that most things in moderation are okay. The theory goes that if you completely deny yourself something, you’ll feel like you’re missing out and you’ll end up binging on the [forbidden thing], which would be worse for you than allowing yourself to have it occasionally.

Gretchen Rubin discusses this in Better Than Before. She says that some people do better by completely abstaining, because they find this easier than having the [forbidden thing] in moderation – for “abstainers”, having just a bit is almost impossible. Once they have opened the biscuit packet they’ll eat the whole lot. They won’t have one, and put the packet away until tomorrow.

As an abstainer herself, Ms Rubin notes that when abstainers deprive themselves of the [forbidden thing], they “conserve energy and will-power because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster”. They don’t have to decide whether to have (or do) the thing, then decide how much of the thing they will have (or do) and finally make themselves stop consuming (or doing) the thing. The decision is already made, and they can go on with their day.

She notes that someone can be an abstainer in relation to some things, but can be a “moderator” – someone for whom “everything in moderation” works well – for others. I might be an abstainer in relation to sugar, but a moderator in relation to alcohol, for example. So I’ll eat the whole block of chocolate, but I can have one glass of wine at lunch time and not spend the rest of the afternoon drinking. Unless I make a conscious choice to.

Ms Rubin notes that successful habit changes involve coordinating multiple strategies, and she gives an example of how she combined abstaining with other strategies to change her eating habits. For me, I can see how I have combined the strategy of abstaining (from sugar) with the strategy of identity (I am a person who doesn’t eat sugar) to change this particular habit. (I mentioned this strategy in this post.)

So this was an easy 30-day challenge for me – but it was only easy because of earlier work I’d done. I imagine that I’ll have more slip-ups in the future, but I hope that this experience of quite easily falling back into a healthy pattern will mean that the slip-ups aren’t frequent and aren’t as long-lived as this one was.

And here’s an unrelated picture of one of my chickens, as I contemplate what my next 30-day challenge will be.

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Baby steps

So I’ve now publicly confessed that I’ve become somewhat more relaxed about sticking to some of the healthy life choices I’d been succeeding with, and have had a good hard look at why it might be a good idea to make some changes to get things back on track (she writes with a glass of wine in one hand).

Good. Recognising that there’s something not right and, very importantly, identifying why I need to fix it is a good first step. But now I actually have to do the hard work, decide what I’m going to do and (shudder) do it!

But where to start?

There are loads of areas I would like to have better habits in, but I know if I try to change everything at once, I’m not going to succeed. It will be too much in too short a time. There’s some reason out there in brain research world about why this is. It’s something to do with our caveman brain getting very agitated if things change too fast, and sabotaging our efforts because Change = Danger. So, the theories go, we have to trick caveman brain into thinking it’s safe by making only very tiny changes that don’t register with it.

If this is right, the baby steps approach is in order. And absolutely no stepping on the cracks, because caveman brain would notice that kind of dangerous behaviour and step in to try and keep me away from danger.

A concept I’ve read about in several places when you’re contemplating trying to make a change is, rather than looking at what you want to do, to ask yourself who you want to be, and then ask yourself what that person would do.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this in her book Better Than Before as “the Strategy of Identity”. The basic idea is that: “Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity”.

Ms Rubin gives an example of a way she changed her own thinking:

For years I thought of myself as someone who “hates exercise”, but at some point I realised that I hate sports . . .  I don’t mind exercise .  . .  Thinking of myself as someone who “enjoys exercise” allowed me to change the way I viewed my nature, and that helped me to become a regular exerciser.

Neat hey.

I looked at the main habits that are causing me concern – the afternoon snacking, the extra glass or two of wine every night, and the late nights – and I considered who I wanted to be in relation to those habits. This is what I came up with:

  • I am someone who doesn’t regularly eat food with refined sugar.
  • I am someone who doesn’t drink alcohol at home during the week.
  • I am someone who gets 6-7 hours of sleep a night.

Oooh! Dotpoints! This is serious.

I think that if I tried to become that person in one big swoop, caveman brain would notice and would strongly resist, and I’d fail. Again. So I’ve decided to be that person on Mondays. The rest of the week, caveman brain can stay safe with the familiar.

(Maybe I need a name for caveman brain, which is looking out for my best interests and keeping me safe by making change so damn hard, so that we can become friends. I know it’s just doing what it was programmed to do and thinks it’s acting in my best interests. I mean if I was suddenly jumpscared by a tiger, caveman brain would be right there trying to save me.)

So now, what would dotpoint person do on a Monday?

She would make sure she has a nice healthy snack on hand so that when she gets the after lunch craving, she has something else available. (*Puts almonds on shopping list.*)

She might also think about taking all the cash out of her wallet when she goes out, so it’s slightly more difficult to buy the item in question. (She has a reluctance to EFTPOS small amounts, which might turn out to be a useful thing for this situation.) She also might decide not to walk past any tempting shops when she goes out at lunch time (including a certain clothes store).

James Clear refers to the practice of setting up your environment in a way that will support your desired (healthier) habits as “choice architecture“.

Having succeeded at not indulging in the afternoon, our hero would feel pretty good when she got home. (OK, hero might be overstating things a bit. She resisted eating cake. She didn’t save someone’s life.)

Yep, today she’s someone who doesn’t eat refined sugar. The same someone also doesn’t drink on a school night, but by the time Monday evening comes around, she’s tired and would quite like to relax with an alcoholic beverage. However, she knows that one leads to two leads to three leads to staying up late and being exhausted in the morning.

Knowing the flow-on effect of one drink on her ability to be someone who gets 6-7 hours of sleep, she also has to be someone who doesn’t drink. She has learned about choice architecture, and so she thoughtfully set up her teapot, tea and cup near the kettle, which she filled up before she went to work in the morning. They’re all there, making it easier for her to make the choice to drink tea rather than beer.


She sits with her tea and writes in her journal.

And when her 9.30 pack up alarm* goes off, she doesn’t have half a glass of wine left that inevitably seems to get refilled, or the decreased will power that alcohol appears to inflict on her, and she actually packs up and gets to bed by 10pm.

A successful mission.

These are the smallest of baby steps. In isolation, this is no big achievement. It will only benefit me if I keep being this person every Monday. I’ve already noticed how much better I feel on a Tuesday when I’ve had more sleep than I get on other nights. Wednesday morning me wants to be like Tuesday me, so Tuesday me will have to have almonds instead of cake and herbal tea instead of beer, and will have to go to bed on time. And within a few weeks, I’ll be that person I want to be without caveman brain Betty having noticed.

It sounds easy. I’m sure it won’t be. So, in the spirit of trying new things out, this is an experiment to find out if thinking about who I want to be rather than what I want to do is an effective way to change a habit.

If you think this might be a helpful strategy for a habit you want to change, tell me about it in the comments, and we can cheer each other on.

Who do you want to be?

* The packup alarm is supposed to remind you that you need to be getting up in 6/7/8 hours, and that it’s time to pack up, turn your screens off and go to bed. I have several of them. I ignore every single one and carry on. (Bedtime alarms really is a thing. Google “bedtime alarm”.)

I’m struggling

I thought I was doing well in healthy eating and taking care of myself a few months ago. But I’ve slowly slipped back into bad habits that are sabotaging all of that, and I don’t like it.

It seems like every healthy habit I have is hanging there by a thread. After three attempts at quitting sugar, I hadn’t eaten it for months, and I thought I’d kicked the habit for good. But then, after a couple of “just this once” desserts, now I have a cake or sugary snack almost every day after lunch and I don’t know how to stop myself. I look forward to it. If I can get through the morning, I can have a treat. Eating crap was a habit that was disturbingly easy to pick back up.

I get up stupidly early in the morning and walk 20-30 minutes and meditate. I’ve been doing this every morning for over 18 months, but I still struggle to do it every single day. It takes a huge effort to do this – it’s not something I can “set and forget”. To maintain the habit, I refuse to let myself skip a day unless there’s a genuine reason not to do it, because it would be too easy to stop. I’d just miss one day, then another, then another, and the habit that I’ve spent so long to develop would be gone within a week.

I don’t love doing this. I think I’d love to sleep in more. Yet somehow I can hold myself to this obligation, but not the obligation to eat healthily. Why?

I know that a big factor in people’s success in achieving what they want to achieve is having a strong “why”.  A really meaningful and powerful reason for doing it that’s strong enough to override their impulse to not do it.

I can’t find any why stronger than that I want to be an active presence and positive influence in my child’s life for as long as I possibly can. I want to set a good example for him so that he can grow up fit and healthy and not have to battle his weight like I have.

But it’s not all about him. I want to be active and healthy for as long as I can be so that I can keep doing the things I want to do when I’m older, not be confined to a lounge chair full of regrets.

And if these two things don’t  motivate me I don’t know what will.

Yet I still feel like I did when I was 20 and feel like I have this air of immortality.

Logically I know that I don’t have all the time in the world to make the changes I know I need to to maintain my health into the future. I don’t want to be one of those people who ends up on their death bed regretting the things they didn’t do and the opportunities they didn’t take.

I want to turn things around because I’m making a lot of unhealthy choices and I don’t want to do that any more. But the unhealthy choice is usually the easier one.

Why don’t I want to make unhealthy choices any more?

Because making the types of unhealthy choices I am making will be bad for me  in the long term. I don’t want my health to deteriorate when I get older because of choices I’m making now. And I want to give myself the best chance of getting older in the first place!

Why don’t I want my health to deteriorate as I get older?

Because I want to be around for as long as I can be. I want to be physically and mentally able to do exciting things when I retire from work. I want to be around to see my son grow up. And if he has kids, I want to be able to do things with them.

Someone recently described this to me as wanting to be “a rocking Grandma” – if I become a Grandma. Great concept! And if I don’t become a Grandma I want to be a rocking old lady who is active, healthy, energetic, brave, fun and full of adventure for as long as I can.

Actually I want to be that person right now – I don’t want to wait until I’m old. I want to live a life where I can be the best version of me that I can be. I want to be healthy, active and creative. I want to learn and explore, have adventures, and create beauty. I want to be brave, calm and kind. I can’t be that person if I feel tired and uninspired from lack of sleep and sluggish from eating the wrong foods.

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My motivation

I also want to set a good example for my son so that he grows up fit and healthy, not like me with a poor body image and unhealthy relationship with food.

I recently realised that I most likely have had more yesterdays than I have tomorrows – unless I am incredibly lucky – and, unless I make some lifestyle changes now, my number of tomorrows might be even smaller than I think I have.

That means that I’m running out of days where I can say “I’ll start tomorrow”. As I get older, time moves faster and faster, the years all start to blend into one, and the next thing I know it’s another January 1st and I am exactly where I was at January 1st the year before. Yet I still persist in believing that I have time to turn things around, so I don’t have to start just yet. Next week will be OK, because we all know that next week, just like tomorrow, never comes.

I’ve had periods where I’ve thought I’d succeeded. I’ve been able to run 7 km and have weighed 56 kg. I kicked the sugar habit, once, twice and finally (or so I thought) a third time. I know all of this is possible to do because I’ve done it before. But what I have really learned is that we never really succeed – we don’t reach a point where  all of a sudden we are the person that we set out to be. Life is a journey, not a destination. We reach milestones along the journey, and we might know the general direction we are heading in, but we don’t ever get to what we might consider our final destination. Because we don’t become the person we want to be and then stop. We have to keep on being that person, and doing the things that make us that person.

We don’t “become” healthy and then stop. We only remain healthy because we continue to make healthy choices. We don’t “become” creative and then stop. We are creative because we continue to create.

So it’s up to me – to know that if I want to be a rocking old lady with an active and positive presence in my son’s life, I need to put the foundations in place now. If I don’t, one day I will wake up in that lounge chair full of regrets instead of being the rocking old lady I wanted to be.

I have to go back to basics. Again. And what better time to start then now?

Next time: Baby steps towards restarting.