THE BLOG
02/07/2014 03:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2014

No Sweets in January: I Gave Up Sugar for a Month and (Barely) Survived

I woke up on Jan. 1 with a bad headache and an eyebrow-raising idea: No sweets for one month.

I've always had an intense sweet tooth. No meal ended without dessert, whether it was a huge slice of frosting-slathered cake after dinner or a small piece of dark chocolate every day after lunch at work. Until I got my treat, my mind would constantly scan for options: vending machine candy bar, deli cannoli, is it inappropriate to eat chocolate chips straight from the bag? I felt like a junkie, always focused on my next fix.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your added sugar intake to 100 calories per day for women, and 150 calories per day for men -- most days, I was well over that number by the afternoon. Why was this a problem? Aside from the extra calories (and zero nutritional value) of most desserts, numerous studies have shown that sugar can trigger a chemical "reward system" in our brains, leading to an increase in the levels of dopamine in our bodies. While complex sugars are a necessary part of a balanced diet, the key is moderation and I was far from that.

After a particularly dessert-filled holiday season (in which I baked three different types of cookies, two cakes and one trifle), I could barely go three hours without a bite of something sweet to tide me over. So I decided to quit cold turkey: no cake, pie, pudding, ice cream, chocolate, candy or any other dessert in January. I avoided anything with added sugar as well -- no granola bars or cereal (both often have as much sugar as candy!) and for good measure, tossed out dried fruit as well. I'm not a soda drinker to begin with, but I threw that out too. The one caveat I made was hot chocolate. Between the polar vortex and the bad cold I caught from said polar vortex, it seemed cruel and unusual to deny myself winter's best method of warming up.

The first two days were difficult. I was cranky, had a dull headache most of the time and just generally felt tired. Trying to assuage my sugar cravings with tea only made me more miserable, and even my quiet moments in yoga were dominated by thoughts of I just want candy!

But slowly, I came out of my funk. Fruit was still on the table, since it's a source of natural sugars. Whole fruit has fiber, which can slow the body's breakdown of sugar molecules and therefore eases the sugar rush-and-crash-cycle that comes with candy. It's also full of vitamins, antioxidants and water, a far cry from the empty calories of cake.

So I turned to berries, bananas, and apples with peanut butter (only ingredient: peanuts!) to quell my cravings. I discovered that kumquats, grape-sized oranges that you can eat like cherry tomatoes, are basically nature's candy, and popped those in at an alarming rate. Chamomile tea became my "something sweet" to end a meal.

And I passed the ultimate test: my sister's birthday dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, home of the best dessert in the city. Watching my sister and friends eat my beloved gelato, a small part of me wanted to shove them out of the way, grab the ice cream and run. But the more reasonable part realized that for once in my life, I didn't need the gelato to enjoy dinner.

It's now Feb. 5 and yes, I have had dessert. A bite of banana pudding, a small bowl of apple crisp, a piece of chocolate -- but not every day, and not with any urgency. I can see sweets for what they are: a real treat -- something enjoyed occasionally, savored rather than shoveled down.