I Gave Up Sugar For An Entire Year—And Here’s What Happened

If you must know, I ate 23 frosted sugar cookies on New Year’s Eve 2018. I probably would have eaten more, but I only ordered two dozen of ‘em. Imagine how pissed I was when I realized the bakery shorted me a cookie. Bastards.

Why would anyone willingly inhale that many cookies? Because I knew I was giving up sugar for an entire year the next day. Given my addiction to it, I figured I might as well go out with a bang. Plus, anything involving frosting was my weakness. Colorful, neatly decorated frosting was tantamount to crack.

I was a full-blown sugar-aholic.

I had been planning this bone-headed move, er, lifestyle change, for about a month prior. I armed myself with a keto-friendly nutritionist/life coach who gave me what seemed like a 14-page laundry list of things I couldn’t eat and a half-page leaflet of approved foods. The nutritionist became my touchstone for the first few months—and suggested since I was a writer that I journal about the experience. So, I chronicled the good, the bad, and the ugly—including the unexpected homicidal rage that happened about three weeks into said experiment. (More on that later.)

Evolve Paleo Kitchen + Juicery has a number of locations around the metro.

My motto? No sugar, no sweeteners, no starches, no gluten—no kidding.
To ensure I kicked things off on the right sugar-free foot, I enlisted the help of Evolve Paleo—a local, diet-friendly, to-go eatery—to create all my meals for the first three months or so. It was no-fuss, no muss and definitely helped in the initial stages of my insanely lofty goals.

Things went smoothly for about the first six days. On Day 7, my body gave up. I curled up in the fetal position awaiting sure death. “Don’t be so dramatic,” my nutritionist said. “This is normal. It’s known as the keto flu.” My body—which was typically fueled mainly by sugar and carbs—was slowing switching over to being keto-friendly and running on fat. (Read that: reducing my carb intake forced my body to burn ketones for energy instead of glucose.) If you’ve never experienced the “keto flu,” I would liken it to a being run over by a semi—although I can only assume.

I muddled through the next week until my body somehow regulated itself and I felt a tad better. My cravings, meanwhile, were still through the roof. I dreamt—literal dreams—of eating pecan sticky rolls. I would have paid someone $100 for one Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The thing I missed most, though? My beloved foo-foo coffee drinks. “You absolutely, positively cannot have those,” my nutritionist admonished. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Those are sugar bombs disguised as coffee.”

Eventually, my nutritionist and I made one lone concession to this stupid diet, er, lifestyle choice. She would allow me one—and only one—packet of honey in my tea in the morning. She did it begrudgingly. She also did it because I threatened to murder her entire family in their sleep. If you consider that cheating, fine. But in the interest of transparency, I wanted to be true to myself. That one packet of honey was my lifeline between successfully completing this experiment and ordering another 24 frosted sugar cookies. (Note: I didn’t take my favorite bakery off speed dial until early March—which is about the time I noticed my jeans weren’t nearly as snug.)

As the weeks became months, I was diligent in my quest to eschew sugar. I was eating an insane amount of caveman-tastic meals—all meat, all veg, all the time. But as I got more entrenched in this no-sugar journey, I quickly became disenchanted. Processed sugar is in everything.

Every. Last. Damn. Thing.

A seemingly harmless cauliflower pizza crust? Added sugar. The hot sauce I wanted to use on my eggs. Yep, sugar. That non-threatening can of wasabi almonds? 6 grams of sugar. And don’t even get me started on salad dressings and condiments. They’re laden with the white stuff. Hell, even gum has sucralose—an artificial sweetener made from, you guessed it, sugar. Organic mustard became my saving grace. I still slather it on everything.

Mackie’s before and after. (After photo credit: Nikki Moreno-Whipple/Vixen Pin-Up Photography)

Even more daunting? My borderline psychotic cravings didn’t subside until mid-April—which meant my addiction to sugar was off-the-charts. Fortunately, by that point, I had noticed there were some interesting by-products to militantly avoiding sugar. The most obvious—weight was falling off me. I was down nearly 25 pounds without a substantial amount of effort. My hair was growing like a weed—even my stylist noticed it had become thicker and more luxurious. I was practically a sugar-free Breck girl.

Photo credit: Nikki Moreno-Whipple/Vixen Pin-Up Photography

I kept journaling—and posting the occasional blog about my experiences. I put it all out there—warts and all. People jumped on my bandwagon. I wrote about subtle changes that were becoming routine. I was sleeping better than I had in years. My libido had seen a resurgence. But the big, unexpected winner? My skin. I hadn’t had so much as one blemish, blot or breakout in three months. It was laughable how much better my complexion became.

Things were going swimmingly until May when my father suffered a stroke and passed away. Mercifully, not one neighbor showed up with a tater-tot casserole. I think we all know how that would have ended. My friends all had my back, but they were certain I was going to fold like a cheap card table and start eating my grief-stricken feelings.

Funny thing. Staying true to my sugar-free diet was a piece of cake (pun intended). I was just trying to stay sober. Dad’s death triggered my need to drink—and at this point I had been sober for three years. For over a month, I white knuckled the urge to guzzle wine straight out of the bottle. I didn’t slip, but as anyone who’s in recovery can tell you, it was dicey. The night the doctors moved my father from the hospital to hospice, I spent a good majority of the midnight hour tearing through his house looking for wine. I didn’t find any. For once, serendipity was on my side. Cooler heads prevailed and I ended up going to bed instead.

Mackie’s father Robert at his 92nd birthday party.

My beloved dad had always had an unholy obsession with pineapple upside-down cake. As an ode to him, I served the delectable dessert at his visitation. It was a huge hit. I’ve never seen cake elicit so many smiles and tears in one particular setting. When I got home, I was a withered husk of a human being and I made a conscious decision to eat a piece of his cake in Dad’s honor. Was it cheating? Yup. Was it worth it? Yup. I hacked off a generous slab and ate it alongside my friends at my Dad’s house. (No one said a word. My friends are wise.)

A half hour later I found myself violently throwing up in the bathroom.

My body had gone sans gluten and sugar for five months and was currently in complete revolt. That piece of cake—which was oh-so tasty going down—was a shock to my system. It was also a wake-up call that my body could no longer stomach—figuratively and literally—sweets.

Dad’s untimely death stirred up a lot of unforeseen teen angst. Before I started this yearlong no sugar/no sweeteners/no gluten/no starches brigade, there was nary one problem in my life a cupcake or slice of pizza couldn’t help. (Deep dish for the win!) When I gave up every single bit of processed foods, well, it forced me to process everything else. It wasn’t pretty. Good thing I now had complete mental clarity—another added bonus of giving up sugar. My mood swings, muddled thoughts, and energy slumps had completely subsided.

“I Felt Like the New Jan Brady”
Eight months in and I felt like, well, the New Jan Brady. The constant creaks and groans my body made previously had subsided—especially in the morning. Typical aches and pains were nipped in the bud. Turns out sugar and gluten are the main culprits when it comes to inflammation in your body. Oh, and now I pop out of bed at 5:30 a.m. every morning ready to tackle my day. Sugar-laded me would have required, you guessed it, a sweet-bomb caramel macchiato to get my day started. (Mmmm … caramel.)

A side trip to see my relatives in England in September almost proved disastrous because across the pond they aren’t familiar with anything that doesn’t involve potatoes. Upon landing I demanded my British family stock up on charcuterie supplies for an entire week. “Charcu-what, mate?” my cousin Mark asked. I told him to get an assortment of deli meats and cheeses, olives and pickled veggies. I ate my weight in charcuterie for nine straight days. My relatives were aghast. My only splurge? My cousin Angela ordered sticky toffee pudding for dessert one night. I asked her if I could smell the plate before the waiter whisked it away. “You have lost your bloody mind,” she barked. Desperate times called for desperate crumbs, I guess.

(True story—charcuterie trays helped me navigate dining out throughout last year. Once I discovered that everything on a charcuterie tray is typically fair game—minus crackers, duh—I would gravitate towards it. I now have a particular affinity for a well-executed charcuterie board. Oh, and bonus points for artisanal mustards and overwhelmingly odiferous bleu cheeses.)

Mackie checks out his before & after statuettes at 3DHQ on the Plaza.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was in a better headspace. I had hit the 50 lb. mark of weight loss (which had since slowed to a crawl in the preceding months). I was also in Mexico soaking up some much-needed sun. The friends I went with did the unthinkable. They had the nerve to smuggle drugs into Mexico. Well, technically it was a pecan pie from Tippin’s, but for me—it might as well have been black tar heroin. I had a piece for Thanksgiving. I had zero regrets. And, thankfully, zero gastrointestinal issues. If you’re keeping track—and Lord knows my naysayers are—I have now cheated twice. (I’m not counting the honey packets. Fight me.)

And while we’re on the subject of cheating—a friend of mine pointed out I not-so-innocently popped an after-dinner mint once after a nice meal. “That has sugar in it,” she lambasted. She said this while she was eating a crème brulée. She and I are no longer friends. No one needs that kind of negativity in their life.

All pros, no cons
So what have I learned? 1) That I have an insane amount of willpower. And 2) that my taste buds have completely changed. Even the tiniest bit of something with natural sugar—say a handful of raspberries—now tastes overwhelmingly sweet to me. It would appear I actually recalibrated my taste buds. Also, because sugary drinks are omnipresent (and the bane of my existence), I drank 272,589 club sodas last year—give or take. Looking back, I also realized I probably should have invested money in La Croix stock.

I also noticed that everyone and their brother (and their brother’s brother) had an opinion or insight on my dietary decisions. Early on, many folks figured I’d fail miserably at my sugar-free endeavor. Others chided me for simply not exercising moderation and cutting back on sweets and carbs. For me, the experiment was pretty cut and dry. My nutritionist said it best when she stared me down and admonished me, “You don’t need sugar to survive. No one does.” She’s absolutely right. And the same goes for flour. And that’s what I clung to 24/7 365.

Mackie with Jasper Mirabile’s famous homemade coconut cake

The million-dollar question, however? Everyone wanted to know if I was going to continue down my sugar-free path in 2020. Well, I went on a cruise the first week in January and ate whatever the hell I wanted. It was bliss. In fact, I inhaled anything that sounded decadent, dense and delicious for two solid weeks. The highlight? Turns out the one thing I coveted most of all was a giant hunk of chef Jasper Mirabile’s famous coconut cake. I’m not sure why that particular dessert set the barometer for my cravings, but I would fantasize about eating it nearly every day of 2019. Jasper graciously cut off a slab for me to enjoy. I licked the plate clean. Twice. Like a crazy person. (Don’t judge.) Jasper then sent me home with another piece on my way out the door. A parting gift, if you will. I gobbled that up before I got home. (Again, we’re in a judge-free zone here.)

Figurines courtesy of 3DHQ on the Country Club Plaza.

But the novelty wore off quickly. That loaf of sourdough bread clearly wasn’t doing me any favors.

My gut hurt. My joints hurt. My head hurt—constantly. And despite near-OCD hygiene, a weird, sickly sweet, metallic scent started to exude from my pores. Don’t get me wrong—that large meatball and garlic pizza from D’Bronx I ate on a Friday night tasted great going down. But by Saturday I was too lethargic to move. When I tell you I napped all day, I’m being 100% honest. I barely had enough energy to get off the couch and warm up the rest of the leftover pizza in the microwave. My nutritionist nearly lost her ever-lovin’ mind when I told her what I was up to. My two week experiment was an exercise in excess. Now it’s back to eating clean for 2020—second verse, same as the first. I even hired a trainer to whoop my “skinny-fat” ass into shape. Will I miss indulging? That’s an unequivocal, big, fat no—emphasis on fat. I put back on a whopping eleven pounds in those 14 days. That’s impressive. And by impressive, I mean appalling.