"Goodbye, mayo," I think, crumpling up my sandwich's tinfoil wrapper. "Goodbye, office candy," I say, inhaling a few Kit-Kats, more out of reflex than desire. After a softball game I bid adieu to the dive bar's unholy blue cheese dressing, figuring just about everything I love will now be wrested from me.
Over postgame beers I talk with a teammate, a fellow sugar addict, in conspiratorial tones. My vices, I confess, are chocolate bars and drive-throughs, Wendy's ketchup and 11 p.m. brownies for one.
"God," he says. "Peanut butter M&M's. I destroy those things."
I tell him about how the other day, on deadline, I went to the office vending machine in a fugue state and then found myself staring down at an empty Hershey's wrapper. I barely noticed eating it.
It was not a New Year's resolution that led me here. It was a New York Times op-ed, a challenge to swear off all added sugars for a month. I read it in bed one early hour when everything felt possible. It brought me to breathless articles in which sugar-free superhumans spoke of better focus, stamina and sleep.
Sure, I thought. I can do that.
No added sugars for the month of February. That means sugar, cornstarch, syrup, "dextrose," etc. I'll also avoid artificial sweeteners so my taste buds can adjust. But, while I want to challenge myself, I also want to be realistic. Honey will keep me sane, used sparingly. Beer and wine are okay (again, sanity). Natural sugars, like in fruit and dairy, are fair game.
HOW IT WENT
DAY 1: I feel unimpeachably virtuous slicing strawberries into my muesli, from which emanates an unsettling cloud of dust. First bite: notes of sandpaper and protein powder.
I make a turkey-and-avocado sandwich on Nature's Own 100% Sugar-Free Bread — like regular bread, only chemical-flavored. I dine unhappily at my desk at the Times, where I cover higher education.
I reach for a slice of office carrot cake before remembering my masochistic challenge. Instead, I eat an apple with a chalky natural peanut-and-flaxseed butter. I develop a conspiracy theory that health food tastes purposely bad to remind the people eating them of their unwavering superiority.
DAY 2: The book I'm reading name-drops Wendy's Crispy Chicken Sandwiches with extra mayo and my heart rate flatlines. On assignment in a college dining hall, my eyes linger on blueberry tarts like lovers across enemy lines. Later, I tear the inedible crusts off my sugar-free bread. There's something alien about it, a strange elasticity that keeps me chewing like an everlasting piece of gum.
Dinner redeems my day: a bean burger with cheddar, avocado and hot sauce. I don't even miss the bun. A bowl of plain Greek yogurt feels decadent. My fridge is stocked with cheese, berries, olives and apples. So far, sugar's absence is a slight discomfort, but I was warned of far worse. Can this really be so bad?
DAY 3: I wake up bright-eyed. This feels like a fluke. I eat my muesli, soaked in milk and now a cold oatmealish glop, faintly palatable with strawberries.
At 2 p.m. I can hardly keep my eyes open. This is a problem, as I have a half-written story due in a few hours. My unscientific self-diagnosis tells me that I'm so used to a stress-induced sugar rush that all systems are down without the usual high.
"Where," my body seems to be saying, "is my 2 p.m. Twix?"
My mom expresses shock and pride that I've made it so far (2 ½ days). "I couldn't do it," she tells me. We share a love of junk food, cinnamon-laced coffee cakes, anything that leaves us with orange dust on our fingertips. It won't be long before I can have sugar again, I tell myself, somewhat convincingly.
DAY 4: We have entered uncharted territory. From my booth at Munch's diner in St. Petersburg, I'm forced to watch a kid butter his silver dollar pancakes with the utter reverence of Michelangelo. I try to stop myself from gripping the table, imagining that first bite of pancake, draped in syrup.
All I can say about my omelet is that it isn't a pancake.
DAY 5: I wake up before my alarm again, a strange phenomenon. But again, I slump hard at 2 p.m. and need a giant mug of tea to stave off a crash.
It's Super Bowl Sunday, and I'm headed to a college frat party on assignment. When I arrive the room is thick with the smell of Little Caesars. Gigantic bowls of neon-orange Doritos and barbecue chips adorn each table. It's my particular torture to be trapped here, filing a story, just a few feet from this bounty.
So many of my terrible food decisions, I'm forced to remember, come from proximity.
DAY 6: "I hope you like double chocolate cake," my friend says, climbing the stairs to my apartment. I wasn't up to baking dessert for book club, so she stepped up. After we eat tacos (featuring tortillas with 2 grams of sugar, strike No. 1), I bring out the cake with a cherry on top, like a melting sundae. Everyone digs in for seconds. Eventually I'm asked to explain why I'm just staring at it, white-knuckling my wine glass.
"Is this going to be a scene in your story?" the cake-bringer asks. She leaves it in my fridge when she goes.
DAY 7: The cake sits front and center. Every time I go looking for raspberries or cheese I have to contend with the affront of its existence. I spend the night watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine and eating chips and salsa, but the cake dances at the edge of my focus. It is as present as if it were with me on the couch.
To date, my strongest-ever food craving was on a long hike, where the ghost of Herr's salt and vinegar chips chased me up and down trails for days. The cake is that sort of specter, cruelly distracting. But I really want to do this challenge right, and I don't want to throw away a cake my friends will happily eat. I trick myself into making it feel as distant and unobtainable as the chips, a kind of willpower that feels like a physical ache.
DAY 8: "Who wants to go risk bodily injury and eat Amish doughnuts with me?" I text my friends. "This year there's a funnel cake enchilada so it's like I was born for this."
The Florida State Fair's Amish glazed doughnuts are things of beauty, hubcap-sized and sticky-sweet. I would pay $20 for that doughnut. I spend a few minutes in reverie.
But then, of course, I remember.
"There is no meme that can convey the depths of my devastation," I text. Why have I done this to myself? Could I quit? Could I get a doughnut, swaddle it in paper bags and freeze it, awaiting its March 1 liberation?
DAY 9: I nearly collapse of gratitude in Publix, clutching a box of Cheez-Its. I read the ingredients four times to be sure. No sugar. I have been blessed by the gods of processed food.
So far, it has been fairly easy to give up the unthinking indulgences, like stale newsroom doughnuts. But an hour after dinner, I yearn for a handful of chocolate chips. I still really, deeply want bread: a flaky Cuban sandwich, a hamburger bun so soft I leave thumbprints.
Instead I eat two entire cartons of raspberries.
DAY 10: I want to plunge my hand into the photo editor's jar of candy, but I go for a walk instead. The sky is crazy blue. I realize I didn't need the sugar rush.
DAY 11: I fall asleep in the park, and when I wake up all I can think about is golden french fries dipped in sweet, salty ketchup, like a McDonald's commercial on an infinite loop in my brain. Overpowered by the craving, I gorge on a family-sized tray of taqueria nachos, since Mexican food is generally a sugar-free safe zone. But I just feel overstuffed and unsatisfied.
DAY 12: Today I don't even feel tempted by the Publix pizzas and ice pops I'd normally gawk at. I savor this moment of clarity and pride: I feel like I've gotten through the worst of it. I love my bright mornings, my cart full of produce, the money I've saved through careful meal planning.
DAY 13: "I brought this upon myself" is the line I have to repeat to myself at a party, maniacally eating Brie instead of the macarons and chocolate-dipped strawberries before me. Publicly abstaining makes me apologetic to friends, as if I've become a dieter who lectures ad nauseam about the menace of carbs. I wish I could have one bite, maybe two, to shut up the frenzied part of my brain stuck on what it can't have.
DAY 14: I'm setting down my offering of plain strawberries on the Valentine's Day table when someone unveils a chocolate fountain. I don't even like chocolate fountains, but its presence gives my willpower a beating anyway. Whenever my mind starts to drift, I spin my chair to gaze at it, burbling away across the room.
DAYS 15 to 19: Nothing of note, besides sheer relief that my willpower is working. My sleep is great, and I rarely struggle for focus at work. For the first time, sugar's absence feels almost normal. (Still blocking out the lunch during which I am forced to utter, "No bun, please.")
DAY 20: Dining out remains tricky. I'm halfway through my chicken plate at Pipo's when I wonder whether the sauce has sugar. I've learned that there are no guarantees about what's "safe."
DAY 21: I crave everything today, crazed with unearned hunger. I eat toast and berries, fistful after fistful of Cheez-Its. Tortilla casserole, endless snacks, peanut butter from the jar. I fixate on a bowl of free cookies and can only let the obsession go when my friend tells me they're flavorless. If a Twix were in my presence I'd elope with it. The only thing tethering me to self-control is the knowledge that I will have to disclose my failure in a major newspaper. I'd recommend mass shaming as an effective tactic.
DAY 22: I call up sugar researcher and journalist Gary Taubes to ask about sugar's horrifying effects on the body, but what I really want to know is how he lives without it. I describe my frustrating, insatiable days, how the cravings still bowl me over.
He tells me he used to be a smoker. Trying to quit, he trashed his cigarettes, but fished them out again. He tore them in half, but smoked the broken bits. Finally he poured water on the trash, making a cigarette an impossibility. Sugar is that addictive.
"Moderation is too difficult," he says.
I hang up dismayed. I've done okay so far, but sugar is everywhere and I'm still helpless before it. I've managed to choose better meals and distract myself from cravings, but increasingly this entire month feels like a house of cards waiting to come down.
DAYS 23 to 26: I walk down Central Avenue, passing restaurants full of food I can't have, like pulled pork coated in a sweet, tangy sauce. Later, at a breakfast event, I'm confronted with fried egg and bacon sandwiches on buttered toast. There is not a single part of me that will accept not eating one. With a flicker of guilt, I cheat, counting down the days.
DAY 27: My cravings have changed. It's not Kit-Kats I want. I crave convenience, the five-minute Publix sub or sushi roll with a drizzle of eel sauce. I'm tired of Googling ingredients and scanning the fine print to uncover secret sugars. I plan to keep a lot of my new habits — fruit instead of Snickers when I'm tired, apples and peanut butter instead of sugary cereal — but I want eating to feel simple again.
Our food world is built on sugar, and to me, sanity looks more and more like a balancing act. There are days for spinach salads and days for strawberry shortcake. I've proved to myself that I do, in fact, have the power to make choices. I'll try to make mostly good ones, most of the time. Right now, that freedom sounds pretty good.
DAY 28: Rushing between tasks, subsisting on caffeine, I forget it's the final day. With no fanfare, just exhaustion, February comes to a beleaguered close.
DAY 1: Late at night, after a mountain of work and a loss in soccer, I pull into Wendy's. It's tidy and empty, and I collapse into a booth with total relief. I drag my fries through a pool of ketchup and luxuriate in the icy sweetness of my Junior Chocolate Frosty. After a month without sugar, this is what I want the most: the absolute sameness and deep-seated comfort of a fast-food dinner. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, but I push it away. At least, this time, I earned my meal.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.