The holiday season has come to an end, and the start of a new year brings with it what it always does: a desire to bounce back from a few too many weeks of indulgence and to give your health a bit of reboot. And while getting back into the habit of working out isn’t always the easiest, getting your diet back on track can pose the bigger hurdle. Oftentimes, it can be tough to kick the eating habits that you picked up during the holiday season – especially when it comes to sugar, since consuming sugar causes a spike in blood glucose levels that only increases your cravings for – you guessed it – more sugar. (Talk about a vicious cycle.)
In her newest book, “Sugar Free 3,” award-winning health editor Michele Promaulayko – who, for the record, served as Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Health, Women’s Health, and Cosmopolitan before making her way over to THE WELL, a New York-based holistic wellness center where she is currently Editorial-Director-at-Large – explores this difficult relationship with sugar and offers a roadmap to help readers redefine how they approach their diets.
This book, which Promaulayko worked on in collaboration with a number of registered dietitians and other wellness experts, offers a 3-week program to help reset the body and improve all-around health through the elimination of added sugars, which can wreak total havoc on your body, from causing mood swings and throwing off your sleep to causing weight gain and digestive issues. The plan laid out here is one that is less about blindly following a foolproof diet and more about developing an understanding of how to make the right nutritional choices through knowledge-backed food judgement. A comprehensive dietary playbook of sorts, “Sugar Free 3” is the nutritional equivalent of teaching wellness seekers how to fish, while many other diet programs are just handing out the fish.
Here, we chat with Promaulayko about how “Sugar Free 3” teaches readers to take back control of their health, why sugar is such a tough habit to kick, and how wellness really doesn’t have to be as complicated as we tend to make it.
What is “Sugar Free 3”?
“Sugar Free 3” is a 3-week reset to help you gain control of your diet and feel better in the process. It’s focused on eating more nutrient-dense foods and getting rid of all those empty calories from sugar. We tell you all the foods you can eat and all the ones you can’t, but it’s not deprivation-driven at all. The list of foods that you can have is a lot longer than the list of foods you can’t. The focus is on cleaning up your diet and ridding it of added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and refined carbs. So the plan is very generous – you can have fruit, whole grains, etc. – but it cuts out added sugars, which not only have no nutritional value but are actually detrimental to your health.
Why did you decide that you wanted to focus on sugar with this book?
Through my years as a health journalist, I’ve realized that of all the dietary hurdles out there, sugar is one of the most challenging. And I feel that on a personal level. I’m a healthy person and I make healthy choices around 80% of the time; I live a balanced life in the sense that I do indulge, whether it’s a drink or candy, so I’m not too rigid. But sugar has always been the one thing that’s been the hardest for me to control and moderate and that’s for good reason: sugar is everywhere, and it’s in everything – even things we don’t think of as sweet, like salad dressings, yogurt, and bread. So while it’s fine to be conscious of the sugar you’re consuming and to knowingly indulge in moderation, like having sweets over the holidays, the problem with sugar is that we’re often consuming it when we don’t even know we are. That’s really a big driver of the over-consumption of sugar, and over-consumption of sugar is detrimental to our health.
How does “Sugar Free 3” aim to overcome this problem?
In addition to providing an eating plan, the book is really an educational piece that teaches you about the sneaky places where sugar is hiding in your food. There are 60 or so different names for sugar, and it can be hard to identify it in our foods without the proper knowledge. Now, I’m not asking people to memorize all of sugar’s aliases, but I do teach them very simple ways to read ingredients and nutrition labels so that they can better understand them. From there, it becomes very second nature. It’s almost epiphanic. Suddenly, you can pick up a food package, look at the label, and figure out what it’s telling you.
A sweet tooth can be a tough thing to kick. What is it about sugar that makes it so difficult for us to change our relationship with it?
The foods that we are so used to consuming – even foods that are seemingly healthy, like wheat bread instead of whole wheat bread – are often not that great for us. And in a lot of cases, the food industry has really contributed to this crisis in a major way because it adds so much sugar to the foods we eat to make them more palatable. But the only reason that they’re even considered more palatable with that added sugar is because our collective palate has been calibrated and conditioned through a high level of sugar consumption. As we work on changing our sugar habits, what we’re really needing to do is recalibrate our taste buds so that things that are naturally sweet are considered sweet enough to us. When we start eliminating added sugars and eating healthy, that’s when we can have something like a blueberry and feel like it actually tastes really sweet. It’s a readjustment of the palate to the point where the foods with the added sugars start to taste too sweet.
Even as we change our taste for sugar, I’m sure everyone still gets hit with the occasional craving. How do you recommend that people handle those cravings when they do occur?
Totally. Cravings are a huge part of this, and there are tons of tips in the book on how to crush a craving; it really holds your hand through that process. There’s even a whole section on how to crush cravings with aromatherapy, because I’m so holistic in my approach to wellness. Most of the book is super pragmatic – very science-backed – but then I have a whole passage about how to use the aromatherapy to crush cravings because 80% of what we taste, we’re actually smelling. If you think about how intricately smell and taste are intertwined, that makes sense when you say you smell something and you get hungry, or you smell something and you start salivating. Our senses are all connected, and our olfactory sense is very closely connected to our brain, so emotion, memory, comfort – all of those things are wrapped up in cravings and eating.
Are there ever points where you might recommend actually giving into a craving?
Once a week, the plan allows for what I call a “mindful indulgence.” So once a week, you can have a glass of wine, or a slice of pizza – whatever your thing is. Now, if you feel that having that mindful indulgence will throw you off course, then there’s no need to do it. However, for some people knowing they have that option helps them keep their motivation up. If they know they can go out to dinner with a friend and allow themselves a glass of wine, that can just bolster their resolve for the rest of the time. Introducing this idea of mindful indulgence is also important because it allows for sustainability of the program. It’s a sustainable way to live.
On the topic of sustainability, does “Sugar Free 3” offer any kind of roadmap for what to do after the 3-week program is over?
Totally. You feel so good when you’re done with it, you don’t just want to abandon ship, right? So we have three different routes, or what we call maintenance plans, for keeping it going after those three weeks. The first is that you’re feeling amazing on this and you’ve mastered it, and you like the results enough to actually just keep going. There’s literally no reason not to do that if it works for you; you can live like this. So you might choose to do one more round of the plan or just keep it going. We’ve had test groups do several rounds and they continue experiencing benefits as they go, so that’s an option.
Then there’s a slightly more liberal plan – a middle plan – which is really about having more of the mindful indulgences more frequently. So it’s like you’re loosely sticking to the plan but you’re adding back in some of the things that may have been on the the “not allowed” list while you were following it strictly.
Then the third maintenance plan is just using what you’ve learned to guide your choices a little more. You’re being more mindful about what you order when you eat out, what you pick up at the grocery store, but you’re not being all that strict. With this strategy, you might just turn to the “Sugar Free 3” resources when you feel like you need to reset.
When you talk about this book, you emphasize that this isn’t a cleanse or a detox. What is it that differentiates this plan from those other common dietary overhauls?
The main motive of this book is teaching people how to eat nutritiously. All of the health benefits that come are side effects of that, not the focus of it. So losing weight, having more energy, having better skin, sleeping better, having better digestion, having more stable moods – all of these things are byproducts of ridding your body of these added sugars and processed carbohydrates. With a lot of diet plans out there, the goals are different, so they’re generally a lot more restrictive. They don’t let you have whole grains or dairy, and they make you portion control and count calories. With “Sugar Free 3,” the focus is different. There are still those tools for people who want to achieve certain goals – for example, there’s a section in the book that gives you bonus tips on how to tweak the program to lose more weight if that’s your primary goal. But overall, the plan is focused on helping people feel better, learn how to eat more nutritiously, and get healthier overall.
As wellness becomes buzzier than ever, it grows oversaturated with conflicting information, too, and it can be difficult for people to navigate the space. While “Sugar Free 3” offers the resources and knowledge to help make sense of one corner of wellness, is there a piece of general, overarching advice that you think it’s important for people to keep in mind as they embark on any journey to improve their health and well-being?
It’s so true. As excited as I am about the fact that health and wellness is this burgeoning industry, it also means that the space is really crowded and that people are really intimidated and overwhelmed by this idea that “wellness” means complying to all of these rules. But my whole thing is, wellness really is pretty simple. You become “well” every single time you just make the better choice. That can be taking the stairs versus the elevator, or turning in early for a full eight hours of sleep instead of staying up late, or deciding that you’re going to take five deep breaths in the face of an agitating situation instead of being reactive. That’s all wellness. Being “well” is really just about making small choices that add up to better health. It’s not tackling these huge things all at once, in every single aspect of your life. That’s overwhelming. And of all the things that can take a toll on your wellness, stress is kind of the most detrimental above all else. So, if your approach to wellness is stressing you out, then abandon ship because there’s probably a better way to go about it. In the end, it’s really just about moving more, stressing less, eating nutritiously, but doing that in small, incremental lifestyle changes. It doesn’t have to be something that you tackle fully on day one. I think the more you get a taste of how good it feels to treat your body well, the more you start to do it. Wellness, to me, is the culmination of making the best choice possible in different moments.