Cutting out refined sugar
May 28, 2013 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I cut out refined sugar for a week, and the results to my body have been rapid and dramatic. What could be metabolically going on here?

So, I had a little frozen yogurt binge last weekend, felt awful and decided to eat clean for a couple days to clear my system and recover a little. I am still eating fruit, bread, tomato sauce etc. (i.e. not reading labels like a hawk) but I have cut out all the processed sugars I was eating---Starbucks drinks, chocolate, pastries or treats that showed up at work, etc.

Six days later...I have lost three pounds and look noticeably smaller, I have more energy during the day (even when I don't sleep well), I am not hungry between meals and seldom think about food, I was offered a cupcake and turned it down, and best of all, a chronic throat-clearing problem that started a month or so ago has all but cleared up.

I guess I was eating more sugar than I thought I was---I thought it was okay because I was tracking my calories and staying within my allotment, but clearly there is more going on here than just calories. So...what exactly might that be? My sister, who is four years older than me, was diagnosed as pre-diabetic last year and I am wondering if the dramatic results (on my weight, appetite, cravings etc.) means that something other than 'calories in, calories out' is going on here. But...what?
posted by JoannaC to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I am still eating fruit, bread, tomato sauce etc. (i.e. not reading labels like a hawk) but I have cut out all the processed sugars I was eating

You probably haven't cut out all processed sugars then - bread is generally sweetened by bakeries and tomato sauce is almost always sweetened to cut the bitterness of tomatoes.

Six days later...I have lost three pounds

That's well within the noise of your body's day-to-day weight variations. You can't and shouldn't lose three pounds in six days (a 10,500 calorie deficit) without literally starving yourself.

I have more energy during the day

Great, but I've never seen any evidence that's based on cutting processed sugar consumption. You are very likely eating better for other reasons (even artificially sweetened tomato sauce is probably better for you than a Starbucks latte).

clearly there is more going on here than just calories

Sorry to burst your bubble, but no, there isn't. One pound of weight == 3500 calories for all values of calorie and weight (without considering ketosis, which you are not doing). You can definitely change your appetite, which can result in lower calorie consumption. If you actually do believe something is going on, you need more data points than one measurement six days later without even knowing if your calorie consumption varied.
posted by saeculorum at 5:15 PM on May 28, 2013 [13 favorites]

Maybe sugar/salt was causing a little water retention? Your body has four or five pounds to play with.

And I'm just a simple hypochondriac, but since you mentioned your sister I thought I'd point out that the drug store (or your doctor) should have A1C tests that'll help you screen for pre-diabetes.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:34 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, if I eat a pastry-like thing, I'll gain probably at least 3 lbs in water for a few days, probably from the salt. If your sugary foods also have salt in them, that could be the cause of the weight loss.

Re: throat-clearing, when I sang we were always told that dairy caused those kinds of problems, so eliminating chocolate and dairy-heavy drinks might have taken care of that.

Re: appetite, I think it's not uncommon for starchy carbs to make you hungry for more of them, in a horrible cycle of bagels and pasta. Again, I'm thinking your cutting sugar took some of these carbs out too, so you didn't have that non-hunger hunger thing going on.

Finally, I gave up sugar once several years ago, for like two weeks. (All sugar except fruit.) I didn't have more energy, but my energy level was definitely more even throughout the day. So I think you probably cut out enough to remove that sugar-crash feeling.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:09 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book Good Calories, Bad Calories delves into the metabolic process regarding processed sugar rather accessibly (albeit in depth).
posted by samthemander at 6:10 PM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Well if you feel good then that is the best measure. Congratulations on breaking through your sugar addiction and knowing how that feels for you. If that is living in a bubble, then enjoy your bubble! I struggle myself so know what a challenge that can be. Good for you!

As for calorie = calorie, I found this anecdotal blog entry to be enlightening. Steve Pavlina documents how for 30 days he eats raw (mostly fruit, veg, nuts) totaling more calories than usual but still loses weight. I think this points to a more nuanced take on calories than we have known. A banana calorie or an almond calorie isn't actually processed the same as a chicken nugget calorie or a marshmallow calorie for reasons we may not entirely know yet.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:12 PM on May 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Insulin resistience.
posted by eq21 at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2013

Three pounds in six days likely means nothing. A pint of water -- 16 ounces -- weighs a pound.

Try this for six weeks and then you'll know how much difference this makes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:07 PM on May 28, 2013

Decrease in sugar intake = less glycogen storage = dropping water weight

It isn't actual fat loss, though you'll definitely look and feel less bloated since

As for the health effects, there some indicators that eating a ton of sugars and processed carbs has non-specific "inflammatory" effects on the body, via a lot of science-y gobbledygook explanations that aren't terribly convincing. However the improvements in health many people see from cutting out that crap are real, so who knows.
posted by Anonymous at 7:10 PM on May 28, 2013

You've probably lost a little water weight, but most of what you're feeling is probably, to be honest, psychosomatic after only three days. Not that it's a bad thing, it's your body giving positive feedback and telling you to keep going!
posted by mkultra at 7:18 PM on May 28, 2013

I feel great when I cut out sugar, within a day or so.
posted by rr at 7:36 PM on May 28, 2013

I felt so much better when I first cut back on sugar. It was nothing like an Atkins-level cut, just stopped eating candy bars and switched to diet sodas. No more sugar crashes.
posted by bunderful at 7:51 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, it is perhaps water weight, which comes off much more quickly in the beginning. From my own experience, though, when this water weight comes off initially, it means that you probably are operating in a calorie deficit and moving things in the right direction. There comes a point that the weight loss will be more consistent with the calories in vs. calories burned ratio, where a 3500 calories deficit equals a pound lost. Although this isn't always an exact formula, it's pretty consistently productive to calculate this way, if your eating is healthy.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:27 PM on May 28, 2013

If it makes you feel good, keep doing it. It's starting to be clear there's more to weight and diet than calories in/calories out, but we are not very good at understanding what yet. Sugar doesn't do much for you that other, more nutrient-dense and slower-digesting foods won't do, so stay off of it for a while and see how you feel. I have to say I feel better within a couple of days too - the appetite control effect is quite real, and pretty immediate, and it's because you aren't getting a blood sugar spikefollowed by the drop that triggers the sensation of hunger. Slower-digesting foods make you feel full longer and moderate your insulin level better.
posted by Miko at 9:28 PM on May 28, 2013

Human (and other animal) metabolism is far more complex than an oven in which calories in = calories out. The simple calculation is extremely outdated information that is somehow still perpetuated.

I'd say more, but I'm on my phone. Do some more research and you'll find a wealth if information on this topic!

And congrats on cutting out sugar!
posted by 3491again at 1:14 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been on a "no" carb diet for a month, and have just now moved up to a reduced carb diet, and I certainly found it difficult to eat too much food and also that it changed what I craved quite dramatically.

I did not see much difference after only two weeks though, it took a bit longer, but after a month and a half I am about 5 ish kg lighter.

I am not very happy with any level of pseudo science and the vagueness of "inflammation" is almost as bad as talking of energy or toxins or whatever else. It's just a sciencey sounding word. That said I'm more and more convinced (almost entirely anecdotally, which is also bad) that carbs are not very good for you and should be moderated far more than they are.

Basically my opinion is unscientific, not backed up with any kind of decent research and should not be listened to. Not even by me.
I think my point is, metabolic processes are complicated, humans are complicated and cognitive biases and bad science are rife in this area.
Take any anecdotes you hear with a huge pinch of salt*

*Salt is bad for you. Try to eat less of it.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:05 AM on May 29, 2013

Wise words off the mr or mrs 12 faves up there. Nobody has mentioned how ridiculously innacurate and subject to variation in use, domestic weighing scales are. They are truly shockingly bad. I am glad you feel better though. Avoiding shit food is a wise move.
posted by BenPens at 3:25 AM on May 29, 2013

Unless you replaced the calories with something else, you are simply seeing the results of not eating as much food. I'm not sure "sugar" is the magic bullet as much as just not overeating.
posted by gjc at 4:07 AM on May 29, 2013

Much as adipose tissue represents the body's store of fat, glycogen is the body's reserve of carbohydrate. Glycogen is stored in the skeletal muscles and liver, and every gram of stored glycogen stores several grams of water along with it. Any time someone reduces their carbohydrate intake (as happens basically any time someone reduces caloric intake, but especially when they start a specifically low-carb diet), they will reduce their body's glycogen stores and also the water stored along with it, resulting in several pounds of weight loss within the first week of the diet. The size of this initial weight loss is proportional to the size of the dieter, and is a well-known confounding effect of low-carbohydrate dieting, because it isn't fat loss.

That said, paying attention to your diet is good, and cutting refined sugar can be a great way to reduce calories without losing anything of nutritional value. Just be mindful that you don't get sucked into too much nutritional snake-oil, because there's a ton of it out there, particularly around low-carb diets these days.

And just for some perspective, check out this fascinating study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for which the free fulltext is available. 42 obese women aged ~40 were placed on one of two diets, both of which were low-calorie, and contained 11% of energy as fat, 19% as protein, and 71% as carbohydrate. Half the women consumed 43% of their total daily energy intake as sugar, and the other half only ate 4% of their calories as sugar. Both groups showed equal significant reductions in weight and body fat percentage, neither diet had adverse effects on plasma lipids, and "all subjects also showed significant improvement over time in indexes of mood and attention span; hunger decreased equally in both groups and anxiety ratings did not change significantly."
posted by ludwig_van at 5:38 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, it's been clear for at least 30 years that not all calories are equal -- if you give people a koolaid-style drink made with different sweeteners and then let them pick a free lunch from a buffet, there are strong correlations between the sugar they had an hour before and how much they eat for lunch. Some sugars (especially the unrefined kinds) are handled better by our systems, while others (especially refined white table sugar) lead to bigger swings in blood sugar and thus bigger swings in appetite. There is mounting evidence that refined sugars disregulate our metabolism and particularly our insulin systems, so yes, your system could be much happier in the absence of the roller coaster of sugar-munching. I found when I started eating paleo (which removes sugar and also all grains and starches) that I stopped craving a muffin every afternoon, was no longer tempted by office donuts, etc. -- the opposite of what people expect, but it fits with a steadier blood sugar level and a happier system.
posted by acm at 6:44 AM on May 29, 2013

I'm going along with the idea that your initial weight loss has been due to unknowingly cutting your salt intake. I once lost five pounds overnight when I inadvertantly slashed my salt intake one day. Gained it back within a few days after I reterned to my normal eating habits.

I also suggest that one possibility for your feeling better is that you've changed the ratio of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) you eat, since sugar and sugary foods tend to be carb-heavy. I went gluten-free for a while to see if that affected my gut issues--I felt much more clear-headed in the mornings, as my persistent brain fog went away. Turns out it had nothing to do with gluten, and everything to do with the fact that before I tried GF, I ate breakfasts that were almost 100% carbs and fat, and on the GF diet, I significantly lesened the carbs and increased the protein I was eating for breakfast. I function much more effectively on more protein in the mornings!

And to reply to one of the commenters: A banana calorie or an almond calorie isn't actually processed the same as a chicken nugget calorie or a marshmallow calorie for reasons we may not entirely know yet.

Actually, we know the reasons. From what I understand, the less processing there is to a food, the more fiber and other substances are in it that (a) take longer to digest and (b) take more energy (calories) to digest, and, in general, fewer of the calories in the substance are available to the body to use. Once you start processing (cooking counts) a food, you break down the fiber and whatnot and, basically, increase the amount of energy in it that's available to you.

So if you have an apple that's 100 calories (unprocessed), an unsweetened baked apple that's 100 calories (somewhat processed), and an unsweetened glass of apple juice (even more processed) that's 100 calories, your body will, after digestion, have taken in different percentages of that 100 calories from each food.
posted by telophase at 7:01 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find that when I cut sugar out I don't just remove sugar, I add other things (water, fresh fruit, what have you) that are actually good for my body. I sure do feel better, but don't know if it's the absence of sugar or the presence of actually being hydrated for once, you know? If it's working for you, keep on keepin' on. People are probably right though that the weight loss is water weight loss, so don't freak out if next week you're back up 3 or 4 pounds again.
posted by like_a_friend at 7:44 AM on May 29, 2013

Regarding the throat clearing - that's often linked to acid reflux (also called laryngopharyngeal reflux or silent reflux because it doesn't cause the normal heartburn). Acid reflux triggers can include some of the things you may have cut down, including chocolate, caffeine, fizzy drinks, citrus flavours, pastry and fatty foods. It's one possibility!
posted by kadia_a at 11:13 AM on May 29, 2013

I agree with a lot of people saying that it's most likely water weight. But I'm a little confused on how some people say, "Oh! It's just water weight"

It's 3 pounds less weight that you carry around on your frame.
It's 3 pounds less water circulating around your body which most likely eases the workload of your heart and blood pressure. (And some studies have indeed linked sugar and hypertension).

And if you keep up this diet, which you should anyway, it's a permanent 3 pounds weight loss.
Of course as someone was saying, a week and 3 pounds are still within the margin of error. Do a longer term experiment if you're so inclined.

As to why you feel better, my theory is sugar spikes up your insulin level. The subsequent crash is when you feel crappy and hungry. If there is less of a spike, there is less of a crash.
posted by 7life at 1:05 PM on May 29, 2013

I think there is something special about table sugar (sucrose):
A reader (Jay Bryant) recently pointed out a PNAS article on the structure of a bacterial enzyme that uses sucrose to make the glucan matrix of dental biofilms. ...

Biofilms are communities of multiple species of bacteria held together by a polysaccharide matrix. In the case of dental plaque, the polysaccharide is made of glucose links, whereas many other matrix polysaccharides are negatively charged and held together by positively charged metal ions. The bacteria bind to the polysaccharides using protein receptors that exploit the display of hydrophobic binding sites of the polysaccharides. It takes energy to make polysaccharides and the dental plaque bacteria use the energy already expended in the formation of sucrose to produce a polymer of glucose, an alpha-glucan, and free fructose. Thus, sucrose is essential in forming this type of biofilm and without this sugar, the dental plaque cannot form. ...
I'd guess you feel better because your immune system is no longer being stimulated by overgrowth of plaque-forming bacteria, and that this could account for the recession of your throat-clearing problem too.
posted by jamjam at 1:50 PM on May 29, 2013

Amazing that some answers almost close to "nothing special is happening to you" or "don't want to burst your bubble but..." Congrats on finding something that has brought something positive into your life. I gave up sugar for several months as an experiment and had similar results. I actually found that the second week was tough for me as my body was making lots of adjustments to come back to a place of equilibrium. I always thought that my body was not on high alert anymore to handle the large amounts of sugar that it expected to get and therefore had to adjust for the new kinds of foods and the new amounts of sugars that I was taking in. I also kept the weight off during this time (so it is not just water weight as everyone is saying, imho backed up by my experience). But if this is a long term kind of thing, watch out for the arch nemesis of sugar dumping: HOLIDAYS! I gave in on Valentine's Day and I started back into sugar hell. So also, thanks for the reminder of how amazing and transformative this could be. Maybe I'll join in the fun again!
posted by boots77 at 1:32 AM on May 30, 2013

Sugar is mildly poisonous; the damage done depends on the dose consumed.
posted by flabdablet at 9:47 PM on May 30, 2013

Inspired by this, or more accurately, just intrigued by this, I cut out refined sugar as an experiment. Here at day 3, I am headache free (versus slight daily headaches), have more energy, and a vastly less intrusive appetite.

Correlation? Temporal, yes. Causative? Plausible.

I'm going to extend it a few weeks and see. I have 10 pounds more than I like and will see where I am in two weeks. It has been flat or trending slightly upwards for months.

The missing headaches are particularly interesting.
posted by FauxScot at 8:35 AM on May 31, 2013

Well chocolate bars, starbucks drinks, pastries all are not filling or nutritious foods. If you're swapping those things out for food with more protein and fiber, that's probably why you are less hungry between meals.
posted by inertia at 12:43 PM on May 31, 2013

1.5 years low-carb and I'm never going back. I don't know how to explain it scientifically and I know I am biased, but I know how I feel with and without. I think I have (had?) reactive hypoglycemia. I've done just no sugar before and that was a big improvement itself, but the truth is there isn't THAT much difference between sugar and flour or between refined sugar and unprocessed sugar.
posted by callmejay at 6:11 PM on June 3, 2013

Any time this subject comes up, people come along to defend calories in calories out with a religious-like fervor and I think you should think of it in exactly those terms (religious fervor.) If they are right, it is a coincidence. They are generally no more expert than you or I.

As I understand it, many obesity experts advocate low-carb diets and it is also gaining traction in other fields as well.
posted by callmejay at 6:12 PM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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