All About Food

Food is medicine: My 30 days of no caffeine and no sugar

March 12, 2018

“You are what you eat.” Food has a greater impact on your overall well-being than you might believe. I once heard Kevin Plan, CEO and founder of Under Armour say, “It’s absurd that you know more about your car than you know about your body”. That really struck a chord with me. If you think about it, it’s so true. You know what type of gas, the mileage, you know when you need to get the oil changed and a tune up. So why don’t we know all this about our bodies? Why don’t we take better care of ourselves by putting only the best kind of fuel into our bodies? After all, our bodies are like finely tuned vehicles. If you give it good fuel, it will take you places. 

I always thought that I fueled my body well and led a generally healthy lifestyle. I would eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, hydrate with plenty of water (and not drink sugary beverages), work out 6 days a week, (mostly) have a positive attitude in life and of course do what I love most: Wander the world! But 2017 came along and my circumstances made me rethink what it truly means to use food as medicine.

One sunny April day in 2017 I suddenly felt ill. Normally when I get sick I’d still have plenty of energy to run around and get $hit done. This time things were different. I felt so weak that I was bedridden for 3 days, only leaving my bed for water. I couldn’t even eat. I thought I had been hit by the flu. Eight days passed before I finally started to feel ok again. I was glad when it was over and I could go back to my normal routine, but then it came back again 3 weeks later. Same scenario. And then again 3 weeks after that. I went to see multiple doctors, got x-rays and scans, had blood drawn for test after test. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. Doctors would give me medication of all sorts to ease the pain. Nobody could find the root cause to end the cycles of illness.

In total, it took about 6 months for me to get better. My doctors never did figure out what was wrong. What healed me? Food and alternative medicine (like craniosacral therapy). The experience made me realize how much we rely on prescription drugs. Have body aches? Take some ibuprofen. Feeling depressed? Take some prozac. High cholesterol? Take statin. These drugs merely mask the symptoms versus truly identifying the source of illness to heal us. Intrigued and curious, I decided to explore food as medicine by taking myself on several 30-day experimental journeys to see how the food choices I make impact my overall well being.

My blog posts have typically revolved around tips, hints and advice on eating ridiculously yummy food or wandering around world. This post (and the ones that will surely follow) will take on a different angle. As I discover the power of food, I want to share my experiences with you in hopes that these stories might inspire you to rethink what you’re putting into your body.

For those that know me, I like a good challenge, so for my first 30-day experiment I decided that I would take on a few changes all at once:

  • No sugar. I define this as no added sugars or fruits. However, if a dish was made with sauces that had a little sugar (like soy sauce) I can still eat it, but would proactively try to avoid these types of dishes as much as possible.  
  • No caffeine. I define this as any caffeine. Since decaf coffee still has some caffeine they are also on my no go list.
  • Bonus: Sleep 7+ hours a night. Though sleep isn’t exactly a food experiment, I really want to see how sleeping can impact my wellbeing and food choices. Most of my life sleeping 6 hours has ben a luxury so this is going to be a real challenge. 

How did it go?

Well let’s start by admitting that it wasn’t a walk in the park. Especially because the first week I started the experiment I had to fly to London for work. With jet lag and caffeine withdrawals I was a complete zombie. But I’m happy to say that I stuck to my plan! That is until my weekend in Bologna. For those who are well-traveled you’ll probably know that Bologna is the city for food lovers. Known for great pastas, pizza and yes: coffee, chocolate and other yummy desserts. I made a decision that I’d enjoy my trip (which meant indulging in the coffees and sweets) and restart my 30 day experiment as soon as I got back to the US. I have no regrets because I had one of the most mouth-watering cannolis known to mankind while in Bologna. A post will be coming on eating in Bologna. But I digress…

I returned to the US and restarted the 30 day clock. Week one was tough. I had headaches and longed for a coffee every time I smelled the sweet aromas of freshly ground espresso beans being turned into delicious caffeine beverages. I thought about the sweet taste of goodness every time I walked by a bakery and saw the perfectly frosted little confectionery and buttered pastries peering out of the bakery window at me. Each night at 10pm I had to mentally remind myself to shut down from my screens to ensure I would get my full 7 hours of sleep.

It was tough, but it got easier. By the end of week three I barely noticed the scent of coffee beans or the bakeries I would walk by. And it became natural to just shut down by 10pm every night.

What improvements did I see?

I noticed some amazing changes:

  • I slept better
  • I felt more energy throughout the day
  • I was more productive and focused

In terms of sleep, I used to struggle with falling asleep. My mind would race with thoughts. By the end of the 30 days I was falling asleep within 10 minutes of laying down. My sleep was restful and I’d wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. I was alert throughout the day and and didn’t have food comas or afternoon slumps (probably from not having any caffeine or sugar crashes, but I’m sure the sleep helped too). I generally felt more creative, energetic, and productive. Seems counterintuitive right? I was spending less time working and more time sleeping, but I was getting more done. I wasn’t consuming caffeine or sugar: two things that I used to rely on to keep me focused, but without them I was even more focused and creative.

I can’t point to one individual experiment and say that it was the specific cause to the changes I felt since I did all three things simultaneously. What I do believe is that they all worked together.

Getting the right amount of sleep helped me to not need caffeine to stay alert. It also helped me make better food choices (I didn’t have sugar cravings when I got good sleep). Not having caffeine or sugar enabled me to fall asleep in the evening and get a restful night of sleep. Not eating sugar also prevented the afternoon slump (which in the past would have led me to drinking coffee to “wake up”). A deadly cycle.

So what’s next?
At the end of my 30 days I decided these were sustainable habits and I enjoyed the benefits I felt. I wanted to keep up my rituals. Unfortunately, one fateful day, I grabbed a cinnamon tea sachet at 3pm and made a glorious (what I thought was herbal) tea. It was not. I ended up tossing and turning all night, mentally tired and ready for sleep, but physically still wired. That just further confirmed for me each of the habits I changed worked together. And that I was better off without caffeine.

Moving forward, my aspiration is to continue on with these habits. I intend to keep caffeine to a minimum (1-2 days a week on days I really really really need it), continue to sleep 7+ hours a night, and reserve sugary treats for special occasions (like my dad’s birthday cake).

The goal for me in all these experiments is to see how different changes can impact how I feel and decide on an approach that’ll work for me in the long term. It needs to be a sustainable lifestyle change to truly improve your long term well being. I also don’t believe in the all or nothing approach because that’ll just lead to cravings. It’s human nature to want what you can’t have.

My next experiment: 30 days of no alcohol while consuming a Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. I love eggs and cheese too much to go any other vegetarian route!

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