Anyone who has played a video game in the last thirty years or so knows you don’t start out by fighting the dragon.
You don’t have the weapons or the abilities or the spells to do it. Instead, you spend 20 levels killing boars and kobolds with a glorified stick, hoping that one of them will drop your quest item so you can go get a piece of crappy armor and move on with your life and hopefully into the next questing area.
That’s why, when I first started getting serious about taking care of myself again, I thought of myself like a character in a video game. I would take things one step at a time, level up, expand my abilities, and earn the loot I needed to achieve my goals.
But first, I had to change.
It’s hard to change. I think a lot of people, when they decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle, make all their changes at once. No sugar. Go on a diet. Get a membership to the gym. Run three miles every day. It’s a lot all at once, and while I’m sure some people can do it, it’s not sustainable for most people. If you cut out all the things you love (food, sugar, wine, beer, pizza) while adding in stuff that is hard (running, fitness classes, finding the time to do any of it), chances are you’re going to be miserable and fail.
I didn’t want to fail. So I stopped thinking of myself as needing to “lose weight” or “get healthy” and tried to remind myself that I was on a quest to become the best version of myself.
All of this was inspired by the planner I bought for myself, made by Ink+Volt. Let me say, I’m not the planner type. I use my phone to keep myself organized most of the time. The whole planner culture of doing layouts and using stickers and stuff doesn’t speak to me. But, I backed this planner on Kickstarter on a whim and I’m glad I did, even if I rarely use it now. I credit it for starting me on the path to take my health seriously again.
Each month, the planner asks you to review your theme for the year, your yearly goals, then think of monthly goals that will help you achieve them. Then it asks you to think of a month-long challenge.
So my year broke down like this:
Yearly Theme: Get It Together
I need to get my life together. Stop being lazy. Do the things I love. Accomplish something. Make the world a better place. Get out of debt. Get happy. Figure out what I’m doing. Stop being a mess. Be an INFJ at home, not just at work.
Clearly, I was pretty down on myself.
2017 Top Goals
- Get organized
- Lose Weight
- Write Book
- Get Happy
- Award Winning Books
- Pay down debt
- Get a new job
I’m doing better with some of those than others.
Next I had to decide on my January challenge. I’d just gone through Christmas and my jeans felt uncomfortable. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t go above a size 10 in jeans and I was in danger of that happening. I also felt awful in general, and a lot of the things that made me feel like me (dexterity, endurance) were gone. If my life were a fantasy novel, I definitely would have been the friend in the adventuring group that the dragon caught first.
Since I was starting to worry about diabetes because of my grandmother, I decided to start with sugar.
I love sweets. Chocolate, baked goods, ice cream, whatever. I never thought of myself as going overboard on them, but I also was in denial about things like muffins or scones or a delicious piece of banana bread being sweets. Despite the fact that places like Starbucks and Panera are only too happy to tell me just how many calories are in that innocent piece of banana bread, I could usually find a way to justify it:
A stressful day at work. A customer yelled at me for literally no reason. My husband and I got into a fight. I felt homesick for my family and friends. The weather was crappy. Life in general was crappy.
I knew it wasn’t a healthy relationship with sugar, and I decided I needed to change it.
I also knew I couldn’t cut out sugar entirely. I didn’t want to cut out fruits, because I probably would have turned into a super villain if I decided never to have a raspberry again. Also, wine.
What I decided to do instead was just “cut down on sugar.” That is literally what my goal says.
I started slow. No more honey in my tea, which was honestly the hardest one for me. I really love honey. Next, I cut sweet baked goods. Goodbye scones, I miss you. No candy and no ice cream were pretty obvious. Bagels with cream cheese were less obvious, but also were eventually eliminated.
Then I made it a point to start reading the ingredients of some of the snacks I ate at work. Obviously I wasn’t going to grab a bar of chocolate or even a bag of fruit snacks. But did you know Chex Mix has sugar added to it? Because it does. Eventually I swore off the snack machine entirely.
It wasn’t just about missing sweets though. Quitting sugar, when you’ve been having it pretty regularly, is awful. I’d read so many articles about how much better I would feel after quitting sugar, as if it was some sort of magical solution to all my problems. I would lose weight! My skin would improve! My sleep would be better! I would have more energy.
Spoiler alert: none of that happened.
Actually, I felt like total garbage for a while. My usual once a month migraines turned into once a week migraines. My mood sucked. I felt even more down on myself. And I definitely didn’t lose any weight.
I still stuck with it though, mostly because I am stubborn and enjoyed the process of crossing off each square in my challenge tracker. And after about two weeks, I no longer wanted to kick my coworkers when I saw them eating a Twix bar (so I could steal it for myself).
I messed up a bunch of times in that first month…like when I went to visit my mom and she asked if I wanted her to make me snickerdoodles and I replied with an emphatic, “yes!” But after 31 days, it no longer felt that difficult to say no to sugar. I still wanted a cookie, but it was easier to convince myself that a blueberry was an acceptable substitute.
On the other hand, after 31 days, I still didn’t see any huge benefits to not having sugar.
But…by that point, it was a habit not to have it.
I didn’t feel compelled to have a munchkin from Dunkin Donuts when my coworkers brought them in. Muffins for breakfast no longer seemed like the thing to do. And I’d gotten used to the taste of tea without honey.
I deciding to see how long I could stick with it. My goal was to make it to my birthday at the end of April without having an unnecessary sweet. It continued to be an annoying endeavor, especially when going out to dinner and being faced with a dessert menu with creme brûlée on it. By the time my birthday rolled around, I’d been daydreaming about what sweet I would use to break my sugar fast for weeks.
I had the perfect plan. A breakfast at Panera with my favorite Republic of Tea Ginger Peach tea (with honey!). A blueberry scone. And carrot cake after dinner! I told anyone who asked that literally the only thing I wanted for my birthday was a slice of carrot cake.
Much to my supreme disappointment, the scone…didn’t taste that great. Actually the sugariness tasted pretty bad. My honey laden tea was also not satisfying.
The carrot cake was still awesome, and I promptly ate a piece of it three days in a row before realizing what I was doing and trashing the rest.
In the weeks following my sugar binge, something far worse than a scone not tasting great happened. I got a migraine almost immediately. I broke out. I slept like garbage. Worst of all, I had an awful rosacea flare up, complete with an ocular rosacea attack.
In the end, I think the effects of quitting sugar are both overblown and under-emphasized. It’s not a magical fix-all, but people probably aren’t aware with just how much sugar is messing with them. Knowing that I don’t have to deal with itchy eyes, painful skin, and migraines is enough for me to not want sweets anymore. I’m cool with getting my sugar from fruits.
Well, kind of. I still don’t believe in completely eliminating things that I love, so I decided that every three months, it’s cool for me to have an excessively sugary treat. I like this because it gives me time to REALLY think about what I want. For example, after my birthday binge of carrot cake, I decided my July treat would be a soft serve ice-cream cone from a favorite spot in my town. It was awesome. And yeah, I’m already planning for fall as well (leaning towards a cider donut).
My sugar intake looks like this these days:
- Baked Goods
- Sugar in tea
- Fruit juices
- Sports drinks
- Dark chocolate
- Cream cheese
- Sugar added to sauces that I make myself
- Natural peanut butter
- Vanilla Yogurt
Do I still mess up sometimes? Sure. I went out for dinner one night with a friend, had a little too much wine, and when he offered me some of dessert, I said yes without remembering that I don’t eat sweets anymore. But you know what? Those sweet fried ricotta balls were DELICIOUS. I also didn’t realize until the next day what I had done, so I just don’t see a point in stressing about it.
As for the wine, well…I’m not a masochist.