Notes from a Month of Abstinence (no Sugar, Booze, or Caffeine)

The idea for a vice fast had crossed my mind as the end of the year approached, but it was my seven-year-old who made it something concrete. 

Mid-December, he declared that as soon as Christmas was over he was going to give up sugar. No candy, maple syrup, ice cream, donuts, granola bars, chocolate, cookies, cakes, or sweet pies. Mum said that’s a great idea and said she’d do it too. 

The healthy-eating propaganda that we served up liberally with his meals had made an impression. Almost too much. Initially he’d wanted to do it “for ever”, but mum, being more pragmatic and not unfond of chocolate, talked him down to a month.

While the whole family (big brother was in on it too) was going to cut sugar, I decided to go for the trifecta of a sugar-free, booze-free and caffeine-free month. Mum, who runs on coffee, decided that was a deprivation too far.

February is now upon us, and after a successful month-long “fast” we are considering stretch goals and talking about establishing healthy eating habits. A positive result.  

Looking back, of the three vices, refined sugar was the easiest to forego for me. I do enjoy cookies, fruit pies, and chocolatey desserts, but it’s much easier to stick to the programme when no one else around you is scarfing down sugary treats.

No sugar added: banana split

Booze, likewise, was no great loss. It’s mostly a social thing: beers after soccer or a glass of wine at supper. We’ve been in a particularly socially restrictive stretch of the Covid-19 pandemic this past month. No soccer. Very little socialising, in general, and no-one to share a bottle with at home. 

Caffeine was the hardest to give up, especially since I was being taunted by the aroma of freshly ground coffee every morning. Before my month of abstinence, my daylight hours were usually punctuated with caffeine hits: the cup of Joe to kickstart the morning and then tea throughout the rest of the day. 

Even though previously I was only having one (albeit large) mug of coffee a day, I immediately felt the caffeine withdrawal. In the first few days I had a stinging headache right between the eyes, which only began to subside after 48 hours and disappear by the fourth day.

I also felt more lethargic and achey, a feeling exacerbated by the constantly gloomy, wet weather outside and being overly sedentary inside.

On the plus side, there was really no problem with insomnia. If I lay down in a dark room for longer than 10 minutes, I slept. 

I slept well.

Keeping the family on track was mostly about finding good substitutions when the temptation arose, as well as providing encouragement. The kids were surprisingly steadfast. It was a little boring to begin with, but we ate much more fresh fruit and nuts (especially roasted almonds, pecans, brazils, and walnuts). We cooked sugar-free crepes and pancakes and smothered them in hot berry sauces. One of my personal favourites was banana split filled with yogurt, covered with berries and crushed nuts.

Some things didn’t work. With no maple syrup, #2 lost his appetite for his morning bowl of porridge oats. A doughy, white-flour bagel is not such a wholesome start to the school-day. We all agreed that fluffy, blueberry muffins don’t have nearly the same appeal when the sweetness is expunged.

On the beverage side, I have really been enjoying my rooibos teas. The South African red tea has a similar tarry taste of regular black tea, sans caffeine. I tried rooibos brands by Tetley, Compliments, and President’s Choice over the month. The strongest flavoured and my personal favourite is the PC rooibos. Unlike the other two brands, it doesn’t include vanilla and has a fuller, tannin taste like regular tea.

Cans of sugar-free, flavoured, fizzy water helped dull the ever present allure of sugary pop.

Cup of Rooibos tea

After a week, it felt like we had crossed to the next threshold and the chief enemy of resolve for the remainder of the month was complacency – succumbing to a feeling that we’d already proved ourselves. Doing this together made it easier, and something of a family bonding experience.

This week we’ll celebrate reaching our goal with bingsoo (shaved ice dessert) at a local Korean cafe. After the great sugar binge of Halloween, and excesses of Christmas, we’ve reset.