Confessions of an Ideal Protein Coach: Sweetness-Free, Week 3

Hi There,

It's been just over 2 weeks since I came out of my tantrum and made the switch to a diet with no added sweeteners of any kind.  It's been a dark and difficult couple of weeks. But I see light peeking through the clouds now, and I've tried to describe below both what I experienced and what I OBSERVED about what happened in both my body and mind. 

First, the most obvious "symptom" I felt was depression. I've had depression on and off since I was a child - but I've been medicated with anti-depressants for the last several years and haven't been symptomatic for the most part.  The return of depression alarmed me.

My first few sweet-free days were filled with sadness. Every drink I took of my coffee made me wish for it to be sweet. (Note: I hadn't had sugar in my coffee for years - I was craving Splenda).  

Every time I had to plan a meal, I was filled with despair and resentment. Every habitual idea I had involved some kind of sweet taste.  A hamburger patty wouldn't be the same without sugar-free ketchup. Protein pancakes were unacceptable without Walden Farms syrup.  Protein shakes tasted HORRIBLE without sweetener - no matter how much vanilla or cinnamon I added to the mix. 

As I cast about, looking for foods that would bring me pleasure, I fell prey to despair.  Every single meal I wanted -- and by 'wanted' I mean those meals I felt a sense of anticipation or enjoyment about - involved some level of sweet.  Now, without that, I couldn’t come up with ANY foods that didn't sound bland and boring - and I knew I'd need to eat this way forever! 

I caught a sinus cold and was exposed to the flu at about the same time, so everything felt a little worse because I didn't feel physically well, either.  I was SO down that I had trouble making myself leave the house for about a week.  What would be the point of meeting someone for coffee -- mine would be unsweetened!  What would be the point of going grocery shopping? There was nothing exciting for me there.  It had taken me only a few days to realize that anything I brought home would be disappointing.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit how hopeless I suddenly found my life. I mean, considering how wonderful my life is in almost every way, indulging this mood felt silly and petulant.  But some part of me was fascinated by my own extreme mood and I began to suspect it was chemical in nature…

I had a few nights of emotional breakdown, where my wonderful, amazing boyfriend comforted me and tried to help me keep perspective.  He likened what I was going through to his process of kicking smoking a few years before.  (By the way,  brain / addiction science concurs with him).  He described the excruciating feeling of NEEDING a 'hit' as his body gradually adjusted to the absence of nicotine. It sounded *just* like my feeling of NEEDING a comforting, enjoyable bite (or ten) of a sweetened food.  He described the sense of loss and the lack of grounding that came with giving up a habit -- no more smoke breaks, no more coffee and a cigarette to get going in the morning. No more de-stressing with that instant chemical infusion.  In his words, I heard truth.  My experience was almost the *same.*  I was having withdrawals.  My moods were being controlled by a brain desperately missing a chemical it had become dependent upon. This inspired my inner science geek  to investigate.

My first line of inquiry was about my specific mood symptoms.  I noticed I didn't feel anxious - just depressed.  That was different since my natural depression was infused with anxiety. This was just a feeling of being dull, unmotivated, irritable...  I also noticed my tolerance for anything that required persistence or endurance was almost nil.   I've been fascinated by neurochemistry for quite a long time, so I recognized the signs pointing to a couple of specific neurochemicals which might be unbalanced.  (For those who are interested, I found this article ( to be a good and very basic introduction to our "happy" chemicals.)

Dopamine is the chemical responsible for motivation and desire.  It makes you feel zippy and alive and excited! Dopamine is the first step in a chain of neurochemical reward.  It directs you to want things that will give you ENDORPHINS - the body's feel good chemicals. You release endorphins when you attain things like sexual gratification, social achievement, capture of something you've been chasing, and of course, food that your body deems especially helpful for survival (fat storage). Dopamine and Endorphins are part of the very primitive operating system of our brain and they work on a largely subconscious level.  They drive a lot of our behavior, but most people are pretty much unaware of them. 

My first few days of NEED and longing seemed dopamine driven. My body had obviously been getting endorphins from the sweet flavors I was having, even though they didn't have any calories.  My primitive brain had been tragically fooled by the taste into thinking I'd found a marvelous source of concentrated carbohydrates (which would help me store fat and survive famine). It used dopamine to urge me to continue to consume those sweet tasting things, since in ancient times, sweets were scarce and hard to come by.  Our ancestors who gorged on them and stored extra fat survived longer.  My brain was just trying to help me survive.  Little did I know the serious metabolic imbalance I was triggering by tricking my own brain.

So there I was - faced with dire health consequences if I kept eating these triggers.  Out of fear and desperation, I quit - cold turkey.  Without the stimulus, my dopamine levels first rose - driving me with relentless, tear-soaked cravings for about 4 days.  Then, abruptly, it gave up and ceased pumping out dopamine.  After having had so much floating around for so long, this dopamine desert felt drastic and depressing.   Without it's zippy encouragement, I could hardly leave the house, go to work, or do any projects on my personal to-do list. (Note: this is highly unusual for me).  I also felt totally uninterested in food after about 3 days. (Also, unusual - duh!)  Coming up with a meal I could eat felt like an overwhelming chore.  I'd gone from over-active dopamine to almost non-existent dopamine in the space of about 5 days.  Low dopamine is one component of clinical depression.

The next thing I noticed was very high irritability and low tolerance for anything requiring patience.  The smallest excess noise made me want to cover my ears. Light was bothersome and I wanted to dim the world. My amazing boyfriend got on my nerves a couple of times - which (believe it or not) is very rare!  Suddenly tiny things he did grated on my *last* nerve.  Fortunately I was aware enough of my mood to talk to him about it instead of taking it out on him. Some rational part of me knew he wasn't the source of my irritable feelings.  Irritability can be caused by SO many things so I didn't immediately recognize it as a symptom  However, I realized I'd developed a very uncharacteristic level of frustration triggered by very minor things.

I'm not all that patient on a good day unless I have a really good reason to be. So impatience is something I struggle with and laugh at myself about. However, this was something different.  For instance, I needed to set up voice mail on my new phone.  Not rocket science, right?  Well, in my state I may as well have been trying to learn German over night! Each little thing that didn't work perfectly the first time made me want to hurl the phone across the room. It wasn't rage, though, it was something worse… Futility. Giving up.  A sense of, "I can't… even…"  I gave up quickly on my voice mail and just let it go un-set-up.  This is very unusual for me. I did the same thing with several other easy things over the next couple of days, and yearned to crawl into bed to just let life pass by.  I don't mean I just wanted a nap. I have a blackbelt in napping and I LOVE taking them. This was darker.  More pathetic. I wanted to hide from the world and disappear in a soothing pile of blankets.  

The science geek in me realized something was up.  I flipped through my mental rolodex of neurochemicals…

Beta-Endorphin!! Of course!!  Kathleen DesMaisons explains the Beta-E effect from food more eloquently than I can, so here's an excerpt from her site, Radiant Recovery:


"Whether you are sugar-sensitive or not, sugar, like alcohol, causes a release of beta-endorphin. It can make you feel high and can reduce both physical and emotional pain. People with normal body chemistry can enjoy this without ill effects. But sugar-sensitive people respond to the beta-endorphin effect of sugar in a bigger way because their brain cells have far more beta-endorphin receptors than ordinary people.
For sugar-sensitive people, eating sugar can make you feel and act as if you’ve been drinking wine!
Sugar can make you funny, relaxed, silly, inappropriate, talkative, and temporarily self-confident. You feel great -- and you long to feel this way again and again.
You have probably noticed this drug-like effect after eating sugar. Unfortunately, people don't take this response seriously. They make jokes about being a "chocoholic", but rarely speak of the real pain caused by the continuing and compulsive use of sweets, the end result of which is a drop in beta-endorphin."

That made sense, and I've KNOWN about this science for long time… The problem was that I hadn't been eating SUGAR. I'd only been having Splenda and stevia.  But my body must have been pumping out Beta-E in response to it (just like it had been pumping out insulin) anyway!  Otherwise I wouldn't have been having withdrawal symptoms - similar to those of a heroin addict or alcoholic.  I just want to reiterate for my own sense of outrage… THIS WAS FROM ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS, NOT SUGAR OR CARBS!

It was all starting to make sense!  My Reactive Hypoglycemia was the most serious, health-impacting symptom but it's been being exacerbated by my addictive response to ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS… I don't know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but at this point it doesn't seem to matter.

The good news is that on about day 5 the wretched sweet cravings subsided, and on about day 14, my mood took a big turn for the better.  I hope this means my body chemistry is naturally evening out. 

I have been following my doctor's advice:  hold off on a weight-loss protocol and just focus on getting off sweeteners and on to foods that maintain even blood sugar / insulin.  So I've been having TONS of greens and non-starchy veggies, high quality protein, healthy fats, NO dairy, and virtually NO grains. I've added sprouted grain bread and a bit of oats a couple of times but am still focused on low-carbing since I know my body feels best that way.  I looked into a few existing eating plans (i.e. Whole 30 on the advice of a reader), but I haven't found one that addresses all my concerns.  The way I'm eating for the moment is causing me to lose a little weight - probably mostly from reduction of inflammation - but that isn't my focus at the moment.  I'm essentially trying to identify what I can eat in Maintenance before I do another modified stint on Phase 1. 

Nothing I'm eating feels zippy or exciting.  I don't look forward to my meals but I no longer feel totally disinterested in food.  What I'm eating makes me feel "even."  I can go 6 hours between meals and feel barely hungry, which I think is a great sign!  My hunger is different when it comes - which is hard to describe. I'll say it's less urgent. Less of a drive and more of an inclination to eat.   I don't feel despair anymore about eating this way long-term. The memory of sweet taste is fading from my mind.

In fact, the other day I had a bite of an unsweetened almond-milk yogurt I had previously thought tart and bitter, and it tasted so sweet to me that I had to look at the package to ensure I hadn't accidentally grabbed the sweetened variety. I hadn't! It just tasted different. I guess my taste buds and sweet receptors are adapting.  

That's all for now. No answers. No new protocols. I'm still figuring this out and piecing it together day by day. But I do feel like I'm understanding the problem, so I think that empowers me to properly craft a solution.  I'm finding small pockets of experts who've delved into this and written about it. But there isn't all that much out there. Fortunately I love research and will comb the internet for help. 

For now, I'm feeling hopeful in a more meaningful way than I did even a few days ago.  I'll share more soon.  Please feel free to send questions, comments, thoughts, resources, ideas… I investigate them all, and I appreciate all the help!