Sugar has a pernicious influence on emotions and willpower. I hadn’t pinpointed the cause to sugar until very recently, because it’s in a colossal percentage of our food–even after ditching soda entirely I still had a metaphorical sugar IV hooked up, consisting of anything from (“healthy”) granola bars and snacks to desserts. It takes a lot of work to escape the clutches of sugar, especially the more refined kinds, but man oh man is it worth it. I’m not here to tell you about all the health benefits, because you’ve heard them all plenty. Instead what I’m here today to look at is the impact sugar has on your mind and your emotions.
I stumbled onto these demons during one of my long-term personal habit experiments. After months of traveling and spending time with family, where I ate most of what was in front of me (still avoiding wheat when possible)—which meant plenty of sugary things—I decided to do an n=1 experiment of cutting out sugar almost entirely. Aside from small amounts of honey in tea and chocolate (dark as sin) from time to time I consumed no sugar, not even from fruit. I started the experiment with the intention of getting food related willpower under control, as eating anything with some refined sugar in it earlier in the day would wreck my ability to not eat whatever I was within reach when I was feeling hungry, and I felt hungry all the time. A dangerous problem to have when baked goods were in the house, especially those little cookies from Trader Joe’s, nom nom.
And thus the experiment began and quickly proved to do have a huge positive impact on said willpower. I felt hungry almost only around mealtimes within a few days and didn’t have any control issues with snacking or not snacking. On that subject it helps massively to not have whatever the offending food(s) is in the house if you’re going to do something like this (also cook more, eat out less). I’m pretty sure this experiment leaned me out too, but I wasn’t tracking that, so I can't say for sure.
In general I felt great for the couple months that I was sticking 100% to the no sugar experiment. Aside from the food related changes above I noticed a general ability to focus more often, stay focused, and to take care of tasks immediately that I’d much rather avoid (dishes, I’m looking at you)—under normal circumstances procrastination would win out at least 50% of the time, now it was (conservatively) under 20%. I noticed these changes, but I wrote them off as improved self-discipline at the time. It’s a challenge to observe changes and attribute them to the correct variable in the midst of the experiment, with so many factors present.
And thus, while not intentionally, I ended the experiment one day when I had some fancy, and quite sugary, chocolates, then the demons surfaced. That’s when I finally connected the dots, years of dots.
Immediately after that dose of sugar I felt so many old and familiar emotions—ones I had previously attributed to random fluctuations in mood...or maybe they were just normal parts of my personality? I found myself getting agitated and irritated at the smallest slights. My irritability threshold, typically spectacularly high, plummeted and it was trivially easy for me to get annoyed, frustrated and otherwise bothered by mine and anyone else’s actions. Sugar was making me grumpy person and bad human being.
As expected my willpower also drained away, both with food and any activities important enough to activate resistance. I also became easily bored and distracted, even flighty, and found it hard to stay with any one activity/task. Back when I played video games heavily the flightiness would manifest as an inability to play any one game for more than 20-30 minutes at a time. I’d get frustrated with my performance or get bored then switch to another one, hoping to drop into a focused state and failing over and over.
There’s one anecdotal story I have that illustrates how much sugar wrecks focus: for years I played a competitive online game, League of Legends, every day. I was a competent player most of the time and usually was regarded well by teammates, including an old five person team I played with regularly. In some games though I played terribly: getting myself killed in stupid and avoidable ways, farming poorly, working sluggishly with my team and displaying a general inability to stay focused. For the most part I thought I just had occasional cases of the derps, but even then I noticed a trend: my worst performances tended to coincide with eating some sugary granola bars or some dessert before playing. I thought that sugar might have something to do with my lapses in skill, but I was eating it regularly and thus had no way to verify my suspicions.
From that same anecdotal experience it was also those same times that I was snappy, mean, and otherwise dismissive to my mother when she would try to get my attention while I was playing. In general having my focus broken irritates me a bit, but my reactions to being distracted were more severe with fresh sugar coursing through my system. Sorry mom.
And now six plus years later I finally do this no sugar experiment and it all became clear, sugar was the culprit in destroying my focus and bringing forth negative emotions and making them harder to manage at the same time. As seductive as treats are, I’m glad to now avoid them 95% of the time. I’m a better person without sugar, more focused, more disciplined, more calm, and just generally a nicer person to be around.
I got into this no sugar experiment testing for health benefits and they’re there, yup. But the emotional and psychological benefits of a sugar free* existence have been what clinched it for me. I choose to avoid sugar because it helps me be the best human I can be in my relationships and interactions; and because I can more easily choose to do and focus on the work that matters. Those are worth more to me than anything else, and thus the decision is simple: don’t let the sugar demons get the light of day.
This isn’t absolutely a cut and dry thing, as nice as that would be to explain. The small doses of honey and chocolate I have sometimes don’t seem to trigger the problems. And sometimes desserts, perhaps because they’re accompanied with a heavy meal, don’t seem to have the same impact either. Fruit also seems to be generally okay in this context. For myself it’s typically the heavily refined kinds of sugar (high fructose corn syrup and its ilk) that have the greatest impact, doubly so when wheat is in the picture. While this specific experiment ended years ago, I'm still testing these ideas to see what creates problems for me and what I can consume without some miniature Jekyll effect.