Sugar (especially in the form of chocolate!) is a treat we all love and crave. Unsurprisingly, over the winter months I found myself consuming more chocolate, sweets and cakes than usual. I would always overindulge with those extra chocolate brownie bites, and let’s face it, when its bite size it does not seem so bad. So when I tried the 30-day Sugar-Free Challenge, it really showed me how dependent I was on sugary foods and helped me make better food choices.
It is easy to become negligent when it comes to food, diet and nutrition. When you go to the supermarket, you see more junk food aisles than healthy food ones. We see fast-food chains on every high street and advertising from the food industry is constantly bombarding us with images of sweets, chocolates and junk food. In fact, we’re more bombarded now than ever before with unending images of food and indulgence on social media sites. This constant exposure and temptation has made us accustomed to unhealthy food choices and bad eating habits.
Moreover, we live in a privileged society where we overeat and overindulge ourselves everyday, easily more so during the holiday seasons. We have allowed our bodies to become so susceptible and comfortable with overeating on a daily basis that we have become addicted and actually crave certain clearly unhealthy foods: like a daily fix of sugar.
What’s Bad About Sugar?
Added sugar is the worst ingredient in the modern diet. It can have harmful effects on metabolism and can also contribute to a number of different diseases.
The rise of type 2-diabetes should be no surprise when we have been regularly subjecting our bodies to unnecessarily high sugar levels. Studies have shown that consuming large amounts of sugar can be associated with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when the body produces insulin but does not use it effectively. When people have insulin resistance, glucose builds up in the blood instead of being absorbed by the cells, leading to type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Sugar also contributes to the global epidemic of obesity in children and adults. Action on Sugar is a UK based charity and they believe the link between calories and obesity is caused in part by high sugar consumption, and that not enough is being done to tackle what they call “the obesity and diabetes epidemic”. It says that the right approach is to “target the huge and unnecessary amounts of sugar that are currently being added to our food and soft drinks”.
Consuming too much sugar is not only bad for our bodies, but sugar is also highly addictive. This, above all can be the most dangerous problem, especially if we do not deal with it as an urgent public health problem.
To learn more about the negative impacts of sugar I highly recommend watching ‘Fed Up’, a documentary that came out in 2014 examining America’s obesity epidemic and the food industry’s role in aggravating it.
The more I found myself consuming these unhealthy sugars and treating myself everyday I started to wonder if I could go chocolate free for a month, but what would that mean? No chocolate bars? Biscuits? Cakes? Cookies? Doughnuts? Ice cream? Hot chocolate? I decided that if I were going to be true to myself, I would have to cut out all refined/artificial sugars and replace them with natural sugars that can be found in sources like fruit.
Cutting out all sources of sugar entirely is not a wise choice, as sugar is essential for every cell in your body and brain to function. Since fruits do not raise blood sugar levels as quickly as snacks made with refined sugar, it puts less stress on your body and it also provides an abundance of vitamins, fibre and water.
What would make this challenge even more rewarding would be to supplement any bad sugars with healthier sunnah alternatives. The sunnah shows us how to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad and as Muslims we should be striving for excellence in every aspect of our lives.
The sunnah encourages moderation in eating, and strongly criticizes extravagance. The Prophet is reported to have said,
“A human being fills no worse vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight. But if he must (fill it), then one third of food, one third for drink and one third for air.” [Ibn Majah]
It is also recommended in the Qur’an that the believer should eat that which is good and rich in nutrients:
“O mankind, eat from whatever is on earth [that is] lawful and good…” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 168]
Therefore, we are advised to always take care of ourselves, and to refrain from overeating and foods that might pollute the stomach and body.
While setting out on this journey, I told my friends about the challenge, and they were all eager to get involved. Some of them hesitated at the beginning, like one of my friends who loves to bake cakes and is surrounded by family who love eating chocolate. Similarly, another friend works in the food industry and is constantly surrounded by all types of treats. Not to mention, that they all needed their daily caffeine fix with added sugar.
The unique thing about this challenge is that it is not just about giving up bad sugars, but rather to add more sunnah foods into our diets. I usually only have dates during Ramadan, but taking up this challenge encouraged me to start including them in my daily diet along with figs, raw honey and pomegranates. Not only is there great nutritional benefit in all of these natural foods, but they also hold great Prophetic wisdom behind them.
The Month Ahead
My friends and I hoped that taking this one-month challenge would help us change our bad eating habits and help ourselves get closer to healthy eating. I suppose it is always easier said then done. We all definitely found the month challenging in different ways.
For example, here are just a few of the challenges we faced:
- “What do I do if I’m at my aunties house and she’s made this amazing chocolate cake? You know chocolate cake is my favourite.”
- “What should I do at work if one of my colleagues has brought a cake for everyone?”
- “I’m so stressed and tired, guys I just need some chocolate.”
- “I had a bad day today, can’t I just have one bite?”
- “What else can I eat? I’ve eaten all my dates.”
The challenge really highlighted our body’s needs and desires towards certain foods. Quiet often it was down to stress and tiredness that we felt that we needed comfort food to make ourselves feel better. Social situations also made it difficult, as we frequently had to turn down delicious desserts while everyone else was enjoying them. Nevertheless, we persisted and stuck to the commitment that we made.
Tips to Keep You Motivated
During the last month we learnt that these bad sugars have a huge negative impact on our lives and that staying away from them can be harder than we might think. But, once we started mentally overcoming the cravings and supplementing them for sunnah alternatives, the journey did not seem as hard. Our intentions were greater than the challenge ahead.
Here are a number of tips and tricks to help you stay motivated throughout the month.
- Find alternatives: This month is not about feeling sad and low on what you cannot eat, rather finding fun healthy alternatives.
- Follow healthy people online: There are now so many websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Instagram accounts all dedicated to healthy eating. Following some healthy food gurus who will help you find healthy and easy recipes that you can follow. Like Zainab Ismail, an American Latina convert who is a personal trainer and nutritionist (Instagram) and Mohammed Quadan, a health coach based in Sydney, Australia who runs Deen Fit.
- Involve your friends: Take up the challenge along with your friends so that you can all help motivate each other and learn from your experience together. For example I decided to create a WhatsApp group with my friends called “Sunnah Foods” in which my friends and I posted daily inspiration and healthy food recipes which helped a tremendous amount; especially when one of us was struggling on a particular day and everyone else would help encourage them.
- Healthy intentions: The key is always to remember your intentions and to know that your body is a gift from Allah and that we should therefore be mindful in looking after our bodies. The Prophet said: “Two favours that many of the people squander are health and free time.” [Tirmidhi]
- Realise how blessed you are: Having good health is a great blessing that Allah has bestowed upon us and we should be abundantly thankful for such blessings. The Prophet said, “Whoever among you wakes up physically healthy, feeling safe and secure within himself, with food for the day, it is as if he acquired the whole world.” [Ibn Majah]
The challenge was more than abstaining from bad sugars for a month: it was about rethinking our approach on food, to eat more natural goodness for our own physical and spiritual benefit.
The challenge ended on a Friday and I bought a chocolate brownie that I always used to buy, but this time it tasted so much better than it ever had before: not only was the taste rewarding, but I felt a small sense of accomplishment. Now that the month has finished, it does not mean I will be binging excessively on chocolates and other bad sugars but rather to eat everything in moderation.
It is perfectly fine to treat yourself every once in a while, but don’t become overly dependent on something on a daily basis, that if it were to be taken away you would not be able to function.
I found that by reducing my sugar intake and supplementing it for healthy foods helped me feel naturally great and gave me more energy throughout my day.
If we dig deeper beyond the external, the food we consume also impacts our internal spiritual self. Everything Allah has created is dependent and has needs, therefore our body has a need and the ruh (the soul) also has its needs. If our body is in a poor state, our souls suffers along with it. Our body is a gift from Allah and we should never take it for granted. We should take the utmost care of our body and soul as they have been entrusted unto us by Allah’s decree.
By motivating myself out of the highly consumerist and overindulgent culture we have been fixated on in modern society, I found the benefits of this challenge internally and externally rewarding.
If your intentions are sincere and purely towards pleasing Allah you will see the benefits of this challenge for your physical, mental and spiritual self, insha Allah.
I would highly recommend the challenge to everyone, especially if you are someone who is reliant on consuming bad sugars. Of course remember to supplement them with good healthy sugars.
Let us know in the comments if you’re going to take up the 30-day sugar free challenge. Using the sunnah as your motivation, insha Allah, you will find the experience extremely rewarding and beneficial!
About the Author
Sara Chaudhry is a former Politics and International Relations (BA Hons) student at Oxford Brookes University. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS University in London.