Jason Holborn was not obese and under no orders when he gave up refined sugar in 2012. Now sugar-free for almost 600 days, he talks with The Globe about how his palate has changed and the importance of the sign in his window
What motivated you to give up sugar?
I used to eat more sugar than probably anybody you've ever met in your life. I realized it was a tiny problem – just a tiny problem. Several years ago, I read a very famous article actually in The New York Times – Is Sugar Toxic? by Gary Taubes – and that article really changed my perspective. I tried a lot of gimmicks to give up sugar. But I was very seriously addicted. It was really, honestly, a chemical drug addiction. I finally had a different idea for a different gimmick – which was to post the number of days I could live without eating refined sugar out on my window. It was kind of desperate and last-ditch, but it actually worked. I really thought, I really expected, I would hit 10 or 20 days occasionally, and then I would reset it quite a lot. But it was much more effective than that. I made it to 74 days. Then I had to start over again. And now I made it to 567 days and I'm aiming for 1,000.
Let's go back to the addiction – what did that look like?
I had and probably still have a serious addiction to refined sugar. I used to pour at least half a cup of sugar on my cereal in the morning. And that cereal would be Frosted Flakes, or it would be Cocoa Pebbles, or something like that. I used to take a cup of sugar every day and mix it with a cup of butter, and eat it. That's what I did every day after school. I used to eat frequently. Quite often I would eat a key lime pie for lunch or a cake for dinner. I ate a lot of sugar when I felt bad to improve the day, because I thought that I had earned it for feeling bad. I used to eat sugar because I had such a great day [and] I wanted to reward myself. Looking back, I see more and more clearly [that] a lot of my life revolved around indulging my sweet tooth.
Something tells me that if you ate that much sugar, you would have looked different.
A lot of people are surprised to meet me. A lot of people think that I will be a weightier, heavier – even more, possibly obese – person. I honestly don't know how I got away with eating all that sugar. I have dropped some weight since giving up refined sugar [but] I didn't have a big weight problem before. I don't know if that's just genetics. I've probably lost about 10 pounds.
Tell me about the relationship with sugar and the difference between what you've given up and natural sugar.
I'm still allowed to eat fruit. In fact, there have been a few days where I have quite a lot of fruit. But generally I do try to keep fruit down. I try to focus on low glycemic fruits – so I eat apples and raspberries. I do eat bananas. A lot of doctors tell their patients to give up bananas. I haven't come to that point. I still eat them. I do avoid juicy fruits. I don't eat melons or pineapples. Everything tastes different. A lot of things that didn't used to taste sweet, they taste a little bit sweet now. A glass of milk tastes really, really sweet to me now – in a way that it never tasted before.
How do you explain that?
I've read the exact same story over and over again: "Wow, today everything tasted so much sweeter. Now that all the refined added sugar is out of my palate, I can taste a lot more natural sweetness in other foods that I never thought of as sweet before."
Would you say you enjoy that sensation now more than you used to?
Definitely, definitely. A glass of milk has become a real treat for me. I have to be careful. I used to eat – several times a week – a two-litre carton of ice cream. Today, I really love eating sour cream. It tastes so good now. So I have to be careful not to eat too much of that.
What are some of the other changes you've noticed in your body, your outlook, your thinking?
My life has changed quite a bit since I gave up sugar. I've always yearned to have a six-pack. I do now. That's because I gave up sugar. Spiritually and emotionally, my life is on a much more even keel now. I have a lot fewer emotional ups and downs during the day. I never anticipated that, but a lot of people on the Internet report the same thing. I never thought sugar was causing an emotional roller coaster during my life. But today I'm pretty sure that that is true. I definitely feel day to day a more stabilized mood.
What are the challenges?
It used to be so easy to eat. It used to be so easy on the run, if you were hungry, to go grab a doughnut. [It] used to be so easy to pop in anywhere and pick up something to satisfy your hunger cravings. I have to plan ahead more now. I have to cook more … Finding food easily throughout the day – especially when you're not at home – that's by far the biggest challenge. I'll be honest, it's often hard to live without your addictive indulgence – whatever it might be, TV or cocaine. In my case, luckily it was just refined sugar. It's hard to go without it on hard, tough, sad or angry days. It's definitely a challenge to get over that hump. You're used to making your bad feelings go away a certain way. Now you have to come up with something different. That is definitely a challenge.
Why is it a challenge finding food outside the home?
It is a challenge finding [food] when you're on the run because everything has added sugar in it. Processed food is engineered to make you want more. That's why they say: "Betcha can't have just one." They say that about chips but they mean it about root beer, gummies or a can of Coke or a scoop of ice cream – as much as they do about anything else. It's tough.
What is the effect of the sign in your window?
It's great to know that my place in history is secure. I am the inventor of the window scoreboard. It really has changed my life in a dramatic way. It's a sense of accountability. I don't have a clue who's looking at my window but I assume somebody out there is.
Even if they're not, it's a big psychological impetus for me. Easily, easily, at least 100 – probably at least 300 times – I've said no to a doughnut, a slice of pie, or a fruit juice because I really do not want to come home and reset my window to zero. It's been an incredible, massive life-changer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.