Throughout much of my life, food was my coping mechanism. I reached for it when I was stressed, when there was something I didn’t want to deal with or when I was overworked. It was the only thing I could find to give myself a break.

As I’ve gone through this disordered eating path over the years, my relationship with food has changed so much. From fad diets, to bulimia, to middle-of-the-night binges, I’ve done it.

Finally, working as a curve model and living in New York City in 2014, I discovered the Whole30.

What I found in those first 30 days of clean eating was completely life changing. I had seemingly unlimited energy, was sleeping like a baby, and my hair and nails had never looked better. Yes, I also lost weight, but the number on the scale was simply an afterthought with all of the other benefits I was experiencing.

I had completely embraced clean eating as my lifestyle and was passionately introducing it to others through my company Model Meals. Those initial months had been a wonderful journey, and I was learning about which food groups were effecting me. One in particular stuck out: sugar.

One of the most famously difficult things to give up during a Whole30, sugar was my trigger. I had never considered myself a sweets person, but once I eliminated it, I realized I was addicted to it. I was hooked on a drug. The refined, processed sugars that I had been turning to my whole life for comfort had become my enemy.

Learning this about myself, I decided to go beyond those 30 days of clean eating and extend my new “no sugar” lifestyle.

The first thing I realized was that sugar is in EVERYTHING. It’s not just the candy, it’s things we think of as healthy too: yogurt, granola, salad dressings, even chicken broth. We so often tend to look at the calories, carbohydrates, and fat content in foods, but we overlook the sugar. Just looking to avoid this ingredient created an awareness about how often it’s included in what we are eating.

After all of these processed foods were ruled out, what was left for me were vegetables, meat, maybe some grains, and a few other things. As a result, my binges stopped. I was no longer compelled to eat my feelings because I was not tempted to eat a whole plate of chicken or a giant salad every time I felt stressed. It forced me to see food as fuel, and as an answer to hunger — not emotion.

For so long food had been my drug, and without it, I was no longer over-consuming anything. This forced me to cope with my emotions properly instead of going numb over a pint of ice cream. I was left to feel everything.

This emotional realization was bolstered by a newly clear mind. Without the highs and lows of sugar throughout my day, I had an overall sense of calm.

I was journaling at night, meditating more, and without sugar’s notorious brain fog, was able to really examine my life. I took time for self-care and growth.

These benefits were no doubt astounding. I learned so much over those 150 days, and have no regrets. But it was not always easy.

On day 151, I finally cracked. I went back to my drug for comfort and binged on thousands of calories of sugar. All of that time without it had only made me want it more. I was never mentally free of it.

The greatest thing I learned from the experience wasn’t that I would sleep better without sugar, or focus better, or that it was hiding in some of my favorite “healthy” snacks. In fact, the greatest thing I learned took me completely by surprise: my issue is with food rules.

Yes, it’s healthy to give yourself a break from whatever may be your trigger. I think everyone could benefit from 30, 60, or even 150 days off sugar. However, you need to find your “food freedom.”

My food freedom is something I’m still exploring. Lately, the more I allow myself to have, the less I want. A piece of dark chocolate in my purse is no longer an irresistible temptation, it’s an occasional indulgence.

Taking some time off of sugar made me realize how much I was dependent on it, and how often I was having it. Now when I return to it here and there, I am making an informed, controlled decision.

Food rules defined my life for so long, and it’s freeing to know that I can explore experiences without them. Just being able to have a little bit sugar has resulted in a much better life for me mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Abstaining from sugar for 150 days ended up creating a path for my healthiest self, but not at all in the ways I expected. Creating a sustainable relationship with food, giving myself permission to indulge on a healthy level, and letting go of the rules has completely changed my life.

My only rule now is that there are no rules.